What Directors Really Think of Ballet Dancers Going To College
In the ballet world, the phrase "going to college" is sometimes regarded as the musings of a dancer who's not really serious about their craft. Although schools like Juilliard and Bennington College have made degrees acceptable for modern dancers for decades, the competitive ballet world (which often follows a philosophy of "the younger the better") tends to discourage higher education.
But some ballet students just don't feel physically or emotionally ready to join a professional company at age 18, and others simply don't want to miss out on the college experience. So they choose to pursue an undergraduate dance degree to continue their ballet training in an academic atmosphere.
Gaining versatility at Butler University. Photo by Brent Smith, courtesy Butler
However, dancers need to understand how this decision will play out once they graduate. What do artistic directors—most of whom never chose to pursue a bachelor's degree themselves—think about this path? Do they see college as a four-year detour? Or have they come to appreciate the knowledge and experience dancers can obtain from this once unheard-of path to a ballet future?
The Benefits Graduates Bring
Setting yourself apart from the crowd is an essential part of getting that first job in a ballet company. Having demonstrated the ability to graduate with a degree while maintaining a high performance quality can be a fantastic way to get your foot in the door. "Knowing a dancer has that deeper arts education can make a difference—it sways in a positive way," says Devon Carney, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, where a handful of dancers hold degrees from schools like Indiana University. "Graduates are personally and artistically more level-headed. They have a better ability to deal with problems, and that maturity is something I highly value in a dancer."
Devon Carney teaching class. Photo by Ken Coit, courtesy KCB.
College dancers often graduate with life skills that students from a purely dance-oriented environment might not have gained. Often, they can better communicate both inside and outside of the studio, and they know how to shift subjects and organize a tight schedule as quickly as possible. By taking courses like ballet history, anatomy, nutrition, psychology, public speaking and piano, students become not only well-rounded employees, but assets to the ballet world.
"Dancers who have given themselves the opportunity to explore other sides of life have also given themselves the opportunity to understand that the world is bigger than the studio and stage," says Victoria Morgan, artistic director and CEO of Cincinnati Ballet. She earned both a BFA and an MFA in ballet from the University of Utah, and says she likes seeing a degree on a dancer's resumé. "It is confidence-building to know that there are options, and that confidence shows onstage."
Victoria Morgan. Photo by Daniel Wagner, courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
The Challenges Undergrads Face
The harsh truth is that obtaining a job in a professional ballet company is far from a guarantee. "Most programs sell a dream that they know they can't deliver," cautions Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, where hiring college graduates is far from common. He notes that a resumé listing connections and repertoire performed at school may provide entry to the audition studio, but dancers then have to prove their technical and artistic abilities.
Mikko Nissinen. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Many people in the ballet world still view most BFA programs as too dissimilar from the professional realm to be truly competitive. The insulated bubble of campus life can mean students don't realize they're not performing at a high enough level.
"Students need more exposure to the realities of what the professional world requires—they have to understand that if you want to get a job, there is no optional class, you have to be serious, show up day in and day out and know all your material," says Carney. In a company, you would lose your job for frequently missing rehearsals or eating in class, but in some dance departments, undergraduates may be allowed to slip in their professionalism.
Some directors feel the hardest part of attending college can be the many distractions, like parties, all-night study sessions, excessive drinking and a disregard for the basic human need to sleep. "Dancers must keep their bodies healthy and strong," says Julie Kent, artistic director of The Washington Ballet. "A lot of times the college lifestyle renders proper nutrition difficult."
Julie Kent. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy The Washington Ballet.
Even with limited dining-hall options and little time for cross-training, students must maintain their physical form in the same way a professional would. However, it is by no means impossible to keep up the daily intensity required to stay in shape: One of Kent's first hires after arriving at TWB was EunWon Lee, who earned a BFA from Korea National University of Arts in Seoul.
The key is staying passionate and competitive. If an undergrad wants a career in the professional ballet world, it is up to them to find an institution that provides the tools necessary to train at the level the industry requires, and then take advantage of every resource and opportunity to improve. College may not be the most common pathway to a professional ballet career, but it has all the potential in the world to develop artists who can change the art form for the better.
We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.
But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
Last night, the New York City Ballet board of directors approved ballet master in chief Peter Martins' request for a temporary leave of absence amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment.
The investigation came to light on Monday, when the New York Times reported that NYCB and the School of American Ballet had hired a law firm to investigate their leader after receiving an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment.
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
Brooklyn-based burlesque troupe Company XIV isn't afraid to take risks. Nutcracker Rouge, their take on the holiday classic, features a cast of jack-of-all-trades dancers who double as greeters, ushers, singers, actors and aerialists, while baring a good amount of skin but even more confidence. (Disclaimer: The show is for mature audiences only.) What's most impressive about these artists is how captivating they are. Regardless of what style of dance you do, if you want to become a better performer, consider taking a page out of their playbook.
You've got to be "on" the moment the audience walks in the front door.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt first spoke out about sexual misconduct at NYCB in Psychology Tomorrow in 2012. Since October, she's been working with The Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaufman for a story about Peter Martins, and when the School of American Ballet began investigating Martins for an anonymous accusation, she was called in to discuss her experiences. But Frankfurt feels there's more to the larger picture, and shares that here with Dance Magazine, as edited by Maggie Levin.
In 1994, I began to write a book of essays about my life in dance—mostly as an exercise. When the #MeToo movement began this year, I knew it was time to brush the dust off and take another look. Although incomplete, these essays addressed the roots that have long run between sexual abuse, alcoholism and ballet. They involve George Balanchine, Peter Martins and numerous stars of the New York City Ballet. It's painfully clear that my story is the same story that has occurred thousands of times, all over the world.
I'm heartbroken that I might have to drop out of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My back has been spasming since I did an extra-high kick to the back. My X-ray and MRI are normal, but my doctor thinks I hurt my sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy hasn't helped yet. How can I know for sure that this is the real problem?
—Injured Rockette, New York, NY
Freddie Kimmel's musical theater career was just taking off when he woke up one morning with a pain in his groin. A trip to the doctor assured him it was nothing of concern, even though the sensation returned a few months later. As a dancer, Kimmel was used to pushing through discomfort, so he kept going to dance class to "work it out."
But the pain persisted. During a run of The Full Monty at Westchester Broadway Theatre, Kimmel was diagnosed with advanced metastasized cancer. Ten tumors had infiltrated his body.
Japanese-born, New York–based choreographer Kota Yamazaki returns to his roots as a butoh dancer in Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination. He explores butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata's idea of the extreme fragility of the body. Yamazaki is joined by contemporary luminaries Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Joanna Kotze and Mina Nishimura, each of whom engages in drastically eccentric pathways, making the body appear to disintegrate before your eyes. Music is by Kenta Nagai and visual environment by lighting wizard Thomas Dunn. Dec. 13–15, Baryshnikov Arts Center. bacnyc.org.