Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ballet in Poland vs. Ballet in the United States, part 2:

When I found out I was going to be studying at Hockaday, I could not have been happier. I read all about the dance program and was excited to become a part of it. Thanks to ASSIST students that have gone to Hockaday before me, I found out that Hockadance has an amazing reputation. When I arrived, I wasn’t sorted into a group that I wanted, blame it on jet-lagged audition or not enough places in higher group, at first I was devastated, later I realized that even though it could have been more challenging, I wouldn’t trade my dance class for any other.

dance studio at Hockaday

There were five groups of Hockadance, which had classes in two dance studios. I was a part of group called DanceWorkshop II, which had classes in a studio in fitness center building. I fell in love with that dance studio. Instead of usual rectangular shape of a room, its two walls were turned into glass semicircle. It was inspiring to dance and be able to look outside and absorb the wonders of the world outside. I think that was one of the loveliest spots on school campus.

Small dance studio
The experience of Hockadance was completely different from the one I’ve been used to for the past thirteen years of my dance life. Before, I had mostly ballet classes, filled with repeating the same routines over and over again. I’m not saying that it is a bad method of teaching because it certainly does create a good dance technique, but sometimes it can get really boring (especially when one is not training to become a professional dancer…) At Hockaday, our main focus was on exploring different dance styles. Even though I sometimes missed pointe shoes work, I was happy I could learn something new. It allowed me to try dance moves and styles I thought I never would. And the most exciting part was that we had so many amazing opportunities to perform in front of various audiences.

As a fairy of Neverland
In the fall, all dance classes put together a “Peter Pan” production. Each group was responsible for different parts of the show; there were the pirates, lost boys, fairies, and of course Peter Pan and Wendy. It was around that time, when I first saw how the girls in the best group called “Hockaday Dance Theatre” danced. Most of them were seniors, who have been in the Hockaday dance program for years. I have to admit that I was. Their level of dance was as good as I’ve seen back in the days in ballet school in Warsaw, if not better. I never thought that it is possible to achieve such level without professional school based training. From that day, I wished that I could have such private dance classes as they did, after I left ballet school. I knew it was impossible, so I tried to enjoy as much of the dance program as I could.

In my Indian dance costume
Out of many opportunities I will never forget the time we learned an Indian dance. It was taught to us by an ex-Bollywood actress, whose daughter was in my dance class. We were certainly the most interesting act at our school’s performance. During performing, we wore Indian dance outfits that were the most extraordinary costumes that I ever wore for dance. They were of bright colors, with amazing accessories that made it difficult to move around, let alone dance. Many of out school mates believed that it didn’t had to do much with dancing, nor that I was difficult to learn! How little did they know! The dance was filled with seemingly easy steps and moves that actually were almost impossible to perform. We, as contemporary dancers specializing in ballet and modern dance are not prepared to do this kind of moves. Every little gesture and movement was important! For example, try bending your middle and ring finger, leaving the rest straight. See? Not easy at all!  I know I probably would never try such an exotic dance back home so I am happy that I had a chance to do it.

I also performed at South Dallas Festival and Dance Planet. These were Dallas based festivals during which I was able to see more of the dance world of Texas. I especially loved Dance Planet at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Why? I simply loved the place. It felt like I materialized into one of the “Step Up” movies. I’ve never seen a school like that before. I also had the chance to perform a duet in classical ballet on pointes, which was my biggest achievement in my dancing career.

I will never forget my experience with the dance program at Hockaday. Being a dancer is about exploring your possibilities, pushing the boundaries and becoming whoever you want to be. Thanks to my dance program I was able to do that and much more…

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ballet in Poland vs. Ballet in the United States, Part 1:

In March, I was invited to the graduation show of the Warsaw Ballet School. It was not just a concert to me. It was a bittersweet comeback to the “Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa” in Warsaw, the home of Polish National Ballet, to watch my own class graduate. Seeing my classmates, I saw the other way my life could have gone, but never went. The scent of the theater, the atmosphere, all the familiar faces and the stage sent me on a stroll down the memory lane…

Ever since I remember, I dreamed of becoming a ballerina. My parents signed me up for ballroom dancing when I was five, and even though my dance partner and I won a gold medal in our dance studio’s competition, I was complaining all the time that it wasn’t ballet.  Finally, I took my first ballet classes when I was six. I was one of the bravest kids in my group, I always wanted to have a solo and I always did my best, always stood first in line, and always was the first to volunteer for dance improvisation.

