Deep down, Dara Oda knew she wasn't ready. Despite 15 years of solid training at the School of DanceWest Ballet near her hometown outside of Chicago, by the end of high school she realized she still didn't have the technique or maturity for a realistic shot in a company audition. "It was terrifying," Oda recalls. "I was unsure of where I stood in terms of my dancing abilities, but I didn't really know where, or how, to improve." She did find a path to her career—she's now a member of Texas Ballet Theater—but she wishes she'd figured out that she was behind a lot sooner. "I'd had good training, but was oblivious to the fact that I needed to be doing so much more than I was."
Many students fear being in a situation like Oda's: arriving at a company audition only to discover that they haven't progressed technically and artistically as far as their peers. And with an endless supply of ballet prodigies online and in competitions, it's hard not to worry that you're not advancing fast enough. How can you make sure you're on track to meet your professional goals?
As a young student, Shea McAdoo’s classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova.” She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet’s summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I’d never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring.”
McAdoo’s experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn’t cross my wrists,” she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me.” Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine’s Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet’s fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.
Learning about ballet’s various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer’s development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it’s a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.
Let Curiosity Be Your Guide
Whether it’s Bournonville, French or Balanchine, every methodology has its own aesthetic, movement quality and areas of emphasis. Most dancers find that there’s one in particular that appeals to or suits them best. McAdoo’s admiration of New York City Ballet’s dancers made her want to study at the school that trained them, but another dancer might love the expressive port de bras of The Royal Ballet’s dancers, or the Vaganova method’s power and purity.
One thing is certain—don’t let an unfamiliar style deter you from auditioning for a school’s intensive. While some academies prioritize accepting students trained in their method, most don’t. “We don’t look for students who’ve had Balanchine training previously at all,” says Kay Mazzo, SAB’s co-chairman of faculty. She notes that most of its summer students are brand-new to Balanchine technique. Similarly, at Sarasota Ballet’s Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, two out of three intensive students are unfamiliar with what principal Christopher Hird calls the “English style” (a hybrid of Russian, Italian and French influences that result in seamlessly clean footwork and eloquent port de bras).
“One of the benefits of a summer program is being exposed to a different way of dancing,” says conservatory director Margaret Barbieri. “The dancers are learning to adapt to whatever is required of them that day, which is an important skill to instill in a student—they will need it as a professional.”
Mazzo says students should start investigating all their options early. “It’s important that when they’re still 12 to 14 years old they look around at different styles, schools and companies, to see what’s out there. Because by the time they’re 15 or 16, they should know what’s right for their body, what they like and what fits well for them.”
What to Expect
Venturing into a new way of dancing can be confusing at first. An overload of information, from the way combinations are presented to different terminology, can make you feel like a beginner again. Last summer, 16-year-old Sofia Yarbrough struggled to make sense of the specific ways the teachers wanted her to hold her head and arms at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Everything, from the language the Russian teachers spoke to the way frappés were done, was different from her home studio, the Ballet Center of Fort Worth. “At first, I felt like a fish out of water,” she says. But soon the new technique took hold in her body. “By the fourth week, the coordination started to make sense and feel normal.”
Mazzo knows how hard it is for students to grasp SAB’s trademark speed, attack, musicality and, for the advanced girls, taking every class on pointe. She counsels being patient. “We tell them on the first day, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself,’ because this might be 100 percent different from what you’ve been taught. Take it one day at a time, and work on one new thing at a time.”
It’s also important to remember that what you already know is not invalid, and the basic concepts of technique carry across all styles. Alexandros Pappajohn, now a member of The Washington Ballet Studio Company, spent a summer at the Paris Opéra Ballet School when he was 15. “It was definitely a big change,” says Pappajohn, then a student at Ballet Academy East. Keeping an open mind helped him adopt the school’s emphasis on clean, fast footwork and épaulement. He admits it was hard to break ingrained habits (like how to prepare before combinations), but otherwise found adjusting to the French classes surprisingly easy. “Ballet is ballet. You always have to straighten your knees and point your feet. If you have good, solid technique, you can go other places and it’s not a shock to your system.”
Being able to do steps differently from class to class, according to what each teacher wants, helps develop versatility—a skill professional dancers need when adapting to choreographers’ eclectic movement styles.
“We instill in students that even if they don’t agree with one thing or another, they should soak up everything like a sponge,” says Barbieri. Last summer, students were able to watch Sarasota Ballet dancers rehearse Sir Frederick Ashton’s repertoire to see the intricacies of his style at work. “If they want to be professional, they have to incorporate different styles, and know that Balanchine requires steps to be done differently than Ashton. It also helps them learn what sort of repertoire they want to dance.”
