Why Do Some of the Most Talented Dancers Never "Make It"?
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
While we most often talk about the few dancers who make it in a big way, there is a lot to be learned from the much larger group who don't get there. Why do some seriously talented dancers never end up fulfilling their potential?
"It is not about talent—it's about personality and perseverance," says Ray Leeper, director of NUVO Dance Convention. "The process of becoming a professional is different than being a professional."
The Problem: Being Unprepared
A mentor will help you understand what it takes to make the transition from student to professional. Photo by Unsplash
After graduation, most young dancers spend a year or two auditioning or doing second company work. This limbo can be confusing to navigate and many young dancers—and their parents—do not have a realistic idea of what to expect. For instance, what should your schedule and priorities look like when you are auditioning or in between jobs? What will a transition year or two really cost?
The Solution: Get a Mentor
Seek out a trusted professional or former professional who can answer your questions and act as a guidance counselor when you are thrown off course. Someone who can help you understand what your days will actually look like and assess whether or not this career is for you. Of course, it would be great to have a mentor with professional connections to help you network, but the important part is finding someone who wants to help, who has the information and experience, and who can give you much-needed moral support. If you don't have teachers or connections you feel you can turn to, check out online resources like mentorly.co and balletmentor.com. "The first year is the hardest," says Saveliev. "And it is even harder to do it by yourself."
The Problem: Financial Stress
Getting a side job in the industry will likely give you more flexibility to fit in auditions and rehearsals. Photo by Thinkstock.
Not everyone has parents who support them during this transition. Some dancers also have college loans that need repaying. It can be anxiety-inducing to live in a state of constant financial uncertainty, not knowing whether or when you will land a new gig or a contract.
The Solution: Find a Day Job in the Industry
Make a plan for how you are going to manage your bills during a year when you may not make much money. If you have to get a side job to make ends meet, Leeper recommends keeping it inside the industry if you can. Working as a teacher or administrator will probably give you more flexibility to continue to take class, stay in shape, rehearse and go to auditions.
The Problem: Growing Disillusioned
Getting cut is a normal part of the process. Don't let it diminish your drive. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.
For prodigies who are used to constant praise, the biggest shock can be that the professional world is full of rejection, says Leeper. "Many dancers fall off when no one is telling them they are wonderful anymore." It can be deflating to be cut from audition after audition, or not get any feedback in company class.
The Solution: Stay Open and Say Yes
The truth is, dancers who already think they're amazing are unlikely to improve. "You have to be open to correction, be open to not knowing," advises Susan Jaffe, dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, who likens the experience to being an explorer. "You have to channel the desire to expand yourself in order to make it, and then again even when you are professional, in order to be an artist."
If you have the financial flexibility to donate your time to choreographers in your community, it will help you to keep honing your craft and remind you of what you're struggling for, suggests Leeper. Plus, you never know when that person will get their next big job and bring you along. "Many choreographers want to use people they know and have used before," says Leeper.
The Problem: Getting Distracted
Don't waste your time comparing yourself to Insta stars. Photo by Thinkstock
Following all of the latest contortionists on Instagram can draw your focus away from the daily rigors and restorative downtime that dance requires. "People are so distracted by information, checking their phones constantly. There seems to be very little time now in life for rest, reflection, for the imagination," says Jaffe. Wasting time comparing yourself to Insta stars will only make you feel inadequate for not being able to développé on a BOSU ball or not going on tour with Beyoncé yet. "Everything seems like it has to happen so quickly when you are measuring yourself up against someone else's success on social media," says Leeper.
The Solution: Ground Yourself
Face-to-face, human connections will help you stay grounded and focused on your goal. "Disconnect from the background noise, surround yourself with people who are healthy and productive, and find your place in the community," says Leeper. Go to performances, talk to other dancers after class, and make it a point to meet one new person at every event or class you attend.
The Problem: Apathy
Writing down a training plan to keep yourself accountable. Photo by Unsplash
To be successful, you can't rest on your laurels. "No matter how beautiful the execution of a step, that's not all there is," says Jaffe. "Being a professional means going so much deeper and becoming so much more dimensional, developing your emotional connection, coordination, musicality, intentionality and creativity." Yet when you're not in a structured training program or company, it can be tempting to try to get away with the bare minimum.
The Solution: Make a Schedule
Stay disciplined by keeping yourself accountable. "Plan. Write it down. Make yourself a real schedule," advises Leeper. "You have to be in class constantly when you are in between gigs or looking for work—ballet classes, too." But don't just go through the motions. Apply everyone's corrections, stay present and curious. And don't forget to pencil in cross-training, too.
The Problem: A Major Injury
Use time away from the studio to explore the world outside of dance. Photo by Thinkstock
A serious injury at the wrong time can throw unprepared dancers off track, says Saveliev. It can force you out of your schedule, which can be depressing. Without a long-term vision to get back and a plan for how to use all of your newfound time, it can be tempting to give up.
The Solution: Focus on Artistry
Think of ways you can develop the mental and emotional strength that recovering from an injury requires. "Nourish yourself with music, museums, painters, the world," says Jaffe. "When you have many interests and the deep education of being a human, you will be able to impart that to audiences." Nothing has to be lost, not even weeks or months spent recovering, if you use your time well and come back stronger.
And if you still don't make it?
"It's never failure. There are just different paths," muses Saveliev. "We don't all have to climb the same mountain." Life as a professional dancer is ultimately not for everyone, but the lessons of dance training can be applied successfully to any profession.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.