At the age of nine, I was sure I was destined to become a famous ballet dancer. My dance teacher asked me to dance at a bridal fashion show, which was a big deal of a little girl. Later that year, I received an award for being the best dancer in the group that year. It was a little statue of a dancer, painted to look gold. It wasn't a huge prize but it had a great emotional value to me. This little statue stands on my shelf to this day.

after receiving the award for the best dancer in the group
dancing at the bridal fashion show

That same year I auditioned for ballet school, and finally I started my professional ballet education at the age of ten. In the beginning, it was like a dream come true. Ballet classes every day plus any additional education that is needed for a professional dancer. There were lessons in recognizing notes and musicality, folk dance, and stretching, and even more to come in next grades! All the training was supposed to prepare us to become professional dancers, ready to work in theaters around the globe. What else could a ten-year-old with a big dream ask for?

In ballet school, aged 11
It didn’t take a lot of time for me to realize that it was far away from what I expected. After spending four years at a dance studio where teachers wanted us to achieve our dreams and encouraged us a lot, it felt like a bucket of cold water was thrown on me. My ballet teacher turned out to be not very supportive and even devilish in her comportment. She only complimented the same three kids she favored, always making sure that the others felt insecure. It was very old-schooled way of teaching, which not only did not improve our dancing skills but also took away the strength to keep practicing, and gave us nightmares. One single look into her eyes felt like looking in the eyes of Basilisk. There were girls who cried before ballet classes, who faked sickness not to come. There were those who simply shook and trembled whenever teacher approached or was about to say something. Some of them even ended up on deciding to leave ballet school just because it was too much pressure for them. For the teachers it wasn't a big deal. We all knew that this is the way how the ballet schools work like in Eastern Europe, and ballet school in Warsaw was strongly influenced by the teaching methods of Russian ballet in the past.

However, I cannot say it was THAT bad. I did get to live a tiny bit of my dream. I got the chance to dance in a real ballet with Polish National Ballet. It was “Tristan”, an adaptation of “Tristan and Isolde”, a ballet choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor, the director of the Polish National Ballet. Some of my other classmates and I were hired to dance the role of little children from the village, who are being saved by Tristan, when the villain Mortholt tries to kidnap them. It was rather a tiny role involving lots of running around the stage but I danced it with passion. Five minutes on stage with professional dancers felt like five minutes in heaven. Some people say the small roles don't matter but I personally think they are the most important! Without us the show would fall apart. Once, when we were in the middle of the dance, one of the boys tripped me by accident and I fell down, hurting my arm. It was an excruciating pain, but I had to get up in only seconds. If I didn’t get up, the principal dancer would run into me and I would ruin the show. Luckily, I managed to get up and save the show. For spectators we were just tiny kids appearing in the show for a moment, a crowd on stage. I am sure that many of them don’t even remember that there were kids in that ballet, but for me the magic of those moments will stay forever, I will remember it for the rest of my life.

backstage, dressed in the costume for "Tristan"

When I was thirteen I had to leave ballet school, I was told I was too tall. I simply grew faster than my other classmates. That year eight of the tallest girls from our class were asked to leave. I knew I didn’t deserve to leave, I knew that there were other girls who danced far worse that I did. They had only one advantage; they were little. I can only speculate that the teachers were afraid we would get too tall and that there would be no male dancers strong and tall enough to pick us up when needed to.
Funny enough, I haven’t gotten that much taller since. My shoe size hasn’t changed since 7th grade. Now I know I have perfect figure and height for ballet, but how would they know it back then? From that and perhaps some other inexplicable reasons they didn’t allow us to stay.