After her summer experience, Yarbrough loved the Vaganova method so much that she decided to remain at the Kirov Academy year-round. But whether studying a different style leads you on a new path or not, exposure to the many unique disciplines of ballet is an invaluable part of becoming a strong, versatile dancer. While it’s challenging to learn something new, Kirov Academy co-artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton notes that students are capable of more than they may think. “Young dancers pick up the nuances of other techniques so quickly. They don’t have to fear losing something by learning a new method—it is part of the adventure of dance.”
Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn’t feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman,” she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University’s ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there.”
The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU’s Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it’s the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school,” she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.
College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.
A Taste of Campus Life
Many college summer programs aim to mimic the experience of being a year-round student. “What’s ideal about it is that they get a real taste of the university,” says Vernon. “They’re on IU’s campus and in our dorms, taking class from our regular faculty, learning the rep our students performed the previous school year.” Dancers also have lectures from professors in music for dance and take theater dance classes. At the dorms, says Vernon, “the RAs are all ballet majors who can talk to them about the department and show them what our standards are.”
At the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, summer intensive students are exposed to the eclectic atmosphere of its conservatory life. UNCSA offers three simultaneous intensives in classical, comprehensive and commercial dance. Classical and comprehensive track students take many of their classes together. Visiting guest artists supplement the year-round faculty, including recent UNCSA alums like New York City Ballet’s Claire Kretzschmar, American Ballet Theatre’s Kelley Potter and former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Sam Shapiro.
In fact, guest faculty makes up a large component of these intensives, allowing students to make professional connections. At the University of Utah’s summer intensive, program director Michael Bearden brings in three or four artistic directors each year. “It’s a great opportunity for our students to get exposure to people who may be scouting for their own companies,” says Bearden. Recent examples included Cincinnati Ballet’s Victoria Morgan, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Peter Boal, Kansas City Ballet II manager Anthony Krutzkamp and UNCSA dance department dean Susan Jaffe.
Kara Roseborough, a junior at U of U, was initially drawn to its summer intensive partially because of its guest teachers. But she found herself excited by the university’s own faculty, as well as the atmosphere on campus. “U of U wasn’t on my radar until I went that summer, but I was so impressed by the teachers, felt so nurtured and pushed, that it was an environment I became very interested in,” she recalls. She’s now double majoring in English and ballet and hopes to add dance journalism to her experience someday.
Getting Your Foot in the Door
Attending a college intensive may also give you an advantage if you decide to audition for the year-round academic program later. Department directors and faculty are often actively recruiting—and assessing—potential applicants during the summer. “Talent is only one aspect of becoming a great artist,” says UNCSA summer program director Sean Sullivan. “Characteristics that take time to assess in a person, like tenacity, work ethic, curiosity, imagination and respectfulness all play into who might be an ideal candidate for our program. So if we’ve had five weeks to get to know and appreciate a dancer, versus three hours at an audition, it’s very beneficial.”
Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of The Juilliard School’s dance department, agrees, and notes that the process goes both ways for students attending the school’s summer intensive: “You get three weeks of experience in the Juilliard way of training, working and living. You can decide whether you like it or not, and we can decide whether we think you’re the right material for us.”
Current senior Angela Falk says attending Juilliard’s summer intensive not only solidified her hunch that she wanted to enroll there, it made her less intimidated to apply. “I absolutely felt more confident going into the audition for the college program,” she says. “Knowing who was teaching the audition class, as well as several of the other dancers, made me feel comfortable.”
Visit Again During the School Year
While summer is a great chance to preview college life, directors agree that those interested in the degree program should revisit campus during the school year. Sullivan says that while the intensity and professionalism is the same, “during the year, the depth of exploration is greater. We do four major dance productions, and the students are also taking their academic classes. It’s well worth it to come again.”
Even so, Falk is glad she was able to spend a summer on campus. “I felt like a Juilliard student for three weeks,” she says. “On the last day, I told my parents, ‘If I ever got into this school, I don’t know how I’d pass it up.’ ”
Gavin Larsen teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Today, she’s a confident Miami City Ballet soloist, but Emily Bromberg wasn’t always so self-assured. As a teenager, she withered under the weight of self-doubt. Even being cast as Kitri in her first professional production of Don Quixote, at Festival Ballet Providence, didn’t bolster her confidence—instead, she convinced herself she was too immature for the role and nearly melted in tears midway through her debut. “I was constantly double- and triple-checking myself, wondering what other people thought, wondering if I was good enough,” she recalls. “It’s the nature of the dance world, but there were moments when I was really at the edge of giving up.”
These kinds of self-confidence issues, fueled by endless criticism, high pressure to succeed and a flood of intimidating images on social media, can plague dancers for years. It’s easy to start questioning your worthiness in comparison to the latest Instagram star, but in the competitive and uncertain dance world, belief in yourself is crucial to reaching your goals—and your full potential.
A Healthy Sense of Self
The basis of innate self-confidence is recognizing that you’re a human being with imperfections like anyone else, while understanding that your shortcomings don’t define you as a person or as a dancer. “Self-confidence is having an accurate view of yourself and feeling good about it,” says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet. But being pleased with yourself does not necessarily mean that you have an overblown ego. “It’s not arrogance or narcissism. You know you’re not perfect—but you feel good about yourself.”
Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal who now directs the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles, notes that self-confidence has a major impact on artistry—something she learned from personal struggles throughout her career. “Being hypercritical makes a dancer her own worst enemy,” says Ringer. “Knowing that you’re not defined by any one performance frees you to be the artist you want to be, and people who are able to do that are the most effective performers.”
The Dancer’s Dilemma
Confidence comes from combining a realistic self-assessment with a strong drive to improve. One big challenge for dancers is developing a clear sense of themselves in the first place. It’s hard to gauge your own merits and progress in the traditional ballet school setting, however, where you’re taught to rely only on the signals you receive from the person in the front of the room. And in an art form so focused on aesthetics, where everything (your technique, your body, even your hairdo) is measured against a predetermined idea of perfection, self-esteem can take a big hit.
Dr. Brian Goonan, Houston Ballet’s psychologist, says students and young professionals are particularly vulnerable to confidence problems. “Early in their careers, dancers don’t have a fully developed sense of self yet,” he says. “They form their view of themselves based on the perception and feedback of others. And they can end up taking in a lot of negativity.”
As a result, ambitious dancers can develop counterproductive behaviors that inhibit progress, such as relentless self-deprecation. “We all talk to ourselves in the third person,” says Goonan, “as if there’s somebody outside of us saying, ‘Stop being so stupid.’ Part of it does provide some motivation for improvement, but if it’s too frequent it shames more than guides and doesn’t help you advance.”
Ballet’s competitive nature can exacerbate the problem, especially if you see dancers around you succeeding. Bromberg fell into the trap of obsessively comparing herself to her classmates as a student, even stressing over inconsequential details, like the length of her eyelashes. It became a major distraction. “I’d look at every other girl in my class and think about how they had it all and I didn’t,” she says. Unable to trust her own instincts, Bromberg would pester her mother endlessly with questions after performances, fishing for compliments about her appearance as well as her dancing. “Those affirmations made me feel good for a moment, but not for long,” she says.
Ultimately, unconfident dancers can develop defeatist attitudes and avoid taking risks out of a fear of failure. Ringer worries when she sees dancers giving up on themselves easily or resisting trying hard steps. “So much of dance is delayed gratification,” she says. “If you hold back, you’re shortchanging yourself. You’ve missed an opportunity to improve.”
Focus on Your Goal, One Step at a Time
Stopping the vicious cycle of self-doubt begins with the realization that your identity (and worth) is not pinned to how you dance in class or onstage. Learning to not take feedback personally is key, says Goonan. “Corrections are not an attack on who you are,” he says. “If you can think of them as being about what you’re doing, rather than about you, it creates better health.”
Ringer notes that the student/teacher relationship is not a passive one, and that you should both ultimately want the same thing: to make you a better dancer. “You don’t just come to class to receive corrections and be told what’s good or bad,” she says. “You go into it as a partnership, with your own goals as well as the teacher’s. It’s important to feel like you’re on the same path.”
Reining in perfectionism can help, too. Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, says that the trick is to balance reality against the ideal. “The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it’s not actually possible to attain,” Johnson says. She advises dancers to measure their goals with what they are equipped with to get there. “Polish your strengths so they’re the center of attention, and know what can and can’t be done to change your weaknesses.”
Summoning up the courage to risk failure is another step in building self-confidence, and it takes practice. But knowing that you’ve pushed yourself out of your comfort zone will give you a well-deserved boost, along with the resiliency to try again. “It’s about giving yourself value,” says Ringer. “You’re worth it to try, and even if it’s not perfection, you’ve accomplished something.”
Bromberg’s turning point came when she realized that acknowledging her weaknesses didn’t mean giving in to them. Setting her own goals, instead of worrying about how she measured up to others, helped her reignite her ambition and overcome her reliance on positive messages to feel good. Progress, she realized, comes in increments, so she set more realistic goals that she could build upon over time. “Trying your best doesn’t mean nailing every turn or jump, but doing and giving everything you can on any given day.”
In the topsy-turvy dance world, even the most self-assured principals are dealt disappointing blows. Ultimately, the key to regaining your confidence after the inevitable setbacks is remembering what’s driving you to dance in the first place. Without your own passion as your anchor, you become too dependent on other people’s approval to feel good. “The ballet world is so fickle,” says Ringer. “There are huge highs and huge lows, on an hourly basis. It’s important to have a solid sense of self that can ride out the ups and downs.” P
Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home” training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream,” says Layne Baumann, Harper’s mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future.”
