Watching every movement of every muscle, every bend and every flex-there are no words, just feeling — feeling the rhythm and trying to comprehend the meaning.
These are the thoughts that ran through senior Grace Kowalski’s head as she took classes from French ballet instructor Jacques Marsa, who does not speak a word of English.
“I had to pay close attention to his body language to try to understand what he was saying,” Kowalski said.
Studying ballet in a foreign language was only one of many fascinating and challenging experiences Kowalski had when she attended the summer dance program at the Royal Ballet of Antwerp in Belgium.
“It was an experience that I don’t think I’ll ever have again and I’ll never forget it,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski is a serious dancer and has been attending summer programs and receiving full scholarships to them since she was 13 years old. According to Kowalski, the Royal Ballet of Antwerp was, by far, the best experience yet.
Originally, Kowalski was not even planning on trying out for the Royal Ballet of Antwerp. However, she was auditioning for the summer program at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York and thought that she would give the audition for the Royal Ballet of Antwerp summer program a try, even though she doubted she would make the cut.
“I did the audition just for fun because I didn’t think I really had a shot,” Kowalski said.
The audition process turned out to be extremely challenging. It lasted two hours and consisted of a series of combinations that Kowalski considered to be both difficult and exhausting. There were also no breaks during the audition, making it more rigorous than anything Kowalski has previously experienced.
“I considered thanking the instructor and leaving early because I felt like I was going to pass out from the intensity,” Kowalski said.
After the audition, Kowalski’s number was one of few chosen to be called back. Trying to contain her excitement, she walked backstage and the director spoke with her directly.
“When they called my number back, I was shocked,” Kowalski said. “I almost thought it was a mistake.”
According to Kowalski, the director personally told her that he would like to see her at their summer program.
“The director seemed really nice and that really made me want to go,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski wasn’t the only one excited that she made it through the audition. Her mother, Maureen Kowalski, was also extremely happy.
“I was thrilled for Grace and proud,” Maureen Kowalski said. “The audition for the program was much more intense and competitive than what Grace had encountered previously.”
Kowalski’s acceptance into the Royal Ballet of Antwerp summer program did not come without a lot of hard work and commitment. She has been training since she was five years old and currently dances every day for at least four hours a day at the Academy of Classical Russian Ballet.
The program also came with costs. Kowalski declined to comment of the exact expense.
Kowalski’s long time fellow dancer and friend, Carly Hammond, recognized the high level of commitment Kowalski has dedicated to dance.
“She works as hard as she can and takes advantage of as many opportunities as possible,” Hammond said.
When it came time for Kowalski to leave for Belgium, she did not know anyone in the program. She had also never been outside of the United States.
“I didn’t know anyone who was going, so I flew to Belgium by myself,” Kowalski said.
Once in Europe, Kowalski said it was difficult to adjust to the culture at first, but she began to love the culture and environment of Belgium.
“I really love Belgium,” Kowalski said. “The culture and the dance program are both great.”
Although Kowalski did have an exciting time in Belgium, the Royal Ballet of Antwerp was far from a vacation.
Kowalski danced 9am-5pm Monday-Friday during the entire three weeks she was at the program. She also found that the training she experienced in Europe was more challenging than that she was accustomed to in the United States.
The daily training consisted of a ballet technique class first thing in the morning, followed by a traditional pointe class, in which dancers dance on-pointe, basically dancing on the tips of their toes. Kowalski then received a break for lunch and concluded the day with an additional two classes. These classes could consist of modern dance instruction or pas de duex, which is dance with a male and female partner.
“The training was a lot harder because the program had a lot of guest trainers from professional companies,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski also got to experience a Russian style of training that is known to be harder than most other types.
“The Russian training was difficult,” Kowalski said, “it is slower paced and more strict.”
Overall, Kowalski enjoyed adding the experience of European teaching to her dance resume. Since she has attended summer programs all throughout the United States, she enjoyed discovering new methods of international training for the first time.
She especially appreciated the opportunity the Royal Ballet of Antwerp program gave her to experience the diversity of ballet training from well-known instructors across Europe.
“In Belgium I had teachers from all over the world,” Kowalski said. “You don’t usually get that in America.”
Maureen Kowalski also believes that Kowalski enjoyed the training so greatly in Europe because of the way they incorporate theatre, another one of Grace’s passions, in the training.
“Grace has a combined love for ballet and theater and Europe tends to combine the instruction of both arts in their training programs,” Maureen Kowalski said.
More than new teaching styles, Kowalski also got a chance to connect with dancers, like herself, from around the world during her time at the Royal ballet of Antwerp.
“I met people from Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Belgium, and all parts of the world,” Kowalski said.
In fact, Kowalski believes that experiencing new people and a new culture was what made this summer program stand out in comparison to her previous experiences.
Kowalski established strong connections with many of her fellow dance students at the program. Though many spoke a different language, they could all bond over their passion and dedication to dance.
She became so close with some dancers that she still attempts to stay in contact with them over social media, even though they live in different time zones.
“I’m still in contact with all my friends,” Kowalski said. “It’s hard because they live in another country but luckily we can stay in contact with social media today.”
In addition to the experience of a new country, Kowalski believes her experience at the Royal Ballet of Antwerp will assist her as she continues on with her dance career.
“The summer program is something everyone has to go through to become part of a professional company,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski also hopes that directors will recognize her experience at the Royal Ballet of Antwerp as a valued program and that her time there will help her get more well-known in the ballet world.
“Hopefully the ballet world is so small that I can say I went to the Royal Ballet of Antwerp and directors see the name and my name will get spread through the ballet world,” Kowalski said.
As a senior, Kowalski hopes to make it into a college dance program next year, and continue on to a professional company. She is also trying out for some professional companies this coming spring and may continue directly on to one of those after high school if she is given the opportunity.
According to Kowalski she only has one regret concerning the Royal Ballet of Antwerp and that is not trying out for it, or a similar program, earlier in her dance career.
“I just wished I would have looked into an international program sooner,” Kowalski said.
Since she enjoyed the program so much, Kowalski would be happy to get the opportunity to work with an international dance program again.
“Going to Europe was the best thing I have ever done and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Kowalski said.