“Slovar, slovar,” writes Emma Armstrong in a blog post dated Nov. 26. Translated, she describes, the Russian word means “dictionary”, a one-syllable utterance she and her classmates have become all too familiar with in their courses at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia over the past five weeks.
“In only a few weeks of Russian language class we've made it all the way through Textbook #1,” the San Angelo ballerina writes. “I'm swimming. These textbooks, mind you, haven't a single English word in them. So it's often in class that our teacher will say to us, ‘Slovar, slovar,’ meaning, ‘Dictionary, dictionary.’”
Emma, 17, grew up in San Angelo and danced at the San Angelo Civic Ballet for nine years beginning in 2005. She took her first class at the age of 4, and by the age of 12, ballet had become an integral part of her life.
When she received an exclusive invitation to attend the world’s most prestigious ballet academy on Aug. 15, Emma was ecstatic and in a state of disbelief. Now, five weeks after landing on the other side of the planet, she’s taking in a world of new experiences and adapting to cultural differences, all the while training hard to improve her dancing.
“The language for sure has been probably the hardest [thing to adjust to],” Emma wrote in an email. “When my flight landed, there was this ‘Welcome To Russia’ speech played over the intercom. And of course, it was in fluent Russian. I just remember sitting there on the plane, jet lagged and confused, trying to understand what she was saying! But now, I bet if I listened to that same speech I would understand a lot more. I guess I'll get to test that when I return in January.”
In her blog, “Walked to Russia”, Emma relays more on the language barrier, explaining that her classmates are students from places like Japan or Italy, who may speak little to no English. Because all instruction is given in Russian, each foreign student is also enrolled in language courses. The common language among her friends at the academy is therefore Russian, which she admits can be a little unsettling.
“I don't know, but it's just so strange having Russian be the common language,” she writes in her blog. “I'm used to people struggling to communicate with me in broken English. It's honestly very unsettling how used to being the ‘Alpha Dog’ I am. I'm not used to demeaning looks, and not being fluent in the common language. It's a growing experience.”
The Friendly Ex-Vegetarian
Before she even knew her departure date the horror stories had begun: ‘appetizing’ was not a word one used to describe the meals served at Bolshoi. Anticipating the dining options may be less flavorful than desired, Emma and Deja Armstrong began saving money to put toward her dorm room and extra living expenses, including some money for food.
In colorful blog post dated Nov. 9, Emma breaks down the diet for the some of the world’s most talented aspiring dancers.
“At the academy, we are fed three meals a day,” she writes. “Breakfast is the same. Every. Day. Kasha (similar to oatmeal or cream of wheat) with bread and a slice of meat (left column, second photo from top). Lunch and dinner are the same seven meals, served in a rotation. The rotation doesn't mean that we are served something different every day, though. We had the same lunch three days in a row.”
Prior to her arrival at Bolshoi, Emma was a vegetarian. Although she makes regular trips to a market just five minutes away for bananas and diet soda, her cafeteria experience has opened her up to eating anything that’s edible.
“It’s all about survival,” she wrote in an email. “So far the food isn’t my favorite, but I’m hanging in there!
“I've learned how to say ‘no meat and sauce, please’ in Russian,” she explained in a blog post. “Now I can eat my rice/pasta in peace. Без соус и мяса, пожалуйста. So I used my new skill, and the dinner guy understood me so well that Sophia, my roommate, [who was] standing next in line, also was robbed of her sauce.”
Although the food has taken some getting used to, Emma and her roommates are getting along well in Moscow, and have made trips to the Izmalovsky Market and other sites around the city. Photographs from her voyage depict the ballerina in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Bolshoi Theater and the geographical center of the sprawling city.
The mindset is a bit different, she explains, and most everyone keeps to themselves. The boys, however, are bold and frequently wink and waive at the “American girls”.
Speaking to the cultural differences, Emma said one of the biggest differences she’s noticed since she left Texas is the friendliness of people here.