The idea of moving to Russia to study is huge, but even in less-extreme situations the factors to consider are the same. Often, summer intensives lead to offers to stay for a school’s year-round program. It’s an exciting honor to be asked, but leaving home to train is a big deal, no matter how near or far. With so much at stake, it’s a time for honest conversations between students, their families and their teachers to assess whether they’re ready to leave home.
Are You Mature Enough?
Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, co-directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, first ask potential students to define their goal. “Assess the situation objectively,” says Bo Spassoff. “Do you really want to be a professional ballet dancer? If yes, the only way that’s going to happen is with a very good sense, from the get-go, of what it’s going to take and how much work it’s going to be.”
While serious students know what hard work is, training full-time without the comforts of home or parental support adds a lot more pressure. Living 24/7 with peers might sound like a blast at first, but what about balancing dance, academics and household responsibilities? Houston Ballet corps member Tyler Donatelli says her mother needed evidence that she had the maturity and organizational skills to handle it. “She made it very clear that I was staying home until I was 16 and could prove I could live in a somewhat adult environment,” Donatelli remembers. “I didn’t really agree with her, but now I realize she was right. At 16, I could make better decisions about things I would have questioned if I’d been younger.”
An important gauge of a student’s readiness is emotional maturity— which may differ from their sense of responsibility or independence. Will residential life make it hard to stay focused? “It’s impossible to hide poor social skills or bad behavior in a residential setting,” says Donna Mattiello, academic director of The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Torrington, Connecticut. “So if a student struggles at home with poor judgment, following rules that they don’t agree with or self-discipline (like keeping their room clean and doing homework), those issues will be magnified at school.”
Artistic director Victoria Mazzarelli agrees, saying even students who’ve attended Nutmeg’s summer program should visit during the school year. “It’s just completely different. Spending a couple of days to pick up on the vibe and see how it feels will reveal a lot. It tells you pretty quickly whether it’s the right experience for you, because emotional readiness is the most important thing. Without that, everything will fall apart.”
Handling the Workload and Competition
For those offered year-round study, both Nutmeg and The Rock School conduct in-person talks with the whole family, if possible. The Spassoffs want to make sure everyone is involved and committed. “We listen to their concerns and never try to manipulate their decision,” says Stephanie Spassoff. “Sometimes a student is very enthusiastic about coming, but just doesn’t want to leave home yet—and that’s fine.”
The increased number of dancing hours will be physically strenuous, but Bo Spassoff also notes dancers must transition mentally when going from a regional school to a larger one. “Students have to realize that here, they may not be the best in their class. They need to accept the challenge to work hard. Some can’t come to grips with that and are unhappy.”
Weighing Pros and Cons
Even if you feel you can handle the workload, responsibility and emotional strain of living away from home, it’s important to consider what you’d truly gain—or stand to lose. Donatelli knew that along with the great training she was already getting at her home school, Southland Ballet Academy, there were other valuable benefits that gave her extra confidence when she joined Houston Ballet II. “Because it’s a smaller school, I got to do bigger roles in our productions,” she says. “In a professional school, dancing the lead in a full-length ballet isn’t something you’d find yourself doing.”
Focusing on what’s truly best for you—and your family—will make the choices of whether and when to leave home much clearer. The Ortlieb family had heart-to-heart talks about logistics and finances, extensively researched what life in Russia would be like and decided the time was right. Donatelli’s plan worked because she trusted that turning down an offer to stay at Houston Ballet Academy wouldn’t mean shutting that door forever. Communicating with the school’s director and expressing her interest was key. “We kept in touch, and I got the HBII contract two years later. They knew I’d come when I was ready.”
A Family Conversation
Because it’s hard to predict how you’ll feel once you move away from home, it’s critical to dig deep before you make a decision. What should you and your family talk about? Here are some starters:
What makes you excited about going to this particular school?
How do you feel when you imagine leaving your family, pets, teachers and friends?
How structured is the school’s residential program? Do thoughts of adhering to rules, following a set schedule and being monitored by someone other than your parents make you squirm?
How hard will it be to miss out on birthday celebrations, family events and holidays?
What would you do if you and your roommate disagreed about bedtimes, cleanliness, socializing?
How do you handle stress? Boredom?
What will you gain by moving away from home to train? Is there anything you stand to lose?
It’s expensive to live away from home. Can this opportunity wait a year while you save up and make a financial plan? —GL
Looking to Go Contemporary?
