Career Advice
Pennsylvania Ballet's Lillian DiPiazza was out with an injury when her new director started, but was eventually promoted under his leadership. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy PAB

When news reached the Limón Dance Company that Colin Connor was replacing longtime director Carla Maxwell in 2016, the tight-knit group experienced a range of emotions. "Everyone agreed that fresh energy would be a benefit to the company," says veteran dancer Logan Kruger. But the excitement lasted only until the fear sunk in—there would be changes, and some of them might even include saying good-bye.

It's understandable to experience feelings of shock, fear and even abandonment if your director leaves. It's not just that you'll have a new boss—a shift at the top can have a domino effect on casting, programming, rehearsal structure and branding. Here's how to forge a relationship with your new director and take advantage of the opportunities that come from having fresh eyes on your dancing.

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Dance Training
Being focused on one style eventually gave Al Blackstone more opportunities. Photo by Daryl A. Getman, Courtesy Blackstone

These days, everyone tells you how important it is to be versatile. But what if you're convinced there's just one style that's right for you? It can be tough to balance a deep interest in a single specialty and still meet many choreographers' expectations. Luckily, you don't have to choose between all in or all over the place, as long as you follow your interests thoughtfully.

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Career Advice
Mia J. Chong found her place in ODC/Dance through understudying. PC Andrew Weeks Photography, Courtesy ODC/Dance

You might feel like the second choice when you look at the casting sheet, but understudies are necessary, valued team members who are regularly called off the bench to perform—even with very little prep time. "It is like the ultimate trust exercise with your director," says Mia J. Chong, who understudied many roles in ODC/Dance's The Velveteen Rabbit as an apprentice before becoming a company dancer this year. "Often, you do a lot of the homework on your own to make sure you can produce a quality performance, even if you don't have the chance to demonstrate it right away."

Here's what to expect when you're learning from the back of the room and—when you're needed—how to step into the part with confidence.

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Career Advice
Had a great audition but didn't get the gig? Here's how to tastefully stay in touch. Photo by Jim Lafferty.

If you made it through several cuts but didn't land a contract, you're probably wondering what went wrong. It's perfectly acceptable to ask for feedback—if you go about it the right way. Here's how company and casting directors want to hear from you so you'll be remembered for your dancing (not for nagging).

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Career Advice
Misa Kuranaga with Nelson Madrigal in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

In dance, no two paths look the same, and part of a healthy audition mind-set is accepting that you might not get what you want on the first try. These three dancers who auditioned multiple times for their dream gig share what made the difference in getting to the final cut.

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Dance Training
Cameron Durham, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Do students get a say in choosing their competition variations? It depends on the coach's philosophy:

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Dance Training
PC Catherine Park

When you're preparing for a competition, it's critical to find a coach who can refine your technique and bring out your artistry. Their expertise, along with your trust, professionalism and commitment, will be key to getting the most out of your solo rehearsals—and will make or break your performance. But how do you choose a coach who's right for you?

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Health & Body
Thinkstock

As much as dancers might love touring, the road can be a tough place to get the nutrition you need. "A lot of things are out of your control on tour—you won't be able to eat the way you do at home," says Heidi Skolnik, a certified dietitian nutritionist who has worked with dancers at the School of American Ballet. But preparing for common challenges can help you keep up some semblance of your normal routine.

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Career Advice

Getting fired isn't pretty, but it happens. And no matter the reason, there are ways to rebuild your dance career. But don't be caught off guard by these potential repercussions from losing your job:

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Career Advice
PC Alexander Devora, Courtesy Ballet San Antonio

When Kathleen Martin learned her contract with Ballet West wouldn't be renewed, America was watching. Cameras were rolling for the first episode of the reality series "Breaking Pointe," bringing additional scrutiny to what was already one of the toughest moments of her career. "I knew deep down it was going to happen," she says. "I wanted to hold my head high."

As painful as the experience may be, it is possible to rebuild your career after being fired. Five years later, Martin is thriving as a soloist with Ballet San Antonio. "I didn't want this one setback to define me," she says. Here's how to part ways like a professional, regain your confidence and have greater success in your next gig.

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Career Advice
Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers in Santuario. Photo by Robli Photography via kyld.org

Just as the Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers reached an emotional moment in an April performance of Santuario, inspired by the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the fire alarm began blaring. Timed as it was with the actual reenactment of the shooting within the piece, most of the audience remained in their seats expectantly, thinking this was part of the show. But the onstage fog effects had combined somehow with the humidity in the theater so that there was a real need to evacuate until the fire department could give the all-clear.

An actual break in the action like this—where the lights come up and you're forced to file out into a parking lot—is probably one of the most extreme distractions dancers could encounter during a performance. But thinking about how to refocus can help you prepare for any wardrobe malfunctions, prop flubs, lighting miscues or other onstage stumbles that could happen in the middle of a show.

