As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.
I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.
The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.
About two weeks later my mom and I headed to Chicago to try out for a different school. This time, I had an idea of what to expect, and it made a difference. The director was just as intimidating, but I knew I couldn't let my insecurities get the better of me. Whenever the nervous butterflies hit, I made conscious efforts to keep calm by taking deep breaths and giving myself little silent pep talks. And while I still felt invisible among the hundred or so sweaty dancers, I was holding my own. I had no idea if I'd made it afterwards, but I felt a lot better about the overall experience.
By my third summer intensive audition, I was seeing familiar faces from the previous two, which was comforting. My teacher back home had encouraged me to view the audition as a master class, advice that really helped take some of the pressure off. Feeling more relaxed and self-assured allowed me to dance less timidly and smile more freely. Of course, I was still anxious about being evaluated—but it was manageable. And I sensed that this director liked me.
To my great relief, I was accepted to the last two schools. But it probably comes as no surprise that the first one rejected me—and boy, did I feel embarrassed. But here's what that experience taught me: Auditioning takes practice. It forces you out of your comfort zone in the most vulnerable way. I had to learn how to control my anxiety and present myself confidently, even in the face of someone else's doubt. As I grew more acclimated to the process, auditioning became easier (although it never became easy). And rejection, I realized, was something I'd have to learn how to deal with, especially when I became a professional. I'm glad I kept trying, because in the end, that first audition wasn't the be all/end all of my dance career. But it was an excellent education.