Today’s ballet companies span every inch of the classical-contemporary spectrum. Training programs that cater to this range, however, have yet to catch up. Edmund Stripe, the School of Alberta Ballet’s artistic director, took notice of this disparity. Last year, the school launched its Dedicated Contemporary Dance Stream, a separate track within the Professional Division. “The program provides training for those who have the desire to dance, yet don’t necessarily aspire to classical ballet,” says Stripe, though he notes that students still receive a strong ballet foundation.
This program, previously an option for students in 11th and 12th grade, will be open to 10th-graders this fall. “Starting at a younger age allows a dancer to become realized to a greater degree,” says Graham McKelvie, the school’s head of contemporary dance. The curriculum includes daily contemporary technique classes, partnering, contemporary repertoire, choreographic composition and body conditioning. Admission is audition-based, and financial assistance and talent-based scholarships are available. —Hannah Foster
“I’ve always been taught to focus on the quality of my turns rather than how many times I can get around. When finishing or coming out of a pirouette, often there is a tendency to hop down off of pointe. It is important to find that sweet spot on pointe where you are right over your leg and can roll down smoothly.” —Julia Cinquemani, Los Angeles Ballet
Deciding to pursue a career in dance is huge. But even with your eyes firmly on your goal, figuring out the best track to get you there can be confusing and stressful. What school to go to, which teacher to follow, and when or whether to leave home are questions all ambitious dancers face, and there’s no right answer for everyone. Behind every successful dancer lies a path riddled with difficult decisions and moments of doubt. Often, coming to a fork in the road means making a realistic assessment of what your needs truly are. These three dancers faced tough choices at crucial moments in their training years, but pushed outside their comfort zones and took risks that ultimately paid off.
Principal dancer, New York City Ballet
When I was 12, Ann Brodie, my ballet teacher in Columbia, South Carolina, passed away. I’d studied with her since I was 3, so that was really rough. I was left with nothing. But before she passed, Miss Brodie had told my mom, “Sara has to go to New York. She has to go to the School of American Ballet.”
My mom was always trying to find the best school for me, the right teacher. After Miss Brodie’s studio closed, she drove me one and a half hours to Charlotte, North Carolina, every day to study under Patricia McBride. At the time, I didn’t know who she was, but my mom did. I didn’t realize how important that training was, but now I see it was essential to my understanding of Balanchine technique. It was exactly the preparation I needed to go to SAB and then join New York City Ballet.
We had to stop going to Charlotte after about eight months, and again I had nowhere to go. So I gave myself class every day in our basement, just trying to stay strong. I was 13 and had no idea what I was doing. Then I spent a year at the Governor’s School for the Arts, which was a great transition, although it wasn’t Balanchine technique.
I think it’s really important for a student’s training to be a family effort—parents have to do their research. My mom was sort of the puppet master behind everything. She knew that I needed to be at SAB full-time, so I’d been going to their summer courses. But they hadn’t yet asked me to stay year-round.
After my fourth summer at SAB, I put myself on the line—I asked them if I could stay. It was the pivotal moment of my whole life, because if they hadn’t said yes, I would have stopped dancing. There was nowhere I could further my pre-professional training at home.
Even though I really didn’t have the “perfect” story, there’s nothing I would have done differently. There were definitely some rough moments, but you have to go through tough times. It’s never going to be easy.
Corps de ballet, Houston Ballet
Growing up at a local competition studio in New Hampshire, I didn’t have a ballet focus. But when I saw YouTube videos of Carlos Acosta and Angel Corella I thought, “I want to do that!” and enrolled at the nearby Walnut Hill School for the Arts. There I was placed in the lowest ballet level, but the highest in modern. It was a rude awakening, and I took that as a sign to shift my goal to being a modern dancer.
But my teacher wanted me to focus on classical, too, and sent me to The Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet summer programs. It was a turning point. I’ve never shied away from being inspired by other people instead of intimidated by them—doing so helps me improve myself. I’ll never forget the first day at HB’s intensive: I was at barre with two Houston Ballet II dancers, and their technique was incredible! It really opened my eyes to how much catching up I still had to do—it was a new starting point. But I pushed myself and saw my footwork and lines improve, and I realized that if I put my mind to it, a career in classical ballet was possible.
At the end of the summer, I was offered a contract with HBII. It was a difficult moment for my family, because it meant not returning home to Walnut Hill for my senior year of high school. My mom is a college professor and I’d been planning college visits already. But you have to go where you feel supported and spoken to. It was high-risk, but the most important decision of my career. When I competed at the Prix de Lausanne two years later, I saw that Houston had given me the foundation I needed to succeed. I just needed to trust my technique, my teachers’ coaching, and conquer any sense of doubt.
