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Have Diploma, Will Dance
Rachel Meyer of Ballet BC. Photo: Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Think you have to choose between going to college or heading straight to auditions right out of high school? Think again. More than ever dancers are pursuing bachelor degrees without putting their careers on hold. And the focused time pays off. Dance Magazine talked to five dancers at the top of their game who opted for college degrees and performing careers.
Ballet BC’s Rachel Meyer decided to pursue her BFA in dance and in doing so widened her range as a dancer. “When I graduated high school I was training with St. Louis Ballet and thought that I might want to go into an apprenticeship. But I didn’t feel like I was quite ready,” she says. “I needed more training and experience.” Meyer was interested in joining a major ballet company after school, so she looked for a college that had a strong ballet department. University of Utah’s stellar faculty and classical focus drew Meyer to Salt Lake City.
In addition to a range of technique classes, Meyer took kinesiology and dance history classes, as well as anthropology, absurdist theater, literature, and early childhood education courses. “I met all kinds of people, not just dancers and artists. It helped me grow and to understand what I wanted in a career.”
After college, Meyer joined the contemporary company Dominic Walsh Dance Theater in Houston. In 2011, she moved north—far north—from Texas to the Vancouver-based company Ballet BC. (If her photo looks familiar, it’s because she is the poster girl for Jacob’s Pillow this summer—literally.)
Gary Jeter. Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy Complexions.
Unlike Meyer, Gary W. Jeter II of Complexions Contemporary Ballet didn’t know what sort of dance he wanted to focus on when he entered college, so variety was a driving factor in his choice. “When I visited the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, there was a focus on modern and jazz, and a lot of other opportunities throughout the city.” Born and raised in Atlanta, the former competitive gymnast had only danced for a year and a half before he graduated high school, “so I felt like I needed that extra time to hone my craft.”
Taking a wide range of courses has been beneficial to his career. “The non-dance classes gave me a different outlook and different things to be inspired by, not just movement. My art and literature classes helped me to understand how art is an imitation of life and that it also works the other way around.”
A lyrical mover who packs a punch, Jeter also benefited from guest artists like Mia Michaels and the late Fernando Bujones. His training with Bujones was invaluable. And, he says, “the main reason that I became a ballet major was that I understood that most dance forms have a basis in ballet. I wanted to have the clearest foundation of my own personal technique.”
Leah Morrison, at right. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy TBDC.
Going to college was always the path that Leah Morrison, a willowy, Bessie award–winning member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, planned to take. “I didn’t even consider going straight into a dance career,” she says. “College was needed for me as a period of gestation and to develop myself as a dancer and get to know who I am as a creative artist.”
Morrison says SUNY Purchase gave her a strong technique, but “getting to work with Neil Greenberg was a game changer. He was teaching Klein technique and Body-Mind Centering. He gave me a whole different awareness to thinking about moving. That aspect was really important for me, particularly in going for the Trisha Brown movement style.”
She feels that Purchase prepared her well for the professional modern dance world. “Choreographers and dance companies aren’t just looking for those with technical ability; they’re looking for someone to contribute to their creative process. In college, you learn to improvise, experiment with making your own work, be engaged in other people’s processes, and be engaged in your own creative process.” At Trisha Brown, Morrison says, “we’re asked to give a lot of our own creativity and our own opinion in the process of making work.”
Sykes, center, in Motown. Photo: © Joan Marcus, Courtesy Motown.
Similarly for Ephraim Sykes, a wiry and chameleon-like dancer in the current Broadway hit Motown, he was interested in college as a way to expand his craft and his sense of place in the world. He was drawn to the Ailey/Fordham BFA program because “the company has a lot of dancers that I looked up to, black dancers like myself with technique and artistry. It gave me something to shoot towards.” He had the opportunity to take class with the lead Ailey dancers who inspired him, like Desmond Richardson and Matthew Rushing. During his junior year, when Sykes joined Ailey II, he had the chance to perform alongside some of them as well.
Sykes says he became a well-rounded dancer by learning “how to speak with the body and how to initiate every movement. That’s what makes you understand why you move, and how deep it goes.” The program has a strong modern focus on Horton and Graham techniques along with jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. While Sykes was not training specifically to be a Broadway performer, his time in the program laid the foundation for success: “I have the technique to do eight shows a week and do a range of choreography.”
Sykes affirms that going to college isn’t just for the physical training, but also for the “opportunity to extend the mind.” He studied philosophy and theology in addition to his dance courses. Those classes, he says, “gave me a great understanding of how the mind and spirit work and why we move the way we move.”
Ebony Williams. Photo: Eduardo Patino for Dance Spirit.
Ebony Williams, a fierce and captivating Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer, attended The Boston Conservatory. You wouldn’t guess that she ever had career doubts, with the confidence she exudes in her roles— whether it’s center stage in Cedar Lake or alongside of Beyoncé in her music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” But she fought the notion of being a professional dancer for years. “I hadn’t danced for six years before I went to the conservatory,” she says. “As a kid, I would always say that I wanted to be an architect or anything other than dance. Maybe it was fear, but I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do or was supposed to do.” But upon recommendation from a dance teacher she met through the Boston Arts Academy during her time off, Williams decided to dive back into dance in the conservatory setting. “I was ready. I think I needed that break from dance to realize how much I missed it.”
Williams says she became a completely different dancer at TBC. “I was such a bunhead when I was younger, I did a little jazz and hip-hop with my girlfriends but was focused on ballet. There’s nothing like getting training from some of the best teachers in the world to open your eyes up.” Williams says of former Limón dancer Jennifer Scanlon: “She is one of the best teachers I ever had.” In her work with Cedar Lake she carries with her what she learned. “She taught me how to use my body in a holistic way, from my center, not just my limbs.”
Williams also cites the business side of the dance world that she learned at TBC: auditions, presentation, contracts.
And Williams, who has aspirations of teaching or directing a school someday, feels that having a solid higher education will help her to stay in the field longer. “It’s key for future endeavors that you may want to pursue when you’re not dancing anymore or if you’re injured. You can educate young people,” she says. “There’s nothing like having a degree.”
Emily Macel Theys is a contributing writer to Dance Magazine and is the communications and development director of Dance Exchange in Washington, DC.
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.