Competitive Edge: Behind the Medals

Three ballet competition stars share their strategies, secrets and quirks.
Published in the October/November 2012 issue.

Hannah Bettes at Prix de Lausanne. Photo by Gregory Batardon.

BROOKLYN MACK
Company: The Washington Ballet
Age: 26
Top prizes: Boston International Ballet Competition, Helsinki International Ballet Competition, USA International Ballet Competition, Seoul International Dance Competition, Varna International Ballet Competition
Pre-competition rituals: “Working my butt off! And before any performance, I try to get to a mental place that I call ‘home.’ Nobody’s there but me and the ballet.”
Backstage music pick: “The song that Lil Wayne made for Michael Phelps called ‘I’m a Go Getta.’ Or Coldplay, Eminem or R. Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ or ‘The World’s Greatest’ from the Ali movie.”
Why he keeps competing: “In a company, you don’t always get a lot of individual attention. But when you train for a competition, every little thing is scrutinized. I grow a lot. It’s also a great networking tool. So many directors and prominent choreographers come to scout.”
What he does with his trophies: “My mom takes them. Each time, she’s like, ‘You’re gonna mess this up or lose it.’ But she likes to have them, so I’m fine with it.”  
Worst mistake: “Holding back because I didn’t want to make a mistake.”
Favorite competition memory: “My first competition. I didn’t get a medal, but I was able to just let go and dance completely and leave everything on the stage. It was the first time in my life that someone told me they cried watching me dance.”

HANNAH BETTES
School: The Royal Ballet School
Age: 16
Top prizes: Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix
In the wings: “I always review the storyline of the ballet and how my variation fits in that. I try to convince myself that I’m actually my character and this is happening to me. Then I pray.”
Good luck charm: “An energy wand that my friend’s mom (who’s a bit of a hippie) gave me last year. It’s literally just a little bronze-colored stick, five or six inches long. But it’s supposed to pull all of the negative energy around you into the wand and then give out positive energy. Ever since she gave it to me, it’s come with me to every competition.”
Worst mistake: “This year at YAGP Regionals, I fell during my Giselle variation. I was just doing a single turn! But I got back up and finished. My teacher always says, ‘If anything goes wrong, you still have to bow like it was the best dance ever.’ “
Strategy for nerves: “I stop thinking about the competition and focus on something completely random, like puppies.”
Dealing with the rivalry: “I like the competitive environment. It pushes me. Seeing all of those amazing dancers makes me want to be better. I want to be the best, I guess.”

TYLER DONATELLI
School: Southland Ballet Academy
Age: 15
Top prizes: Youth America Grand Prix, Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards
Pre-performance ritual: “I always eat a little piece of chocolate before I dance.”
Good luck charm: “My mom writes notes like ‘good luck’ or ‘have fun’ in my pointe shoes.”  
Strategy for nerves: “It’s hard in the early rounds because everybody is sizing each other up. But once it gets down to the end, you become friends with the other dancers and can just talk backstage.”  
How she breaks the ice with her competitors: “Sometimes I’ll compliment someone’s tutu. And the usual: ‘Good job,’ ‘good luck.’ ”
What she tells herself right before going on: “Have fun, and whatever happens, happens. You’re lucky to be doing this right now, so enjoy it.”