Looking back, I am glad that I left ballet school. Back then, I was totally broken, I couldn’t imagine my life without being a dancer. I saw it as the end of my life. I know it now, I was wrong. If it didn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post today. Leaving ballet school led me to making different choices, focusing on my education that led me to higher academic achievements and my exchange year in the United States. Having stayed in ballet school, I would only learn the profession, not the academics, and I would have never gotten the chance to spend an amazing year in Texas.

I never stopped dancing. I never could. I joined a group from the dance studio I used to attend before going to ballet school, and I was quite satisfied. Only with time, I noticed the effects of lacking regular practice. To stay in shape I should practice at least three times a week. I wished I could practice on the same level as I used to in ballet school, but I knew it was impossible. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find ballet classes that have level as good as those in ballet school. At the time there were no studios that offer this level of ballet, and I didn’t want to primarily dance other dance styles. Even though, I was lucky. I was a part of one of the best groups in my dance studio (and still am). Dance has always brought me so much joy, and being outside ballet school allowed me to do it just for fun. There was no more screaming of the teacher or repeating one exercise countless times just because someone didn’t point their feet enough. I had the advantage of professional training that allowed me to establish my position in the group. The teacher finally appreciated me and classes were pure pleasure. I started learning jazz and modern dance. I was happy to dance in competitions and different shows with my friends. I was happy I could still do it and have solos, and not stand in the back row. I was reconciling with the idea of never becoming a professional dancer. They took away to become a professional for me but they couldn’t take away my passion.

dancing at the dance studio concert after leaving ballet school

Even though, I knew I was happy in my new life, I used to think a lot about it a lot. I always wondered “what if?”

“What if?” is one of the most powerful questions. It not only allows us to dream but it also allows the past to enslave us. A question that cannot be answered. It keeps us awake at night, always bothering, hanging like a shadow over head, asking what could our life be like, if we made a different choice or got one more chance. That same thing happened to me.  I kept thinking and thinking about what could have happened if I got the chance to stay in ballet school. It kept me up all night a couple of times, and even when I thought I forgot, each time I went to see a ballet; it kept coming and coming back. This question kept bothering me until I lived through two major events in my life.

Only after attending dance classes in Dallas last year, and going to see that graduation concert last month allowed me to let go off the question and let go off the past...

To be continued…

at the ballet studio concert, third from the left 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The time I visited Harvard University…

Friday, March 11, 2016
10:45 A.M.
I am sitting in a conference room in a hotel in Warsaw. I look around and I see other young people; around twenty-eight of them. They are as excited and nervous as I am. In the middle of the room, I can see both Polish and American flags placed next to the United States Embassy podium. This is it, our one chance. I am among mentees chosen for the U.S. Embassy and the Fulbright Commission’s EducationUSA mentoring program.  The best, and for many of us, the only opportunity to get help and important advice, when applying to American Colleges. Soon we will hear a welcoming speech by the. U.S. Embassy, Cultural Attaché Kenneth Wetzel. In a moment or two, each of us will come up to the podium and will be presented with a certificate that confirms our acceptance to the program.

Now, I think I have to explain some things. It is a very prestigious program for people who live outside of the United States. To get a spot we had to complete an application and win a competition. Apart from submitting our transcripts, we had to write an essay, give testimony of outside of school engagement and explain why we dream of studying in the United States. We were chosen from over 170 applicants. For all of us it is a great honor just to be in the program, and to be noticed by the U.S. Embassy, and the Fulbright Commission.  Even though, it does not grant us becoming a student of any U.S. college, it can help us a lot. Many of us have no idea about how to apply to American Colleges. We do not have college counseling in high school that can help us to find the perfect university. We do not have anyone who can explain to us how the SAT, the Common App, or The College Board work like. This opportunity given to us by this program is the one thing that can help us!
posing at the U.S. Embassy podium

For the past two days, I have learnt a lot about how to apply. We spent long hours listening to multiple presentations concerning topics like how to choose a perfect school, understanding Common App, writing your essay, financing your studies etc. It is not so easy to get a scholarship as a foreign student! Some of you might not know that there are only six colleges in the U.S. that offer need-blind admission for international applicants! Those are Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Dartmouth College (which is said to be withdrawing from this policy in near future), Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amherst College.

