You’ve rehearsed for weeks for this competition, and it’s finally here. You’re up, you ate your Wheaties...now what? Class is offered in the morning, but you won’t go on until hours afterward. Competition days are tricky. How should you spend the time before you perform so that you’re in the ideal state—both physically and mentally—to dance your best?

The Right Start

Valentina Kozlova, who regularly prepares her students at Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York for competitions, advises starting your day with a “one-hour, everything” class. Most competitions offer this type of short, intense morning warm-up. Ideally, there should be a barre with a lot of tendus and dégagés to get you on your legs, along with plenty of chances to stretch and practice your extension. In the center, make sure to do adagio, pirouettes, and petit and grand allégro. Push yourself just enough to get warm and feel strong.

However, taking an unfamiliar type of class could throw you off. If what the competition is offering won’t be right for you, don’t take it. (Unless, of course, it’s part of the adjudication process.) Instead, give yourself a thorough self-taught class or take one from your coach.

“Most theaters have studios, and usually you can ask to rent one out ahead of time,” explains Sasha De Sola, a dancer at San Francisco Ballet who won awards at the USA International Ballet Competition, Varna International Ballet Competition and Youth America Grand Prix. Contact competition administrators in advance to see if you can rent space for class and/or extra rehearsals.

Fight Fatigue and Injuries

There’s a fine line between pushing yourself and overexerting while warming up. “Pay attention to what your body needs,” De Sola advises. Sometimes she let herself slow down or modify combinations if her muscles felt tired.

If you have an injury, ask your coach how you can avoid irritating it before performing. And tell the teacher giving class, suggests Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. That way, they’ll understand your combination modifications, and might even offer helpful suggestions.

Stay Warm

Doing light exercises such as tendus and ab work throughout the day will help you stay on your center without getting overtired. De Sola used to give herself a second barre a few hours prior to competing. Shortly before putting on her costume, she did stretches and Pilates core exercises. Then she would head to the wings wearing booties, legwarmers, pants, a zip-up jacket and a scarf over her costume.

Tackle the Trouble Spots

There are always tricky parts in a variation. Should you rehearse them on competition day? “It depends on the dancer,” says Kozlova. “For most I would say yes, practice difficult parts, but for some dancers, it’s not the best thing to do.”

If you tend to psych yourself out on performance days, don’t go over challenging jumps and turns at the last minute. Instead, think back to your best rehearsals and imagine how you felt during them. “Be confident in what you’ve worked on so far,” says De Sola. “Once you’re at the competition, not much is really going to change.” You won’t improve the number of pirouettes you can do in the moments before taking the stage—you just want to find your center and the right mindset to perform them.

But what if you do go over a troublesome section, and the final rehearsal doesn’t go well? “Just let it go and re-center your mind,” De Sola says.

Head Games

Try not to watch other performances while waiting in the wings. Getting engrossed in others’ dancing could make you nervous or subliminally lower your expectations for yourself. Focus on your performance and your body.

De Sola says that visualizing herself dancing her variation as she listened to the music in her headphones helped her. “Also,” she adds, “putting on my makeup was a big part of the overall warm-up ritual for me.” Everybody has different ways of getting in the zone. Figure out yours ahead of time.

Be Adaptable

De Sola suggests keeping your regular schedule as much as you can. “That being said, you never know what’s going to be thrown at you,” she says. Sometimes the judges decide to take a long break right before your variation; sometimes there are technical difficulties. “At Varna in 2006, it was outdoors, so you had to deal with the weather, bugs, and the floor was just wood panels with nails jutting out!” says De Sola. “Also, we had tech rehearsals one or two days before the competition in the middle of the night—like at 1 or 2 am. You just always have to be prepared.”

Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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Pointe Stars
Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

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.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

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