Should I turn down an apprenticeship to finish my dance degree, or should I put my education on pause? —Ashleigh
Congratulations on receiving an apprenticeship offer! They don't come every day. If you think you're ready for company life, and will be full of regrets if you turn the offer down, you can always resume school later. However, make sure you know what the position entails.
Not all apprenticeships are paid, and there's no guarantee that you'll be promoted to the company's corps de ballet at season's end. Are you comfortable entering the dance world without the security of a college degree? And are you motivated enough to return to school if you put your education on pause now?
Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn’t feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman,” she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University’s ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there.”
The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU’s Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it’s the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school,” she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.
College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.
A Taste of Campus Life
Many college summer programs aim to mimic the experience of being a year-round student. “What’s ideal about it is that they get a real taste of the university,” says Vernon. “They’re on IU’s campus and in our dorms, taking class from our regular faculty, learning the rep our students performed the previous school year.” Dancers also have lectures from professors in music for dance and take theater dance classes. At the dorms, says Vernon, “the RAs are all ballet majors who can talk to them about the department and show them what our standards are.”
At the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, summer intensive students are exposed to the eclectic atmosphere of its conservatory life. UNCSA offers three simultaneous intensives in classical, comprehensive and commercial dance. Classical and comprehensive track students take many of their classes together. Visiting guest artists supplement the year-round faculty, including recent UNCSA alums like New York City Ballet’s Claire Kretzschmar, American Ballet Theatre’s Kelley Potter and former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Sam Shapiro.
In fact, guest faculty makes up a large component of these intensives, allowing students to make professional connections. At the University of Utah’s summer intensive, program director Michael Bearden brings in three or four artistic directors each year. “It’s a great opportunity for our students to get exposure to people who may be scouting for their own companies,” says Bearden. Recent examples included Cincinnati Ballet’s Victoria Morgan, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Peter Boal, Kansas City Ballet II manager Anthony Krutzkamp and UNCSA dance department dean Susan Jaffe.
Kara Roseborough, a junior at U of U, was initially drawn to its summer intensive partially because of its guest teachers. But she found herself excited by the university’s own faculty, as well as the atmosphere on campus. “U of U wasn’t on my radar until I went that summer, but I was so impressed by the teachers, felt so nurtured and pushed, that it was an environment I became very interested in,” she recalls. She’s now double majoring in English and ballet and hopes to add dance journalism to her experience someday.
Getting Your Foot in the Door
Attending a college intensive may also give you an advantage if you decide to audition for the year-round academic program later. Department directors and faculty are often actively recruiting—and assessing—potential applicants during the summer. “Talent is only one aspect of becoming a great artist,” says UNCSA summer program director Sean Sullivan. “Characteristics that take time to assess in a person, like tenacity, work ethic, curiosity, imagination and respectfulness all play into who might be an ideal candidate for our program. So if we’ve had five weeks to get to know and appreciate a dancer, versus three hours at an audition, it’s very beneficial.”
Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of The Juilliard School’s dance department, agrees, and notes that the process goes both ways for students attending the school’s summer intensive: “You get three weeks of experience in the Juilliard way of training, working and living. You can decide whether you like it or not, and we can decide whether we think you’re the right material for us.”
Current senior Angela Falk says attending Juilliard’s summer intensive not only solidified her hunch that she wanted to enroll there, it made her less intimidated to apply. “I absolutely felt more confident going into the audition for the college program,” she says. “Knowing who was teaching the audition class, as well as several of the other dancers, made me feel comfortable.”
Visit Again During the School Year
While summer is a great chance to preview college life, directors agree that those interested in the degree program should revisit campus during the school year. Sullivan says that while the intensity and professionalism is the same, “during the year, the depth of exploration is greater. We do four major dance productions, and the students are also taking their academic classes. It’s well worth it to come again.”
Even so, Falk is glad she was able to spend a summer on campus. “I felt like a Juilliard student for three weeks,” she says. “On the last day, I told my parents, ‘If I ever got into this school, I don’t know how I’d pass it up.’ ”
Gavin Larsen teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
During his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma, Austin Crumley switched the focus of his Bachelor of Fine Arts from ballet performance to ballet pedagogy. “I figured I already knew how to perform," he says. “I wanted to take advantage of OU's incredible faculty to learn something new." The degree change didn't close any doors for Crumley, who joined Sacramento Ballet this fall. However, he plans to focus on teaching after he retires. “The pedagogy degree turned a passion into a potential long-term career," he says.
Some degree-seeking dancers opt to concentrate on dance studies outside the traditional performance track—from dance science or administration to dance media, pedagogy, or even cultural studies. And for many, these degrees can support long careers both onstage and beyond.
Upon high school graduation, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college or pursuing a career right away. Since a dancer's professional life is short, many who put school on hold plan to eventually go back. But with more options than ever before—from online degree programs to night classes to college programs developed solely for dancers—it is becoming much easier to pursue a degree while performing professionally. Rather than wait until retirement, many dancers are getting a head start on their education now. Three dedicated professionals explain what they've gained by going back to school, and how they've made it happen.
Tiffany Mori as Juliette. Courtesy Saint Louis Ballet.
Is college in your future? Planning to dance when you get there? If the answer is yes—or if you’re agonizing over these very questions and want more information before making the decision—you need to check out these upcoming college dance fairs.
Só Dança College Dance Fair
September 2−4, Boca Raton, Florida
Butler University, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Point Park University and the University of Arizona are just some of the colleges participating in this year’s South Florida College Dance Fair, presented by Só Dança. Rising juniors and seniors, and their parents, can look forward to a weekend jam-packed with master classes and information sessions to help you get your questions answered and a feel for college dance programs.
The event will be held at Boca Ballet Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida, September 2−4. Registration is required and cost of attendance is $169. Visit event website here.
Dancing Through College and Beyond
October 22, New York City
The Dancing Through College and Beyond Festival in New York City is an invaluable networking opportunity for high school students. Meet faculty, students and alumni of college dance programs; take movement classes and even attend in-person auditions. Though the lineup of participating schools isn’t yet announced, last year’s fair hosted nearly 50 colleges, including Cornish College of the Arts; Purchase College, State University of New York; University of Hartford, The Hartt School; University of Southern California, Glorya Kaufman School of Dance; and many more.
The fair takes place Saturday, October 22 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, with an evening reception and performance on Friday, October 21. Preregistration is required. Visit here for more details.
CNADM Fall Dance College and Career Fair
November 4−5, Oak Brook, Illinois
This Midwest fair, presented by the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, isn’t just for prospective college students. In addition to universities and conservatories, attendees will have the chance to meet representatives from professional programs, talent agencies and other dance industry businesses. The two-day event will include Q&A panel discussions, classes and audition workshops. Find out about the college admissions process, scholarships and financial aid, planning college visits, and more.
The fair takes place November 4−5 in Oak Brook, Illinois. There’s no registration or cost required to enter the exhibit area, but workshop participation requires registration and a fee. Find out more and register here.
Unable to travel to one of these fairs?
Get info on hundreds of college dance programs at your fingertips with the Dance Magazine College Guide.
Informal connections between BFA programs and professional troupes have been around for decades. But in the last dozen years, some companies and universities began formalizing their relationships, creating joint BFA/trainee programs that provide enrollees both significant pre-professional experience and a four-year degree. In a time of shrinking job opportunities and rising tuition costs, that makes sense.
Maggie Wright Tesch, the University of Utah’s liaison with Ballet West in Salt Lake City (where she formerly danced), explains that combined BFA/pre-professional programs give dancers more settings to train in as well as “a college education, a plan B, because a career can end with one injury.”
Among the advantages, Tesch continues, is that students have two sets of coaches, as well as twice the stage time as a regular trainee. University summer intensives provide experience and credits toward a four-year degree. While the workload is intense, such programs tend to be small and are often flexible.
Still, they’re not for the faint of heart. Prospective students often audition for the company’s trainee program as well as the university’s dance department. They must be admitted to the school’s academic program and fulfill its basic education graduation requirements. Additionally, with few job openings each year, their chances of being hired by the affiliated company after graduation are small. That can be a source of disappointment—but also spur the dancer’s strength and creativity.
