Heather Ogden in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy NBoC.

Under Pressure: Is It Possible to Join a Company Without High-Profile Training Credentials?

All photos by Angela Sterling for Pointe

When National Ballet of Canada principal Heather Ogden was in high school, she earned a spot at Royal Winnipeg Ballet School's year-round program. She had loved their summer intensive and knew she wanted to dance professionally—but she also knew that she wasn't ready to leave home. “I was reluctant to leave my family," she says. “It was a hard decision, but I knew I was getting really good training at home." She took a chance and stayed at her home studio, Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, until she graduated high school and auditioned for NBoC.

These days, many promising ballet students leave home for professional schools, hire personal coaches and jet from one competition to another. Those who lack the financial means for such training, or aren't ready (or allowed) to leave home yet, may feel they have no chance at making it professionally. Pointe investigated four training “disadvantages" in today's high-profile world. Here's how to make sure you're still on track for a career.


1. I train at my local studio.

With the ever-increasing demand for versatile training, it's hard to get the necessary depth and variety of study at home, which is why moving away to attend a conservatory or company school is so appealing. They provide extensive classes in partnering, contemporary, character and pointe, as well as performance experience. Students dance alongside their more advanced peers, and have exposure to artistic directors and choreographers.

But at auditions, it's not the name of your school that wins you the contract. "The bottom line is, we pick the dancers that we think are the best dancers," says Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. "It doesn't matter if you trained in Timbuktu." Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater agrees: "I see kids that have been to some top schools, and something is missing from their training. Then I see kids with beautiful training, and I've never heard of their school."

That said, dancers who study locally must be brutally honest about the quality and versatility of their training. Perhaps there aren't boys to partner with, or few opportunities to learn different styles and genres. It's up to you to supplement your training by seeking out classes, workshops and summer programs to complete a well-rounded dance education. Start by finding the best technical training in your area. (For some, this may mean taking classes at more than one studio.) Wheater recommends researching examples of school syllabi online and modeling your own training after one or two that align with your goals.

And don't forget to embrace the benefits of your home studio. For Ogden, this meant more stage time than some of her peers at boarding schools received. For Ballet San Jose dancer Nicole Larson, who trained locally at the Naples Dance Conservatory, the biggest benefit was the one-on-one attention she received.

2. I go to a regular high school.

Heather Larson and Alex Kramer in Jessica Lang's Eighty One. Photo by Alejandro Gomez, Courtesy Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley.

Many pre-professional dancers forgo traditional high school in favor of online study. The impetus here is legitimate: Online school is flexible, often free and takes less time in the day than regular high school, leaving more time for pre-professional training. But it also means giving up that traditional high school experience.

The decision here doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. Ogden, for instance, attended a normal high school, but she made a special arrangement to receive credit for her dance training. She left school early before the last class period, arriving at her studio in time for an extra technique class. "I did a few ballet projects to receive those credits for art or P.E.," she says.

Larson also attended a full-time high school and enjoyed having a life outside of ballet. She and Ogden agree that having non-dance friends is one of the benefits, though it's hard to find time to socialize when you're headed to rehearsal. "When your friends want to go to a football game or the movies and you have ballet—that was difficult," says Larson. "I really tried to stay focused, because I knew I didn't want to do anything else."

3. I don't compete.

Ballet competitions can be a controversial topic, but when approached the right way, they can be beneficial. Beyond the exposure and potential for resumé-boosting medals and scholarships, they allow students to learn how to perform under pressure, build confidence onstage and receive individualized feedback.

If you don't have the means to participate in high-profile competitions, and you have a strong desire to do so, Wheater recommends setting up a student showcase at your home studio, where each student will perform variations for a panel of teachers who write personalized feedback. "Even if you don't have the resources to compete, you can still have an evaluation system where you're able to be really objective throughout the year on what you need to work on," he says. Shelly Power, academy director at Houston Ballet Academy, also recommends attending nearby competitions as an audience member to learn more about the talent in your area and how you fit in. To gain experience outside of your comfort zone, make a regular practice of going to master classes in neighboring towns.

4. I don't have a private coach.

Personalized feedback is vital to any aspiring dancer, but this doesn't necessarily require hiring a private coach, which is often expensive. For Larson, her classes were small already, and she was even able to schedule individual sessions right at her home studio. At large schools, on the other hand, formally scheduled private lessons may be hugely beneficial.

If you're looking for more individualized feedback but don't have the funds for weekly private lessons with a star teacher, Morgan recommends contacting the company manager of your local professional ballet company. One of the company dancers may be willing to coach you and teach you repertoire for a reduced rate, especially during the off-season.

Gaining Exposure

At auditions, the big advantage your competitors have is exposure—so as you train, and especially during your last year, it's up to you to be seen by everyone you can. Summer intensives are one of the best ways to meet teachers, choreographers and directors. Many offer scholarships and need-based financial aid. For Larson, her first professional opportunity came through a summer intensive with Milwaukee Ballet; at the program's end, she was invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II. "That was what got my foot in the door," she says.

Morgan notes that less exposed dancers should focus on building relationships. "It's good to see someone multiple times," she says of those who attend summer intensives and company auditions more than once. Directors may feel more comfortable offering a contract to someone if they gain an idea of the dancer's consistency and personality.

Now's the time to make your connections work for you—and you might be better connected than you realize. "There's the saying, 'six degrees of separation.' Well, in the ballet world it's probably two," says Morgan. "Your teacher probably knows somebody who knows somebody." For instance, during Ogden's senior year, her teacher, a former professional dancer, recommended her to NBoC, and she was invited to audition. At 17, fresh out of her home studio, her career began. "I was less exposed, for sure," says Ogden. "But I had a lot of support."

Latest Posts


Jayme Thornton

Roman Mejia Is Carving His Own Path at New York City Ballet

In a brightly lit studio high above the busy Manhattan streets, Roman Mejia rehearses George Balanchine's Allegro Brillante. Though just 20, the New York City Ballet corps dancer exudes an easy confidence. Practicing a tricky sequence of triple pirouettes into double tours his breathing becomes labored, but his focus doesn't waver. He works until he finds the music's inherent rhythm, timing his turns evenly and finally landing them with a satisfied smile.

Since joining NYCB in 2017, Mejia has had the chance to take on ballets ranging from Romeo + Juliet to Fancy Free to Kyle Abraham's hip-hop–infused The Runaway. Though he often finds himself the youngest person in the room, Mejia is rarely intimidated. He's been immersed in ballet since birth. His father, Paul Mejia, danced with NYCB in the 1960s, and his mother, Maria Terezia Balogh, danced for Chicago City Ballet and Fort Worth-Dallas Ballet. Both of Mejia's parents and his grandmother attended the School of American Ballet. Now, Mejia is quickly building on his family's legacy, creating buzz with his shot-from-a-cannon energy, rapid-fire footwork and charismatic charm.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

A Letter from the Editor in Chief

Hi Everyone,

These are challenging times. The social distancing measures brought about by COVID-19 has likely meant that your regular ballet training has been interrupted, while your performances, competitions—even auditions—have been cancelled. You may be feeling anxious about what the future holds, not only for you but for the dance industry. And that's perfectly understandable.

As you adjust to taking virtual ballet class from your living rooms, we here at Pointe are adjusting to working remotely from our living rooms. We've had to get a little creative, especially as we put our Summer Issue together, but like you we're taking full advantage of modern technology. Sure, it's a little inconvenient sometimes, but we're finding our groove.

And we know that you will, too. We've been utterly inspired by how the dance community has rallied together, from ballet stars giving online classes to companies streaming their performances to the flood of artist resources popping up. We've loved watching you dance from your kitchens. And we want to help keep this spirit alive. That's why Pointe and all of our Dance Media sister publications are working nonstop to produce and cross-post stories to help you navigate this crisis. We're all in this together.

We also want to hear from you! Send us a message on social media, or email me directly at abrandt@dancemedia.com. Tell us how you're doing, send us your ideas and show us your dance moves. Let the collective love we share for our beloved art form spark the light at the end of the tunnel—we will come out the other side soon enough.

Best wishes,

Amy

Tulsa Ballet in Ma Cong's Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music. Kate Luber Photography, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Mark Your Calendars for These Online Ballet Performances

As COVID-19 has forced ballet companies around the world to cancel performances—and even the remainder of their seasons—many are keeping their audiences engaged by streaming or posting pre-recorded performances onto their websites or social media channels. To help keep you inspired during these challenging times, we've put together a list of upcoming streaming events and digital performances.

Keep reading SHOW LESS