I’m interested in eventually pursuing a career in the arts after I’m done dancing. What kinds of jobs are there in a ballet company besides the artistic director and teachers? —Kat

A ballet company is just like any other business—outside of its artistic staff, there are numerous administrative positions for managing its day-to-day operations. For instance, the executive director manages the company’s financial side and non-artistic staff, leads strategic planning and communicates with the board of directors. Companies also have a development department, which is in charge of fund-raising, special events and managing relationships with patrons and potential donors. A company manager may act as an administrative assistant to the artistic director, as well as a tour manager and a liaison between dancers and artistic staff. People in marketing manage the company’s brand, image and social media presence, while public relations associates handle press inquiries and announcements. All of these positions require business acumen, so while your knowledge of ballet is a huge plus, you’ll need a college degree to be considered. For leads on undergraduate and graduate programs in arts management, check out Association of Arts Administration Educators and the National Council of Arts Administrators.

 

Of course, if business skills aren’t your thing, you may want to consider a behind-the-scenes career on the production side. I’ve known several dancers who’ve transitioned into stage management, making sure performances run smoothly from backstage. If you’re itching for something more artistic, you can always pursue a career in costume, lighting or set design. Many companies also have a videographer and photographer on staff (both of whom work closely with the marketing and public relations department). Of course, these positions require further training, too.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about arts administration or production, I would contact professionals in positions that interest you for insight on what they do on a daily basis, as well as what skills and educational credentials you'll need to get started. Career Transition For Dancers is a great resource for those thinking about the next step—for more information on how they can help, click here.

I have strong pirouettes on pointe, but as soon as I try fouettés, I’m a mess. I can’t seem to do more than a few without falling out of my turns. What can I do to get my fouettés under control? —Tess
In doing fouettés, the pirouette is only part of the equation. If any of the other components—the repeated relevés, the leg’s whipping action, the upper body coordination—are off, you’ll have trouble no matter how well you turn. The key is to identify where the problem is, and sometimes that means going back to basics.

If leg strength is your issue, you’ll need to gradually build stamina. At my school, we first practiced 32 pirouettes en dehors from fifth. Once we had those under control, we advanced to consecutive pirouettes on one leg, leaving the foot in retiré instead of coming down to fifth in between. Not only does this help strengthen your standing leg, but it also forces you to use your plié and your core. Once you can execute these comfortably, it’s easier to move on to fouettés.

Your problem may also be stemming from your hips. It’s crucial that they remain level as you rond de jambe the working leg. If you hike the hip or lift the leg from the thigh, you’ll throw off your alignment and start struggling. Practice the rond de jambe to relevé retiré without the turn, keeping the hips square and the leg slightly below 90 degrees. Feel how the turnout—and the fouetté’s force—comes from underneath the leg. Once you feel stable, add the turns, remembering to plié fully in between. Keep the arms under control, pressing the shoulders down and closing to first as the leg comes into passé.

I can’t attend all of the auditions I want to go to this spring. What should I include in a video audition? —Carrie

 

When putting together an audition video, follow a few ground rules: Keep it concise, professional-looking and relevant to the company you’re sending it to. First, inquire whether the company has specific video requirements; if not, here are some general tips. For trainee and second-company positions, include some barre (one side only) and center exercises, along with a variation or two. But if you already have professional experience, stick to performance footage. Keep it limited to solos and pas de deux—if you only have clips of corps work, or if the recording quality is terrible, have someone with a good eye and steady hand film you in the studio. Include a range of classical and contemporary works to highlight your versatility. (My dance reel includes selections from Swan Lake and an Alonzo King ballet.) However, you may want to make more than one video so that you have options—a contemporary company that routinely performs in slippers or socks may not be that interested in your Swanhilda variation. Keep it on the shorter side (5 to 15 minutes) and place your best material first to make a good impression.

Since directors spend hours watching audition videos, make yours user-friendly. Keep it straightforward and cleanly edited, and either introduce yourself on camera or include an introduction page with your name, contact information and the list of works you’re performing. (Computer-editing programs like iMovie make it easy to splice videos together, although you can also hire a professional.) Avoid cutting major turning or jumping passages; otherwise, directors assume the worst. And whatever you do, don’t turn your audition reel into a music video. A chopped-up montage set to Top 40 hits won’t go over well.

My parents don’t want to pay for a summer intensive. Should I try to convince them that the training is worth the extra money, or should I just work really hard at my home studio all summer? —Emily

 

Summer intensives certainly aren’t cheap, but they can be incredibly valuable. It’s worth making a case to your parents before you give up entirely. In fact, you may want to have your teacher help you, to give them an expert opinion of how you’ll benefit. First, ask your parents if you can at least audition—regardless of whether they let you go away for the summer, auditioning is a learning process in itself. You’ll be better able to assess where you stand among your peers and be seen by new teachers and school directors. If you get accepted, then it’s time to have a more in-depth discussion about what your options are. While most schools offer merit scholarships, some offer financial assistance and work study—they’re worth looking into. You can also look into independent scholarships, or start a fundraising campaign.

You have other negotiating tools, as well. See if there are any intensives close to home or near relatives you could stay with to save on room and board (see our summer study guide for a full list of programs near you). If not, be prepared to hustle: Offer to help pay for part of the tuition yourself through a part-time job. (For even more great ideas, check out “Fund Your Summer Intensive,” featured in our December 2013/January 2014 issue.)

If your efforts to convince your parents don’t succeed, try not to worry. Take full advantage of what your studio has to offer by taking extra classes, or branching out into additional styles like jazz and modern, which can help bring new depth to your ballet technique. See if you can take a few day trips to a nearby city to take open classes with different teachers. With a little creativity and a lot of hard work, you can create your own fulfilling, dance-packed summer.

While my teacher has been away on maternity leave, I’ve bonded with two guest teachers who’ve displayed interest in me and given me helpful corrections. Do you have any tips on how to adjust when my teacher comes back? —Casey

 

Once you’ve worked with dance teachers who’ve really inspired you, sometimes it’s hard to adjust back—especially if they gave you more attention than you’re used to. However, it’s important not to dismiss what your old teacher has to offer. She may have a different temperament, background or teaching style, but that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to learn from her. Even if she emphasizes different things, keep an open mind and allow the differences to broaden your artistry and technique. Being familiar with a range of styles can be helpful in the long run. If she doesn’t single you out as much, you can still benefit by listening attentively and applying corrections she gives your classmates to your own dancing. Hopefully, you’ll be able to adjust within a few weeks.

In the meantime, keep up your relationship with the guest teachers, if possible, either through e-mail or by taking an occasional class. As you try to navigate the professional world, having a network of supportive contacts and recommendations can only help you. However, if you feel the others are better equipped to take you to the next level, you may want to consider training with them full-time.

My dance teacher always tells me to connect my arms to my back. What does this mean, and how can I do it? —Sherry

 

It took me a long time to figure this out, too. The key is to not think of the arm as a separate appendage starting at the top of the shoulder—otherwise your port de bras will look flimsy and two-dimensional. Instead, imagine that your arms originate at the bra line, right under your scapulas. To get a better feel for what muscles need to be engaged, roll your shoulders back, stopping at the bottom of the roll. You should feel your shoulder blades pressing down and your upper back and core muscles working. From there, place your fingers on your shoulders (keeping the ribs together) and feel the elbows reaching out long. Make sure there’s space between your shoulder blades—you don’t want to pinch them together. Now, lower the hands to second position. You should feel support running all through the upper back and arm.

To give you a visual of how port de bras connects to the back during movement, click here to see the great Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova in “The Dying Swan." Notice that she’s not merely flapping her arms up and down, but that her movement originates organically from her core.

Ballet Stars
Photo Courtesy Raven Wilkinson.

Raven Wilkinson was the first African American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which she joined in 1955. A gifted artist, she nevertheless faced difficulties while on tour with the company—particularly in the Deep South—because of her race. In 1961 she left Ballet Russe, and a few years later joined the Dutch National Ballet. Wilkinson returned to the United States in 1973, and began performing as a dancer and actress with the New York City Opera—a job she continued until 2011, when the Opera folded. Pointe spoke with Wilkinson about her extraordinary life.

How did you first come to ballet?

