Getty Images

College Conundrums: How To Tell If a College Ballet Program Has What It Takes

As a teen, Louisville Ballet dancer Lexa Daniels knew college was the right path for her. "I wanted to have a career in ballet," she says, "but I wanted to get a foundational education first." After considering several schools, Daniels realized that the University of Utah was the best fit. What tipped the scales in Utah's favor? "At that point in my life, I was looking for true classical ballet," she says, "and the other schools had a more contemporary approach. I also liked Utah's close ties with Ballet West. There's a lot of crossover between the company and the university."

Myriad factors go into choosing a college, from location and cost to campus amenities and potential double majors. But if your goal is to become a professional ballet dancer after graduation, you'll first need to determine which schools are equipped to guide you toward that dream. As you investigate your options, look for these key signs of a strong ballet program.


A Rigorous Curriculum

Getty Images

"When I saw that Utah had a two-hour ballet technique class every day, that intensity was a huge factor in my decision," Daniels says. If you're committing to four additional years of training, you need to be challenged—by the number of hours you're spending in the studio as well as by the work you're being asked to do.

Beyond ballet technique, "you certainly want a dedicated pointe class," says Deborah Wingert, a répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust who has set works at schools including Butler University, Indiana University and University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and who teaches at The Juilliard School. She notes the program should be offering no fewer than three pointe classes a week. Also look for partnering and variations, plus additional disciplines like modern and jazz. "Horton, Graham, Cunningham—those styles make you well-rounded," Wingert says. "These days, if a choreographer asks for a contraction or a release, you need to know what that term means."

When it comes to other disciplines, however, it's vital to strike the right balance. While many dance departments are more modern-focused, "if you want to have a professional ballet career, you need to be somewhere where ballet is primary," says Peter Merz, director of Ballet West Academy and the former head of ballet at Point Park University. "You can be short-changed in ballet when a program is too multidisciplinary."

Top-Notch Teachers

Getty Images

A dance program is only as strong as its faculty. Are they former professional dancers? Have they taught elsewhere? Do they hold advanced degrees? "It's actually nice to see a mix of credentials: people who've come straight from performing and people who've gone to school for education," Wingert says. But with these diverse paths and points of view, "you want a level of cohesion," Wingert goes on. "Even if one teacher is strictly Russian and another is more current, the training should feel complementary."

Consider how well the teachers' methodologies mesh not only with each other but also with your background and goals. For example, if you haven't done much Balanchine work but would like to one day, a department with at least one Balanchine-style instructor could serve you well. Meanwhile, faculty with company connections—especially those with very recent work in the field—can help you network as you near graduation.

Varied Performance Opportunities

Daniels in The Nutcracker

Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

"In college, you need to be dancing a repertoire that will prepare you for the marketplace," Merz says. Do faculty choreograph on students? Are quality guest artists brought in to set pieces? Wingert points out that it's equally important to learn existing works and to have new works created on you. "The best programs will give you the chance to do both," she says. "You need to be working on the cutting edge of ballet, but you also need to know your classics."

Another thing to look into: How many performance opportunities exist over the course of a school year? Are there student choreography showcases as well as main-stage productions? The more time you spend onstage in college, the more prepared you'll be for company life.

Successful Alumni

Keith Luke via Unsplash

If the faculty is the backbone of a dance program, its alumni are its wings. When a department has produced a large number of working dancers, it's a safe bet that it can push you toward a career as well. The schools you're considering should be happy to share where recent grads have ended up, but you can also do some digging on your own. "Many professional dancers make a point of talking about their college careers," says Merz, and a quick web search should provide you with some names. You could also visit company websites to see which dancers are BA or BFA holders.

"My biggest advice is to trust your gut," Daniels says. Did you feel instantly at home when you visited a certain campus, or click with a particular faculty member during your audition? While the country's best ballet programs have certain commonalities, higher education isn't one-size-fits-all. Find what's best for you, and the next four years will be completely worth it.

Latest Posts


Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
VAM/Siggul, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Has Announced the Winners of the 2020 Pas De Deux Virtual Competition

Last weekend, Youth America Grand Prix took to the internet, hosting its first virtual pas de deux competition. Over the course of three days, YAGP streamed videos from its regional events' highest-ranked competitors for a panel of esteemed judges. And, drum roll please... YAGP has just announced the winners, spanning three categories: Senior Classical, Junior Classical and Contemporary.

You can watch the full virtual awards ceremony, hosted by YAGP director of external affairs Sergey Gordeev, below, or scroll down for the list of winners. And if you're missing the thrill of competition, don't fear: Gordeev announced that registration for the 2021 season will open on July 10, with both in-person and virtual options available.

Congratulations to all!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Defining and Refining Musicality: How to Tune In and Develop Your Artistic Voice

Ask a hundred people what musicality is, and you're likely to get a hundred different answers. "Musicality is where an artist's personality shines brightest," says Smuin Contemporary Ballet member Ben Needham-Wood. For American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt, "it's what distinguishes one dancer from another. It helps me express myself more vividly and emotionally."

Teachers encourage it, directors seek it out and dancers who possess it bring choreography to life in compelling ways. But what exactly is musicality, and how can dancers get more of it?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks