Lying awake in her hotel bed in Washington, DC, the night before her audition, Richmond Ballet dancer Valerie Tellmann-Henning was tormented with anxiety. At 31 years old, she was comfortable in her career. So comfortable that she decided to seek new artistic challenges. With the support of her director, she decided to audition for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet with the hope of juggling two contracts. The only thing that stood between her and her goal was a bout of anxiety. “I felt like I was 19 again trying to get my first job," she remembers. “It made me second-guess a lot of things about myself: Is Suzanne going to like my body type? Will my legs be high enough?" The anxious feeling made Tellmann-Henning irritable, and she even found herself holding her breath during the audition class, as a stream of insecurities cycled through her mind.
Anxiety is an irrational sense of fear that pairs perfectly with perfectionism. Most, if not all, ballet dancers will feel anxious from time to time. In fact, the psychologists we spoke to said it is one of the most common reasons dancers come to them for treatment. While a dash of nerves before you go onstage can add electricity to your performance, anxiety can kill your confidence and even limit your ability to live your life normally if it goes unchecked. In a field that's filled with stressful situations—like casting, audition jitters, contract renewals, mounting bills and stage fright—it's important to learn how to identify anxiety, evaluate the seriousness and take steps to cope with it before it holds you back.
They are the urban legends of the dance studio: glass in a dancer's pointe shoes, ribbons cut before she goes onstage. The film Black Swan took things a step further, depicting a dancer so wracked with obsessive jealousy that she turns into a monster.
While these caricatures of the jealous ballerina are far from reality, it is not surprising that most dancers will battle bouts of green envy at least a few times in their careers. “It happens to all of us," says American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Paulina Waski, who despite signing a contract with ABT at 16 admits she's felt envious of fellow dancers. “Especially when you are at the point of transitioning from a student to a professional dancer."
When Lilliana Hagerman auditioned for Orlando Ballet School's summer intensive, she felt overwhelmingly intimidated. “The other dancers were all so beautiful," remembers Hagerman, now a dancer with Kansas City Ballet. “I thought that if I made one mistake it would be over." Hagerman did make a mistake: She slipped and fell during grand allégro. “I got back up and I smiled," she says. To her relief, the teacher smiled back.
Summer intensive auditions give you only a few moments to make a good impression—often while crammed into a crowded room, after traveling distances in the car and with little time or space to warm up. It's hard not to obsess over a small mistake or feel discouraged if you're put on the intensive's waitlist afterwards. But according to school directors, many of your fears are overreactions. Here are a few of the most common audition misconceptions, along with what's really going on inside the teachers' heads.
Reduce the disappointment of a college rejection by having a strong backup plan.
Kristin Young’s family is a legacy at Indiana University. While they weren’t dancers, both her mother and her sister had attended IU, and she grew up near Indianapolis making regular pilgrimages to Bloomington for sports events. So when the rejection to IU’s highly competitive ballet program came, it was a huge blow. “I always thought that I would either go to IU or straight into the professional ballet world,” says Young, who is now an apprentice with Nashville Ballet. Luckily, she was careful to apply to several universities. When she was accepted to the University of Oklahoma, she began imagining a different path.
Attending college before a professional ballet career has become a legitimate option for dancers. But because there aren’t as many ballet-focused dance programs, serious bunheads tend to only consider a few. If you’ve got your sights set on just one or two schools, the competition can be as fierce as any company audition. But getting rejected from your preferred college doesn’t have to be the end of the world. By researching all the options available to you, and planning your audition process strategically, you can improve your chances of getting into a good second- or third-choice school. Plan B may even end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.
Cast a Wide Net
In this information age, we have multiple resources at our fingertips for researching all the possibilities. First, make a list of the things that are most important to you in a university setting and then do your homework to find colleges with ballet-focused programs that meet those criteria. To get an idea of what’s out there, you might begin by searching universities and colleges through the Dance Magazine College Guide.
Young wanted the full college experience, complete with football games and Greek life. For this reason she focused on larger schools with robust athletic departments and reputable ballet programs. Even with her specific criteria she homed in on three—IU, Butler University and OU—instead of putting all her eggs in one basket.