Essentially, joint BFA/trainee programs hedge participants’ bets, increasing their time in the studio and on the stage, exposing them to a wide array of choices inside and outside of dance and providing a college degree. While the demands are great, so is the potential payoff. Pointe spoke with three professional dancers who graduated from joint programs. Not all of them received company contracts, but all were pleased with the quality and flexibility of their educational experience.
Kimberly Ballard: Ballet West and University of Utah
(Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West)
Ballet West corps artist Kimberly Ballard, 26, was not focused on getting into BW when she was applying to colleges. But after she enrolled at the University of Utah, she became a sort of guinea pig for its joint program with the company. After getting her BFA, she continued into U of U’s MFA program—at the same time, she became a BW trainee.
Ballard epitomizes the hard work and planning so helpful to joint-program students, who undertake long days filled with department and trainee classes and rehearsals, as well as academic courses. Because she’d passed several high school AP exams, Ballard placed out of some requirements. She also took academic classes at a community college in the summer, gaining additional college credits in her “downtime,” thereby saving on tuition. By pursuing her MFA, she set herself up for a teaching career.
Though her traineeship with BW undoubtedly shaped Ballard’s performance quality and technique, the university program provided variety. “I did exchange programs in the Basque region of France and with the State Ballet School of Berlin,” she says. As a member of the university’s highest-level repertory company, Utah Ballet, she performed not only in a piece that involved “unitards and bungee cords” but, 20 minutes later, as Aurora. Meanwhile, she danced corps roles in BW’s productions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Chaconne.
“For me,” Ballard says, “the joint program worked out very well.” She joined BW II after graduation. Now, in addition to being a company member, she’s putting her degree to use as an adjunct assistant professor at the university.
Michael Montgomery: Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Dominican University of California
(Photo by RJ Muna, Courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet)
Michael Montgomery, a dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, had always wanted to dance with the San Francisco–based company. “I saw their world-famous calendars,” he says, “before I knew of LINES or the Dominican University/LINES Ballet BFA program.” Even in still photos, “the artists showed nothing less than excellence.”
Montgomery’s initial step, however, was to enroll in The Ailey School’s certificate program at age 17. “That was the first time I understood the meaning of technique,” he says. But he felt he was being trained to blend in—"An important art to learn,” he says. “It just did not make me feel alive.”
Montgomery reached out to Dominican/LINES BFA director Marina Hotchkiss. “I explained to her that I do not want to live in a box of dance, but rather in a world of endless possibility,” he says. King, he adds, is “opposed to cookie-cutter dancers.” Though LINES Ballet has a non-degree trainee program, Montgomery never considered it. “Schooling and college were always very important to me,” he says.
He became a Dominican/LINES BFA student in 2008. And though his days were long, they were also rewarding. “I had dance classes in many vernaculars from 9 am to 2:30 pm,” he says, “and academic classes until 10 pm some days.” He particularly enjoyed his religion and philosophy classes, and says that, like the LINES faculty, his Dominican professors “believe there is no plateau of knowledge.” King, who taught a number of Montgomery’s classes, offered him a company contract his junior year, allowing him to finish his BFA on the side. The experience, Montgomery says, was “beyond worth it.”
Kyoko Ruch: Richmond Ballet and Virginia Commonwealth University
(Photo by Ruth Judson, Courtesy Gin Dance Company)
Kyoko Ruch—a self-described naïve bunhead in high school—only wanted to focus on dancing when Richmond Ballet offered her a traineeship in 2004. But when her family learned of the company’s joint program with Virginia Commonwealth University, they talked her into doing both. Two years later, she became an RB apprentice and dropped the VCU program because her work schedule left no time for coursework.
When Ruch auditioned for the main company, however, she was turned down. “I was disappointed,” says Ruch, “but I wasn’t lost, because I had VCU’s program to go back to.”
In fact, not getting into a ballet company (she auditioned for more than one) proved a blessing. In her final two years at VCU, she was able to take some modern and choreography courses. “Most ballet companies now do a lot of contemporary work—and I didn’t really have any idea how to move that way,” she says. “With the modern training, we danced more conceptually, which actually aided my ballet technique.”
