On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Julie Kent is known as one of the greatest ballet dancers of her generation, and we have some questions for her.
Does it hurt to wear those pointy shoes? Does she get dizzy doing those fast turns? What’s her favorite ballet movie?
Julie will join us to talk about growing up here in the Washington area and taking up ballet as a kid. She’ll teach us a mini-class over the airwaves. And she’ll tell us what it’s like to lead the prestigious Washington Ballet and the Washington School of Ballet, where she’s also a mom to one of its students.
She’s also taking calls – from kids only please! What do you want to ask the prima ballerina of the nation’s capital?
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Julie Kent Artistic Director, The Washington Ballet; @twballet
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Julie Kent grew up in Montgomery County, studied ballet really hard, and became one of the most famous dancers in the world. Now, she's back in D.C. as artistic director of the Washington Ballet, where she's teaching a whole new generation of dancers. Today on this program, she's going to answer our questions and even give us a ballet lesson. I wonder who us is? Anyway, Julie Kent, thank you so much for joining us.
JULIE KENTThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIYou say you don't remember a time when dance was not a part of your life. What are your earliest memories of ballet?
KENTOh, well, my earliest memories are watching my mother in adult class at the Maryland Youth Ballet in Bethesda, watching my sister put on her leotard and tights and ballet shoes, getting ready of her ballet class. Ballet was just always a part of my life and my family's life. And I really didn't know, as a little girl, that it would become the main focus of my life, but it's been a very, very beautiful journey to this point, and I'm really excited to share some of it with the children listening today.
NNAMDIYou're from these parts. Where were you born, where did you grow up and where did you go to school?
KENTI was born at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, which is now the Walter Reed Army Hospital. I went to Beverly Farms Elementary School, and then I went to Herbert Hoover Junior High. And then I went to Winston Churchill High School, where I left after my junior year to pursue my professional career at American Ballet Theater in New York City.
NNAMDIWhere and when did you start taking ballet lessons?
KENTMy very first class was with Hortensia Fonseca who is the founder of the Maryland Youth Ballet, and in her late 90s, is still very thriving in Wheaton. And she was teaching in an afterschool program at Somerset Elementary. And I went there with my mother, who was -- Mrs. Fonseca was a mentor of hers, so she was assisting in the class. And my mother ended up going on to found her own pre-ballet programs at the Maryland Youth Ballet, and was also the co-founder of Music in Motion at Maryland Youth Ballet, which is a class for children with physical disabilities.
NNAMDIWhat attracted you to ballet when you were a kid?
KENTI loved the music. I loved it because my mother and sister were there. As a somewhat shy child, I loved to participate without having to speak. You listen and you watch and you do. And so it was a wonderful, complimentary skill set to my comfort zone.
NNAMDIYou were a teenager when you joined the American Ballet theater in New York. And you danced with that famous company for some 29 years, most of the as a principal dancer. Tell us, briefly, what were some of your favorite roles and favorite ballets?
KENTWell, I had many, many favorites, and, I think, for any dance your favorite role is the one that you're dancing at that moment. But I think some highlights would be the Swan Queen Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” Giselle in “Giselle,” Princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” and the list goes on.
KENTOh, don't forget the Sugar Plum Fairy, yes, in “The Nutcracker.” (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, what does it take to be a sugar plum fairy -- to be a great sugar plum fairy?
KENTLots of fairy dust and incredible strength. The Pas de Deux is very long. The music is absolutely gorgeous, but it's actually a very long Pas de Deux. The solo variation, as we all know, is actually several minutes long, and the coda. So, you know, ballet dancers are equal combination artist and athletes. And so you really need to be very strong, have great endurance, and have an incredible imagination to bring to life the fantasy of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
NNAMDIWell, being a Sugar Plum Fairy, and a great one, is one thing, but hear what Asha and Anya -- identified as four-year-old twins in Missouri -- would probably like you to be. Asha and Anya, welcome. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ASHA AND ANYA'S FATHEROh, welcome.
NNAMDIAnd Asha and Anya, with their parents.
FATHERYes, hi. This is Anya. She has a question for you.
FATHERDid you hear that?
NNAMDIIt's about owls and a ballet class. That's what I can figure, right?
FATHERCan owls dance in a ballet class?
NNAMDICan owls dance in a ballet class, Julie Kent? (laugh)
KENT(laugh) Well, I would imagine you can pretend that you have owls in the ballet class with you, and imagine how big their eyes are looking around and their big wings, and how powerful they are and how quiet they are.
NNAMDISo, yes, if you have your imagination with you, Asha and Anya, you can have owls in the ballet class. Thank you so much for your question and for joining us. Sophie in Frederick, Maryland. It is your turn, Sophie. What would you like to ask Julie Kent?
SOPHIEWhat do you like best about being the artistic director of Washington Ballet?
KENTWhat a beautiful question. Thank you so much. I think there are many things that I love the best. I'm going to say maybe my top few. To make a contribution to the artistic and cultural landscape of our nation's capital is an incredible honor and privilege. I'm so thrilled to represent my art form in our capital city.