As for dance programs, look for a diversity of high-caliber teachers. Performance opportunities should also be paramount in your decision-making. “I grew up in a school affiliated with a professional company, so I did children’s roles or corps roles in high school,” recalls Young. The opportunity to perform soloist and principal roles at OU was particularly attractive to her.
When you are narrowing down schools, do more than skim its website—especially for programs you’re not as familiar with. Call the department and ask questions, and look for YouTube videos of their performances, or news features about their programs. Schools may offer surprising extras not publicized online, such as touring, study abroad and internship opportunities.
From there, Mercyhurst University Dance Department chair Tauna Hunter suggests narrowing your list to at least three to five colleges to see in person. “Visit while the school is in session, not during the summer,” she advises. “See how the faculty interacts with the students.” In this process, you may find that the school of your dreams isn’t quite the right fit and discover others that surprise you.
Make a Plan
Next, organize an audition strategy. Scheduling them early in the year gives you time to plan more if you receive a rejection. You may even want to get your feet wet at a plan-B college before trying for your top choice. Young, who auditioned at IU first, admits that she was nervous and not in her best ballet shape. “I think getting that audition under my belt gave me the confidence to shine in my next one, which happened to be at OU,” she says.
That said, if you didn’t perform your best, schools may allow you to audition again for the same academic year. Mary Margaret Holt, director of OU’s School of Dance, says dancers who are not successful at the October audition will often try again in January. If your first-choice school offers multiple audition opportunities, try scheduling one early enough so that you can request another later if necessary.
If you’re wait-listed for your favorite college, it’s hard to predict if you’ll ever make it off. Therefore, don’t let deadlines pass before accepting a place at your backup school. Hunter says that most colleges have their incoming class set by May 1. However, it is permissible, if you’re accepted off the wait list, to pull out of another program (although you may lose a deposit). Hunter advises that dancers be forthcoming as soon as they decide to go someplace else. Doing so isn’t just polite—it’s also important to protect your network, since the dance world is so small.
Be Open to a Different Path
While getting rejected from your first-choice college is understandably upsetting, it won’t hurt to ask for feedback. Holt is happy to discuss with students why they’ve been rejected and suggest other programs that might be a better fit.
In addition, try focusing on the opportunities available to you rather than those that aren’t. After getting rejected from IU, Young got over her disappointment by seizing the opportunity to leave her comfort zone and move to a new city.
“I absolutely thrived at Oklahoma,” says Young. “It was the perfect place for me.” She graduated in three and a half years and, thanks to a recommendation from Holt, immediately joined Tulsa Ballet as a guest artist for their production of Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. She started the following season with Nashville Ballet 2 before being promoted to apprentice last year. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get into your favorite school,” she says. “Something better could be around the next corner.”
Get Inside Juilliard
The Juilliard School has been a powerhouse of dance education for decades. Now, the walls enclosing this prestigious institution have become a little more transparent. In partnership with the app developer Touchpress, the school has released the app Juilliard Open Studios, which provides an inside look at its classes, coaching and rehearsals. Every episode has educational features for greater insight: layered videos with multiple camera angles, interviews, voice-over commentary, interactive scores and guides pertaining to each work-in-progress.
The app covers all of Juilliard’s artistic divisions, and there’s no shortage of dance in the mix. This year’s batch of episodes features distinguished faculty, alumni and guest artists, including American Ballet Theatre dancers Marcelo Gomes and Luciana Paris in their recent and upcoming projects with Juilliard students. If you want to get an exclusive peek into a potential school or merely peer into Juilliard’s rich creative processes, download Juilliard Open Studios for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch from the App Store—get one episode for free and subscribe to the rest for $7.99 per month. —Hannah Foster
“I am always working to improve my plié. When I get tired or nervous onstage, I remind myself to relax and fully utilize it so I can perform any step to perfection. A good example would be fouettés; sometimes I shorten my plié and the step is almost impossible. But, if I take a breath and use my entire plié, it becomes enjoyable.”
