Back in 2020, Dance Informa talked with Columbian ballet dancer Daniel Ayala about top U.S. pre-professional training programs and the scholarships he received to… well… just about all of them. American Ballet Theatre, The Rock School, Royal Winnipeg, Ballet West, Complexions – just to name a few. Three years later, he’s starting a professional apprentice contract with Ballet Palm Beach and teaching at the very school where he cultivated his impeccable technique (on scholarship, of course): St Lucie Ballet in Miami, which boasts accolades like the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) 2020 Outstanding School Award, and the YAGP 2021 and 2022 Outstanding Teachers Awards. And now, Ayala is their newest teacher – he’s also the cover image on their website; you can tell he’s the school’s sweetheart.
Last we heard from Ayala, he and his pas de deux partner, Isabella McCool, had been invited to the YAGP finals in 2020, but the event was unfortunately canceled due to the pandemic. Ayala has been back since, including this past May. He and McCool won first in the classical pas de deux category. Ayala also won the classical and contemporary solo categories. And a Special Award for Outstanding Classical Dancer. He was up against international competition – regionals happened in Spain, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, and even online. YAGP is the top North American dance competition and was judged this year by Artistic Directors of internationally renowned schools like Sasha Radetsky (ABT Studio Company, USA), Christopher Powney (The Royal Ballet School, UK) and Taduesz Matacz (Stuttgart Ballet, DE).
Competitions aren’t only about awards anymore, though. They act as scouting grounds for companies across the U.S. and the world. “I went to many this season, and got offers for trainee and second company contracts.” For a young dancer like Ayala at the start of a promising professional career, it’s a good omen to have multiple offers from the likes of Ballet Hispánico in New York, BalletMet in Ohio, and interest from Dimensions Dance Theatre, a contemporary company based in Miami.
Dancers often only start teaching after retiring from the stage, but Ayala is tackling both careers at once. This makes him an important addition to St. Lucie’s teacher roster – having a mentor who is actively immersed in the professional world is an invaluable resource to his pre-professional students. He’ll be able to give corrections and feedback based on current industry expectations, demonstrating and working hands-on with students — which is especially important in pas de deux work.
“For me, it didn’t happen five or 10,” or 30 or 40, “years ago. It happened to me a few hours ago when I was taking company class. I can relate to the students, and I think that makes me a better teacher.”
So much of ballet is working toward technique, but part of what makes an interesting dancer (especially in competitions and companies) is artistry. Ayala’s dancing has always had heart, and he focuses on fostering that with his students. “One thing I’ve realized in auditions – and I’ve been to a couple this season – is that there’s so many of us. Nowadays, doing five pirouettes is common, lifting your leg up to here is common.” Ayala believes dancers are making such big strides in what we can physically do, that “the art part is losing its importance. So people who have that artistry stand out now. That’s something I always tell my students. You’ll get noticed easier.” And this is coming from a dancer who has the kind of physical facility that dancers dream about.
Having been down the ‘competition to company’ path, Ayala has insight for his students who are competing with the goal of getting scouted. He claims he’s not a veteran, but in the four years he’s competed he’s done extremely well – in 2020, he was the first ever recipient of Universal Ballet Competition’s Só Dança Star Award, and placed second with his classical solo and first in pas de deux. “I know what it feels like. For me, it’s more stressful to compete than to perform in a show.” With contracts on the line, no wonder. The mental game is something Ayala makes sure to cover with his students.
By the time you’re standing in the wings, you’ve done all the preparation, and the best thing you can be in that moment is confident. Ayala has some practical tips for that, too. Every dancer dreads slipping onstage, but he swears by his Só Dança SD 122 ballet shoes. “I have them in every color. I also buy the white ones and dye them for costumes. They’re the best shoes – I have a very narrow foot, and they have a cushion in the heel that grabs your foot. They make my lines look good, and I know when I’m onstage they’re not going to slip off my tights.” As for warm-ups, he says he wears the Be You Men’s Delta Pants everywhere he goes. They’re a reversible trash bag pant with a marble print on one side and solid color on the other, they fit over costumes without leaving any pilling behind, and they’re ideal for in-studio or in-the-wing warm-ups.
When teaching tips, technique and artistry, Ayala finds it helps solidify them for himself, too. “I started becoming a better dancer the moment I started teaching. Sometimes teachers correct you, but for some reason it doesn’t translate into your body. When I started teaching – and when I got my certifications in teaching – I started to understand where the technique is in my body.”
Ayala’s next goals, on top of progressing at Ballet Palm Beach, include finishing his Level 3 certification of the popular Progressing Ballet Technique program, and getting a teacher training certification with American Ballet Theatre or the Royal Academy of Dance. “I want to learn as much as possible, for my students and for myself.” As for his promising performance career, “I want to be in the room, in that professional environment learning repertoire and working with different choreographers.”
With a resume already so full of awards and accomplishments, we have no doubt that when we catch up with him in another three years, Ayala will have climbed the ranks at Palm Beach or wherever else he sets his sights. And he’ll be sharing his expertise with some lucky students every step of the way.
By Holly LaRoche of Dance Informa.