KENTI loved having the opportunity to share all the knowledge and everything that was given and invested to me in my lifetime by so many brilliant and generous artists to share that with the next generation of dancers. It's extremely rewarding to encourage artists to be in pursuit of excellence. And I also love having the opportunity to advocate for arts education and for my art form, in particular. So, those are some of the great things that I love about being artistic director of the Washington Ballet.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your question, Sophie. Julie Kent, tell us about those pointy shoes that ballet dancers wear, and why they wear them.
KENTThe point shoe. Well, they have been worn by ballerinas for well over 100 years. Although Marie Taglioni was not the first to wear them, she sort of elevated the technique on the shoe. They are meant to give the woman an ethereal and otherworldly appearance, and a sense of elevation. And they are made, not with wood, but they are handmade, each one, by a special shoemaker. And the components are a leather bottom and a cardboard shank that has layers and layers of a shellac glue. There's canvas that is formed and fitted and hammered and shaped. And then there's a beautiful satin all on the top, with pleats that are folded in there, and very tiny little nails that sort of hold the show together.
KENTThey're really an incredible work of craftsmanship by the individual shoemakers that make them. And ballerinas have them very specialized to their foot, to the very detail about how they want their foot to be presented, the weight, so that they're less noisy. A flatter, larger surface for more balancing, or a smaller surface for faster turns. There's all kinds of detail in each shoe. It's a fascinating process for the dancer and the craftsman, that they work together to create a beautiful shoe for each dancer.
NNAMDIThat is, indeed, fascinating. Here's Vee in Frederick, Maryland. Vee, your turn.
VEEHi. My question is: what advice would you give to dancers who've realized that they might not be able to become a professional dancer, but they still want to be involved in that field of arts?
NNAMDIVee is 16 years old, Julie.
KENTVee, that is a great question. We need you. (laugh) We so need young people that love the art form, that believe in the art form, and want to help us take it into the 21st century and beyond. You should know that the love of dance and being a dancer is something that you can have for the rest of your life. You can enjoy being in a ballet class forever. The same ladies that I was watching as a little girl are still in adult classes 35 years later (laugh) -- 45 years later.
KENTAnd we need -- there are many programs now in the university, not just for performing arts, yes, to continue your studies, but also for arts management, how to help secure and fund and build administrative and financial structures that support an arts organization in the United States. It's very, very important. So, Vee, I hope that you continue to kindle your passion for and love of the art form, and that you know there's so many people that would love to help guide you and encourage you in exploring all the different ways that you can have ballet and dance as a part of your life, forever.
NNAMDIVee, thank you so much for your call. Here's seven-year-old Lucia in Virginia. Lucia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUCIAI have two questions, and one is, how does it feel to be famous?
KENT(laugh) Lucia, that's so sweet. Well, I guess it's a little bit relative. Maybe I'm famous for those who know about ballet and who have followed my career for the past 30-plus years. And I feel like it's a gift, really, to have shared so much of my life, so much that I have worked for and loved and pursued to share it with so many people. It's a point of connection and that's what I think one of the ways art brings us together. We connect on something. So, that's how I see that.
NNAMDILucia, you had another question?
LUCIAWhat does a seven-year-old do if she wants to be a ballerina?
KENTStart taking ballet classes. That's a perfect age to start. And I think what I always say to my daughter, who's 10, and to other young dancers who are just starting their ballet lessons, that you have to be patient. And just like whether it's piano lessons or soccer or anything, the more you practice, the better you get. And you become stronger, and things become easier, and then you can learn more, faster. And so practice really does help a lot.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of practice, Lucia, keep on listening, because what I'm going to ask Julie Kent right now is: would you give the kids listening to this program a very short ballet lesson?
KENTI would love that. And so, Lucia, will you join us? And we are going to start in first position. And starting in first position is what every dancer in the world does, whether you're the most celebrated principal dancer or ballerina, or whether you're a very beginner ballet student. You start in first position each day, and you try to do whatever the exercises are just a little bit better.
KENTSo, first position is when you stand with your heels together and your toes make an enormous pizza slice. So, the most -- the biggest -- whether it's two or three slices of pizza, however far you can have your toes pointing away from each other and still stand comfortably, like a string of beads. So, your head is over your shoulders, your shoulders are over your hips and your hips are over your feet. So, you're standing long and strong. And your arms are down by -- your fingertips are touching the tops of your thighs. So, that's first position.
KENTNow, I'd like you to take your arms, right, and opposite your belly button, like you're holding a great big beach ball. And that is called your middle fifth position. And now I would like for you to take that beach ball up over your head, so your arms are in a high fifth position. Now, turnout is one of the things that makes ballet different than any other dance form, and it's when you're turning your toes, your legs out and you're rotating at the hips knees and feet.
KENTNow, the next position is second position and you just take one foot and you take a step -- sidestep so your feet are still like an enormous -- the pizza slice is huge now, (laugh) right. Now, I'd like for you to bend your knees and drop your hips, so your hips don't go back. They just go straight down. That is called a plié, and you stretch your knees. So, plié is one of the most important movements in ballet. It's a bend and a stretch. It allows for you to move fluidly and with grace. And it also gives you power for your jumps and strength for your turns.