—Asuka Sasaki, Colorado Ballet
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Caitlin Peabody was dancing famously at her small variety-dance school in Derry, New Hampshire, as a young student. She had so much potential that her instructor encouraged her to audition for Boston Ballet’s summer intensive, and she was accepted. Months earlier, she had starred as Cinderella in her school’s production. But when she reached Boston, the competition was such that she was placed into the program’s lowest level. “I was not where I should have been for my age,” Peabody says.
Perhaps you’ve had a great year at your studio. When you rehearse your variation for The Nutcracker, the younger ones sit cross-legged on the floor watching in awe, and you feel the tiniest air of jealousy from your peers. But being at the top of your class back home won’t exactly help you improve. For many hometown heroes, assessing the competition at a large summer program can be a bitter reality check. Rather than grow discouraged, here’s how to use the experience as an opportunity for growth.
Focus on Your Goals, Not Your Level
It’s hard not to size up your place in the pecking order once your summer intensive’s level placement is posted. A lower-than-expected level can feel like a death sentence, while a higher placement can leave you struggling in a room of dancers you can’t stack up to. But these decisions are thoughtfully made. “Sometimes I place dancers in a lower level because I want them to be at the top of their class,” says Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. “Especially if they seem very shy and withdrawn, but their technique is very good. Other times I want them to be at the bottom of the class because they need to be pushed.”
Wherever you land, you have to believe it is where you are meant to be and move forward with confidence. “If someone is going to succeed in this profession they have to have belief that they will meet the demands necessary,” says Orlando Ballet School director Dierdre Miles Burger. She advises her students to not get caught up with what they can’t do but use it as inspiration to work hard. “While you are at the summer program, keep a journal,” says Burger. “Write down corrections that are not only given to you, but given to others as well, and keep a list of goals to work towards.”
Competition Is Good for You
Peabody, whose studio back home was more recreational, remembers being profoundly impressed by her classmates’ intensity during her first summer in Boston. “Some of the girls would have a look on their faces every day like the world would end if they weren’t perfect in adagio,” she recalls. “I just didn’t get it.”
“In a summer intensive, you see the ones who have to dance—the ones who ask questions and improve,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet School faculty member Marjorie Thompson. “And then there are the ones who sit in the hall and have a headache and don’t dance.” Being surrounded by more professionally minded dancers can be an eye-opening opportunity to assess and improve upon your own levels of motivation and discipline.
Story says that while it’s beneficial to watch other dancers and observe how they nail those triple pirouettes, don’t waste your time on constant comparisons that will kill your confidence. She tells her students to “put their blinders on” and focus on their own journey. The culmination of your efforts is greater than each individual day, so don’t expect leaps and bounds when true advancement is inch by inch.
Story also notes that dancers who face challenges with a “determination that is fierce, focused and unrelenting, with a positive ‘can do’ attitude,” can reach higher levels of achievement. “They become some of the most interesting artists that I have seen,” she says. By applying these qualities to your own work, Story says, you can turn your challenges into attributes.
Think Long Term
Even if you are not among the favorites at your summer program, don’t throw in the towel. Keep in mind that at this point in your training, your dancing and physicality can and will change rapidly. Instead, use your experience to evaluate your own training regimen.
Once you return home (and back to the top of your class), Burger recommends referring back to your notebook for inspiration—especially if you feel you’re losing momentum. “Many students improve in the summer because there are more classes offered,” says Burger. She suggests taking additional classes at home, even if they’re in a lower level, to continue pushing yourself.
A challenging summer experience may ultimately teach you that you need a more competitive atmosphere to advance. Peabody and her mother realized halfway through her intensive that she had gone as far as she could go at her local studio. Rather than feeling discouraged about her summer level placement, Peabody auditioned for Boston Ballet’s year-round program and was accepted. While she was originally placed with students two years younger than her, she progressed quickly, eventually receiving a contract with Boston Ballet II before joining PBT (where she frequently dances soloist and principal roles). “The underdog,” says Story, “makes it more than you think.”