Corps de ballet, Colorado Ballet
I started training at Canada’s National Ballet School when I was 12. But I also wanted to see everything in the ballet world and then make a calculated decision when I was looking for a job. NBS has summer exchange programs with schools around the world, so I went to Ecole Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower in France, and then to Pacific Northwest Ballet School to learn Balanchine technique (NBS is more Vaganova and Cecchetti). I also went to Zurich’s Tanz Akademie to improve my contemporary and improvisation skills because I wanted to be more well-rounded.
But after graduating from NBS, I felt like I still needed to gain strength and get a sense for how to be a professional dancer. I’d been in big ballet schools up until then and wanted private training, so I auditioned for the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program. It was completely eye-opening: Mr. Ellison focuses in on how to approach every single step in ballet, which was exactly what I needed. I wanted to know everything I was doing wrong, because I knew once I got into a company I wouldn’t get as many personal corrections. There were only seven girls in the advanced class, and we had three-hour technique classes every day, plus pointe, pas de deux and rehearsals. After his program, I got a corps contract with Sarasota Ballet.
Mr. Ellison was the teacher I’d always wanted but could never find. It was absolutely a turning point for me.
Keep an Open Mind
Amy Watson’s training was literally all over the map. From RAD to Cecchetti to Balanchine, her path eventually led to the Royal Danish Ballet, where she’s now a principal. An “unusual” journey, she says, but one that ultimately defined her as a dancer.
As a child, Watson spent two years at the Royal Academy of Dance in England. When her family relocated to Virginia, pure chance led her to Lisa Avery, a Cecchetti teacher who became her mentor from the age of 11. Together they mapped out a practical plan to reach her dreams. “I told Lisa I wanted to be in New York City Ballet,” says Watson. “She explained about Balanchine style and physique, the competition I’d face. She was a realist.”
Watson faced reality head-on when an acceptance to the School of American Ballet’s summer program led to an invitation to stay year-round. “It was a harsh awakening. Deep down, I realized I wasn’t necessarily born to do Balanchine, but I wanted it so badly that I just focused on it 100 percent. I don’t have a naturally gifted Balanchine body, so I thought if I did make it into the company, I’d be a wild card.”
With this in mind, Watson soaked up all she could from Russian and Cuban guest teachers at SAB. But when she was introduced to Bournonville technique, something clicked. “RDB’s director, Nikolaj Hübbe, staged a piece for SAB’s Workshop, and I could feel it was more natural and agreeable to my physicality than Balanchine.” She shifted focus, and when the company held its first-ever U.S. auditions that year, Watson landed a corps contract.
Staying open-minded instead of locking into one style proved key to Watson’s success. “For me, it wasn’t about one school or another. It was about taking from every instructor the best they had to offer and not shutting myself off from anything. I definitely wouldn’t be as versatile or healthy in my technique without knowledge from all those different teachers.”
Gavin Larsen is a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. She teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Here it comes—the annual Nutcracker marathon, a grueling race for the corps de ballet. But every year, a few young dancers face a surprising, yet thrilling, new test. With so many performances, directors can create multiple casts, and take a chance on corps members with budding potential. “If I have an up-and-coming corps dancer who’s showing growth, dynamism, a new energy and strength,” says Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, “Nutcracker is an excellent time to give her an opportunity to break out from the ensemble into a more leading role.”
But adding a major role like Sugar Plum, Snow Queen, Dew Drop or the Prince to an already exhausting corps schedule is a daunting prospect. Dancing (and keeping pace with) experienced principals means conquering demanding choreography, partnering with finesse and connecting with the audience—tough challenges for those unfamiliar with center stage. But a successful debut can mean further opportunities and an eventual promotion. “If a dancer absorbs the details and refinement of the role, and brings a magical quality to the stage, that says this person is ready to move on to greater roles,” says Sklute. Here, four leading dancers share how their Nutcracker breakout led to surprising self-discoveries and launched a new phase of their careers.
Ballet West first soloist
The first time I did Sugar Plum was also the first time I got a review. The writer said I looked “mischievous”—which I kind of liked! You don’t think of Sugar Plum as mischievous, but I like being different than other people and creating my own style.
I love acting—it’s my passion. But Sugar Plum was challenging because I simply didn’t know if I had enough stamina. It looks cute and charming, but you never stop dancing, and it’s pretty long (and Salt Lake City is at such a high altitude). We only had a week or two to prepare, and I was also doing all the other female parts in Nutcracker. But I couldn’t be tired! I had to make myself eat, a lot, in order to recover my energy. Every night before bed, I’d think through all the roles I had to do the next day. It was a stressful month.
During my first show, I was really exhausted. Being nervous eats your energy, and it was scary to be so out of breath, feel my muscles cramping and not feel like I could finish my solo. I saw the other dancers watching me from the wings, and hearing them cheer me on gave me energy and a smile. Afterwards was pure joy! But later, I realized where I could do things better. I’m still fighting with that, but with Nutcracker, you always have another chance. It’s a good time to grow.
The biggest reward was showing my director I could do a lead role. After Sugar Plum, my next big role was Kitri—and then I was promoted to soloist.
BalletMet company dancer
I was cast as the Prince during my first season with BalletMet. I think it was intended to break me in, and it really did just that.
My partner was very experienced. She was so supportive and told me what I needed to do. The pas de deux was the most challenging partnering I’d ever done, and it didn’t always go perfectly—there’s an overhead press lift that I only managed to get to full height in two out of our five shows, which was disappointing. But since then, I’m pleased to report I have a much better track record! And that’s one of the most rewarding things—doing it better the next year.
I did a lot of mental and physical preparation before each show to calm my nerves. My back would get tight from all the partnering, so I’d stretch it a lot, do sit-ups, push-ups and a long barre. I’d go through all the choreography in my head, remember my notes, envision it being done.
What was most valuable was becoming more confident onstage. It also felt good to be valued and to know that I was contributing in productive and positive ways to the company. Knowing now that the task in front of me is possible, and that I’m capable of it— which I hadn’t always been able to tell myself—helps me dance better, act better and be more fearless.
Houston Ballet first soloist
I had been in the corps for about three years before I was cast as Snow Queen. I’d understudied the role before, but when I was cast to actually do it, I was so excited. It was such an honor to be added to that list of company dancers who I’d watched for so many years and idolized.
One of the biggest challenges was that I had to be able to do the technical stuff, but I also had to be the Snow Queen. You’re taking Clara through the snow scene, telling her the story, and you have to take the audience along, too. Because when the audience sees you concentrating, you don’t look like you’re trying to tell them, or Clara, anything. I struggled with conserving my energy so I could make it through the steps and still keep acting—because that’s the first thing that goes, for me. Towards the end, I have these jetés, right when you don’t want to do anything else. But that’s the kind of challenge I love. Pushing through the big jumps, I thought: It doesn’t matter if I can’t walk after this, I’m going to do it!
Snow Queen is a lot to be handed when you’re just a corps dancer—you want to impress everybody. But it was more exciting than intimidating. It gave me freedom, after working so hard to stay in line in the corps, to just dance by myself, play with musicality and port de bras, to see what looked best on me. And being coached was so fun. After my first year as Snow Queen, I danced featured roles in La Bayadère and Ballo della Regina that continued my momentum, and a couple of years later I was promoted to demi-soloist.
Ji Young Chae
Boston Ballet soloist
When my partner Junxiong Zhao and I were cast to do the grand pas in Nutcracker last year, I was very happy. But it was pretty scary because I was in the corps and had never done a principal role. Because of that, I felt I had to push more than other dancers who had done it already. I really wanted to be able to prove that I could do it, and show everyone who I really am.
Junxiong and I were rehearsing the grand pas for both the Boston Ballet performances and the 2015 Erik Bruhn competition, so we had a really heavy schedule. But now I realize it was a great opportunity to get really strong. I tried to eat well, rest well, get massages, ice every night—I took care of myself more than usual. We were rehearsing a contemporary piece for the competition, too, and working on that at the same time as the grand pas actually helped me learn how to move and solve some problems with classical partnering.
It was challenging to build a character and show my personality. But with each performance, I got more comfortable and confident. Even though we were so nervous before our first show, when it was over I was relieved, proud and happy—but I wanted to do it again, and do more. Junxiong says you have to do something over and over to get it as close to perfect as you can, and I think that’s part of why I was promoted to soloist at the end of the season.
Gavin Larsen is a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. She teaches and writes about dance in Portland, Oregon.
Today’s directors are increasingly looking for maturity, experience and versatility, and choreographers are drawn towards artistically intelligent dancers who can contribute to the creative process. Although ballet dancers have traditionally been wary of losing precious performing years by going to college before heading into the job market, it’s becoming routine to see company rosters populated with college grads. For these three professionals, the well-honed skills they gained in school not only boosted their dance careers, but opened doors into a myriad of exciting paths for their futures.
Elizabeth Walker, Los Angeles Ballet
Elizabeth Walker always knew she’d go to college—it was just a question of when. Her senior year, she auditioned for companies and applied to schools, and was accepted to both Harvard University and Los Angeles Ballet. Luckily, Harvard allowed her to defer enrollment for a year and join LAB for its inaugural season.
While it was tough to leave LAB after only one year, Walker craved the opportunity to attend Harvard. “One of my goals was to expand my horizons and learn something else in depth,” she says. “I wanted to go somewhere and not be a dance major, but still be able to keep up my ballet.” There’s no formal dance department at Harvard, so Walker became heavily involved in its extracurricular program and student-run Harvard Ballet Company. A photography class she’d taken freshman year prompted her to major in art and architecture. “I’m fascinated by historical architecture and restoration.”