For those of you who do not know what a need-blind admission is, I’ll allow myself to quote Wikipedia’s definition;

Need-blind admission is a term used in the United States denoting a college admission policy in which the admitting institution does not consider an applicant’s financial situation when deciding admission.

For many of us that is the only way to be admitted into college. When one does not have enough money to pay for his or her studies, some colleges are more likely to reject application of this applicant. That is why applying to colleges with need-blind policy is a safer way, however not an easier one! Universities like Harvard, Princeton or Yale are not easy to get into at all! Apart from amazing SAT scored and perfect GPA, one has to have an outstanding personality. How to do that? I don’t know yet. I’ll explain you if I succeed! So far, I know it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.
Even though it is not easy to become a student at a great school, no one is going to be stopped from trying or dreaming about a school like that! I advise you to try to reach your dreams, because you’ll never know until you try. Those past two days, w got to meet some of Alumni of U.S. colleges. Talking to two Harvard Alumni, I remembered the time I visited Harvard University.

It was back in August 2014, during the orientation in Boston for my year in the States with ASSIST. Apart from being able to meet amazing people from all around the world, we got the chance to visit the world’s most known university.

Entering the campus of founded in 1636 university I had chills. Until that moment, I could even question the existence of this wonderful place. Looking at the buildings, I saw the centuries of tradition. Founded by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Harvad was originally called “New College”. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard is the oldest higher learning institution in the United States. I find it quite amusing that Harvard University is situated in a town called Cambridge, which always reminds me of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.  Coincidence?
The Harvard Yard

Harvard University obtained his current name after clergyman John Harvard; who donated half of his estate and his books to the university upon his death in 1638. During our Harvard tour, we were able to see his statue that stands in Harvard Yard. He looks very majestic, sat in a chair, with American Flag waving above his head. Tour guides told us that we can rub his toe for luck. Some people believe that if you rub the toe of the statue it will not only bring you luck but also that you will return to Harvard as a student one day. That is probably why many people touch the shoe, polishing it every day.
John Harvard Statue

The Harvard Yard itself was full of colorful chairs and visitors. Walking around, I was reminded of the times I used to watch Legally Blonde a lot and I dreamt of studying at Harvard Law School. The campus was really picturesque and breathtaking. It was like walking around promise land. From my visit there I especially remember seeing the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. It was founded by the mother of Harvard alumna Harry Elkins Widener who was a book lover and who died in the sinking of Titanic in April 1912. I think that the history of this building remains in my memory because I am fascinated by the tragic history of Titanic. Also it is simply impossible to forget the colossal size of the library and the way it makes you feel so small yet so eager to just walk inside and start reading. 
the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library
After the tour, filled with many new dreams and inspirations we went to a university store and bought a lot of Harvard souvenirs. And by saying a lot, I mean A LOT! Almost every out of 170 ASSIST scholars bought a Harvard sweater. We must have looked very funny or like real Harvard students. My friends and I were asked twice whether we were students of Harvard. Both situations were funny but at the same time a bit flattering. It was nice to hear that someone would think that we are students of Harvard University because going to Harvard was the ultimate dream for every single one of us. We would wear our sweaters a lot in the states as well as back home. To remind us of our goals, and our great plans for the future. To remember to never give up and always keep dreaming. Because our dreams are real and they are out there, waiting for us to reach out our hands and reach them!


Friday, February 26, 2016

The journey begins...

Some of you may wonder why I didn’t write this blog last year. The answer is quite simple. Life of an exchange student was much more complicated and busy than I could ever imagine. Day by day, I was living my own American Dream. I was living every day to the fullest and often I was simply too tired to write anything. Now that I have returned home, I feel the need to share my story with the world! However, before I tell you about all the amazing places I’ve seen and about all the things I have done I have to come back in time to the last few months before leaving for the United States…
It was the beginning of May 2014. For weeks now, I have been waiting for the information about my future American school. For second time that year, I learnt that waiting patiently is not easy at all. Being connected to other ASSIST scholars through a Facebook group, I was aware that many people already knew where they were going.  Each day I was more and more nervous… The schools were being filled with students and I still didn’t know my fate… I could only imagine how I would want my school to look like. I spent many hours reading about all of the ASSIST member schools. They could send me literally anywhere! The mystery of location of your American school is one of the exciting parts of ASSIST. When you declare that you accept your scholarship, you have no idea where in the States you will be sent: East coast, West coast or the mainland; mixed or an all-girls school; day or boarding; in the city or somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  It requires to take a risk but it’s a risk worth taking and usually when you find out which school you have been placed in, your realize It is a perfect match. It was just like that with me. Before I found out, I had a strange feeling that I will be sent to an All-girls school. I was almost certain about it. I believed that my interests and things I wrote in my application were extremely girly; dancing, writing, singing in a choir, drawing… everything one would expect to be the interests of a stereotypical girl. I was almost mortified at the thought of spending a year at a school just for girls. To be honest I was praying to not be enrolled in one of those.
When the big day came, 7th may 2014. I checked my email about ten times within few hours. Every time - the same disappointment: still nothing. It was right after I finished my ballet class when the email came. I remember I was literally shaking, while I was opening it. After all, I was holding the information about my home for the following year in my hands. When I managed to calm down, I read the email. The most important part of it said,
“You have been accepted for admission into Grade 11 to The Hockaday School, a boarding school in Dallas, TX.”
It was quite a shock. I never expected to be sent to a school located in the South of the United States. Most of the member schools are located on the East Coast, more or less in the area of the original thirteen U.S. states. When I read the word “Texas” I imagined wild west, ranchers, horses, cowboys, guns and cowboy boots. Some of my friends were laughing that I will be riding a horse to get to school but as it turned out later, it was not the case at all! Surely, Texas is quite outstanding but it isn’t as wild as some people may expect it to be (at least not everywhere). I immediately googled my future school because there were no information about whether it is an all-girls school or not in the mail. When I clicked on the link to the school’s website, my heart stopped for a second. It was a school for girls. I was too excited to show any disappointment. I have to admit I was, a little bit disappointed. But only after few minutes of browsing the website I was already in love with the school! It seemed to fit my character perfectly!

me wearing my school uniform, standing in front of the Hockaday School entrance sign.

When I got on the plane to Boston in August 2014, I had no idea what to expect. I only knew I was going to spend three days at orientation and then fly to Dallas to a boarding school for girls. I was full of hope. I saw it as an amazing adventure that I’d been waiting for my whole life. Many people asked me before I left whether I was scared or nervous. My answer was always “no”.  Looking back at it, I realize how excited I was to begin my new American life. I didn’t even think of all the responsibilities and downsides of living far away from home that I could experience during those ten months. It was a dream come true and as I watched other scholars cry a bit while leaving their friends and families, I could only smile. I wanted to already be there and start my own adventure! I was about to become an independent person, to live one years without the constant protection of parents and family. I was buzzing, I waved my family one last time and I was gone.
Now I know that the small step I took to get on the plane to the United States was actually a giant leap to change my life forever. Although the time has passed, I am and I always will be an exchange student.  The people I met, the places I’ve seen, the culture I learnt, made me who I am now. If someone gave me a chance to become an ASSIST scholar one more time and told me I could decide where to go and how my year would look like, I wouldn’t change a thing. Every single day I dream I could rewind time and relive that year one more time, I know it is impossible but being a writer has its benefits – I can write about it.
I invite you to join me on a journey back in time to the highlights of my year in the USA.
Till next week,