Choreography and improvisation classes meant even more to her. “As a ballet dancer, I just wanted to do what I was told,” she says. “Choreography sparked my creativity.” She received her BFA in 2010 and is currently teaching and performing with two DC-area contemporary troupes, Company Danzante and Gin Dance Company. Last year she was chosen as Company Danzante’s first choreographer in residence. Though she originally expected to put off college, she’s glad it didn’t work out that way. “I transformed into another creature.”
During her first semester with Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Rachel Silvern surprised herself. “Growing up, the focus was always on dancing to please others, to get cast in something,” she says. “But at Columbia, suddenly it wasn’t about who was watching or what they thought. I was dancing for myself—and rediscovering why I danced in the first place.”
For serious ballet students who don’t plan to major in dance in college, performing with a student-run ballet company is becoming an increasingly accessible option. More and more schools offer them. And the troupes can be incubators for real talent—alumni of Harvard Ballet Company, for example, now dance with American Ballet Theatre, Los Angeles Ballet and Ballet Austin.
Student-run troupes aren’t about polishing your dancing—the training will never be as rigorous as a dance department’s. Yet the do-it-yourself spirit can lead to artistic growth like Silvern’s, or new behind-the-scenes interests. A student company can also provide possibilities to take on leadership roles by choreographing, teaching or directing. However, the opportunities vary widely from school to school. Figuring out what you’ll gain from the experience requires a little investigating.
Level and Commitment
The first indicator of a company’s level of professionalism? Auditions. Some companies require dancers to try out at the start of every semester or school year, and take only students who dance at an intermediate or advanced level. Others allow anyone to show up to their open class, which probably won’t be as intense.
Also look at how many hours of class and rehearsal will be required. You’ll typically find one weekly 90-minute class, taught by company members or the occasional guest artist, plus rehearsals. Stanford University’s Cardinal Ballet Company, for example, holds a four-hour rehearsal each Sunday (one hour per piece). However, the company doesn’t give any company class, so most members rely on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday advanced ballet classes in Stanford’s dance division. Serious dancers at any student company almost always have to take outside classes through their school or a local studio to keep up their technique.
Most companies offer two or more performances a year, with a varied repertoire that typically includes at least one classical variation from a ballet such as Paquita or Swan Lake. Often, interested dancers also have the opportunity to choreograph on their peers.
Many troupes bring in guest artists to set work as well. Cardinal Ballet Company recently performed a piece by Amy Seiwert. Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which reaps the benefits of its New York location, works regularly with Emery LeCrone and other New York–based artists. “Choreographers love working with our company because we provide studio space and high-caliber dancers, and they get the opportunity to spend a whole semester working on a new piece,” says Silvern. Dancers from New York City Ballet occasionally perform with Columbia Ballet Collaborative as well.
At some troupes, such as Harvard Ballet Company, directors take dancers’ preferences into account while casting “We try to foster a collaborative, egalitarian environment,” says member Bridget Scanlon. Others, such as Columbia Ballet Collaborative, reflect the professional world by allowing choreographers to cast their own pieces.
Gateway to a Career?
Though some alumni go on to performing careers, a major benefit of student companies is the exposure to other aspects of the field. Dancers frequently end up working offstage in production, administration and development roles. Recent Stanford graduate Colette Posse notes that classmates who were in Cardinal Ballet Company now work in the administration of companies such as Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and have even founded their own contemporary ballet troupes.
“Even though a student-run company doesn’t have the prestige that would make it a stepping stone to a career in itself, dancers can use it to keep performing,” says Claremont Colleges Ballet Company co-founder Emily Kleeman, who takes advantage of the leadership opportunities she might not get anywhere else. “I personally am interested in choreography, so I use this experience as practice for my goal of one day running my own company.”
Compete in Cape Town
Classical ballet has a strong following in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Ballet Competition, founded in 2008 by Dirk Badenhorst of the South African Manzi Ballet, attracts talent from all corners of the globe—and a number of young North Americans have already made their mark there.
Competition dates: February 17–23, 2014
Application deadline: January 13, 2014
Divisions: Seniors (21–28), juniors (16–20), scholars (12–15)
Held: Every other year
Fee: $120, plus travel and lodging
Judging: A point system weighing artistry (30%), technique (30%), presentation (30%), grooming (5%) and preparation (5%)
2014 judges include: Marcia Haydée, artistic director of Ballet de Santiago; Ramona de Saa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba; Hae Shik Kim, artistic director of the Seoul International Dance Competition and Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet
Past participants: Hannah Bettes, Alys Shee, Aaron Smyth
“Think of yourself as a rubber band being pulled from the top and bottom to create one elongated line. My teacher John Adamson taught me you can’t simply ‘pull up’—you also have to have your legs firmly rooted below you with energy shooting downward.” —North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Emily Ramirez
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
I feel like more and more people are passing me technically every year. Though I’m only 14, this is the most important time of my training and when I have the best chance to be noticed. At what age should you really know whether dance is the right path for you? —Eleanor
Relax. You still have some solid training years ahead and time to determine whether a career is right for you. Dancers progress at different speeds, especially at your age, when bodies are changing and experiencing growth spurts. I had doubts about making it as a professional when I was 14, too. But with a lot of hard work I made significant improvements, and by my senior year of high school, I knew a career was possible. Give yourself a chance—a lot can change in the next few years.
Still, you are at a crucial point. Decide if you are willing to commit to the intensive training schedule necessary for becoming a professional. If not, then you’re in the wrong business. But if you are
willing, make the most of it right away. Be sure you’re going to an excellent ballet school, taking as many classes as possible, auditioning for summer programs and learning everything you can about the field.
If you’re behind technically, do some “extra credit” to catch up. Take a few additional classes or set up some private instruction. Find a free studio to practice on your own. Set realistic goals for yourself, and then evaluate your progress every few weeks. Talk to your teachers; let them know you want to pursue a dance career and ask for feedback. And check in with yourself periodically—your interests may change, and that’s okay. Fully explore your possibilities. You’ll know eventually if you’re headed in the right direction.
I was told that I have weak ankles. I’ve been practicing relevés, but my ankles aren’t getting any stronger. What else can I do? —Savannah
Weak ankles are prone to sprains, so you’re smart to want to strengthen them. Invest in a medium-strength resistance band (commonly called a Thera-Band), found at sporting goods stores and on dance supply websites. I practice a series of ankle strengthening exercises with mine every day before class.
Sit on the floor with your feet in front of you, looping the band around the ball of one flexed foot. While gently pulling on the band, wing your foot out and slowly bring it back to center. Shannon Casati of Ballet Austin’s physical therapy team recommends doing 10 to 20 repetitions, or until you feel a burning sensation in your muscles. Then reverse the exercise with the foot sickling in. You can also use the band to practice pointing and flexing your foot.
Casati also recommends another exercise to increase ankle stabilization: Standing in parallel, lift one leg up in a turned-in retiré. Cross your arms over your chest and balance. “Once you feel comfortable,” says Casati, “try closing your eyes. When you’ve mastered that, try the exercise while balancing on a pillow.” Stay diligent with your exercises and your relevés. Eventually, you should notice a difference in your ankle strength.
I’ve been offered work in a company in New York, but my parents insist that I get a college degree. Is there any way I could earn a degree while dancing professionally? —Pascale
You can definitely go to school while dancing professionally, and many dancers do. I myself am an English major at Marymount Manhattan College. Since most colleges offer evening, weekend or online courses, it’s easy to pursue a degree part-time. I load up on classes during the summer when I’m not performing and enroll in independent studies or online courses during busy touring seasons. Going to school part-time is a slow process, but credits eventually add up.
“I look for classes that fit into my schedule,” says New York City Ballet soloist Ellen Bar, who takes up to two courses a semester at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. This past spring, she scheduled one class on her day off and another in the morning, before rehearsal. Time management can be challenging, but dancers are disciplined enough to handle the pressure. “I allot certain nights of the week to do homework,” says Bar. “And I usually have a lot of reading, which I can do on rehearsal breaks.”
Sit down with your parents and investigate your options—several are listed in the Dance Magazine College Guide. Hopefully, your parents will understand the rare and exciting opportunity you’ve been given, and be open-minded about part-time education.