Talent is everything, right? When it comes to ballet competitions, it may just be one piece of a larger puzzle. Even the most gifted performers find that competing presents challenges.

There are many reasons to compete: to test your technique, to network with schools and companies, to show off your skills. But the pressure is never higher than when professionals are judging your every move. How do you know if you’re ready to handle it? For most dancers, the answer takes some soul-searching.

Are You Advanced Enough?
Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet, only allows students to compete once they have a sufficient technical base: correct muscular development, strength, musicality and coordination. You may be the most advanced dancer at your studio, but how does your technique stack up in the larger dance world? Get a frank evaluation by taking master classes, workshops and summer intensives or by auditioning for a more rigorous school. If your skills aren’t yet strong enough for you to go head-to-head with your peers, seek out private lessons or add extra lower-level classes to your schedule.

Are You Comfortable Performing?
Onstage, anything can happen, from hairpins flying to music stopping. Your ability to adapt can make or break you. “Before you compete, you need stage skills,” says Shelly Power, associate director of Ben Stevenson Academy at Houston Ballet. “The wing space may be different, the stage may be smaller than expected. You need to know how to manage that.” Rack up as much stage time as possible to learn how to deal with surprises. In addition to performing in Nutcrackers and spring shows, join a local youth troupe or volunteer for events like fundraisers.

Do You Have a Professional Mentality?
Making a variation competition-ready takes maturity. Successful competitors put their full faith in a coach, absorbing corrections and following advice. Dancers also need to think long-term. “You can’t make bad compromises like losing weight in unhealthy ways to show up thin,” says Power, “or pushing yourself too hard to get the tricks, or developing only one side of the body from too much rehearsal.” Your long-term career should take precedence over one competition.

Can You Handle the Stress?

Dancing in front of judges is not the same as for friends and family. Competing requires a strong mental constitution, and a willingness to go for broke. “You can’t be afraid to fail,” says Ellison. Be willing to let your ambitious side work to your advantage. However, Power warns that dancers should be confident, but not cocky. And she looks at their reactions to criticism: “A critique should be put in your pocket, not your heart.” It takes resilience to come home without a medal and go back into the studio with the same enthusiasm.

Do You Need to Network?
Competitions offer benefits that have nothing to do with how you place. While the glory of a medal lasts a moment, a scholarship could lead to your dream career. “Know why you are competing,” says Ellison. “Are you hoping to receive a scholarship, to land a contract, or simply to further your artistic and technical growth?” Clarify your goals so you arrive prepared.

Test the waters before entering one of the major international competitions. Compete in an ensemble, or enter a regional event (see sidebar). You may find that competitions are not for you. “Many dancers never competed and still became professionals,” says Power. You can have a long and fulfilling career without ever winning a medal.

But don’t let fear hold you back. Even if everything falls apart onstage, you will still take home a worthwhile experience. “The most valuable aspect is the artistic growth,” says Ellison. “Competing helps you become more aware of yourself as a dancer, and of what it takes to achieve excellence.”

Where To Start

Your first competition doesn’t have to be against the pros. Look into these less intimidating entry points.

The American Ballet Competition

Held June 6–9 in Austin, TX, ABC offers a nurturing environment as well as a chance to win traineeships and scholarships.

New York City Dance Alliance
Although it’s not exclusively ballet, NYCDA holds regional conventions in 23 cities from October to May. If you’re not ready to compete, you can just take part in the workshop.

World Ballet Competition
Open to all levels, from introductory to professional, the WBC will be held in Orlando from May 29­–June 3 this year.

Youth America Grand Prix
YAGP, the largest student ballet competition, has semifinals in 12 U.S. cities from January through March.

Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.


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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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.


Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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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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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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