San Angelo Ballerina Invited to Attend World's Most Prestigious Ballet School In Moscow
Pointe shoes, winter clothes, Russian classes and days filled with dance stand before San Angelo ballerina Emma Armstrong, who was recently invited to attend the world’s oldest and most prestigious ballet academy in Moscow, Russia for a one year traineeship.
With only eight American students among the over 700 enrolled at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, entrance to the historic school is extremely selective, reserved for only the most promising dancers around the world on an invite-only basis.
The first American to ever graduate the academy, Joy Womack of Austin, did so in 2012. Excluding other possible invitations for the upcoming year, San Angelo’s Emma Armstrong will not only be the second woman from Texas to ever attend the academy, but the first from San Angelo.
Armstrong received her invitation on Aug. 15 via email, only weeks after having completed an intensive, six-week summer program led by Bolshoi instructors. Competing against ballerinas from roughly 20 U.S. cities and a handful of other nations, Armstrong was invited to attend the New York City program, filling one of 150 open slots.
“On Aug. 15 we got an email from them saying that they were inviting her to study ballet year round at their academy for a one-year trainee program,” Emma’s mother, Deja Armstrong said. “We don’t really know how many kids out of the New York City program they invited…they figure probably 20 or so kids out of the 150 that attended were invited to study year round.”
Scrupulous selection, demanding academic requirements and a substantial monthly tuition fee exclude many from the academy, Deja said, estimating that roughly three to four of the approximate 20 invited will actually be able to attend.
“She cried for probably a solid two days [when she received the invitation],” her mother said. “I think because she was convinced that she wasn’t good enough to be invited to study at the academy. To get the email was a shock, it was overwhelming and it validated her as a dancer. We all cried. It is that big, it’s really that big of a thing.”
Preparing for Take Off
Mounds of paperwork, cold-weather clothing and items such as pointe shoes must be handled and purchased in advance, and a full-immersion environment makes language skills a must.
“What’s different from the New York program to the Moscow program is in New York they have translators in their classes and in Moscow she will have no translators,” Deja explained. “So it will be immersion into the Russian language, completely. What they provide to international students is about two hours a day of Russian language instruction as part of their…classes.”
Emma and her five brothers and sisters are all homeschooled in San Angelo, her mother explained, so since she’s received the invitation all of her studies have focused on learning the basics of the Russian language. The program in Moscow runs from Oct. 1 to June 30, so Armstrong only has a few short weeks to get everything in order and hone her language skills.
“I was a Russian major in college, believe it or not….so I’m helping her,” her mother said. “She’s been learning Spanish all these years so her Russian now is like with a Spanish accent, so I’m trying to help her with her pronunciation right now. We know people at the base that we can ask for help and somebody has given us the name of a professor at ASU. It’s all just happened so fast in the last two and a half weeks, so we’re just trying to get our bearings. For right now, I’m helping her with basic Russian at home.”
At the end of the year, Emma will have to take a Russian language exam to complete the program. Details on her daily schedule while at the academy have so far been minimal, Deja said, with little information from prior students available online and only a rough plan of the demands of the school. Based on the information obtained from the school and students, Deja estimates that Emma will attend dance and Russian classes from 9 a.m. until dinnertime, sometimes working longer should she be selected to participate in academy performances.
In order to keep San Angelo and prospective future students abreast of her life in Russia at the Bolshoi Academy, Emma intends to start a blog and provide regular updates on her training.
Neither Emma or Deja have ever been to Russia, so the experience is new and exciting to the family. As mother, Deja said she has faith in her daughter and her well being, but her biggest concern is Emma’s return.
“I’m kind of all over the place,” she said. “I don’t know that I have any fears that are paralyzing. We just really have a peace about this because we’ve seen God open doors for her with the whole Bolshoi experience since her audition. There’s a lot of peace about her going. I’m fearful, I guess, that she’s going to love it there and want to stay.”
The opportunity to train at Bolshoi will be a career-builder for Emma, who hopes to one day dance professionally at a major ballet company. Deja said her daughter would likely leap at the chance to work for Bolshoi, but is open to other stateside and international opportunities after she’s completed her traineeship.
“Attending this academy, the doors it will open for her, it’s hard to even imagine, the doors this will open for her,” Deja said. “The Bolshoi Academy is the best of the best. It’s basically the oldest ballet school in the world. It’s over 200 years old. People like [Mikhail] Baryshnikov—even people who don’t know anything about ballet at least know the name Baryshnikov—he’s from Bolshoi. Pretty much all ballet flows out of this academy. It is a respected and revered name in the ballet world. For her to have on her dance resume that she studied for a year at the Bolshoi Academy, that will turn heads.”
Likening ballet dancers to NBA superstars, Deja explained the difference between ballet in Russia and Europe as to how the dance form is perceived in America.
“People in Russia look at ballet dancers like we Americans look at professional athletes,” she said. “They are revered. Boys who love to play basketball would love to play for the NBA, she’s kind of getting the chance to experience that.”
Bolshoi or Bust
In order to participate in the program, Emma will have to undergo medical testing, acquire international students’ insurance and receive a visa. The academy offers a “rolling enrollment”, providing leeway for international students who need more time to get their visas processed. Emma’s passport should come in the mail soon, her mother said, and they hope she will be able to leave Texas within the first week of October.
As with most prestigious schools, tuition at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy is costly, and runs roughly $2,600 a month, including room and board. Airfare, visa application fees, supplemental food costs, internet connection and other necessities will have to be covered by the family in San Angelo in the absence of the ability for Emma to work while abroad.
“She needs to take pointe shoes with her,” Deja added. “She’ll come home at Christmastime, but we probably need to buy about three or four months of point shoes at $100 a pair to take over with her. Her pointe shoes—she goes through about three pairs of pointe shoes a month, so that’s another $300 a month on top of [tuition].”
Since receiving her invitation to Bolshoi almost three weeks ago, the family has been doing vigorous fundraising for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. Raising six children on a one-person income has placed restrictions on the family’s ability to fully fund the traineeship, however several community members have stepped in and donated over $7,000 to help Emma’s dream come true.
San Angelo Foundation
The honor of being invited to attend the academy is huge for San Angelo, and Deja praises the work of the San Angelo Civic Ballet for pushing Emma to this level.
“The San Angelo Civic Ballet, that’s where she’s danced for nine years and that training and the foundation she’s had there is really what’s helped her have this opportunity,” she said. “That has laid the foundation for this. Our little town, our little ballet school made it so that one of our kids can represent Texas in Moscow.”
Emma took her first ballet class when she was 4, and has continued dancing since then, starting at San Angelo Civic Ballet in 2005. She is currently 17. Prior to her lessons in San Angelo, Emma trained in Albany, NY, where the family previously resided.
Since joining San Angelo Civic Ballet, Emma has trained six days a week at two to three hours a day. She’s been involved in nearly every production the company has hosted in the past nine years, including roles in The Nutcracker, Peter and the Wolf, A Jazz Affair and An Evening of Dance. For the past few years, Emma has often taken lead roles in local productions.
She dances six days a week, about two to three hours a day with ballet classes and then when there’s a performance you add four to eight hours a week on top of that for rehearsals. It’s like a part-time job.
“For her, ballet is breathing,” Deja said. “It’s who she is. There’s so much emotion in ballet and she can pull all of who she is into dance. It’s a great way to be expressive. But it really is just [like] air [to her]. I think she’d say ballet chose her.”
On Sept. 13, the family will be holding a "Bolshoi or Bust" Brisket Fundraiser at Fiddlefire Café at 1103 S. Oakes St. Brisket, pulled pork and chicken will be served, with all proceeds benefitting Emma's traineeship in Moscow. Live entertainment is also planned for the event, which will begin at 11:00 a.m. and run until the food is gone.
Donations are also being accepted on the "Bolshoi or Bust" fund page, with the option to dedicate funds to either pointe shoes or tuition.