Getty Images

Thinking About College Ballet Programs? Here's a Comprehensive Guide to the Application Process

Updated 11/2/2020

Gone are the days when you had to skip college in order to have a successful ballet career. College ballet programs are better than ever before, providing students with the training, professional connections and performance experience they need to thrive in companies postgraduation. But given the number of elements involved in the application process, choosing the right program can feel daunting. We've broken the college application timeline down step by step to help you best approach each stage along the way.

Christopher Alloways-Ramsey adjusts the arm of a young male dancer during a ballet class.

Christopher Alloways-Ramsey teaches a men's class at University of Utah.

Courtesy University of Utah

Fall of Sophomore Year: Start Your Research

It's never too early to get to know your options, but sophomore year of high school is a great time to start. Talk to your high school's college counselor. They may not be familiar with ballet programs, but they will be familiar with the college application process and timeline. Then, begin your hunt by reading up about different programs on their websites. Don't know where to start? Get recommendations from your dance teachers and read the company bios of dancers that you admire to see where they trained.

Claudia Rhett, who graduated with a BSOF (a BS in music with a ballet emphasis and an outside field in business) from Indiana University this year, found the Dance Magazine College Guide invaluable to her search. The guide, which is published by Dance Media, contains information on more than 600 programs. Once you've come up with a list of schools you're interested in, reach out to their dance departments for more information. "We love talking to prospective students and their families," says Whitney Herr-Buchholz, director of operations and advancement at University of Arizona's dance department. "We encourage students to reach out. We want to help guide their search."

Don't be afraid to ask for direct contacts for professors and current students. "Word of mouth is the best form of research," says Stefanee Montesantos, a 2020 Butler University graduate who earned a BFA in dance performance and a minor in English and creative writing. "It's an authentic source because the person is telling you about their actual experience."

A female college-age dancer in a black sparkly dance dress does arabesque pench\u00e9 on pointe while holding onto her partner's torso, who lunges behind her.

University of Arizona dance students Wen Na Robertson and Omar Rivera in performance

Ed Flores, Courtesy University of Arizona

Fall of Junior Year: Visit Schools (Virtually)

As you head into your junior year of high school, figure out how you will get a sense of campus life and the layout of each school. Nothing will give you a sense of day-to-day life quite like walking around the school's grounds. However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, many universities have stopped allowing in-person visits from prospective students, opting instead for virtual tours. Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, assistant professor of dance and recruitment director for the ballet program at University of Utah. says that their virtual tour not only takes viewers through the department's spacious studios, it showcases the theater, costume shop and physical therapy studio.

Even if you can't visit a campus, Rhett recommends reaching out to the department to see if there are opportunities to talk to current dancers or watch a Zoom class. University of Arizona now holds virtual Q&A sessions with prospective students and their parents. Current dance majors participate so that they can share their first-hand experience.

As you tour schools, either virtually or even just by driving through campus, consider the variables. Rhett says that when she visited colleges, she considered community involvement and volunteer opportunities, as well as how she'd get around via public transit. Think about if you would prefer attending college in the country or a city. Rhett suggests that having an idea of whether you want to attend a big school or small school can help guide your search. Do you want to live on campus in a dorm? If not, what are the off-campus residential options? Be sure to get a sense of what student life is like. Are there clubs or extracurricular activities you might like to join? Are you interested in Greek life? If so, see if you can talk to members of sororities and fraternities. Be sure to get a sense of how the dance department is integrated into the university at large, who your professors would be and what they've done professionally. If possible, get familiar with the area you're visiting, and see if there are nearby ballet companies you'd have access to.

Stefanee Montesantos, in a green leotard and point shoes, pushes over her shoes into a deep backbend, with her left hand on the floor for balance and her right arm reaching up towards the ceiling.

Butler University 2020 graduate Stefanee Montesantos

Courtesy Stefanee Montesantos

Spring of Junior Year: Prepare Your Application Materials

Getting and staying organized is key when it comes to college applications. With so many components to juggle, you'll want a clear system in place. "Create a calendar from day one," says Alloways-Ramsey. Look at each school's website, find their deadlines and put them in your calendar." Your high school guidance counselor may have some useful suggestions for how to stay on top of these dates.

Make a list of all the required application materials and be mindful that there will be separate components for both the universities and the dance programs themselves. When Rhett applied for IU, she had to submit photos, a resumé and an essay to the dance department on top of her regular application materials to the university, such as SAT scores, letters of recommendation and transcripts. If possible, see if you can complete those components before audition season starts.

If a program requires a video submission, make sure you know exactly what they're looking for. Some departments want specific classwork alongside a variation or two, whereas others may be more open to choreographic submissions in other styles, like jazz, modern or tap. "You can choreograph your own piece, but be sure to say that it's self-choreographed," says Montesantos, noting that admissions committees like the innovation and creativity.

A ballet teacher in a black leotard and pants demonstrates a degag\u00e9 derriere at the barre while a group of male ballet students watch.

Autumn Eckman's ballet class at University of Arizona

Ed Flores, Courtesy University of Arizona

Summer Before Senior Year: Plan Out Your Auditions

Have a firm list of the schools you want to apply for before your senior year starts, and then see how they are holding auditions. The process will look different this year since most schools have transitioned to audition videos only. "We will not hold in-person auditions," says Herr-Buchholz. "We feel this is the most accessible and safe way to proceed in light of COVID."

Every school will have their own requirements for what you need to demonstrate on your video, so read the instructions (which can be found on the department website) very carefully. For instance, at IU, prospective students are required to pass a pre-screening audition first. Most schools want barre work and a center combination or two, but some may want to see other styles of dance as well. "We have a set list of the things we want to see. It's very detailed, contains a variety of different elements and comes out to about 20 minutes long," says Alloways-Ramsey.

If you can, film yourself at a local studio. However, know that department heads recognize that not everyone has access to studio space, and you will not be discounted for filming yourself at home. "Production value is not what we're looking at. We're really just looking at technique," says Herr-Buchholz. "We are making additional accommodations as dancers are not able to execute certain movements in certain spaces."

This year, many schools have adjusted their deadlines to accommodate the increase in video submissions. Be sure to stay on top of your deadlines and allow for the time to create audition videos that are specified to each school's requirements. It's time-consuming, but worth the effort.

And when there isn't a global pandemic to contend with? Normally, an in-person audition is your best bet. If colleges hold them next year, keep in mind the time and money you'll spend traveling to attend them and decide how many you can realistically go to. "I applied to three or four programs," says Montesantos. "It's difficult to have an intense audition season when you're a senior. It can be really taxing on the body to do six, seven or eight auditions." Some schools, like the University of Utah, usually hold auditions in multiple locations. Spring of senior year tends to be the heaviest audition season for colleges, but find out if any schools offer fall auditions. A few programs, like University of Arizona, not only have fall auditions, but they allow prospective students to audition twice. "We're happy to give feedback. If a dancer receives a non-accept and would like to audition again, we encourage them to give us a call," says Herr-Buchholz.

Claudia Rhett, who wears a white dress, graduation cap and sash, leans against a pillar outside on her college campus.

Claudia Rhett on her graduation day at Indiana University

Courtesy Claudia Rhett

Spring of Senior Year: Make a Decision

After you've gotten your acceptance letters, making the final decision on where you'll go can feel immense. Just take a deep breath, consider everything you've learned throughout the application process alongside your financial aid options, and go with your gut. "Don't be afraid to make a mistake," says Montesantos, who notes that transferring is an option if you get to college and find that a program is not a good fit. "If you feel a place is good for you, go for it. If you get there and decide it's not for you, really embrace that change." Go into the process with an open mind, and don't be afraid to ask for help; your professors, advisors and peers want to see you succeed. Trust your intuition, and remember that college is just one step on your dance journey.

Latest Posts

The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Intensive

Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

New Documentary "When I’m Her" Shows How Madame Olga’s Positive Affirmations Can Transform Ballet

Michael "Mikey" Cusumano was a rising star at American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s, joining the company at 15 years old and dancing principal roles by age 16. But the high pressure of ballet proved detrimental to his emotional and mental well-being. "I couldn't find the joy in ballet anymore," says Cusumano.

After 10 years as a professional ballet dancer, Cusumano transitioned to Broadway, where his alter ego, a sparkly-turban–wearing Russian ballet instructor named Madame Olga, was able to fully emerge. In Madame Olga, Cusumano became the ballet teacher he wished he had growing up. While Olga's classes feature the same technical rigor as any other intermediate-advanced ballet class, they also incorporate her signature humor and positive affirmations. It's common for Madame Olga's students to vocalize those affirmations while dancing (for example, saying "love" out loud while doing an adagio combination).

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks