Classical music played from a small boom box on Anna Pratt Elementary’s auditorium stage as young girls stared at their instructor’s feet. The instructor stood in a turnout, a fundamental ballet step, where the dancer’s feet are pointed in opposite directions in a straight line. The girls broke out in random giggling and teasing, but they all smiles in pride as they mimicked the step.
For the past six years, Pratt has taught select female students ballet at the non-performing-arts school. Most of the students do not have a dance background, but many are excited to be in the class. Every Monday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., two classes of third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade girls put on their black leotards, tights and ballet shoes, and Elena Tiuriakulova teaches them the basics in pre-ballet.
“In pre-ballet it’s more about fun and not turning them off from physical activity, from dance,” Tiuriakulova explained. “Like you’re trying to develop their coordination, musicology and give as much possible fun.”
Tiuriakulova, 54, takes her many years of classical training, professional performing and teaching at ballet schools to her weekly sessions at Pratt, Leeds Middle School and George Washington High School. Tiuriakulova teaches ballet in multiple schools in the Philadelphia School District through the International Ballet Exchange, the nonprofit of the Wissahickon Dance Academy, which receives numerous donations and provides the ballet shoes for its students. Pratt provides its students with black leotards and tights.
“We thought we had something to offer the community,” a spokesperson for the International Ballet Exchange said about the reason for starting the nonprofit in 1998. The nonprofit provides Philadelphia public school students with a connection to a different style of music that they may not have gotten from regular academics.
The pre-ballet classes at Pratt, which students do not receive academic credit for, began in 2006. Principal Denise Young said the nonprofit chose Pratt without the school approaching the program, but she liked providing students with more musical outlets.
“As a child, I took ballet and it exposed students to as many arts as possible,” Young said. She added that the discipline of the dance and the behavioral expectation to maintain being in the course has improved students’ behavior at Pratt.
Tiuriakulova said in dance-specific schools it is a lot more competitive and there is more rejection because ballet is a specific profession with explicit requirements.
“But in other [non-performing arts] schools, they often have parents that want their children to come and take ballet,” Tiuriakulova said. “Sometimes they have no idea what they’re going to do, some of them dream of being a ballerina but have no idea what it means.”
Tiuriakulova will have the Pratt ballet students perform at George Washington High School on May 28 and she rehearses the routine with the girls every Monday.
Justine Robinson assists the ballet course with making sure the students show up to ballet and get back to their classes on time and other school responsibilities at Pratt. Robinson said she only sees two parents very involved with the ballet course, and the dwindling parent participation goes beyond extracurricular activities. However, Robinson said there is a noticeable change in the girls who participate in ballet.
“I’ve noticed it’s changed for the good. They are not as pouty as they use to be,” Robinson said. “When they are dancing, they are happy.”
During the first class at 11 a.m., a few of the girls teased a student’s stance. Tiuriakulova told the girls not to criticize, and they broke into a dance of dramatically and rhythmically saying “ssh.” The dance appeared very customary as a way for Tiuriakulova to calm the group.
Student Marander Mills called the dance “a ballet way of telling people to ‘shut up.’”
Ballet in Philadelphia’s non-performing arts schools shows dance is not all poses and techniques, it’s a form of expression that can be used in all parts of life.