I always dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when I was young, those dreams were far from modest: Not only would I be a ballerina, but I decided I would be the greatest ballerina. I would be world-famous, dance on the biggest stages and partner with the best male dancers. Looking back, my optimism and naiveté seem almost endearing. While these big dreams planted a solid determination inside of me, my journey towards the top in the competitive ballet world was far more difficult than I’d envisioned.

 

As a young student, my ambitions were fairly tame. I envied the girls who could do more pirouettes than I could and those who moved up a level. But as I continued training as a teenager at the School of American Ballet, my competitiveness grew. We were all there with the same goal—to become apprentices with New York City Ballet. But only a few of us would make it. My worries over who could do the most turns turned into bigger anxieties: Who gets the most attention in class? Why is she getting better parts than me? How does she do that step so well? Who is getting interest from companies?

 

Looking back, competing with my classmates gave me the extra drive to push myself. I worked hard in every class and took everything seriously. After a year and a half, it paid off—I was offered an NYCB?apprenticeship. I was thrilled to dive headfirst into the professional dance world as a member of one of the leading ballet companies.

 

Yet my first years with NYCB were very tough. I took every casting decision personally, convincing myself that someone else got a role because I wasn’t working hard enough or I had been eating too many cookies. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. I was sure the audience preferred other dancers, positive I got the least applause.

 

Determined to prove that I was the best dancer, I decided I had to be better than everyone. I particularly remember one winter when I was one of many girls cast as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. I wanted to perform the role flawlessly, but I kept struggling with a difficult set of turns. I was relentless, practicing them over and over. Then I started to obsess over how well the other dancers did the same steps.

 

My plan backfired. I’d put too much pressure on myself, and my inability to reach perfection morphed into stage fright. I didn’t trust my body to know what to do, or even if I had the strength I needed. Before shows, I pictured everything that could go wrong. I pictured the audience hating me. I pictured them wanting to see other dancers instead of me. What a horrible way to perform! My dancing, in turn, suffered. In trying to outdo everyone, I smothered my growth. I wasn’t able to simply dance. I couldn’t let go and be in the moment. 

 

Ten years of performing regularly has since given me many valuable insights. First, we are all here because we love to dance. Each of us strives for a perfection that will always be just beyond our grasp. We worry about our bodies. We analyze every ache and pain. We are insecure, yet we must maintain a certain level of confidence to be able to perform for thousands of people. We all want to dance as much as possible, yet we have to understand that we can’t dance everything.

 

It’s still a learning process. Lately, I’ve been working to accept my dancing and its flaws, and to use my time onstage to reward myself. In performance, I try to let myself simply enjoy the benefits of many hours of hard work. I’m able to grasp the concept that I may not be right for every role, but I have my own strengths to bring to the stage.    

 

Now I am working on learning from my colleagues instead of comparing myself to them. I love watching Wendy Whelan and Jenifer Ringer, two of NYCB’s most experienced principals, because their artistry comes from such an honest place. They don’t try to dance like anybody else or please anyone. They are comfortable with their own dancing. I constantly gain inspiration and steal things I like from their performances, but I also have to remind myself that even they have their own strengths and weaknesses.

 

I love being onstage again. I love the exhilaration of a great performance. I’ve learned that my fiercest competitor and harshest critic is the one in the mirror. That’s who must be satisfied. That’s who must be happy.

Abi Stafford is a principal at New York City Ballet.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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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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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