BalletX's Caili Quan found value in her early years of career building. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy BalletX)

After two years as a trainee and then one as a second company member at Orlando Ballet, 22-year-old Aurélio Guimarães wasn’t able to audition much due to an injury. When The Washington Ballet offered him another traineeship, Guimarães debated what to do. He would ultimately be embarking on a fourth year of doing professional work without a livable salary or title. “It was absolutely a hard decision,” Guimarães reflects. “But I also had to consider the work that I would be doing.” Knowing his traineeship would entail close work with the artistic director, he essentially took a demotion, with the hope that starting over in Washington would yield a paid contract at the end of the year.

In the past, it was common for a year or two of apprenticeship to lead directly to a corps contract. But today’s ballet world involves more no- to low-paying rungs at the bottom of the ladder. Many companies now have three gatekeepers: trainee programs that are often the top level of the school and involve corps work with the company; second companies that work independently as well as more intimately with the main company; and apprenticeships, the most entry-level rank inside the professional hierarchy.

While these positions are necessary opportunities for young dancers to gain experience and build their resumés, they are made to be temporary, generally lasting two years. Most companies are only able to promote one or two dancers out of these ranks every season. With the number of trainees and second company members growing, the possibility of making it to the next level has become more limited. As a result, more young dancers find themselves stuck in this netherworld, moving from one semi-professional contract to another and spending a large chunk of their careers in the minor leagues. For young—and sometimes not so young—dancers, it is becoming harder to know whether paying their dues will ever pay off.

Climbing the Ladder

Trainee programs and second companies are often marketed as an even exchange: Young dancers gain professional training and performance experience while cash-strapped companies can expand their corps de ballet onstage, allowing them to draw bigger audiences with full-length story ballets and larger neoclassical and contemporary works.

They also allow directors to groom potential company members. At Nashville Ballet, 70 percent of the main company dancers have gone through its second company, which is typically a two-year system. Artistic director Paul Vasterling will sometimes offer a second-year NB2 dancer the option for a third year when he wants to hire them but doesn’t have a company position available. NB2 also allows him to coach dancers in the company style and bring up the technical level of the corps. “It provides an ethos for the way they move,” says Vasterling. “We toured to St. Louis recently and the comment I got—‘They move so well together’—is simply because they have been together a long time, a continuum of dancers from the low ranks into the principals.”

BalletX dancer Caili Quan found her early years of career building beneficial. At age 19, a partial-scholarship traineeship at Richmond Ballet helped her transition from a student mind-set. “Taking company class for the first time and watching them work was an awesome experience,” reflects Quan. Two years later, she took an apprenticeship at North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and was inspired by her first taste of contemporary work. Even though a job there didn’t materialize, the long process to becoming a professional gave Quan a chance to try out different career options to see what fit.

Getting Stuck in the System

As more companies expand their entry-level ranks, however, it’s taking longer for dancers to move beyond them. And while many admit it’s better than nothing, spending year after year in semi-professional limbo comes with major career frustration and financial stress.

“I’m working with amazing choreographers, like Septime Webre, and I’m given opportunities, which is definitely a positive thing,” explains Guimarães, who is forced to rely on financial support from his parents. “But it is difficult because we are not always treated as professionals.”

The ticking career clock can also be a source of distress. For 22-year-old Kathleen Dahlhoff, who was a San Francisco Ballet School trainee before becoming an apprentice at Cincinnati Ballet, the frustration of performing in a professional corps since the age of 15 without the benefits of a corps contract was real. “You find out there are awesome dancers that have been apprentices for four to five years,” explains Dahlhoff, who left CB after a budget error made another year of apprenticeship impossible. “You start thinking, ‘Why haven’t I gotten a corps contract yet?’ and you worry that directors you audition for will think that, too.”

And dancers should be aware that programs vary considerably. Igor Antonov, director of Richmond Ballet’s second company, advises young dancers to do their homework before auditioning. “Everybody is using the name of second company so differently,” he says. “When someone tells me ‘I am an apprentice,’ I have to wonder what it really means and ask where they fit in with our organization. You should understand what you are auditioning for and what you are going to get.” For instance, unlike Richmond’s trainee program, RBII offers dancers a weekly salary and health insurance. And while it is still the big criteria for getting into Richmond Ballet, RBII often performs the same repertoire.

Richmond Ballet II's Stephanie Singletary and Connor Frain in Ancient Airs and Dances (photo by Marianne Leach, courtesy Nashville Ballet)

How Long Do I Stick It Out?

Young dancers can’t change the way companies are structured, and they should be aware that many corps members today experienced a similar rite of passage. But deciding how long to hang on in a semi-professional position while establishing hard-line goals along the way can help them navigate a path.

For instance, if you are receiving positive feedback where you are and are offered a chance to stay another year, consider sticking it out. “If you can stay on, it is better,” explains Vasterling. “I am looking for someone who is committed to the art and the field and also interested in fulfilling that commitment with Nashville Ballet.”

But what if it’s not possible to stay and be promoted in one place? “If I had to move on and was presented with another second company option, it would depend on the company and what they offer,” says Arielle Friedman, who recently signed a second-year apprentice contract with BalletMet. “I might consider it to continue dancing.”

Once dancers reach their personal ultimatum, however, they need to consider ways to be proactive and resourceful. Dahlhoff decided to diversify her background instead of taking another low-level position elsewhere. She is now a junior at the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program and hopes the modern dance experience will make her more marketable when she goes back to auditioning. “I have a good brain, and if I have to, I can move on from dance.”

For Quan, a combination of patience, perseverance and creativity helped her when she wasn’t promoted to the corps in Charlotte. Rather than give up, she joined First State Ballet Theatre, a small primarily classical company in Delaware. The work was part-time, but it gave her two years of paid professional experience before landing her dream job at BalletX. “It’s hard to find your place in the dance world,” she says. “But it is possible that your future is somewhere else.”

Candice Thompson, a former dancer, is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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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
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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Your Career
Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

Keep reading at dance-teacher.com.

Your Career
Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.

Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.


Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets

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Your Career
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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Your Best Body
Mikayla Scaife of The Ailey School's Professional Division. All photos by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Whether you're being lifted in The Nutcracker's grand pas de deux or doing weight-sharing in contemporary choreography, female ballet dancers can't expect their partner to do all the work. "Strength with stability is a hallmark," says Rebecca Kesting, staff physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. The other person is usually moving too, she says, so you need to be able to use your upper-body strength to find stability.

Kesting recommends these three exercises, which imitate pressing into a partner. If you're just starting to build upper-body strength, practice them four days a week to develop your shoulder stabilizers and upper-back muscles. Later on, you can scale back to two or three times weekly for maintenance.

You'll need:

  • an inflatable ball you can hold in your hand (like a kickball or smaller)
  • a foam roller


Side Plank with Port de Bras

Regular and side planks strengthen the shoulder stabilizers, like the serratus anterior, along with the abdominals. Once you've mastered these basic forms, Kesting recommends a side plank with moving port de bras. Play with your own pattern, like first to fifth to second, and then reverse. "You get the stability of pressing away from the ground as you would through a partner," she says. "And you're adding that dance-specific movement."


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