Life at Harvard, unsurprisingly, was hard. It was sometimes difficult for Walker to justify taking ballet every day, often taking open classes in studios around Boston, when she had so much academic work to do. But she wanted to keep her options open post-graduation. Juggling her extreme academic load with dance honed her skills in multitasking, time management and self-motivation, especially when she became co-artistic director of HBC. The experience was eye-opening: “You see everything that goes into putting a production together: marketing, hanging lights, selling tickets, choosing rep, casting. We even had to personally load in and load out of the theater.” And connections she made with visiting choreographers led to summer guesting gigs, both while at Harvard and post-graduation.
Walker loved the academic experience so much that she considered not resuming her ballet career. As a test, she took a semester off to rejoin LAB as a guest artist—and decided her commitment to dance was firm, signing a full-time contract after graduation. “I’m so glad to have done both. What I did at Harvard really informed who I became as a dancer, and being around people who are high achievers in any field is one of the best things you can do.” While she’s open to many possibilities after her performing career, her art and architecture degree will certainly inform her choices. “But I care so much about ballet and feel it needs to be preserved and promoted, so I might stay in the dance world.”
Tiffany Bovard, Louisville Ballet
Although she wanted to dance professionally, at 18, Tiffany Bovard didn’t feel ready to join a company. She’d received solid Russian-style training at her small studio in Virginia. But she lacked the experience of a pre-professional training setting, so she chose to enroll in Butler University’s ballet program. “I knew I would get a balance between academic life and dance training,” she says.
She was right. In addition to pursuing a BFA in dance performance, she minored in business. Summers working as a dorm director at a ballet intensive had highlighted her natural flair for organizing and management tasks, like scheduling and staff collaboration. “I realized how much I loved those aspects of a job, especially when it relates to something else I love, like dance,” she says. “I want to be an advocate for the arts, so working in a ballet company’s marketing or administrative department could be a good fit.”
With her eye still firmly on a dance career, though, Bovard soaked up her classes in ballet, modern, jazz and musical theater. And frequent performances of classical full-lengths and contemporary works in Butler’s 2,000-seat theater gave her experience akin to a professional dancer’s. The BFA students even toured to Europe to perform and take classes during summer breaks. And it paid off: After graduation, Bovard auditioned for Louisville Ballet, hoping the director would value her dancing as well as her degree.
Now, she feels grateful for her college career. “Dance-wise, I’m much more versatile,” she says. “Plus leadership, communication and decision-making skills, as well as knowing how people work within an organization, are all relevant in my current job.”
As for what’s next, Bovard is at ease about her future: “I absolutely feel more assured because of my non-dance education. Even though most of my job experience is as an artist, having the business minor will give me a leg up when I transition out of pointe shoes, and having the BFA stamped on top of my resumé will make me an appealing candidate to future employers.”
Melissa Anduiza, Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Melissa Anduiza’s intense pre-professional training at Miami’s New World School of the Arts had left her overwhelmed. Verging on burnout, she needed to rediscover her passion—and wanted a more balanced environment. On a teacher’s recommendation she turned to the University of South Florida, enrolling in its BFA program.
The university’s expectations were high. “There was an ethic of everyone wanting to do their best,” she says. “Not only did I study with world-class faculty like Bill T. Jones, I took kinesiology, production, dance history and pedagogy along with the core college requirements.” Her composition courses were particularly valuable, teaching her how to be choreographically creative within a structure, accept critique and make revisions. As Anduiza gained skills, her confidence grew. “I always wanted to dance, but never knew if I could do it until I went to USF,” she says. “My faculty told me I could go places, be somebody.” Bolstered by that support, she made up her mind to pursue a professional career.
Anduiza’s senior project, a solo she choreographed called “Stained Glass,” was awarded honors at the National College Dance Festival and performed at the festival’s Kennedy Center gala. She sent a video of her performance to Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who offered her a job the day she graduated.
There, Anduiza’s choreographic talent was not overlooked. A dancer-run performance gave her the opportunity to create a duet on fellow dancers in 2012, and a solo she made the same year impressed Bonnefoux enough to add it to the company’s repertoire. Recently, she presented another work at the Southeastern Regional Ballet Association’s annual gala. While she’s mostly focused on dancing right now—she left Charlotte to join Complexions this summer—she’s ambitious about pursuing choreography in the future. She credits her confidence, skill and success in large part to her experience at USF. “An education creates versatile artists, and intelligent ones,” she says. “Dance is not a career to take lightly, and college is great professional preparation. I’m a living example of it!”
Gavin Larsen is a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre.