Last month saw the launch of Ballet Mentor, a new web platform that creates a network of support and guidance for dancers. The site was co-founded by American Ballet Theatre dancers Eric Tamm, Sarah Lane, Craig Salstein, and Luis Ribagora. The roster of mentors already includes ballet luminaries like Gillian Murphy and Sara Mearns, and the number of mentees is growing daily. The World Dances spoke with Eric Tamm about Ballet Mentor, the value of mentorship, becoming an entrepreneur, and more.
First of all, how does the platform work?
When you start, you sign up for one, three, or 12 months. After filling in basic information, you’re asked to select your top three mentor choices, understanding that people are very busy. We try to pair you with your first choice, but if it’s not possible we’ll try to pair you with your second or third choice. The mentors only have a limited number of mentees at a time to ensure they can be really dedicated to each. Once you are matched with your mentor, you can send text, photos, videos, or links that the mentors can review and provide feedback on. They really get to know you and grow a relationship over time. Dancers want to give back, but they’re very busy and don’t necessarily have the outlet to give back. They’re dancing eight shows a week, touring, rehearsing. It’s crazy! This platform was set up with that in mind, so that this transfer of information could happen flexibly around the dancers’ schedule and allow the dancers to really help people.
What inspired the concept for Ballet Mentor?
The idea came from growing up as the only male dancer in my small town in northern New Jersey and not having parents from a dance background who could offer advice about the dance world. I had to figure things out step-by step for myself. I was lucky enough to be just 20 miles away from New York and its amazing dance scene, but still found it challenging searching for answers. Since we have all of this technology now, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could use this to meet dancers’ needs. We’re facilitating access to people who know the answers to vital questions. There are only a few professional ballet dancers actively working at any time, so this knowledge about being a dancer is actually quite limited.
How are you choosing and recruiting the mentors?
Initially I had ten people on a short list I knew I wanted to be a part of the program. You need to know the mentors will be responsible in their role. They also need to be dancers with a certain level of credibility in the industry in order to be taken seriously and for people to be willing to pay for their services. We chose people who are genuinely looking to give back. Since the launch, we’ve had people come to us wanting to join. They reach out to us and tell us they’re passionate about this and want to be involved. People seem really eager about it.
Who were your mentors and how did mentorship impact your dance career?
In the early years, my mentors were my ballet teachers. Your world is only so big at that point. I was lucky enough to have a male teacher when I started, but then gradually your world opens up. You realize there are open classes in NYC, what companies are out there, and you slowly expand your ballet bubble. When you do become a professional—I signed my first contract with American Ballet Theatre—the senior members of the company become mentors whether you know it’s happening or not. You observe them all the time, what it means to be a good professional dancer, tricks of touring with the company, how to have longevity in a very difficult career.
With Ballet Mentor, we can involve dancers nationally, and eventually on a global level, so you can get that kind of help from people in all companies, at all levels. It should help to open up boundaries and connect people. For example, my friend Nicola Curry recently transferred from ABT to the Australian Ballet. It was a big transition. I can only imagine how many questions she must have had and how great it would have been to connect with someone over there before the shift. You know, the dance world is fairly small, but at the same time we’re all spread out and busy. Even dancing at ABT, I didn’t even speak to people from New York City Ballet that often. I’m hoping this will help bring people together more.
How do you envision Ballet Mentor growing in the future?
We’re getting mostly parents and pre-professionals so far, people who haven’t signed their first contract. I see this program growing to the point of reaching out to professionals as mentees as well. Someone like Sarah Lane might want to be receiving mentorship from someone like Alessandra Ferri. In the initial launch of the program, the mentors were actively working dancers, but we’re also now talking to dancers who have retired. That is an important subject for dancers to talk about, those transitions. How have people kept ballet in their lives, or how have they reinvented themselves? We mostly want to focus on the actively dancing ballet crowd, though, because we want to help cultivate the next generation.
What has been the most challenging aspect of starting Ballet Mentor?
The most challenging part about starting a business is the time it takes. There are so many moving parts. You have to be constantly evolving. You think you understand the product or the system you want to develop, but it constantly changes. You have to be able to roll with the punches. But I strongly believe, like with anything in life, with enough hard work and dedication it will happen. You have to just keep going.
What prepared you to tackle this challenge?
I recently retired from ABT in 2014 and became a real estate agent. That’s where I got my first taste of business and the entrepreneurial spirit. I started thinking that there might be a way I could give back through those channels. I didn’t want to be a dance teacher but I still love ballet. This was my way to blend business and ballet and technology and make it something I think will be useful for this generation.