Ballet Careers
Eri Nishihara in Rex Wheeler's Symphonic Dances. Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Eri Nishihara graduated from University of Utah with a BFA in ballet performance in 2016.

As her time in high school drew to a close, Eri Nishihara knew she wasn't ready to dance professionally. She had seen dancers her age from other cities at summer intensives and didn't think that she was up to company caliber yet. "I didn't want to feel like I was having to keep up for a lack of training or experience, while adjusting to a new professional life," she says. Nishihara had trained with University of Utah professors in the past, through summer intensives at Ballet West, and felt that their teaching style would best prepare her for a future career.

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Ballet Training
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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.

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Your Training
Dara Oda in Ben Stevenson's Alice in Wonderland with Texas Ballet Theater. Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Texas Ballet Theater

These three current professionals opened up about opting for a degree first, how it impacted their careers and their favorite college memories.

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Should I turn down an apprenticeship to finish my dance degree, or should I put my education on pause? —Ashleigh

Congratulations on receiving an apprenticeship offer! They don't come every day. If you think you're ready for company life, and will be full of regrets if you turn the offer down, you can always resume school later. However, make sure you know what the position entails.

Not all apprenticeships are paid, and there's no guarantee that you'll be promoted to the company's corps de ballet at season's end. Are you comfortable entering the dance world without the security of a college degree? And are you motivated enough to return to school if you put your education on pause now?

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Nicole Ivan, now a dancer with Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, in Elon University's 2016 Fall Dance Program. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Elon University.

During his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma, Austin Crumley switched the focus of his Bachelor of Fine Arts from ballet performance to ballet pedagogy. “I figured I already knew how to perform," he says. “I wanted to take advantage of OU's incredible faculty to learn something new." The degree change didn't close any doors for Crumley, who joined Sacramento Ballet this fall. However, he plans to focus on teaching after he retires. “The pedagogy degree turned a passion into a potential long-term career," he says.

Some degree-seeking dancers opt to concentrate on dance studies outside the traditional performance track—from dance science or administration to dance media, pedagogy, or even cultural studies. And for many, these degrees can support long careers both onstage and beyond.

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Pullen in Colorado Ballet's production of La Sylphide. Photo Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Upon high school graduation, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college or pursuing a career right away. Since a dancer's professional life is short, many who put school on hold plan to eventually go back. But with more options than ever before—from online degree programs to night classes to college programs developed solely for dancers—it is becoming much easier to pursue a degree while performing professionally. Rather than wait until retirement, many dancers are getting a head start on their education now. Three dedicated professionals explain what they've gained by going back to school, and how they've made it happen.

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Wendy Whelan teaching master class at The Hartt School, University of Hartford.

Is college in your future? Planning to dance when you get there? If the answer is yes—or if you’re agonizing over these very questions and want more information before making the decision—you need to check out these upcoming college dance fairs.

Só Dança College Dance Fair

September 2−4, Boca Raton, Florida

Butler University, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Point Park University and the University of Arizona are just some of the colleges participating in this year’s South Florida College Dance Fair, presented by Só Dança. Rising juniors and seniors, and their parents, can look forward to a weekend jam-packed with master classes and information sessions to help you get your questions answered and a feel for college dance programs.

The event will be held at Boca Ballet Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida, September 2−4. Registration is required and cost of attendance is $169. Visit event website here.

 

Dancer in a USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance master class. Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto via USC Kaufman.

Dancing Through College and Beyond

October 22, New York City

The Dancing Through College and Beyond Festival in New York City is an invaluable networking opportunity for high school students. Meet faculty, students and alumni of college dance programs; take movement classes and even attend in-person auditions. Though the lineup of participating schools isn’t yet announced, last year’s fair hosted nearly 50 colleges, including Cornish College of the Arts; Purchase College, State University of New York; University of Hartford, The Hartt School; University of Southern California, Glorya Kaufman School of Dance; and many more.

The fair takes place Saturday, October 22 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, with an evening reception and performance on Friday, October 21. Preregistration is required. Visit here for more details.

 

CNADM Fall Dance College and Career Fair

November 4−5, Oak Brook, Illinois

This Midwest fair, presented by the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, isn’t just for prospective college students. In addition to universities and conservatories, attendees will have the chance to meet representatives from professional programs, talent agencies and other dance industry businesses. The two-day event will include Q&A panel discussions, classes and audition workshops. Find out about the college admissions process, scholarships and financial aid, planning college visits, and more.

The fair takes place November 4−5 in Oak Brook, Illinois. There’s no registration or cost required to enter the exhibit area, but workshop participation requires registration and a fee. Find out more and register here.

Unable to travel to one of these fairs?

Get info on hundreds of college dance programs at your fingertips with the Dance Magazine College Guide.

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Walker in LAB's production of Swan Lake. Photo by Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy LAB.

Today's directors are increasingly looking for maturity, experience and versatility, and choreographers are drawn towards artistically intelligent dancers who can contribute to the creative process. Although ballet dancers have traditionally been wary of losing precious performing years by going to college before heading into the job market, it's becoming routine to see company rosters populated with college grads. For these three professionals, the well-honed skills they gained in school not only boosted their dance careers, but opened doors into a myriad of exciting paths for their futures.

