Dancers Audition for Houston Ballet's summer program. Bruce Bennett, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

No Big Deal: Don't Let Nerves Sabotage Your Summer Intensive Audition

This story first appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Pointe.

At 15 years old, Elizabeth Murphy gave herself an assignment: Get accepted for summer study at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Then a student at The Rock School for Dance Education in Pennsylvania, she traveled to New York to audition.


It did not go well. “I did a développé side, the simplest thing, and just toppled over," she remembers. “I fell again in a pirouette combination—consecutive turns from fifth. And again, during a traveling combination. At first, they were concerned, but I really knew it was bad when they weren't even worried about me anymore. 'Oh, that girl fell again.' I look back now and just laugh at myself. It was probably the worst class I've ever taken."

She was devastated, and skipped PNB's audition the following year. But as time passed, Murphy came to realize the mistake she'd made: “I was thinking, 'I need to be perfect.' And if you have 'perfect' as your goal, that's a lot harder to achieve than just doing your best. Going for more than you're capable of can hurt you."

Now 23, Murphy can say with confidence that she's learned how to beat her nerves. Oh, and she's now a corps member at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

All dancers agree: Auditions are tough. They're also unavoidable. “No matter how good you are, this is a skill you need if you want a career in ballet," says Allison Walsh, 27, of BalletX in Philadelphia. “There are a lot of beautiful dancers who just don't make it because they don't audition well." For most dancers, chances are good that their first major audition experience will be for summer study. For many students, these programs mark the point in their training where a pastime becomes a passion. And the outcomes of the auditions are often students' first measure of how their talent stacks up nationwide.

Which Strategies Work?
So, how do you handle the anxiety that comes with that pressure? First, recognize that any audition will be stressful, and the more you want the opportunity, the more nervous you'll probably be. And that's okay: Feeling slightly hyper might actually help you. Adrenaline can translate into productive energy as long as you know how to harness it so it powers you toward your goal, not away from it. Think of the challenge as something to be excited about, rather than something to fear.

To get into that mental zone, you'll need to avoid any outside distractions. Murphy packs her bag the night before with extra supplies and shoes. “You've got to prevent little situations from throwing you off," she says. Get plenty of rest, eat a good breakfast, know exactly where you're going and arrive early. Walsh admits that, when she needs an extra boost of self-confidence, “I'll call my mom and have her say something nice to me." She laughs. “That's always helpful."

There's no rhyme or reason to which stomachs get butterflies, when or why. Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, notes that “some people are never nervous, no matter what age." At auditions, she tries to calm the room by offering a little inside information. “I start off by telling them that I did the same thing—I auditioned at their age," she says. “Think of this as just a class you're taking that might be a little different from what you're used to. But the teacher isn't expecting you to grasp everything she's telling you." Mazzo remembers clearly the audition she took for SAB as a Chicago ballet student at age 11. “Madame Antonina Tumkovsky gave a brisé. And I raised my hand and said, 'I'm sorry, but I don't know what that is!' She said, 'That's alright. You don't have to do it.' That's still true for young dancers. Something like that will never be a reason why we wouldn't take a dancer."

Frances Chiaverini, 31, and an inaugural member of Benjamin Millepied's new company, Los Angeles Dance Project, says that auditioning is 90 percent psychological. “It's hard to be objective about something you hold so close to your heart," she says. “But we're all different and we all offer different things. That can help with the feeling that you're up against everyone else in the room. For me, it's better to think of auditions as workshops or master classes, a chance to expose yourself to something new."

This approach also helps the process feel more like a two-way street, with both parties searching for a good fit. Mazzo says students who audition for SAB's summer program “should look at the kind of class we're teaching and consider whether or not it's right for you. Ask yourself, 'Do I like this? Is this for me?' " Chiaverini points out that it's important to remain rational and realistic when asking yourself these questions, and to ask them for the right reasons. “Don't reject first as a defense mechanism."

Who Succeeds at Auditions?
Dr. Steve Julius (who's affectionately referred to by his clients as “Dr. J") is a former team psychologist for the Chicago Bulls. For more than 25 years, he's helped professional athletes, figure skaters and Cirque du Soleil artists overcome performance anxiety. “Athletes and performers who do the best are the ones who can keep their egos under control," he explains. “They don't focus on the outcome. They remind themselves that this game, or this audition, is the same thing they've done a thousand times before."

Yet the extra pressure of an audition can make the familiar seem foreign: You might find yourself second-guessing your abilities during combinations that are smack dab in the middle of your comfort zone. In these moments, hold on to what you love about dancing and approach each step one at a time—calmly. And remember to breathe. “When we're looking at athletes for the Bulls during the college draft, we're looking not just for their drive, but for their love of the game itself," says Julius. “We want the kinds of players who just relax when they hear squeaky sneakers and the pounding echo of the basketball on the floor. In dancers, those are the people who can literally lose themselves in the music, in dancing with others. And that's the difference between performers who consistently succeed and those who are great behind closed doors but seem to melt in front of an audience."

And if it still ends up being the worst class you've ever taken? Remember that you can't control the outcome, says Julius. “What you can control is your focus. Be in the moment. Love the experience, because that's why you've sacrificed so much for it."

Once You Pin on a Number, Remember:
1. Don't be afraid of your nerves. Let the adrenaline boost your energy and sharpen your focus.
2. The teacher isn't expecting perfection; she's looking to see how you handle challenges.
3. Good auditioners are the ones who can forget about what's at stake, and lose themselves in the movement.

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Eighteen-year-old Sarah Patterson (foreground), with her classmates at New Ballet School. She's decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of outdoor, in-person classes. Courtesy New Ballet School.

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When it comes to navigating summer intensives, 2021 may be more complicated for ballet students than last year. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic's spring spike in 2020, summer programs went all-virtual or had very limited capacity. This year is more of a mixed bag, with regulations and restrictions varying widely across state and county lines and changing week by week.

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After a year of shuttered studios, virtual-only classes, and waving to ballet buddies over Zoom, summer intensives are back. For adult students, packing up for a few days of intensive training might seem like a pipe dream, as many of us spent the last year trying to fit in ballet classes while juggling work and, for those of us with kids, remote learning. With the country opening up again, let's start planning (safely!) for workshops that allow us to jump into technique, conditioning and, of course, high-elbowing some new friends.

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CALIFORNIA

Alonzo King LINES Ballet Adult Dance Intensive (virtual only, via Zoom)

May 28–31, San Francisco

Immerse yourself in the celebrated home of Alonzo King, the artistic visionary who created LINES 39 years ago. Now in its second year as a virtual offering, this four-day workshop includes ballet, yoga, Pilates, choreography and contemporary. Students also have the option to drop in to class if they can't commit to all four days.

KENTUCKY

Lexington Ballet Adult Ballet Intensive

July 12–16, Lexington

Why should thoroughbreds have all the fun of training in the horse capital of the world? Reach new heights in your training at Lexington Ballet's Adult Ballet Intensive. Join school directors Luis and Nancy Dominguez and principal instructor Ayoko Lloyd for a five-day workshop that includes conditioning, Pilates, technique and repertoire. All classes are held in the evenings, and the program welcomes beginning through advanced students.

A group of eight smiling adult ballet students\u2014seven women and one man in the middle\u2014pose in a line and stand on their right leg in tendu crois\u00e9 devant.

A group of dancers pose at a past Lexington Ballet Adult Dance Intensive.

Ayoko Lloyd, Courtesy Lexington Ballet

Louisville Ballet Adult Summer Intensive

May 31–June 4, Louisville

Polish off a glass of sweet tea (or two), and then work up a sweet sweat at Louisville Ballet's Adult Summer Intensive. Geared towards beginning through advanced levels, students ages 18+ can take part in half- or full days of training. Classes offered include technique, pointe and jump strengthening, modern, Pilates and yoga. Students will also perform in a livestreamed performance on the final day.

MASSACHUSETTS

Brookline Ballet School Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

June 23–27, Brookline

The Red Sox and New England Patriots may get a bulk of the glory in Beantown, but the city is also a mecca for ballet. At Brookline Ballet School's Adult Summer Ballet Intensive, students (beginner or intermediate level) will spend three weeknights and two weekend mornings in technique and repertoire classes, wrapping up with an informal performance on Sunday afternoon.

NEW YORK

Kat Wildish Presents (virtual, via Zoom)

June 14–25 and July 12–23

Join master ballet teacher Kat Wildish in a virtual intensive that aims to take your training to the next level. Each day, in one-hour classes, Kat will lead students of all levels from basic to advanced in various ballet exercises. The group will be limited to 20 dancers, so each person will get personal attention.

A group of older adult ballet students in leotards, tights or leggings, stand in two lines with their left foot in B+ position and holding hands, as if rehearsing a ballet.

Kat Wildish (far left) working with adult students at Peridance Capezio Center

Matthew Venanzi, Courtesy Kat Wildish

OHIO

artÉmotion Adult Ballet Summer Workshop

June 14–19, Cleveland

Head to the Buckeye State for a week of training under the tutelage of Ballet West first soloist Allison DeBona and principal Rex Tilton. In this Adult Ballet Summer Workshop, beginner and intermediate/advanced students will fine-tune their skills in two classes every morning: a 90-minute technique class followed by a one-hour class in one of the following disciplines: pointe/pre-pointe, acting, men's and women's variations, conditioning.

PENNSYLVANIA

Amy Novinski

May 24–28 and June 28–July 2, Philadelphia

Those interested in the Vaganova technique may want to check out Amy Novinski's Adult Workshops. For the five-day May workshop, newbie dancers can look forward to classes devoted to ballet, jazz and yoga. For those more advanced, the June workshop offers more rigorous technique, contemporary ballet, pre-pointe/beginner pointe and jazz.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Ballet Academy of Charleston Adult Summer Intensive

July 26–30 and August 2–6, Charleston

Embrace the low-country charm in historic Charleston, where a weeklong Adult Summer Intensive at the Ballet Academy of Charleston invites beginning through advanced students to take classes in technique, stretching/Pilates/yoga, pre-pointe or pointe (for advanced students), variations, jazz, modern, contemporary and choreography. You may choose the half-day or full-day program.

TEXAS

Houston Ballet Adult Intensive

June 1–5, Houston

For intermediate/advanced students with at least three years of ballet training, Houston Ballet's Adult Intensive might be the perfect place to hone your skills. The school has two-, three- or five-day options, and includes ballet technique, variations, yoga and Zumba.

UTAH

May 31–June 5, Salt Lake City

Ballet West welcomes students of all levels to artÉmotion's one-week Adult Ballet Summer Intensive. Classes include ballet, contemporary, pointe, jazz, modern, acting, and men and women's variations. Available in full-day or half-day options, those dancing only in the morning will take two 90-minute technique classes. The full-day experience offers the opportunity to be choreographed on for an in-studio performance on Saturday, June 5. All students will also have a professional dance photo shoot with Logan Sorenson.

A group of four men in dance practicewear face the right corner of the room and raise their arm as if beckoning someone. Three of the men stand in parallel, which the man in the middle sits in a wheelchair.

A men's class at artÉmotion Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

Logan Sorenson, Courtesy artÉmotion

INTERNATIONAL

The August Ballet Retreat in Leeds

August 28–30, Leeds, UK

The three-day August Ballet Retreat in Leeds offers classes for students of all abilities. The mornings are devoted to technique, and in the afternoon, students will focus on repertoire. In the past, The Ballet Retreat has taught solos from Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and Giselle. One detail is still tentative: If the retreat is unable to take place in person due to the pandemic, it will be offered virtually over Zoom.

Morlaix International Adult Ballet Camp

July 2–10, Morlaix, France

The Morlaix International Adult Ballet Camp is in the heart of France's Brittany region. In this full-day intensive, intermediate through advanced-level students will be led by an international faculty. Dancers can look forward to morning ballet classes and rehearsals in the afternoon. The week of training wraps up with a performance of Bournonville's Napoli at a nearby theater. Please contact the school for information about room and board.

Still shot by cinematographer Benjamin Tarquin, Courtesy Post:ballet

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