Susanne connects with Ondine Diakhate the founder of Core de Ballet. In this interview, we talk about what inspired her to pursue a career in dancing, how to become a better dancer, the origin of Core de Ballet and how it developed, the role of mental coaching for dancers, coaching for dancers today, and its challenges, an approach to dancing that aims for excellence not perfection, outside inspirations for the ballet industry, and the next vision for Core de Ballet.
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A conversation with Ondine Diakhate the founder of Core de Ballet.
I was born in the north of France, in Normandy. Then I moved to Morocco when I was four months because that was back in the time where you wouldn’t give birth in Morocco if you are French; don’t ask me why. That’s just what people thought at that time. So I was born in France, but actually my parents were living in Morocco back then. I was raised there for four years. I do not remember anything, except that our sign language is beautiful. I was raised in France for many years. And then I moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. And now I’m back in Paris.
Favorite Childhood Memory
Probably my first performance on stage was rubbish. I was something like five, but I will always remember it was on a Queen Song. The show must go on. And I just remember the music. The stage is all black. The audience is just blank. And there is this music that is so powerful. And I walk on stage. I don’t remember anything after that. I just remember walking on stage, and there’s this music and it’s all black and it’s paradise.
Inspiration for Dancing
I come from a family of nonprofessional dancers. My mom has danced all her life. She’s 76. I think now she’s still dancing. Her mom used to love to dance. But it was a time where you wouldn’t really have ballet classes for little girls. So my mom is maybe the first dancer in the family. My father also was dancing. So that was kind of normal activity to try when you’re a kid in my family. And I just loved music. I have no idea why I loved it. I just loved it.
Love for Books
I actually stopped the habit of reading three different books at the same time. It was draining because I couldn’t figure out which book to read. I’ve changed that habit because I felt it was overwhelming. It would take so long to actually finish any of them. So now I’m just one at a time. I was reading on Dean this weekend, because there was a conversation with a friend of mine last week and we disagreed on the end of the story. And it depends on the version of which books you’re reading, which theater play you’re reading, so I just wanted to be sure that I was right. And, of course, I was right.
I started reading the biography of Eric Mohammed because I’m planning to ask him for an interview. So I wanted to do some background research.
Who is Eric Mohammed?
Eric Mohammed is probably one of the greatest dancers in the world. He is a former Bolshoi principal dancer from back in the ‘80s who moved to the Royal Ballet in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, I think, and stayed with Royal Ballet until the end of his career. He’s really famous for the Spartacus role, which probably is something that suits him very well in the way he dances, but he’s actually most famous for being the lead male dancer of all McMillan’s creations in the ’80s. And until my Greenland’s death, he was his favorite male dancer. And, luckily for me, he’s in Paris now.
I was in Amsterdam to visit my friend, Cristiano Principato, and he invited me to go to a farewell party for a couple of dancers, including Sasha Muhammed, who for whatever reason, I’ve never linked her last name with his last name. I’m chatting with her on the balcony. And she mentioned her father two or three times. Because she was talking about our holidays, and she was saying, “Oh, maybe I’ll go with my father, but it depends on his work.” So at some point, I’m like, “Oh, what is your father’s work?” And she looked at me like this. It turns out that she’s actually happy when people don’t know who her father is. And she said, “It’s like Mohammed,” and then I was like, “The dancer?” And she was like, “Yes.” It was just funny because she then realized that I actually had no idea who she was. I knew who she was. I just didn’t know who her father was. I definitely recommend checking him out. There are beautiful videos of him.
Always Asking Questions
The thing I realized growing up is we want to be what we were when we’re kids. Sometimes it turns out that we do that, but you cando it in very different and mysterious ways. So I’m a very curious person. I love to learn and to discover new things. When I was a kid, I would always ask lots of questions. And maybe because both of my parents are teachers affected me. They nurtured me alot. They taught us how to look for the answer and ask for more questions and not stay at that answer. And then ask one more question and ask for more questions.
Actually, if I can make a parenthesis here, I am really glad that I was brought up this way because I realized that I’m a generation that witnessed a change in how we use knowledge. When my parents were in charge of the world and active in life, and back then, you had to know the answer. A good employee is someone who knows the answer to a problem, how to solve it, how to resolve it. And I witnessed a shift that I guess millennials will not know because they grew up with the result of that shift. The shift was, with the internet and Wikipedia and Google and everything, the knowledge is right here. You can just type something and you get the answer. The key became to make sense of it, to find it fast, but most importantly, to make sense of it, to be able to analyze it, to be able to cross-reference things. And I didn’t notice that until very recently. It’s a huge change in the way we approach knowledge, and what makes us valuable in this world is not an ability to find the answer, because the answer is actually very easy to find. Just google anything. I mean, google became a word. Exactly. Anything, and then you get the answer. But how do you use this? How do you make use of it in a completely different story?
