Q&A with PNB School student Mimi Heffernan

Recently, PNB School Level VIII student Mimi Heffernan carved out a few moments from her busy ballet schedule to chat with us about her PNB School experience, mentoring younger students, participating in Summer Course, and her favorite pointe shoe hacks. Keep scrolling to learn more about Mimi and her advice for younger dancers!

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

How long have you been dancing at PNB School and what level are you now?
I came to PNB School in 2012 as a pre-ballet student and I’m now in Level VIII.

What summer course programs have you participated in? What has been your favorite summer program or particular favorite class you’ve taken at a summer program?
I’ve participated in summer course programs at PNB School, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and Adage Ballet Studio. I’ve also taken summer classes with former PNB principal dancer Deborah Hadley. My favorite summer programs have consistently been PNB’s. The School takes on a different character over the summer when students from across the country enroll, and I enjoyed forming new friendships and experiencing a different dynamic in the PNB studios. At CPYB, my favorite classes were taught by New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder. She grew up training at the school, and it was inspiring to watch her return to her childhood studio to teach the next generation of dancers.

Photo courtesy Mimi Heffernan.

You and a few of your peers have created resources like pointe shoe instruction videos and a Summer Course information fair for younger PNB School students. What inspired you to begin these mentorship programs?
Throughout my years at PNB School, I received a tremendous amount of informal mentoring from friends who were a year or two ahead of me in the School. Much of this mentoring happened backstage during PNB performances, especially during long runs like The Nutcracker. My friends taught me everything I needed to know that wasn’t taught in-studio during technique classes: they showed me how to properly break in and care for my first pair of pointe shoes, they shared their favorite stretching and strengthening exercises, and they offered advice that helped me navigate several summer course audition seasons. Over the years, I recognized that as much as I loved performing, I loved the camaraderie backstage even more. When the pandemic forced the closure of McCaw Hall and the PNB studios, I realized that younger students were not only missing out on exciting performance opportunities, they were also missing the chance to build those friendships and natural mentoring relationships that had been so formative and beneficial for me. Although there was so much about the pandemic that we couldn’t control, it was clear to me that there was an opportunity here for us – the older students in the school – to help break some of the isolation of Covid and re-build a sense of community.

With the support of the School, we began creating digital content for the younger students in 2021. We tried to recreate all of the information that had been shared with us over the years, while also rebuilding connections. Now that Covid restrictions have eased we’re transitioning to more in person work, though I hope the videos will continue to be a useful resource for students new to pointe work. Two of our mentors from last year who provided much of the content for our videos have since graduated and joined PNB’s Professional Division. They’ll be performing with the company during The Nutcracker this year, and I think it will be inspiring for the younger students to see some familiar faces from the School on stage with the company. Personal connections like these make the performances even more enjoyable; they might also make the goal of a professional career seem a little more attainable to younger students.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Foundation, photo by Lindsay Thomas.

Tell us about this year’s Summer Course information fair. What kinds of events does the fair include? What do you think is the most valuable part of the fair for your peers?
This year’s Summer Course Information Fair will provide content similar to last year’s Fair, but I’m very happy that we’ll be holding it in person this year rather than over Zoom. Last year we created a survey designed to capture all of the critical data points that students might want to review when choosing a summer course. We circulated the survey to all upper and professional division students and they provided their detailed feedback on summer courses they’ve attended over the past several years. We then compiled this information and shared it with families prior to the Info Fair. We’re repeating the process this year, adding surveys from this past summer. On the day of the Info Fair, we’ll provide an introduction to summer courses and the audition season, generally, for students new to the process. We’ll also give an overview of the most commonly attended summer programs, offer audition advice, and recommend factors to consider in choosing the best summer course. After the presentation, we’ll have stations set up around the room where students can ask questions and gather more information about the programs that interest them.

I think the most valuable part of the Info Fair is the opportunity to read detailed reviews of the various summer courses and discuss them with older students who’ve attended the programs. A program that is a great fit for one student might be a poor choice for another depending on their needs and goals for the summer. Our reviews cover the character of the programs (whether they’re known to focus on technical development vs. performance and artistry); the types of classes offered; the number of hours spent in class; the size of classes; the commute to studios; extracurricular opportunities; and of course, the quality of the food. Students can assess the programs based on their priorities for the summer, and hopefully make a more comfortable and well-informed decision.

What’s your favorite pointe shoe hack or tip?
Rotate your shoes between your feet! Ms. Albee taught me this tip in level V, and it’s helped extend the life of my pointe shoes by easing repetitive wear on pressure points.

Mimi Heffernan in Coppélia. Photo by Angela Sterling.

What is one thing you wish you knew going into your first Summer Course program?
How to do laundry? Of course I figured that out pretty quickly once there, but I think I wasn’t fully prepared for the level of self-management involved in being away from home for the first time at a young age. It can be challenging, but it also offers a great opportunity for bonding (and personal growth) when you’re trying to figure out an unfamiliar but necessary life skill with another student you’ve just met.

What are you currently listening to, reading, and/or watching?
I’m a high school senior, so most of my reading revolves around textbooks and college websites. When I have free time, though, I love picking up new books. One of my recent favorites was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I don’t watch a lot of TV but I love “The Great British Baking Show.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten that you’d like other young dancers to know?
Sometimes ballet goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism, and if we’re not mindful of that I think perfectionism can cloud the joy of dance. I’d say the best advice I’ve gotten is to hang onto the joy.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Foundation, photo by Elise Bakketun.