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Young in Nashville's Nutcracker. Photo by Karyn Kipley, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Kristin Young's family is a legacy at Indiana University. While they weren't dancers, both her mother and her sister had attended IU, and she grew up near Indianapolis making regular pilgrimages to Bloomington for sports events. So when the rejection to IU's highly competitive ballet program came, it was a huge blow. “I always thought that I would either go to IU or straight into the professional ballet world," says Young, who is now an apprentice with Nashville Ballet. Luckily, she was careful to apply to several universities. When she was accepted to the University of Oklahoma, she began imagining a different path.

Attending college before a professional ballet career has become a legitimate option for dancers. But because there aren't as many ballet-focused dance programs, serious bunheads tend to only consider a few. If you've got your sights set on just one or two schools, the competition can be as fierce as any company audition. But getting rejected from your preferred college doesn't have to be the end of the world. By researching all the options available to you, and planning your audition process strategically, you can improve your chances of getting into a good second- or third-choice school. Plan B may even end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.

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When not in rehearsal, Hansen studies business at DePaul University.

As dancers, we give everything we have to our careers. We dedicate so much time and energy to our greatest passion in life that we often forget it won't last forever. But at some point we need to plan for life after ballet. After several years at the Joffrey Ballet, I felt it was time to make some concrete plans for the future. Family members began asking what I wanted to do after my ballet career, and I'd reply, “I have absolutely no idea." Since I've wanted to earn a degree, I decided college would be the best place to figure it out.

About two years ago, I enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago. It has an excellent adult program that provides faculty mentors and career counselors, along with a flexible class schedule. Going to school part-time while dancing full-time has been challenging, yet very rewarding—happily, I am now halfway toward attaining my bachelor's degree.

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Boston Ballet's Sarah Wroth in Symphony in Three Movements. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Skipping college for a ballet career wasn't an option for Boston Ballet corps member Sarah Wroth. “I didn't see it as a stable future," she recalls. But she loved ballet and wanted to continue dancing at school. She auditioned for Indiana University, confident she wouldn't be accepted into its highly competitive ballet program. But when the acceptance letter came, she was forced to decide what college would mean for her. Would it be a purely academic pursuit followed by a practical career in education or medicine? Or would she go to college with the intention of having a ballet career?

As high school graduation approaches, you may be faced with similar questions. Do you audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree, or gamble on your dream by going to school? If you go, do you focus solely on dance or go the more academic route? Whatever tides are pulling you, here are some important questions to ask yourself as you navigate your decision.

Am I ready to audition?

Not every 18-year-old is technically or emotionally prepared to enter a company environment. "Looking back, I just wasn't ready," says Wroth, who feels her time spent dancing in college was important for her development as an artist.

Victoria Mazzarelli, artistic director of the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, encourages all of her graduating students to try at least a few company auditions to gauge where they stand. She also suggests that they apply to colleges at the same time. "The avenues and possibilities are vast for them," she says. Knowing your options will make decisions clearer and better inform your conversations with your parents and teachers.

Is there a compromise?

If you're offered a traineeship or company position, it can be hard to walk away—especially if it's your dream company, or one that hires exclusively from their school. Even so, some parents may still need convincing. To gain their support, take their concerns seriously and seek compromise. College comes in many forms, so if they insist that you earn a degree, you may be able to go part-time or take online classes while you dance. For instance, Mazzarelli points to Nutmeg alumna Quinn Pendleton, a corps member with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo who studies online at Harvard University. Mazzarelli says that Pendleton already had a well-established dance career before pursuing her degree, and finds that studying online works well with her touring schedule.

Will college hold me back?

Many dancers spend several years in a trainee program or second company before signing a company contract, so attending a college with a strong dance program may not leave you behind. "I danced almost as much as someone in a small company," says Wroth, who was in classes or rehearsals at IU five to seven hours a day. Just before graduation, she auditioned for Boston Ballet and was offered a contract—she's now been with the company 11 years.

Tauna Hunter, department chair of Mercyhurst University's dance program, acknowledges that while her students don't end up in large companies like New York City Ballet, she has many dancers enjoying fulfilling careers in smaller companies like Colorado Ballet or Nashville Ballet, where they have more opportunity to rise through the ranks and enjoy soloist and principal roles.

If you do choose school, maintain your focus. College is an exciting time full of new friends and experiences, but if you want to compete for a contract when you're finished, you have to dance as much as a professional, even if that means seeking out classes and dance opportunities off campus. "You have to quiet all the noise that covers up a clear view of ballet and the fact that it's what you want to do," says Wroth.

BA or BFA? 

When choosing a dance program, find one that supports your long-term goals both artistically and academically. At Mercyhurst, many of Hunter's students want to "make it count" by pursuing a double major. The school has adapted its BA program to better accommodate them. "The BA program can produce professional dancers," says Hunter. "However, it also offers an opportunity for the student to pursue other interests."

For Wroth, her BS at IU allowed her to major in dance while focusing on education studies as an outside field. The benefit was never more evident than when she had major back surgery last year. "I will always have the empowerment that a degree gives, of knowing that I could do something else."

Meanwhile, BFA programs are structured more like a traditional dance conservatory, with the intent of producing professional dancers and choreographers. They generally require more dance credits than BA programs. Hunter says that it is possible to have another major in Mercyhurst's BFA program, but warns that it's a challenging and more expensive pursuit that spreads some students too thin.

Whatever you decide, move forward confidently. "Leave yourself open to every option," says Mazzarelli. "You never know where you'll end up."

During her first semester with Columbia Ballet Collaborative, Rachel Silvern surprised herself. “Growing up, the focus was always on dancing to please others, to get cast in something,” she says. “But at Columbia, suddenly it wasn’t about who was watching or what they thought. I was dancing for myself—and rediscovering why I danced in the first place.”

For serious ballet students who don’t plan to major in dance in college, performing with a student-run ballet company is becoming an increasingly accessible option. More and more schools offer them. And the troupes can be incubators for real talent—alumni of Harvard Ballet Company, for example, now dance with American Ballet Theatre, Los Angeles Ballet and Ballet Austin. 

Student-run troupes aren’t about polishing your dancing—the training will never be as rigorous as a dance department’s. Yet the do-it-yourself spirit can lead to artistic growth like Silvern’s, or new behind-the-scenes interests. A student company can also provide possibilities to take on leadership roles by choreographing, teaching or directing. However, the opportunities vary widely from school to school. Figuring out what you’ll gain from the experience requires a little investigating.

Level and Commitment

The first indicator of a company’s level of professionalism? Auditions. Some companies require dancers to try out at the start of every semester or school year, and take only students who dance at an intermediate or advanced level. Others allow anyone to show up to their open class, which probably won’t be as intense.

Also look at how many hours of class and rehearsal will be required. You’ll typically find one weekly 90-minute class, taught by company members or the occasional guest artist, plus rehearsals. Stanford University’s Cardinal Ballet Company, for example,  holds a four-hour rehearsal each Sunday (one hour per piece). However, the company doesn’t give any company class, so most members rely on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday advanced ballet classes in Stanford’s dance division. Serious dancers at any student company almost always have to take outside classes through their school or a local studio to keep up their technique. 

Stage Opportunities

Most companies offer two or more performances a year, with a varied repertoire that typically includes at least one classical variation from a ballet such as Paquita or Swan Lake. Often, interested dancers also have the opportunity to choreograph on their peers. 

Many troupes bring in guest artists to set work as well. Cardinal Ballet Company recently performed a piece by Amy Seiwert. Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which reaps the benefits of its New York location, works regularly with Emery LeCrone and other New York–based artists. “Choreographers love working with our company because we provide studio space and high-caliber dancers, and they get the opportunity to spend a whole semester working on a new piece,” says Silvern. Dancers from New York City Ballet occasionally perform with Columbia Ballet Collaborative as well.

At some troupes, such as Harvard Ballet Company, directors take dancers’ preferences into account while casting “We try to foster a collaborative, egalitarian environment,” says member Bridget Scanlon. Others, such as Columbia Ballet Collaborative, reflect the professional world by allowing choreographers to cast their own pieces.

Gateway to a Career?
Though some alumni go on to performing careers, a major benefit of student companies is the exposure to other aspects of the field. Dancers frequently end up working offstage in production, administration and development roles. Recent Stanford graduate Colette Posse notes that classmates who were in Cardinal Ballet Company now work in the administration of companies such as Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and have even founded their own contemporary ballet troupes.

“Even though a student-run company doesn’t have the prestige that would make it a stepping stone to a career in itself, dancers can use it to keep performing,” says Claremont Colleges Ballet Company co-founder Emily Kleeman, who takes advantage of the leadership opportunities she might not get anywhere else. “I personally am interested in choreography, so I use this experience as practice for my goal of one day running my own company.”



Compete in Cape Town

Classical ballet has a strong following in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town International Ballet Competition, founded in 2008 by Dirk Badenhorst of the South African Manzi Ballet, attracts talent from all corners of the globe—and a number of young North Americans have already made their mark there. 
Competition dates: February 17–23, 2014
Application deadline: January 13, 2014
Divisions: Seniors (21­–28), juniors (16–20), scholars (12–15)
Held: Every other year
Fee: $120, plus travel and lodging
Judging: A point system weighing artistry (30%), technique (30%), presentation (30%), grooming (5%) and preparation (5%)
2014 judges include: Marcia Haydée, artistic director of Ballet de Santiago; Ramona de Saa, director of the National Ballet School of Cuba; Hae Shik Kim, artistic director of the Seoul International Dance Competition and Xin Lili, director of the Shanghai Ballet
Past participants: Hannah Bettes, Alys Shee, Aaron Smyth
Website: ctibc.com


Technique Tip

“Think of yourself as a rubber band being pulled from the top and bottom to create one elongated line. My teacher John Adamson taught me you can’t simply ‘pull up’—you also have to have your legs firmly rooted below you with energy shooting downward.” —North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Emily Ramirez

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