Boston Ballet soloist Dusty Button owes much of her success to the fast-paced world of dance competitions. In her early years, she competed in jazz and contemporary, and her first Youth America Grand Prix win landed her a spot at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, which led to a contract with ABT Studio Company.


But less than two months later, Button made an unexpected move for a dancer on the verge of a professional career. She enrolled at The Royal Ballet School. Once there, she found the environment a stark contrast from the competition-focused training that had initially shaped her. “At the school, they would call me 'bull in a china shop' because I could technically do anything they asked, but I didn't do it gracefully," she says. “I learned how to refine my technique. They teach you how to do a single pirouette well before you learn how to do five."

Button's story is one example of how a school's view on competition can factor into its training philosophy. Students who compete are often virtuosic performers with a commanding stage presence; dancers who don't compete often excel in technical nuance and refinement of style, but may not have as much stage experience. When choosing a school, consider how its policy on competition fits your personality and whether it will get you to your career goals.

Training for Competition
There is a stereotype about schools that compete: Students rehearse one or two variations nonstop all year long, to the neglect of well-rounded training. The reality, however, is that many schools view competition as an extension of a dancer's training, rather than the ultimate goal. “It's certainly not our prime focus," says Dierdre Miles Burger, director of Orlando Ballet School. “We submit students to competitions because the preparation is instrumental in getting them stronger and helps their overall technical development. The prize is in the process."

Still, The Rock School for Dance Education co-director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says that dancers who are selected to compete may follow a different rehearsal schedule. “Sometimes while one group is competing, another will be doing a school show," says Spassoff.
Perhaps the biggest difference between students who compete and those who do not is that competing dancers are regularly exposed to the pressures of professional life. Competition forces dancers to take responsibility for the preparation and outcome of their performances, and learn how to deal with nerves. Plus, competing helps build stage presence. And it is a great platform for dancers to be seen by company directors—a potential kick-start to a career.


A No-Competition Policy

Schools that forbid participation in competitions believe that students don't need to look beyond their doors for training, performance and networking opportunities. The School of American Ballet, for instance, emphasizes setting full-length ballets and bringing in outside choreographers. This approach lets a dancer focus solely on technique, with an emphasis on refinement and clarity. “Because we don't compete," says faculty co-chair Kay Mazzo, “it gives us time to train our students in our Balanchine style, using our Balanchine syllabus."

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Nicholas Ade acknowledges that many dancers nab jobs through competitions. The school does not have an official policy, but he believes students shouldn't be seen and evaluated for professional slots until they're truly ready. “We tell students: You will make a name for yourself, but it will be when you are fully cooked, when all the ingredients are there," he says. “Then, you're seen not only for your potential, but in a more finished and polished way, as a young professional."

The key is to choose a school that fits your personality, where you are in your training and your career dreams. What do your favorite companies value? Research their dancers' training paths. The school you choose now will shape the kind of dancer you will become.

SAB of the West (With a Twist)?
There's a new training option for high school dancers in Los Angeles: Come September, the Colburn Dance Academy, a partnership between The Colburn School and Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project, will host its first class of 12 students. The program, directed by recently retired New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer, will have roots in Balanchine, with a diverse set of specialty classes like ballroom, hip hop and piano. “We want to take these dancers and polish them. Prepare them for professional life," says Ringer. “We're excited to expose them to that through LADP." Students will attend dance classes during the day and take academics at nearby schools or online. Ringer hopes the program will eventually expand and secure its own dorm. “We'd like to have a similar model to SAB," she says. Faculty had not been finalized as of press time, but Millepied is scheduled to teach, with several guest artists on rotation. The first for 2014–15 is Wendy Whelan. —Kristin Schwab

Technique Tip
“Using your port de bras from your back changes how your arms look, lengthening your muscles. It will help your classical technique, giving you a cleaner pirouette and higher jump. Before class, I do yoga cat and cows to warm up my lats. Sometimes during barre, I flex my palms so I can feel the full length underneath my arms. You have to set it up at the barre so when you get to center, you don't have to think about it." —Rachel Van Buskirk, Atlanta Ballet

Ballet Training
Kali Kleiman performing at YAGP's New York Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP.

As someone who has judged many ballet competitions, I've had the opportunity to see some breathtaking contemporary solos that combine fantastic technique with well-conceived choreography. Yet it's often hard for us judges to see the artistic intention behind these solos the way we can when watching a classical variation. For one thing, we're simply more familiar with classical ballet's repertoire and characters. But also, when a contemporary solo is just a string of one trick after another, or only delivers one emotion (such as overwrought angst), we don't get to see any artistic depth.

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Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy

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We put together a few of the most important things for dancers to look for in a summer or year-round training program, with the help of the experts at Colorado Ballet Academy:

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Ballet Stars
Elle Macy in Benjamin Millepied's Appassionata. Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Cross-training misconceptions: Before Elle Macy became an apprentice with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was apprehensive about cross-training. "I was warned that it might bulk you, or not to do certain activities because they could potentially injure you." But a stress fracture in her foot changed her perspective. Unable to bear much weight, Macy reluctantly tried stationary biking at her physical therapist's suggestion. "What I learned is that you're not going to get injured from being on an elliptical for 20 minutes or by taking a Pilates class," says Macy. Today, it's not uncommon to find the soloist training on the elliptical, doing ankle stability exercises, using the Pilates reformer or taking a hot yoga class.

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

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