Opportunity Is Knocking: Apply to YoungArts
Gillian Murphy. Desmond Richardson. Callie Manning. What do these three great dancers have in common? As teenagers, they were all YoungArts winners. The National YoungArts Foundation is now accepting applications from students in the performing, literary and visual arts for a chance to win scholarships and monetary awards, as well as attend regional YoungArts workshops and receive national recognition (an impressive credential on resumés and college applications). Applicants must be between ages 15 and 18 (or between grades 10 and 12) and be either a U.S. citizen or have a student visa.
Winners are selected through a blind adjudication process. In addition, a select group of finalists will be invited to attend the National YoungArts Week in Miami, where they will have the opportunity to perform, attend master classes with teachers like Richardson, Lourdes Lopez and Philip Neal, and attend interdisciplinary workshops with other artists. Finalists who are high school seniors may also be nominated to be a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, the most prestigious national honor for graduating artists. Applications are available online at youngarts.org/apply and are due October 16. —Amy Brandt
Technique Tip: Push Your Boundaries
“One image that has really stuck with me (and the one that I pass on to all of my students) is the idea of dancing as if you were Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. It’s had a huge influence on the way I dance by helping me to concretely ‘fill the space’ with my movement. When you dance as if every part of your body has energy expanding outward—touching something like the nearest wall, or your own personal circle—you can really fill the stage no matter how simple or complicated your movement.” —Courtney Connor Jones, Cincinnati Ballet
With so many talented dancers competing for so few company jobs, it sometimes feels like a struggle just to be seen. Rather than pinning a number to their chest, most dancers would prefer to audition privately by taking company class. “In a cattle call you could be thrown out after the first exercise,” says Ballet Arizona dancer Amber Lewis, who was accepted into the company after being invited to visit for two days. “But when I took company class I had the opportunity to stay the whole time.” There are other benefits, too: Not only do you receive more individualized attention when you audition privately, but you also have a chance to see how the company works up close.
But invitations are hard to come by. Case in point: Last year, Kansas City Ballet artistic director Devon Carney received 200 to 300 requests to audition via company class. He granted approximately 35 dancers the opportunity. “There’s not a lot of time in a director’s week to see individuals,” says Carney. While it’s tough getting the green light to take company class, talent is only part of the equation. But when combined with a clear and professional application, good listening skills and a little savvy, your chances of getting invited increase significantly.
Play by the Rules
First and foremost, check the company website for application requirements and follow them religiously. According to Carney, at least a quarter of the applications he receives are incomplete. “It slows down the process and makes me a little concerned about a dancer’s ability to be professional,” he says. In the case of KCB, all applicants must send in a head shot, dance photos, resumé, video and audition fee (the fee is the most commonly omitted item). KCB follows up on such oversights, but in most cases, if your application is incomplete or difficult to access, it may never be reviewed.
Your video is one of the most important parts of your application package. Again, it’s wise to follow instructions. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux requires both a classical and a contemporary variation be included in video submissions. He then asks candidates he is interested in to film themselves again—this time dancing selections of company repertoire—within three weeks. It is only after both of these steps that dancers are selected to take company class. “One reason we do this is so dancers do not have to deplete their funds flying to audition for us in person,” says Bonnefoux.
Make sure that you send your video in the requested format. Most companies will accept either a DVD or a link, but they have to work! Carney recommends testing your video on multiple platforms. If it’s a hard copy, try it in both a DVR player and on your computer. Send links to your friends to open and test them on your phone. “Your video is like a private audition,” says Carney. “It’s on a computer screen, but we are forced to look at that individual alone for the course of that video tape.” If a director is prepared to give you that attention and your link doesn’t work, you may have spoiled a vital first impression.
Resumés and References
Your other application items should be clear and professional, too. A well-organized resumé goes a long way—not only does it shed light on your experience and background, but it also helps directors know if you’re what they’re looking for. Some might need an experienced soloist, but others may need apprentices or studio company members. Keep this information concise, using headings to break it into sections (such as “training” and “performance experience”), with the most recent information at the top.
