by Fred P. Gusoff
Adam Sterr, a professional ballet dancer-turned-dance instructor, wants to keep people on their toes for six weeks. The newcomer to Mt. Airy will teach an intermediate-level ballet course that will begin next Wednesday and will offer adults an opportunity to learn or improve on the ins and outs and ups and downs of ballet dancing.
The course is sponsored by Mt. Airy Learning Tree and will be held at the Philadelphia Dance Theatre, 7500 Germantown Ave. Sessions run from 7:30 to 8:45 p.m. on six consecutive Wednesdays, April 23 to May 28. The cost is $79 for the entire series. For information or to register, call 215-843-6333.
“It’s not meant to be an intimidating atmosphere,” said the teacher. Participants will learn at their own ability, he stressed.
Born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he lived for 18 years, Sterr began his ballet training in high school, where he received “good, solid” training.
He earned a bachelor of arts degree in dance pedagogy and performance at Butler University in Indiana and began his professional career with the Richmond Ballet in Virginia, where he spent three years – typically five performance series each year. He then was offered a job with the Milwaukee Ballet back in his home state.
“It was a step in the direction I wanted,” said Sterr, now 35.
He stayed there for five years, the bulk of his performing career. Most of the time, he had just one or two weekend performances, except for one of the best-known shows, “The Nutcracker,” which typically had 25 performances each December.
After doing freelance work on other performances of “The Nutcracker,” Sterr had to call it a career at the ripe young age of 29, thanks to injuries. “I was pretty burned out from the rigors of working as a professional dancer,” he said of the end of his full-time performing career. “It’s a high-pressure career. Like professional athletes, you get injuries because you’re pushing your body so much.” Unlike professional athletes, however, “With ballet it’s not a competition; it’s an art form.”
There’s also a big difference in paychecks. While the salaries of many professional baseball players are in the multi-millions, professional ballet dancers are accustomed to a “working wage,” as Sterr put it. Salaries differ by region. The average salary of a dancer at the Milwaukee Ballet, which has an annual budget of about $5 million, is around $28,000 per year, while in New York City, lower-level ballet dancers can take in around $50,000, and top-level performers can top $100,000, he said. The Milwaukee Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet are generally regarded as being in the top 25 ballet companies, Sterr said.
Is ballet for everyone? “Not everyone can be a professional, but that doesn’t mean they should be discouraged from taking ballet lessons,” he said.
Good luck and timing are a big part of the equation. “You have to steer clear of the injury bug itself,” Sterr warned.
Long days of dance rehearsals involving repeated body motions can lead to tendonitis and repetitive stress injuries. “Joints tend to just wear down,” he explained. “People are using the human body as a creative form of expression, but a lot of dancers push it too far when injured” and return to the job too soon.
Sterr touted the virtues of recreational ballet. “The sky’s the limit,” he said, explaining that the arts should be “enriching, enjoyable and possibly cathartic … The arts are very much a necessary part of society.”
While television and the Internet are good vehicles for original exposure to the arts, “it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Sterr.
When people watch videos of performing arts, “They’re completely missing large elements.
“Now that I’m teaching, it’s shocking to see the number of students who have never been to the ballet. Seeing it live forces you to see the entire performance . . . It’s a marathon, not a sprint. With live performances, it sticks with you.”
Most larger ballet companies are split about evenly between men and women, but Sterr himself was the only boy in the class when he started in the field. Sterr recalled his brush with greatness early in his career when he took a class in New York City in which one of the students was perhaps the most famous man in ballet dancing, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
“Even the legends have to keep training to stay in shape. No matter how good you are, you have to keep training.” The students did not approach or bother the ballet great in the classroom, he said. “You don’t want to be the one who caused Mikhail Baryshnikov to leave the class.”
Now a full-time teacher who also plays the viola and sometimes combines it with ballet, Sterr recalled the early days when he had to tend bar and wait on tables to make ends meet. “No one goes into the arts to be rich,” said Sterr, who’s been renting an apartment in Mt. Airy since last July.
For Sterr, it’s the audience, not award competitions, that really count.
“The biggest reward is to have your work well received,” he insisted.