Training

Beyond A Medal: How To Get More Out Of Competitions

YAGP competitor Bianca Scudamore. Photo by VAM, courtesy YAGP

By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."

More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?


Get Noticed in Class

Jared Grimes. Photo by NYCDA/Evolve Photo

At a competition, taking class isn't only about improving your skills—it's also about showing them off. Take it from Broadway dancer and New York City Dance Alliance faculty member Jared Grimes: "So you won? Oh, cool, congrats. But a medal, to me, doesn't matter at all if you're a sinking ship in my class. When I leave a judging table I sometimes have no clue who won. But I remember memorable dancers—usually from their work in class."

Even in crowded rooms, make sure you're seen. "If a company director is teaching class, don't be shy," says Saveliev. "If you know the combination well, be in front, go twice. They will pay attention."

Say "Thank You"

NUVO Dance Convention and Competition. Photo by Nick Serian, courtesy NUVO

Always thank the teacher after a class. "Be confident and polite," says Rhythm Dance Center co-director Becca Moore. "Making eye contact and being sincere go a long way." Plus, taking the moment to say a simple "thank you" during a break can also be an opportunity for a longer conversation if you sense the teacher has time. "You can ask a couple questions after class, or if you feel like you got good corrections and attention, you might say, 'I enjoyed your class a lot. Should I audition for you?' " says Saveliev.

Respect the Hierarchy

Class at NYCDA. Photo by Evolve/NYCDA

When there is so much star power in the room, excitement can quickly turn to offense. If you don't see a natural opening but want to connect with a faculty member or director, talk to your home teacher first. "You shouldn't come across as pushy or desperate," says Moore. "Come to us studio directors for advice on connecting rather than personally reaching out to convention teachers. This just shows respect." Plus, their recommendation might help you get the response you're looking for!

Make Friends

Kyle Froman

Don't only set your eyes on networking with directors—your peers are resources, too. "You never know, you might end up in the same company or gala, or need to borrow a costume or ask for some advice," says Saveliev. Moore agrees. "Building positive relationships with peers can lead to future jobs, and vital support systems—you will have an instant friend when you move to L.A. or take a gig on a cruise ship."

Follow Up With Directors

Judges at YAGP. Photo by Rachel Papo

If you make a connection, stay in touch, says Saveliev. "That shows commitment and discipline." In advance of an audition, you might send an email with a link to your reel or mail a video with a letter, reminding a director that you met previously at a competition. Don't overdo it or expect a response, but a polite, concise note can't hurt.

Let Rejections Go

USA International Ballet Competition. Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe

"Dance is a subjective art form," Saveliev says. "The goal should not be to please everybody, but just to find that one person, program or company that you are a good match with." If a connection doesn't go the way you want, use any constructive criticism for growth, stay positive—and move on.

Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

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New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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