Who you know can also help get you in the room. “If I get a recommendation from a colleague or one of my dancers, I am more likely to grant this person a private audition,” says Bonnefoux. “I would say if you have a connection, use it.” For example, Lewis had a former teacher working at Ballet Arizona. Her teacher’s willingness to hand-deliver her video to the artistic director secured her audition immediately. There’s no harm in approaching various teachers, choreographers or artistic staff about companies you’re interested in, because, as Lewis points out, “the ballet world is so small.” If your connection does know someone, ask if they would consider referring you. Let them decide if their relationship with the company contact warrants a phone call or a letter.
In the absence of an immediate connection, Carney says it is still a good idea to submit a written recommendation or two with your package, but go for quality over quantity. One Violette Verdy means more than five dancers with whom you attended a summer program.
Be Nice to the Middleman
Even with a recommendation, you’ll likely be depending on an administrative staff member, such as a company manager, to deliver your materials into the director’s hands. Your treatment of this person is part of your audition—everything from your quickness to respond to follow-up questions to the tone of your e-mails matters. “Sometimes I don’t think that young dancers understand the importance of being respectful and grateful for the time that individuals give to help them get to a point of a full evaluation,” says Carney. Many companies have procedures in place so that the director sees only the most promising candidates. In situations where materials are heavily screened, offending the primary contact could bring your application to a standstill.
Once you’ve successfully submitted your materials, waiting for a response can be torturous. While it’s fine to follow up, Carney warns against calling or e-mailing excessively to demand information. Rather, send an e-mail a few days after your application should have been received to confirm that everything is in order and offer additional information, if needed. Since companies are inundated with requests, be prepared to receive a brief response.
Once your application is received, try to be patient. “I would allow three weeks before you follow up,” says Bonnefoux. “Hundreds of dancers send us their resumés every year, and it takes time to go through each video. If you haven’t heard anything in more than two months, most likely you are not being considered for the position.”
Even if you do everything right, most companies will encourage you to attend a scheduled open audition. In some instances, this is a matter of delegating limited company time and resources. Often it is because the company has very few (if any) openings, or because the dancer doesn’t seem like a good fit. If you do get the invitation to attend company class, count that as a huge accomplishment and sign of your potential—whether you get the gig this time around or not.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Corey Bourbonniere got a late start in ballet, so he knew he needed to commit himself completely to the art to catch up. But at 16, when a neglected hamstring injury progressed into a hip injury just in time for summer intensive auditions, it felt as though the dream might pass him by.
It seems completely unfair. An injury sustained in January can prevent your acceptance into a program that doesn’t start until June. Often it feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher: There are only a few summers in your life as a ballet student and missing one can seem catastrophic for your future. But an injury during audition season doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily spend the summer sitting around. You may need to adjust your expectations, but there are ways to navigate the audition process to ensure that you still get the most out of your training this summer.
If you are injured when a can’t-miss audition comes to town, it may still be worthwhile to take the class, but you have to speak up. Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School, says that if she has a student who is nursing an injury, like shin splints, but can take partial class, she would still encourage them to do the audition. “But only once they have spoken to the adjudicators and they’ve cleared it with them,” she adds. Bourbonniere did just that when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s intensive audition came late in the cycle. He still felt a little unstable on his standing leg and his turnout was weak, but he told the teacher at the audition and was told to give it a try anyway. In this instance Tracey would make a note on the student’s registration form and be able to frame her evaluation of that student with the knowledge of their limitations.
Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power notes that often the adjudicator will be the same person taking your registration, but in some cases they won’t be. Politely ask the person at registration whom you should speak to about your injury. The registrar might say she’ll let the teacher know. “But if that were me, I would probably do another little follow-up with the teacher before class,” says Power. Be clear about your limitations whether that means that you need to skip jumps or pointework, or if, like Bourbonniere, you simply want them to be aware that you can dance the whole class but won’t be at 100 percent. “You may get different reactions, but you should never read into it,” Power adds. Audition tours require the adjudicators to travel a lot and work odd hours. The teacher’s plane may have been late or they may have had to skip lunch, but a terse response likely has nothing to do with your approaching them.
Power points out that a good benchmark for whether or not the adjudicator needs to be informed of your injury is by asking yourself if you can do what will be expected of you in the audition. If the answer is no, for any reason—a turned ankle, an infected ingrown toenail, the flu—you should speak up.
Admitting that you are injured does not mean that you won’t be accepted to the program. At Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, director Dennis Marshall has had students go through the audition process with an injury, and he always respects them for telling him. “If I see the facility I can look beyond the fact that they can’t do the whole audition,” he says. “Barre says it all to me.”
Find a Solution
Be realistic about your limitations. You certainly don’t want to blow an opportunity to impress the faculty at your dream school because you weren’t fit to be in the audition, or worse, injure yourself further in the process. For instance, Bourbonniere had to pass up auditions for Boston Ballet, Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives before he felt ready. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to make sure you’re not underestimating the severity of your injury.
Tracey advises her students to do their homework and figure out which programs have alternative admissions processes, such as submitting photographs and a recommendation. “Remember that there are fine training schools out there that don’t require a formal audition,” she says. “Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is a phenomenal summer program, and you don’t have to attend an audition to be admitted.”
Auditioning with a video can be another option. Tracey points out that many schools accept video submissions as late as March if there are still places available in the program. A video may also provide the follow-up needed if you weren’t able to participate in the audition fully, such as not dancing on pointe. Power says that you can bring the video, along with a doctor’s note, with you to the audition if you already have one, or mail it a few weeks later when you’re healed up. Be sure to include a professionally worded letter thanking them for taking the time to review it and clearly state when and where you auditioned.
Don’t be afraid to call the program and ask how they would recommend you handle the situation. “Sometimes a school may be able to see that student in one of their regularly scheduled classes,” says Tracey. “Seek an alternative and then accept the answer if it’s no.”
Focus on the Future
While audition season can feel like the most crucial do or die scenario, ignoring an injury is more likely to end your dancing life than missing one summer at your dream program. “If you’re injured, deal with the injury,” says Marshall, “because it’s not about the next nine months. It’s about the next nine years.” Proceed with your audition process in a way that honors your body and the injury you have sustained.
Ask yourself honestly: Will you be recovered in time to attend the program and get the most out of it? Being at a summer intensive when you aren’t able to perform at your best can be a deflating experience. Power has seen students with injuries come through Houston’s program and struggle in such a competitive environment. “They are spending more time outside of the classroom and they can’t do what is expected of them,” she says. “Psychologically, they really can’t manage.”
If you’ll still be recovering in the summer months, Power advises that your home studio may be the safest place to finish that process. “We get students from all over and we don’t know them, so we don’t know how much to push them,” she says. Your teachers at home will be able to challenge you with a realistic understanding of what you’re limitations are.
Dealing with an injury during the summer intensive audition season may be one of the greatest lessons you can learn; you’ll likely confront injury in your professional career. But it’s important to keep in mind that “one audition season is not going to make or break your future,” says Tracey. Case in point: Bourbonniere was accepted to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s summer intensive on full scholarship, followed by an invitation to join the year-round program, and eventually the company.
Skipping college for a ballet career wasn’t an option for Boston Ballet corps member Sarah Wroth. “I didn’t see it as a stable future,” she recalls. But she loved ballet and wanted to continue dancing at school. She auditioned for Indiana University, confident she wouldn’t be accepted into its highly competitive ballet program. But when the acceptance letter came, she was forced to decide what college would mean for her. Would it be a purely academic pursuit followed by a practical career in education or medicine? Or would she go to college with the intention of having a ballet career?
As high school graduation approaches, you may be faced with similar questions. Do you audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree, or gamble on your dream by going to school? If you go, do you focus solely on dance or go the more academic route? Whatever tides are pulling you, here are some important questions to ask yourself as you navigate your decision.
Am I ready to audition?
Not every 18-year-old is technically or emotionally prepared to enter a company environment. “Looking back, I just wasn’t ready,” says Wroth, who feels her time spent dancing in college was important for her development as an artist.
Victoria Mazzarelli, artistic director of the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, encourages all of her graduating students to try at least a few company auditions to gauge where they stand. She also suggests that they apply to colleges at the same time. “The avenues and possibilities are vast for them,” she says. Knowing your options will make decisions clearer and better inform your conversations with your parents and teachers.
Is there a compromise?
If you’re offered a traineeship or company position, it can be hard to walk away—especially if it’s your dream company, or one that hires exclusively from their school. Even so, some parents may still need convincing. To gain their support, take their concerns seriously and seek compromise. College comes in many forms, so if they insist that you earn a degree, you may be able to go part-time or take online classes while you dance. For instance, Mazzarelli points to Nutmeg alumna Quinn Pendleton, a corps member with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo who studies online at Harvard University. Mazzarelli says that Pendleton already had a well-established dance career before pursuing her degree, and finds that studying online works well with her touring schedule.
Will college hold me back?
Many dancers spend several years in a trainee program or second company before signing a company contract, so attending a college with a strong dance program may not leave you behind. “I danced almost as much as someone in a small company,” says Wroth, who was in classes or rehearsals at IU five to seven hours a day. Just before graduation, she auditioned for Boston Ballet and was offered a contract—she’s now been with the company 11 years.
Tauna Hunter, department chair of Mercyhurst University’s dance program, acknowledges that while her students don’t end up in large companies like New York City Ballet, she has many dancers enjoying fulfilling careers in smaller companies like Colorado Ballet or Nashville Ballet, where they have more opportunity to rise through the ranks and enjoy soloist and principal roles.
If you do choose school, maintain your focus. College is an exciting time full of new friends and experiences, but if you want to compete for a contract when you’re finished, you have to dance as much as a professional, even if that means seeking out classes and dance opportunities off campus. “You have to quiet all the noise that covers up a clear view of ballet and the fact that it’s what you want to do,” says Wroth.
BA or BFA?
When choosing a dance program, find one that supports your long-term goals both artistically and academically. At Mercyhurst, many of Hunter’s students want to “make it count” by pursuing a double major. The school has adapted its BA program to better accommodate them. “The BA program can produce professional dancers,” says Hunter. “However, it also offers an opportunity for the student to pursue other interests.”
For Wroth, her BS at IU allowed her to major in dance while focusing on education studies as an outside field. The benefit was never more evident than when she had major back surgery last year. “I will always have the empowerment that a degree gives, of knowing that I could do something else.”
Meanwhile, BFA programs are structured more like a traditional dance conservatory, with the intent of producing professional dancers and choreographers. They generally require more dance credits than BA programs. Hunter says that it is possible to have another major in Mercyhurst’s BFA program, but warns that it’s a challenging and more expensive pursuit that spreads some students too thin.
Whatever you decide, move forward confidently. “Leave yourself open to every option,” says Mazzarelli. “You never know where you’ll end up.”
“While studying at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, my teacher Dana Arey taught me how to do a proper petit jeté. She stressed the importance of showing the shape in the air as long as possible, then using the circular energy of the landing’s demi-plié into the frappé to propel my hips into the air. This enabled a loftiness in my petit allégro that has stayed with me and helped especially with leading roles in La Sylphide and Giselle.” —Aara Krumpe, Ballet Austin
Wendy Whelan Joins BAE Faculty
Wendy Whelan may be retiring from New York City Ballet this October, but that doesn’t mean she’s saying good-bye to dance altogether. This fall she joins the faculty of Ballet Academy East’s Pre-Professional Division. Whelan has already developed a relationship with the school, having served as a frequent guest instructor and 2014 summer intensive teacher. “The students and faculty absolutely loved her classes,” says BAE director and founder Julia Dubno. “A strong connection grew from there.”
Whelan will work primarily with upper-level students, although her teaching schedule will vary to accommodate her performances (most notably her Restless Creature program, which continues touring through 2015). “Wendy is a brilliant artist with a tremendous amount of knowledge to share,” says Dubno. “But, just as important, she’s a magnificent role model for our students.” —Alexis Stanley