“I have learned that Americans are very friendly,” she said in an email. “Walking down the street, no one even looks at you. Smiling at strangers earns you strange looks. I'd heard so many horror stories about bad things happening to people in Russia, but honestly, no one cares what you're doing. Everybody looks forward and minds their own business.”
As the first ballerina from San Angelo and the second female from Texas to ever attend the Bolshoi Academy, Emma Armstrong is making history. Preparation for the trip began almost immediately—two days of shock-induced tears of joy excluded—as she and her mother Deja Armstrong began studying Russian together and organizing paperwork.
A donation drive for pointe shoes, tuition and airfare brought in enough for the family to get their young star overseas, and while local fundraising efforts continue, Emma is vigorously training to make San Angelo proud.
“I'm learning to not be a baby about pain, for one,” Emma writes regarding her training. “I've always had a high pain threshold, but here, if you're hurt they just instantly replace you. And that is really helping me figure out my body and learning what pain is truly bad pain and what is just uncomfortable. My teacher works on the way I hold my back and arms a lot. She says the way I carry my upper body is very American and not very academic.”
One of the things she notes in her blog is that the ballet academy’s floors are “raked”, or titled at such an angle that the audience has view of all of the dancers, including those on the back row.
Emma admits it took some time for her to get used to the pitch, and writes that she no longer feels she will be sliding or rolling down the floor.
The curriculum at the academy is stringent, she said, and students are expected to take criticisms, correct and keep moving. While some have difficulty with how intense the instruction is, Emma said she feels the value of the instruction and the experience makes everything worthwhile.
“It's extremely strict [here],” she said, referencing her ballet classes. “A friend was telling a Ukrainian-American relative about me and the relative said this academy was like a Russian gulag and that he was ‘surprised she went willingly.’ It's not that bad but it's definitely stark in comparison. They yell. A lot. And often the corrections are hands on, especially if you don't understand what they're saying. Sometimes you have fingerprint bruises on your legs and feet but to me it's worth it. I don't mind.”
Home for Christmas
After five weeks in Moscow, Emma says there are things she misses—her bed, certain foods and friends and family—but is surprised to find that she isn’t really that homesick.
Regular classes, homework and an internet connection have kept her busy and in tune with what’s going on here at home, and despite a nine-hour time difference she and her mother remain in contact via Skype.
“Technology has made it so easy to keep in touch, so at times I can forget that she's halfway around the world,” Deja said. “There's a nine-hour time difference, so she's in her ballet classes while we sleep. When we wake up in the morning, we can chat with Emma about how her classes went, what her meals were like, and how much Russian homework she has that night.”
Although her parents couldn’t fly over with her in November, the family will be reunited this Christmas when Emma returns for 2.5 weeks on Dec. 20. A long grocery list and a menu of American favorites will await her when she arrives.
“We are all looking forward to having her home,” Deja said. “We know she'll struggle with the nine-hour time change, so are anticipating that she'll be taking a lot of naps. She's already requested a slush from Sonic, along with various other fast and home-cooked meals. She'll visit with friends and spend some time in the ballet studio here, too. I think for the most part, we'll enjoy listening to her stories and watch the sparkle in her eyes as she talks about this incredible experience.”
When she departs on Jan. 7, Emma will be armed with two suitcases filled with dried fruit and nuts, dehydrated veggies and ingredients to make soup, along with a mattress pad and six months worth of pointe shoes, her mother explained.
Her contract at the academy will run through the end of June, and as of yet, neither she nor her mother know what’s in store for San Angelo’s top ballerina.
“We know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her and we are thrilled that she is able to have an experience that most people will never [have]—certainly from a ballet standpoint—but also the life experiences are priceless,” Deja said. “As parents, we know our job is to prepare our children to launch into the world, and we couldn't be more proud of Emma's spectacular launch.”
In order to finance the remainder of her traineeship in Moscow, the family is still seeking donations to apply toward pointe shoes and living expenses. If you are interested in contributing, donations may be made at Emma’s “Bolshoi or Bust” gofundme page.