Learning Foreign Languages, International Relations, and a Little Bit of Everything
So my background is very mixed. Very unusual, I would say, for someone who works with dancers. I’ve actually started studying foreign languages and international relations. I was curious about the world we live in. I was curious about everything, basically. So for me, learning languages was the key to communicating with so many people. I wanted to learn all the languages in the world. I’ve settled with six. That’s more than enough.
But from time to time, I stopped learning. I’ve worked in diplomacy. I’ve worked in nuclear power plants. It’s always awesome and I just love it. But on the side, I’ve always listened to music. It’s always been a very important part of my life. But I think what was most important in my life is I learned the piano and I gave up. I learned sketching and drawing and I gave up. I learned the guitar, then I gave up. But then I realized that I was not giving up. I realized that I’m just this kind of person who likes to learn and know a little bit of a lot of different things. It gets me excited, and then it’s just that I have enough of this. And I want to discover and learn something else. And so it changed my mindset because I felt that I was not someone who managed to go through it because I thought I was giving up. But I changed this mindset. And I’ve shifted from no, actually, it shows that this is who I am, this is what I like. I don’t like to be an expert in all of the things. I like to know a little bit of everything. And most importantly, I like to know the person that I can reach out to who is the expert will give me the rest of the information that I’m not actually interested in knowing by myself.
So basically, I have my Google network of real-life people. And to make that long story shorter, this is what Core de Ballet is all about. It came to me as I wanted to be the platform where you come with a question and I can direct you to, hey, here’s the right person for you. It’s not me, and it’s going to be someone who’s an expert in nutrition. Someone who knows so much about anatomy applied for dancers, someone who’s a really good ballet teacher, someone who’s a really good Pilates instructor, a mental coach for dancers, etc. There are so many things that we can learn from to empower ourselves and have better, longer, healthier careers and be full-fledged artists. So that’s a little bit of my experience. It’s learning who I was, and what I was good at and what I love to do and applying that into the business that I created instead of trying to be someone I wasn’t.
Core de Ballet—The Origin
It’s a long development. You know how it is when you create a business; it actually comes from a long, long process of thinking. For me, I would say the real start was when I moved to Abu Dhabi because I couldn’t find good ballet classes for adults.. So I started in a foreign country where they’re not that many ballet classes, very different from the big cities in Europe and New York, where you can easily find a Center where you have really high-level classes for amateur dancers, perhaps run by someone who could be a former professional dancer who stopped for whatever reason. All people have always been amateur dancers, but they’ve been dancing for so long that their level is actually very good. And they’re far from beginners, and they’re far from intermediate. They’re really good advanced amateur adult dancers. I didn’t really want to stop dancing.
So I started going to Europe, buying all the DVDs. I could watch at home. Of course, my living room had no dining table because you need the space. No coffee table either. You just sit on the floor. Sorry friends, but this is my dance studio. I’m bored with my DVDs, because the same thing like that was 15 years ago, 10 years ago. That was ten years ago, there were not that many DVDs. And I started thinking, it would be so great if all of this was online so we could train wherever we are. And some of my friends were professional dancers. And for them, it was more. Well, when I travel for the gala, sometimes I don’t have a coach with me. I don’t have a teacher. I’m not really good at creating a class because it’s a skill to know how to create a good class. And I started thinking about all of the things we could do online, how we could help dancers all over the world. How we could think a little bit outside of the box and stop thinking you make a dancer only in the studio. No, being a dancer is like any job. It’s a lot of skills, a lot of knowledge, a lot of curiosity that you feed through so many different things. It doesn’t stop at the studio. It stops and starts where you want.
I noticed that it was really helpful during the first quarantine times last year. Because of the mindset that I have that you can improve your technique, while you’re brushing your teeth or washing the dishes, by just knowing some principles and applying them to how you move, simple movement that you do every day. That will be so much more powerful than waiting until you’re in the studio, waiting until you’re in class, and you have so many things to think about. And that’s the only moment that you work on your turnout, your extension, your posture, etc.
When the quarantine time started to happen everywhere last year, I felt that I was not that overwhelmed. Because I was like, well, it’s just business as usual, except that there is no going to the studio anymore. But you know what? I have more time now because I don’t have to commute. The studio is my living room now.
Mental Coaching for Dancers
Mental coaching, I think, is important for anyone. I witness its power. When I actually met two of my colleagues who were in neuro-linguistic programming, certified people don’t really know what to call that because I’m not a big fan of the whole certification process. But they were knowledgeable in neuro-linguistic programming, I would say. And I noticed how they behaved differently in work, and how they were getting efficient and positive and healthy results with their colleagues. And that puzzled me. I started asking questions and it turns out that both of the two people that I realized were very different, were both neuro-linguistic programming experts. So I started asking about that because at first I felt it was a bit of a guru thing. I started talking to them because I had a lot of trust towards them. I started thinking, maybe I’m mistaken, maybe you have a preconception about what that is. And I started asking a lot of questions and realizing that a lot of what they were talking about was basic mental coaching techniques. And that’s because actually NLP, taken from psychology, grew as their own field and technique.
A lot of that was then used and applied by sports coaches. And actually, one of my colleagues was a coach for a national team in a sport that he’s never played. Also, very young, anybody was acquired for the national team. Because he didn’t have to know the game. All you have to know is, how do we get the best out of those players. And that really interested me because I was already thinking about Core de Ballet. And I was thinking, that’s something very foreign to the ballet world. All of the things that you’re talking about, empowering the person, asking them questions before giving them feedback. Being constructive and positive doesn’t mean you’re always saying only the nice things. But when you have to say things that do not go well, there is a very structured way that you use to make sure that the person actually listens to it, uses it, and then grows from that. And that’s what I call empowerment.
Of course, like anything I wanted to learn, I took a course in coaching and NLP because it’s not just NLP for me. NLP is really a series of tools and techniques that you apply to whatever you want. So I’ve learned coaching, and I’ve learned NLP techniques as well. I don’t like all of them. I think it’s just a matter of personal taste, what works for you as a coach, and what works for the person that you’re coaching. So it’s great to learn all of it so that you can see and pick what works for you and create your own style. Before the coaching, I definitely embraced it 100%, because I was one of those people who would be actually mean. I only see it now. For me it was efficient and to the point. Yes, just move on. I mean, this is rubbish, this is rubbish. That’s what I would do naturally. Just rubbish, what you’re giving me is rubbish. But you know, seeing the power of just applying yourself and using different ways of communicating and you get so much better results, then it’s worth it. It’s worth fighting your nature.
Coaching Today and Its Challenges
When I look back, all of my teachers were very demanding.. Asking for the best for sure. I don’t remember any time where it wasn’t really warranted, or they said things that were defining us instead of talking about some steps that we do. So I think that actually also helped me having a positive view on all of that, because I know that there are still a lot of teachers, ones not like this. But the problem is probably that they’re not that many who are in positions of high power. So we don’t really see them, or they do not have as much power as the others. And it’s the balance between these kinds of teachers and those kinds of teachers that makes us see the ballet world as sometimes so negative.
And, to be honest, I definitely think 100% that most of the behavior that we see that is not helpful comes from a good place. It comes from the person who’s doing what they think is the best way to get the result. I’ve had that conversation so many times with so many teachers. And actually, in my workplace when I learned NLP, the reason why I saw the difference between the two-person I was talking about and others was because you had the other kind. And I had a conversation with them once because they lashed out during a meeting publicly in front of 20 other people saying really, really bad things to someone. And their answer to that behavior was, “Sometimes, when we’re in a place of power, you have to make a point.” And I said, “Yeah, okay, I understand what you’re saying. I’m just saying, did that have to be public in front of everyone?” Doing that privately would have completely changed the way the person would have received that feedback. They will probably have received it saying, “Okay, I made a big mistake.” That person is really unhappy. I have to solve it. Whereas here, they felt humiliated. Then what do you do when you feel humiliated? You don’t even listen to what the person said. You push it away, you brush it away, you know, “Whatever you’re saying, I don’t care.”
In the two examples I gave are people who wanted to be great leaders. So they went out and looked for what other great courses, what are the great tools? What are the great techniques that I can learn to be a better leader? And it goes back to being curious, educating yourself, and applying that knowledge and tools. Being a great dancer doesn’t necessarily make you a great teacher and being a great teacher doesn’t mean you have to be a great dancer. And being a great teacher doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great director. So many different jobs that you always have to remind yourself. Okay, in which position am I today? What do I know? What do I not know? How do I get better?
I’m now in a position where I work a lot with mentors and teachers. So I get both sides of the thing. And a lot of teachers in professional companies are complaining that they cannot correct or give feedback to some pro dancers because they don’t listen. And I remember having a conversation when I was witnessing a professional company class. And I felt that there was not much correction or not much guidance. So I was like, “Is that a warm-up?” Because even in a warm-up, shouldn’t you give some guidance, because they’re going to go on stage? So I had all those questions. And I was good friends with the teacher. So I could be very open and say basically, “Why are you not saying anything? Is it because you don’t see it or what?” And the person said, “No, I see it and it hurts my eyes. But what can I do when I say things and they get offended?” So I started listening to other teachers and I started observing company classes. And I said, Yeah, but you’re kind of building that environment where you are not correcting anymore when they get to the company. So they come out of school. They’re being taught every single minute what to do and what not to do. This is good. This is wrong. That’s basically the cost of school class. And then they go to a company and then suddenly it’s just okay.
Getting offended in coaching is one of the subjects I want to touch on because I want to start broadening the coaching. So it’s not just dancers because I think we need to help everybody because everybody has their part in it. And I do hear from a lot of teachers that they actually want to play their role in helping and developing their dancers. But like everything, they need help with knowing what tools to use and understanding that deep down, it’s a lot of beliefs that are both from the teacher and from the students.
Now, mentors taught that this is the way a company does it. And as you know, belief dictates your behavior. And then your behavior dictates everything that is happening in your environment. So we need to go into understanding where that belief comes from. And for me, it comes from school time. At school, there are things that are being done or being said consciously or unconsciously, and probably it’s unconscious, mainly, that makes the students believe that. Okay, as you said, I need to be perfect when I’m 17–19 when I graduate.
Very recently, I did the filming of a coaching session. I was filming principal dancers teaching younger dancers their first time dancing your role. And I asked a couple of my students, who were 12, 13 years old, to assist so that they can see how it is when you’re 25. And you’re being coached by a former principal dancer. And all of them said something that surprised me and at the same time did not surprise me. They all said it was reassuring to see an adult professional dancer being given so many corrections. Interesting. And then it struck me because I was like this at 12 and 13. And they do not know that this is the life of a professional dancer. It doesn’t stop at school. So I talked to friends who were in their early 20s. So they recently left school and they’re recent in the company, and they all said the same thing. They said, “Yes. When I was their age, I thought the same thing. I thought you get to a company, you’re perfect. You’re not being corrected anymore. We’ll give you a role. You rehearse it once, then you go on stage. Perfect. That’s what it is, right?”
Those 12-year olds who hear that sometimes it takes a month to learn the entire character role because you don’t have one variation. And even if you’re going to ballet, you have the entire body basically to know it takes a month, three weeks, two weeks, depending on the company. But even the company that goes with a very tight schedule, it’s because they don’t say a lot. Most of the dancers already know it when you’re new in the company. Well, good luck. You have only two weeks. But that’s because it’s something that they dance a lot. Usually you have like four weeks. And that was a realization for me because I realized they don’t see that. They don’t know it. So this is information that is crucial for them understanding what their job will be. In that job was perception. And for me, that’s what’s cool. It’s supposed to prepare you for making sure that you understand what the job will be and the job will be universal for weeks and weeks and weeks. Because it has to be perfect. So it’s this level of being corrected, being given feedback, being very precise on details.
The Illusion of Perfection
Perfection is a dead end because I associate the word perfection with a still image. And I tend to coach people to remove that word perfection from their vocabulary and replace it with something else. Usually, when I coach, I let them find what it is. For me, what worked was excellence because excellence in my mind is something a little bit more fluid. It has nuances. It’s moving. First of all, I mean, you can see him moving over it. Excellence is fluid, it’s moving. It has nuances. It is dynamic, so it allows for little differences, especially in ballet or any kind of dance. It allows for these little differences from the premiere and the second and the third time you danced, and the fourth time. So it allows it to be alive and yes, of course, if you’re called a ballet dancer, you’re going to look for certain lines and certain expectations on how the entire thing can look like. It’s not going to be static.
We’re overwhelming the young dancers with the idea that when they graduate, they already should be principal dancer level. And well, no, you’re not going to be at that level. You still have to learn a lot. And then at some point, maybe, maybe not, you reach that level.
