Philip Neale rehearsing Next Generation Ballet students. James Luedde, Courtesy Next Generation Ballet.

Reading the Fine Print: Decoding What Trainee Programs and Second Companies Can Do For You

The path to joining a company is not as clear-cut as it once was, when advanced students auditioned straight out of school and learned the ropes on the job. Directors, wanting dancers who can hit the ground running, are increasingly relying on second company and trainee programs to give them the professional experience they'll need—while also filling out the main company's corps de ballet. Such programs can be a great way to bridge the gap between training and career—and to get a foot in the door at a company you admire—but they're not all created equally.

Even the terms "traineeship" and "second company" are fluid and, depending on the company, could describe anything from the top level of a school to a salaried contract akin to apprenticeship. Planning the first steps towards your career is exciting, but ambitious students need to be strategic, says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet in Tampa, Florida. "They tend to get so enamored of the artistic allure of a program that they overlook the brass tacks of it," says Neal. "Is it practical for you? Will your time there be an investment in your future?" Here are some important questions to consider as you research programs, and before you sign on the dotted line.

Training Focus Versus Performance Focus

First, think about what you need. What's missing from your skill set? Consider how much (and what type of) performing experience you already have, how many hours a day you're used to dancing and whether you're used to being alongside professionals in class and rehearsals.

For Jaimi Cullen, shown here in The Sleeping Beauty, Tulsa Ballet II's small size was a big selling point.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Like many companies, Kansas City Ballet offers two programs for emerging dancers: a trainee program and a second company. While the trainees focus more on training (two to three days a week are dedicated solely to classes, depending on the performance schedule), Kansas City Ballet II is more integrated into the main company, taking class and rehearsing with them four days a week. Artistic director Devon Carney says this distinction matters. "KCB 2 is like boot camp for understanding what the professional world is expecting of you," he explains, while the trainee program is geared to give dancers with little (or no) experience in a company environment a more gradual initiation.

One important question Carney says not many dancers ask (but should) is what kind of performing they'll get to do. Most traineeships and second companies promise participation in main company productions. But, says Carney, will you get a fair shake at being considered for every production—not only full-length ballets, but mixed-rep programs, too? "A big selling point is having a variety of performances, including lecture-demonstrations, a dedicated second-company show and main-company productions."

About That Fine Print

The most exciting thing about becoming a trainee or second company member is getting a feel for professional life. But not all junior positions pay, and if they do, it likely won't be enough to live on. Traineeships (like KCB's) are commonly tuition-based, though many offer scholarships and may provide a stipend or limited pointe shoe allowance. For instance, Ballet Austin's Butler Fellowship program (a feeder into Ballet Austin II) is fully endowed and tuition-free, but its 15 students still have to support themselves. Director Michelle Martin says the company tries to be supportive. "Their day is structured so there is time for a side job, which many of them do have," she explains. "We're adamant about being respectful of their time."

Second companies are more likely to offer salaries, albeit minimal ones. Before accepting an offer to join KCBII, current member Divya Rea read the agreement carefully. "It specified how much I would make and recognized it wouldn't be enough to live on, but also said that I wouldn't have time for another job," she says. Like many young dancers, Rea relies on her family for financial support. Those without such a safety net may need to inquire about teaching or assisting classes in the company's school, or consider taking part-time jobs during layoffs to build savings.

There's also the question of benefits. Ballet Austin II dancers are provided with health insurance and worker's compensation (Butler Fellows are not covered), but this is rare for most programs. However, companies often provide access to their medical team for dance-related injuries. When Tulsa Ballet demi-soloist Jaimi Cullen was a member of TBII, she received a monthly stipend and pointe shoes, but stayed on her family's health plan since insurance wasn't offered. "But if we needed to see a doctor or physical therapist, the company was really helpful in making sure we were taken care of," she says.

There are other important considerations, too: For instance, does the company offer housing assistance? Is the location convenient or will you need transportation? Will you be happy living there for a year—or longer? "At the end of the day, I accepted my offer because I really loved the repertoire and wanted to dance at Kansas City Ballet," says Rea.

How to Find the Right Info

What a junior position will really give you—and require from you—can be hard to determine if an organization's website lacks specifics. Try getting firsthand accounts (keeping in mind that what's right for one person may not be right for you) by using social media to find mutual acquaintances who've been there. "It's amazing how much you can find out through your social network," says Neal. And don't be afraid to contact the company itself to ask for specifics.

Some information, like size, is easily found online and really matters; a large program likely won't give you as much visibility to the artistic staff. That was important to Cullen. "Since TBII is so small"—12 dancers this season—"there was more attention paid to each dancer, and I knew I'd be seen by the director. I didn't want to get lost in the shuffle."

"There are so many models of 'second company' that you have to look at each circumstance individually," says Michelle Martin. Here she teaches class for dancers in Ballet Austin's Butler Fellowship program.

Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

Pay attention to success rate, too. Read the company bios to see not just how many dancers came up through the organization, but how long it took them. Most traineeships and second company positions last one to two years, but how many more rankings are there after that? Think about how much time you want to invest in a company's junior ranks before moving on.

In addition, where have other graduates gone on to? A good program should make you feel confident that the staff is truly concerned about your future—whether it's with their company or not. For instance, the Butler Fellowship program and Ballet Austin II are intended as a training ground for Ballet Austin. But since not everyone will be a fit for the company's distinct style of collaborative, contemporary ballet, Martin invites artistic directors to Austin each season to scout for their own companies. "We're committed to providing the kind of experience to help them become professional dancers anywhere," says Martin.

Determining whether a program is right for you means having a clear picture of exactly what you need to gain from it—and then digging around to make sure you'll get what's advertised. "It's easy to take something just because it's offered to you, but that's not always the best use of your time," Martin says. "There are so many models of 'second company' that you have to look at each circumstance individually.

If you are interested in a trainee program or second company, here are crucial questions to ask:

• Will you be provided with a stipend or salary? If not, is there time for a part-time job? Will your family be able to help support you?

• Will you have performance opportunities, and what kind?

• Are pointe shoes provided? If so, how are they allotted—per week, per season or per performance?

• If health insurance is not offered, will you have access to the company's medical team?

• How many dancers are in the program? Will you be able to work with the company's artistic staff?

• What is the program's job placement rate at the host company and elsewhere?

Is an unpaid or tuition-based program ever worth it?

It can be, says Next Generation Ballet artistic director Philip Neal, if the non-monetary benefits will fill a specific need for you—and if you can financially sustain yourself during the program. "If it's imperative for you to get some professional performing experience, an unpaid or tuition-based position can be a good gig," Neal says. He adds that such experience can be a stepping-stone, especially if the company's artistic staff actively uses their professional connections to help you with recommendations and resumé and video preparation.

Latest Posts

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names and photos to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami CIty Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Ballet West Academy's New Director on Dream Building During COVID-19

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate is bringing her hard-earned expertise to Ballet West. The former San Francisco Ballet star is taking over all four campuses of The Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy as the school's new director.

Cisneros-Legate, whose mother put her in ballet classes in an attempt to help her overcome her shyness, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and School of American Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet as a full company member in 1977. She danced with the company for 23 years, breaking barriers as the first Mexican American to become a principal dancer in the U.S., and has graced the cover of Dance Magazine no fewer than three times.

As an educator, Cisneros-Legate has served as ballet coordinator at San Francisco Ballet, principal of Boston Ballet School's North Shore Studio and artistic director of after-school programming at the National Dance Institute (NDI). Dance Teacher spoke with her about her new position, her plans for the academy and leading in the time of COVID-19.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks