Words of Advice: Performance Solutions

Q: How often should I practice in a tutu before a performance?

Joan Latham, ballet mistress at Miami City Ballet: As often as you can—especially if you’re performing a pas de deux. It helps your partner because once you’re in a tutu, he can’t see your legs and it will get in his way during lifts. He needs to get used to that. Also, wearing a tutu will force you to hold your arms differently, and get you into the role. Classical tutus also highlight your legs, so you have to be very aware of how you’re working technically. Our dancers will learn the ballets without a tutu, but once they know a piece, they’ll wear practice tutus for every rehearsal. Then they wear the actual costume at least twice, maybe three times before performing in it.

Q: I get really anxious before perfor­mances. What can I do to calm my nerves?

Audra Johnson, dancer with American Repertory Ballet: During my first year at ARB I used to get really bad stage fright. Our director even had to sit down with me to talk about it. I realized that it was coming from a lack of confidence in myself—and it started before I got backstage. I’ve found that the more I push technically in rehearsal, the less I’ll have to worry about when I’m actually performing. Being able to trust my technique is the best way to calm my nerves. 

Before going on stage now, I get rid of my anxiety by practicing once or twice any technical challenges I know I’m going to have, and then simply letting them go. I’ll say a prayer and trust that whatever happens is going to happen. And I remind myself that if I weren’t capable of dancing this role, I would not have been cast. If I start to get nervous once I’m already onstage, I’ll take a deep breath to calm myself and get back into the role.

But don’t be afraid of all your nerves. There’s anxiety, and then there are the good nervous jitters that leave you on edge so you’re more likely to be on top of your technique. You can actually feed off of that energy and give a better performance.

Q:What is the best way to warm up before performing?

Tina LeBlanc, principal with San Francisco Ballet: First off, make sure to take a morning class on performance days. It will make it much easier to warm up the second time in the evening.

Every dancer needs to find what works for his or her own body. Think about what you do for class or rehearsal. It should be the same for performance, only you’ll have more adrenaline. For me, it’s mostly stretching on the floor. I always begin with crunches to
get my blood going and start to sweat. I will sometimes go on the stationary bike because of my knee injury. I do things that get
my whole body warm before stretching my hips, hamstrings, and everything else. Some people do Pilates or use other machines. Then I do a regular barre. (The more classical the piece the more strict I am with my technique.) Then I’ll make sure my pointe shoes are okay, I get in costume, go on stage and go over any parts that give me trouble in the ballet I’ll be performing.

I find that the process of getting ready—the makeup and hair—is incredibly focusing for me. It’s my mental warm-up for getting into character. That’s my time for putting on not just the outside but the inside.

Ballet Stars

For many a bunhead, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is not just a holiday tradition, but a rite of passage. The variation, with its tinkling celesta, bourrées and petit battus, is one that all ballet dancers are familiar with, and getting the opportunity to perform it often represents moving into new realms in your training or career. Such was the case for Soviet ballerina Ekaterina Maximova. In this 1957 clip, the 18-year-old aspirant performed the Sugar Plum variation at a ballet competition, where she represented the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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Getty Images

For any young dancer performing in The Nutcracker, Marie (aka Clara, depending on the production) is a dream role. But Charlotte Nebres, who will be playing Marie in New York City Ballet's Nutcracker this year isn't just bringing her own dream to life—she's also making history.

Charlotte is the first black dancer to ever perform the role of Marie in NYCB's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, which dates all the way back to 1954. Charlotte was, of course, hugely excited to perform the role of Marie, but, according to the New York Times, when her mother told her that she was the first black dancer cast in the role, she said "Wow. That seems a little late."

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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.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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