What Learning is not
When somebody told me what to do, that was my understanding and learning is to just do more of the same thing. That was it. And I don’t agree with that anymore at all. It is not about doing the same thing over and over and over again until you can’t even look at yourself anymore. Learning is about finding different ways on how to approach what isn’t working yet. If you’ve tried a couple of things a couple of times doing the same thing, and it’s not giving the result, then there is something that needs to be changed. So either you actually can’t do that thing, which is a bit demotivating, or you need to find another approach. And that’s when being curious and having other interests, some point of interests or hobbies, can actually help. And this is coming from someone who’s so obsessed with ballet that there is very little room for anything else. But I know from time to time when to turn that off, and go and do something else. What I really love, for example, is watching documentaries. If you think of it all, the things that I watch have a very, very important artistic part in it. Then I’ve watched all of the RuPaul Drag Race episodes. You have no idea how much inspiration it gave me for my classes. My students who knew which episode I had watched would know why I’m asking them that kind of task, that kind of challenge, because I got the idea from there.
Other Inspirations for the Ballet Industry
The thinking that ballet only gets better with the knowledge of ballet is completely wrong and history proves it. If you look at the rise and fall of big empires, when do they fall? When they don’t open up to the outside? Maybe because they’re too big that there’s no outside? I mean, if you take Roman Empire. There was no interaction with others. No renewal of thinking, no change. It just ended up disappearing because you start thinking I’m the best one. You’re not. So someone else has an idea. And you’re too slow to react to any fight.
Think of the ballet world example. The first example that always comes to my mind for that is the most curious man I can think of, but there are probably others. But his biographies are really always trusting the fact that he used to spend so much time going to museums, private collections, learning from different kinds of art. And like him or not as a dancer, like him or not as a choreographer, you cannot say that you don’t see this richness, this diversity of background in what he was creating. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, it’s like any kind of art. It will take from music. He’s really reaching for music. The costumes are always so extravagant. Again, that’s why I’m saying you like it or you don’t. Because Balanchine, for example, will be the complete opposite of what we think about the costume. That’s probably the cheapest in terms of how much detail, isn’t it? But it doesn’t mean it’s cheap in terms. It’s not good quality. And they’re the complete opposite. The both of them were really curious people who would repeat their offertory from all that curiosity.
History tells us you have to open yourself to the rest of the world. You have to go and travel. You have to go and meet other people. And I would have to say, actually, it’s okay, if they’re all from the ballet world, which is to go out there to another company, to another country, meet other fellow dancers, meet other fellow directors. And maybe they will know people from a different field. If you’re not really interested in new things. And even you can find inspiration in things that are not artistic.
The Next Vision for Core de Ballet
The current vision for Core de Ballet is to be a platform for pro dancers and to offer training for dance teachers as well, because I think they’re very key to the development and growth of dancers to be a platform where you can find all the information that you need to develop your career, become better artists, because for me, it’s very important to understand it’s not all about technique. Technique is important. Like in any artistic field, the technique is the basis for you to create what you want to communicate.
Technique is one, but at the end of the day, our job is bigger than the technique. I want Core de Ballet to be that platform where you can have all this information. As I said earlier, because I want to give an opportunity for a lot of different experts to share this information. We love to know and learn things and then share it with the rest of the world, share it with people who would use this information and then do something with it. The next step for me is to actually go deeper in the history of ballet. I really want to go into understanding why are we dancing the way we dance? Why are all the ways the Bolshoi version different from the Royal Ballet version? What is it actually saying? What is the job of a choreographer and all of that? Did he make the step annoying just to be annoying? Because that’s what we think sometimes. Why is it so fast? There was a reason behind anything for good choreographers. Let’s start with the assumption that this is good choreography from good choreographers. There is a reason behind anything that they do. And the more you know that, the easier your job is actually.
Advice to 16-Year-Old Me
Go for it. Because it’s fun. I think the first instinct is we want to change everything. But you know, at the end of the day, we are where we are now because of all the choices we make. And would I be in a better place if I change? Of course, there’s many things I want to change. But would I be in a better place? I don’t know. So I think I would just tell myself, just go for it. Try for yourself.
Ondine D. is a Stott Pilates® certified instructor with solid expertise in, and passion for, dance. A trained NLP Coach, Ondine also provides mental coaching and career management guidance.
Ondine believes that, once dancers have a good understanding of their body physiology, their technique can get stronger and they can unleash their artistry, make music visible and convey emotions, which is what makes a dancer stands out.
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