I was so little! My mother took me when I was about 5 to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They did Coppélia, and I remember being so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights, that I started crying. At that age I was too young for the School of American Ballet, so my mother took me to the Dalcroze school, where I learned tempi and meter and things like that—well, a young person's version of them. Later, my mother asked me if there were a special ballet teacher I was drawn to. I thought Madame Maria Swoboda was a queen, and I started studying with her. The lessons were a present from my uncle for my ninth birthday, I remember. I was thrilled by ballet. We used to go to the beach in Saybrook, Connecticut each summer, and when the tide would go out, I'd dance on the sandbars.

What was your path to the Ballet Russe?

Eventually Sergei Denham [director of the Ballet Russe] bought the Swoboda school, and it became a Ballet Russe school. He started taking the most talented students into the company. I was considered talented, but I never got in. After my third audition, a friend who worked at the school took me aside and said, “Raven, they can't afford to take you because of your race." But I went back for the next audition anyway.

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I’m often cast in turning roles, which I love. But especially after fouettés, my left knee is sore, and it feels like the muscles are inflamed. Should I be worried? —Claudia

I asked Dr. William Hamilton, a New York City orthopedic surgeon who specializes in dance medicine, to weigh in. He thinks your pain could be caused by a lack of strength because the muscles are being asked to do more than they’re able. This occurs when the muscles in the thigh atrophy, or waste away. Or, it’s possible your knee feels sore from overuse, or because it’s protecting something else inside the knee. His advice? Take three to four days off to rest. Hamilton also recommends investing in Pilates classes for extra strengthening. If it still bothers you after a week, seek treatment from a dance medicine specialist. “A therapist will be able to evaluate your knee to determine what the problem is and give you appropriate treatment,” says Cynthia McGee Laportilla, senior physical therapist and dance medicine department director for the Miami City Ballet.

It’s useful to have one of your teachers evaluate your technique while you turn. “There might be some positive change that you can make in your turning technique that can alleviate some or all of the stress on your knee,” says Laportilla. Also, while you may love a post-class fouetté fest, limit the number of turns you do at a time to avoid irritating your knee. Ice and elevate your leg after class to calm down inflamed muscles. If you’re still having pain after a few weeks, make an appointment with your doctor.

 

 

I'll be taking my first partnering classes at an intensive this summer. Since there aren't any guys at my studio, how can I prepare ahead of time? —Lucia

 

Partnering is a two-way street based on timing, cooperation and trust. For instance, during a press lift, the woman jumps at the exact moment the man hoists her body to help give him momentum. During promenades, she’s constantly negotiating her center of gravity with her partner so that she doesn’t fall off balance. It truly does take two, so there isn’t a whole lot you can do ahead of time.

 

One exercise you can practice with a classmate is a simple promenade in coupé or a low arabesque. Start by getting a feel for the grip. Have your partner hold out her right arm; take her hand with your right hand, creating an S-curve with your arms. Ask her to push up into your hand with resistance; at the same time, push down into hers. You should feel the muscles in your upper arms and shoulders engage. After playing around with the grip, take coupé on pointe and have your partner slowly promenade you. The resistance between your arms should help “lock” your position.

 

Another way to prepare is to bone up on your pointework. During a pas de deux class, you spend much of your time balancing on one foot. Whenever possible, practice balancing on pointe in passé, arabesque and attitude. Concentrate on maintaining the turnout in your supporting leg, and pulling up and out of your shoe. In addition, practice simple turning combinations (for example, bourrée forward to fourth position, single or double pirouette). Pilates or other core-strengthening exercises can also help increase your stability on pointe. While your partner is there to help you, he’s not there to prop you up or paddle you around—you want to dance as solidly as you would if dancing alone.

 

My bun is such a disaster in rehearsals that when I finish dancing, my hair is in my face. Please help! —Marcela

A secure bun isn’t just born that way—it needs a little help from the right tools, hair products and styling techniques. First, use a spray bottle to dampen your hair with water. Then, you may want to rub a little gel or hair paste in so that your hair brushes back easily (my favorite is KMS Hair Play molding paste, available at most drugstores). Use a flat brush with lots of softer bristles to help smooth your hair into a ponytail. When it comes to hair elastics, the thicker, metal-free versions tend to hold ponytails more firmly in place—otherwise try doubling up two thin ones.

Once your ponytail is finished, it may seem logical to wind your hair tightly around its base; but a tiny, ball-shaped knot is actually harder to pin firmly in place. It’s better to loosely twist the hair around to make more of a flat shape. I sometimes use my fingers to lightly backcomb my ponytail, which helps make my fine, thin hair less slippery to pin in. If you need extra help holding the bun’s shape, try winding a hairnet around it before you pin it. Then, make sure you have the right type of pin—you want U-shaped hairpins, not flat bobby pins, which don’t hold large amounts of hair as well and tend to pop out. Catch the edge of your bun with the prongs going away from the center, then twist the pin and push it down into the bun (you’ll want to feel the pin against your head, although it shouldn’t dig into it). Hairspray and bobby pin any flyaways, and give your head a good shake. If you feel your bun sliding around, you may need to start over.

I generally break my pointe shoes quickly, and some of the people at my studio glue theirs to make them last longer. Does this really work? If so, where should I glue them exactly? —Juliae  
Yes! I am an avid shoe gluer—in fact, I don’t know how I got by without it in the past. Not only do my shoes last longer, they maintain their shape better. Since industrial-strength superglues, like Jet Glue or Daniel’s Pointe Shoe Glue, are pretty strong and noxious, use them sparingly and carefully to avoid skin contact. And make sure you don’t purchase conventional superglue in gel form—it doesn’t dry smoothly and will leave hard, crusty lumps on the inside of your box.

Where to glue differs from person to person depending on where you need extra support. For instance, the tips of my boxes soften and warp quickly, so before I even wear a new pair I squirt a small amount of glue inside the tip. As they break in, I gradually add more inside the box, leaving the metatarsal and bunion area glue-free so I can fully articulate my foot through demi-pointe. Once my shoes are near death, I add a bit of glue to the canvas material adjacent to the shank for extra support around my arch. Of course, what works for me might not work for you. Some dancers add glue directly to the shank, while others squirt a small area of the arch on the outer sole. You may have to do a few trial runs before you figure out what works best.

A few things to keep in mind: Don’t go overboard—only use what you absolutely need or you’ll end up with a rock-hard, slippery and seriously uncomfortable brick on the end of your foot. Avoid spilling glue on the drawstrings at all costs because once hardened, they will snap right off, and watch out for debris or loose threads inside the box (I carry a square of sandpaper in my dance bag to help smooth out any prickly spots). Leave plenty of time for the glue to dry before wearing your shoes again to avoid damaging your toe pads (and toes!). And lastly, this stuff spills like crazy and wreaks havoc on your dance bag—in fact, one of the zippers on my backpack was glued permanently shut after my bottle leaked. Make sure the cap is securely closed, keep it in a baggie and store it on a flat surface, right side up.

Two months ago, I fell at dress rehearsal, broke my fifth metatarsal and ended up having surgery. While I’m building strength in physical therapy so I can return to dance, I’m wondering how to keep myself strong emotionally during this setback. —Sarah
When you’re injured, it’s easy to fear that you’ll be left behind while everyone else moves ahead. But try to look at this time as an opportunity to slow down and reevaluate. When we’re dancing every day, we easily fall into habits (sometimes not very healthy ones), and we don’t always have the luxury to step back and think about how we’re approaching the process. When you’re injured and going to therapy, you suddenly have all the time in the world to reexamine technical basics—which will benefit your dancing enormously when you eventually return. Trust me—I spent nine months in physical therapy for a labral tear in my hip. It was long and slow—full of baby steps—and was, at times, incredibly frustrating. However, I needed that period to completely reset my alignment (to correct years of compensating) and strengthen weak core muscles. I learned so much about my body’s idiosyncrasies and needs during my recovery. Now, my hip rarely hurts anymore, and I have a greater understanding of turnout, alignment and proper maintenance.

You can also think of this as a perfect opportunity to cultivate other interests besides dance. Let’s face it—an injury is a glaring reminder of how delicate and short our performing careers really are. Delve into your hobbies to get your mind off your injury, or enroll in a class. Take up painting or photography, or crack open that novel you’ve been meaning to read for the last year. Try not to dwell on what you’re missing—you’ll recover eventually, and be a stronger dancer for it.


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