KENTAnd so this plié is a bend in your knees and straightening your knees, stretching them with a real, infinite sort of idea behind it. So, it's not just a one, two. It's a one, two, three, one, two, three. So, it has a real sense of stretch to it.
KENTNow, fifth position is the most difficult of the five positions of the feet. And so you take -- from your pizza slice you take one of your heels and move it in front of your other foot, so that your heel is now covering up the big toe on your other foot. That is fifth position, and that is the most sophisticated positions of the feet in ballet. And it's sort of the root where all the movement comes from, where it begins and ends, in fifth position.
KENTThat's the most difficult position to make comfortably, and you have to train your muscles to hold the position in the right way not to get injured. We don't even learn fifth position until maybe your second year of ballet, because it's a difficult position to master.
NNAMDIWell, I dropped my ball in position one, so we'll have to (laugh) end it right there.
KENTWell, we have adult classes, Kojo, so we can have you, for sure, once we can all be back together again.
NNAMDIAs soon as I pick my beach ball up. Here's Riley in Washington, D.C. Riley, you're on the air. Riley, go ahead, please.
RILEYOkay. So, I was wondering if you could have one word to describe what you feel like on stage, what would it be, and why?
KENTOh, what a beautiful question, Riley. Thank you. The word that coming to me right now is magic. There is a beautiful magic when you step on the stage that, I think, every dancer feels, in their own way. And I think that what I miss the most about not being a performer anymore is that magic.
NNAMDIHere now is -- and thank you, Riley. Here now is six-year-old Christabel in Virginia. Christabel, go ahead, please.
CHRISTABELMy question is, what's your favorite costume you wore in ballet?
KENTOh, you guys are asking the best questions. I love these questions. Christabel, well, I have to say I love wearing tutus. I wore lots and lots of different kinds of costumes in my career. I danced with bare feet and soft shoes and no tights and unitards and long dresses and short dresses. But I always loved the tutus, because they're just so beautiful and special and unique.
KENTAnd probably one of my favorite tutus was for the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker,” because it's a soft pink, which is my favorite color, and it just had such a beautiful, hand-sewn elaborate decorations that I always felt so privileged to wear.
NNAMDIAnd now here is five-year-old Lena in Washington, D.C. Lena, your turn.
LENAHello, Mr. Kojo and Mrs. Julie.
LENAHi. My name is Lena, and I will be telling you my question. My question for Miss Julie is: how long did it take to be a principal ballerina?
KENTOh, Lena, I love hearing how you presented your question. I'm so proud of you. I started by ballet lessons at age seven. I was a professional dancer at age 16, and I was a principal dancer at age 22. So, it was many, many years of hard work and singular focus, having your eye on the prize, or knowing what you want to achieve, your goals and working step by step each day to achieve them. Even if some days, the steps were tiny baby steps and some days, the steps were huge leaps, I think working towards my goals with focus and determination and a lot of support and great advice from many talented people that wanted me to fulfill my potential was very, very helpful.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. And here is Kayee in Maryland. Kayee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KAYEEAll right. I was wondering if the future of the Washington School of Ballet will also program for commercial or urban dance?
NNAMDIKayee in Maryland, your voice sounds familiar. Do I know you?
NNAMDIThis is my (laugh) granddaughter, Kayee. But please go ahead, Julie Kent.
KENTHow wonderful. Well, that's a great question. We do offer at our campus in southeast. We have offered some classes in jazz and African dance that are not our traditional ballet school offering. At the moment, we don't have any programs for urban dance in our curriculum, but I will take note of that.
NNAMDIAnd, Kayee, thank you for listening to the broadcast and calling in. (laugh) I gave her a heads-up, actually.
NNAMDIJulie, you have two kids, a 16-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. Do they study ballet?
KENTMy daughter does study ballet. She is a level two student at the Washington School of Ballet, and really loves her teachers and loves her classmates and is enjoying her study of ballet. My son studied ballet for several years in New York City, where he grew up, but didn't want to pursue it. He is, sort of with the same amount of enthusiasm that he asked to study ballet, equal amount of enthusiasm to move on to something else. (laugh)
KENTYes, but he still enjoys the performing arts. He loves to perform in music and theater and musical theater and in other performance opportunities. So, yeah, I think it was a great experience for him.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's just about all the time we have. Julie Kent is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. Julie Kent, thank you so much for joining us and spending time with some of our younger listeners.
KENTWhat a pleasure. That was a highlight of my day. Thank you, and thanks to all the, yeah, listeners with their great questions and enthusiasm and interest in the Washington Ballet.
NNAMDIYou're more than welcome. Kojo for Kids with ballerina Julie Kent was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our segment with Dr. Lena Wen was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, minority communities are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. We'll discuss the factors driving these disparities and what can be done to protect those communities.
NNAMDIPlus, millions of people across the country participate in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. But what happens when a group known for its in-person gatherings moves online? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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