General McLane teen earns spot in prestigious year-long national ballet program

Sierra Griffith’s dedication to dance is leading her to prestigious places. . .

Griffith, an honor roll sophomore at General McLane High School, has dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina since she was 4 years old. The rigorous regimen set forth by her drive for excellence requires fierce dedication to the art she loves: the graceful beauty of leaps and twirls that coordinate to create a fusion of balance, elegance and power.

Her workday typically begins at 7 a.m. and runs until 8:30 p.m. when she settles into some free time reconnecting with friends and family before retiring for the night. She spends about five hours a day in ballet practice, which includes Pilates and stretching, and about four hours on schoolwork, which involves virtual classes, meetings with teachers and homework.

“It’s a pretty strict regimen,” Sierra said, “and I’ve had to develop the organizational skills necessary to fit all this in day after day.”

This level of commitment doesn’t happen without sacrifice.

“There are times that I’d like to have just an average teenage experience,” she said, “hanging out with friends a lot, having a part-time job, catching all the Friday night football games, maybe sleepovers every weekend.” She still has time to connect with friends and doesn’t feel she is missing anything. “I love ballet and I choose it above all else.”

Sierra’s parents provide the financial, emotional, and academic support she needs to navigate an extremely demanding schedule. Sierra often feels overwhelmed with a full dance schedule.

Her mother, Susan Griffith, recognized her daughter’s passion at age 4 during her first ballet class.

“We have worked with her all these years to help her relax, have fun dancing and see the big picture about her future,” she said.

Dedication leads to distinction

Sierra’s dedication and work ethic have earned her a distinction few achieve: acceptance into the School of American Ballet’s coveted five-week summer program for aspiring ballerinas who demonstrate exceptional promise for a professional career in dance. Approximately 2,200 dancers nationwide audition for each summer program; typically around 215 will be enrolled. Of these, 15 to 20 will be admitted into the yearlong program. Not only did Griffith land the summer 2020 program, but she also was one of the select few to be accepted into the fall course for a yearlong study.

The School of American Ballet, located in Lincoln Center Plaza in New York City and the official school of the New York City Ballet, was founded in 1934 by legendary choreographer George Balanchine, who remained actively involved in it until his death in 1983 at the age of 79. Called the “Father of American Ballet,” he achieved world renown for bringing classical ballet to this stage.

Amy Bordy, the school’s director of public relations for recruiting and outreach, explained why SAB’s summer course is so compelling for dancers age 12 to 18. “This is our primary vetting tool to recruit the most talented students nationwide. Our teachers have the opportunity to get to know and assess these students. We then invite to our yearlong program those select few with the strongest potential to succeed with the training we offer to become professional dancers.”

Though COVID-19 interrupted what would have been a traditional, in-person experience at the ballet school this past year, Sierra got a taste of living at Lincoln Center before the school went virtual. “I did have the opportunity to study on-site last fall for about four weeks before we were sent home to continue our ballet schooling virtually,” she said.

Michael Patterson, owner of Patterson School of Ballet on 26th Street in Erie, has been instructing Sierra since she was 10.

“The physical demands of ballet training and performance require an intense drive and work ethic which Sierra has,” Patterson said. “Everything she does is 100% consistently, a focus unusual in a 16-year-old.” A learner at heart, she “welcomes feedback that will make her a stronger, more polished dancer.”

So extraordinary is Sierra’s talent, Patterson shared, that she is the only dancer in this area to be accepted into the SAB program since the mid-1980s.

Patterson’s connection to SAB makes Sierra’s acceptance even sweeter. After training with the [Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and also Lake Erie Ballet, he began his career with the Pennsylvania Ballet] before retiring to teach in Philadelphia with Barbara Sandonato, a principal ballerina with [the Pennsylvania Ballet and National Ballet of Canada.]

Long hours, focused work

Most ballerinas begin their training at age 3 or 4 with a one-hour session each week, just the beginning of a nearly 10-year training tenure. By age 14 or 15, trainees put in 17 hours weekly. By 16 or 17, a dancer must be accomplished enough to gain acceptance into a top-tier school to continue the career track that will land a professional job with a credible company. By age 40, a dancer is past prime and ready to retire.

Kay Mazzo, SAB instructor and faculty chair, recognized Sierra’s work ethic and developing technical proficiency immediately. “Her body works beautifully in classical ballet positions required by the Balanchine aesthetic we teach here. Sierra is an incredibly hard worker who consistently does what we ask of her and makes corrections well because she understands these principles of beauty. ”

To achieve the ideals of movement, “weight, balance, and shift,” in Patterson’s words, a developing ballerina must possess sensitivity to physical form in order to control fluidity of motion.

“It’s hard for kids today to express themselves because everything is through technology,” Patterson explained. “Dancing allows them to express themselves without having to say anything. Without this artistic expression, ballet dancing is just athletics.”

SAB takes a holistic approach to developing their students. Academic study is required; students must be on grade in a high school program and prepared for college classes. “We have a robust student life staff of professionals who understand adolescent development and focus on personal growth to assure that these kids, in addition to becoming talented dancers, develop into healthy, well-rounded, functioning individuals.” Other staff, including a dean of students, physical therapist, nutritionist and psychologist, work as a team to provide a healthy environment.

Sierra’s tenacious pursuit for excellence has earned her a spot at the coveted Miami City Ballet School five-week summer program, which provides training and performance opportunities for gifted students who demonstrate the artistry and technique to be professional dancers.

“I’m so excited to be expanding my horizons,” Sierra said. “I’ll be studying at a new level of artistry and meeting new friends.”

Ballet trivia

  • Began in Italy 500 years ago to entertain the royal courts
  • 1st full-scale ballet was staged in Paris in 1581 by male dancers-women weren’t allowed to dance in public until 1681
  • ”Ballet” derives from the Latin word “ballare” meaning “to dance.”
  • A male dancer lifts approximately 1½ tons worth of ballerina weight in a single performance (3,000 pounds or roughly the weight of a VW Jetta).
  • Pointe shoes are handmade. Toe boxes are blocked with glue and oven-baked to stiffen them.
  • A professional ballerina can dance through 100-120 pairs of pointe shoes a season costing up to $100,000 a year.
  • Handmade professional tutus require 60-90 hours of work and use up to 120 yards of material


Top U.S. companies

  • New York City Ballet
  • San Francisco Ballet
  • American Ballet Theatre (NYC)
  • Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (NYC)
  • Boston Ballet


Classic ballet movies

  • The Red Shoes (1948, starring Moira Shearer)
  • Black Swan (2010, starring Natalie Portman)
  • Billie Elliot (2000, starring Jamie Bell)
  • The Turning Point (1977, starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft)

See video of Sierra Griffith during a recent dance class: