Ballet is all about following the rules. Feet must be turned out. Shoulders must be pulled back. Head must be held high. And dancers must always be graceful.
But Cameron Pelton, a sophomore studying ballet and choreography at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, likes to come as close to breaking those rules as possible.
"We practice every day to follow the rules as well as we can, and the best part about dance is figuring out how to stay in those rules but also put yourself into the dance at the same time," Pelton said. "In theory, everyone else in the room should be doing exactly what you are but making it personal, and working through it for yourself is what I enjoy."
Pelton got involved with musical theater at a young age in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, but by the time he turned 11, he was looking for other ways to express himself. Around that time, he saw a podiatrist for ankle and arch-related issues, and the doctor suggested that he try ballet to strengthen those areas.
He agreed to try ballet, but he never expected to stay involved for very long. But by the time Pelton was nearing graduation at his performing arts high school, he realized that he wanted to use his college career to focus on ballet. He auditioned for several dance programs at universities across the country, but IU is one of the few schools that offers a program focused solely on ballet.
"Most college programs emphasize versatility, which is great, but what I want to study and master is ballet," Pelton said. "Luckily, IU also has a great contemporary dance program, and if I want to take a few classes for non-majors, I can do that, too."
IU's world-renowned ballet program is led by faculty members who have held long, impressive careers as professional ballet dancers. These faculty understand the industry, are familiar with the culture of major ballet companies across the country and can mentor students about where they should audition and what would be a good fit for each dancer.
IU also offers Pelton the flexibility to pursue other interests. As part of his choreography studies, he's taken classes in lighting design, piano and anatomy, and he hopes to take French as well as a structural kinesiology class to learn more about the body and movement. Most beneficial to his development in choreography has been taking classes in music theory, he said.
"When I'm choreographing, I like to listen to a song about 600 times and know every note that happens and what every instrument is doing and then think about OK, this trill is that move' or 'That sound is this move,'" Pelton said. "Then when I watch the dance, I can see and feel the music in it."
Pelton will be able to leave IU with intensive ballet training and a well-rounded, liberal arts education in just three years. This timeline is typical for many ballet students in Jacobs, who are eager to get into the professional field as soon as possible and start making names for themselves.
"Most professional ballet dancers don't go to college and sometimes start their career before finishing high school, so it's hard not to feel a little behind the curve," Pelton said. "But I know that attending IU will be worth it in the long run because the training here is unlike training I'd get anywhere else. It's more artistically inclined, it's more about the music, and it's more about the other parts of being a performer."
During his time at IU, Pelton has performed in the IU Opera and Ballet Theater's productions of "Carousel (A Dance)" by Christopher Wheeldon; "Spring," part of "The Four Seasons" by Jerome Robbins; "The Concert," also by Jerome Robbins; and "Allegro Brilliante," by George Balanchine. Earlier this year, he also performed solos in Anthony Tudor's "Dark Elegies," as well as Mark Morris' "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." In last year's production of "The Nutcracker," Pelton held the roles of Trepak side boy, mouse and grandfather, and this year he will perform as harlequin doll, nutcracker doll, Spanish man and Trepak lead.
When he leaves IU, Pelton will for the first time in his life know what it's like to focus his full attention on being a performer and not have to juggle dance and school, something he's learned to do with grace.
"In ballet, a huge part of dancers' jobs is to convince the audience that what we do is easy," Pelton said. "You train all day, every day and work just as hard as any other athlete on campus or any other student on campus, but they don't have to make it look easy."
On Dec. 4, join us as we follow Cameron Pelton through his day as an IU student as part of our One Day/One Hoosier series. Look for his story through @IUBloomington on Twitter, @iubloomington on Instagram and iu_bloomington on Snapchat as it happens live starting around 8 a.m. EST.