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Career Advice
Atlanta Ballet audition photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe

In the days and hours before an audition, your to-do list might include researching the company, conditioning your muscles, updating your resumé or taking a long walk to clear your head. But what you don't do before pinning on your number can be just as critical to your success.

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Career Advice
A Ballet West audition. Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe

Even if you make it through to the final round of an audition, that doesn't mean that you're guaranteed a spot on the roster. Before handing out contracts, many companies also require prospective dancers to complete an interview with staff. How can you impress your potential employer with your words as much as your dancing? Three artistic directors weigh in on what matters most.

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Dancers Trending
Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet

Kathryn Bennetts credits William Forsythe's Artifact with changing her life. “I've heard a lot of people say that—the piece is just a monster in its importance," she says during a break in rehearsals at Boston Ballet, where she and Noah Gelber are staging the full-length work for what will be its North American company premiere tomorrow night.

Bennetts has danced in and staged Forsythe ballets for more than 30 years as a Stuttgart Ballet soloist, ballet mistress at the Frankfurt Ballet and artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. “Audiences are transported, even overwhelmed, by the enormity of Artifact. It ends with a bang, after which the audience tends to sit in silence for a minute."

“It makes you think about society and life for days after," she says.

Video by Ernesto Galan, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Even as a seminal work—the first full-length ballet Forsythe created as director of Frankfurt Ballet in 1984—Artifact is not pinned to its place in history, forever under glass. Forsythe has allowed his “ode to ballet" to evolve with the advancement of ballet technique and his own experience as a choreographer, says Bennetts.

For the first ballet of a new five-year relationship with Boston Ballet, Forsythe came to town just a few weeks before opening night to tweak certain parts to suit specific dancers, while creating a new group section before the finale and updating Act Three. (In the early years, Act Three gradually included less improvisation and more structure. “Part three in Frankfurt was rather crazy aggressive," says Bennetts.)

Boston Ballet rehearses Artifact. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.

“Bill doesn't hold on to the past," Bennetts explains. “He doesn't get sentimental; he can just let it go." After all, Forsythe was 33 years old when he choreographed Artifact. “Now he says he's a grandpa. His movement is less harsh, less like an attack."

He wants this to be the Boston version, says Bennetts. “Bill always wants to update certain parts for the dancers in front of him. It challenges them, but it's also an older piece and the technique has improved."

Forsythe working with Misa Kuranaga. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.

Forsythe is also spending time with the Boston Ballet dancers just as he's discovering his enthusiasm for ballet again. “He took a break for a long time, and I think he's having fun challenging himself as much as the dancers," says Bennetts. “This process is also for himself—he's like a painter or an actor watching himself in film. He has examined this work for more than 30 years and never had time to fix it."

“I've never met anyone not blown away by this piece, but every choreographer has doubts," she adds. “Recently he said to me, 'I can actually do this.' "

Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

We're sure of it.

William Forsythe's full-length Artifact runs February 23–March 5, 2017 at the Boston Opera House.

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Dancers Trending

Your favorite home-away-from-home app has an intriguing new offering: The chance to get a behind the scenes look at your favorite dance companies.

With the launch of its new Experiences section, Airbnb has begun letting travelers get to know the places they visit not only by staying in a real home (or treehouse or Airstream trailer), but also by experiencing the destination with locals who share their interests—whether that’s whiskey drinking, truffle hunting, sushi making, or, yes, even dancing.

Unsurprisingly, two of the first dance companies to sign up are based in Airbnb's hometown: San Francisco.

Pauli Magierek leading class

The Ballet experience is hosted by former San Francisco Ballet soloist Pauli Magierek, who will meet you at the War Memorial Opera House and whisk you right to the barre for a beginner/intermediate ballet class taught by an SFB faculty member. The following night, you’ll attend a performance, drink champagne and eat chocolates at intermission, then go backstage to meet a dancer or two for an insider perspective after the show. Bonus: You'll also get a pair of autographed pointe shoes.

The two-day itinerary costs $250 per person, but because this is one of Airbnb's Social Impact Experiences, 100 percent of what you pay goes directly to SFB to help under-served children and their families attend a performance of the Nutcracker at no cost.

Watch a trailer for The Ballet experience here.

Class at LINES Dance Center

If you're looking for something more contemporary—or have a smaller budget—check out the 3-hour Move on Market Street experience at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, hosted by the company’s community and teen program coordinator, Briana Dickinson. From the description, it sounds like you could get a glimpse at a rehearsal or composition exercise with either the company or student dancers at LINES Dance Center before you head into the studio yourself for a private Pilates class. You'll also be given "a piece of LINES gear," which we're assuming is something along the lines of a branded t-shirt or tote bag.

Your $125 fee will support the continuation of the contemporary ballet company’s groundbreaking work.

To browse for experiences in your next destination—burlesque lessons in London, anyone?—use the Airbnb app or click here.

Or, if you're interested in hosting an experience at your company, it's easy to create one on the site—all you need is an Airbnb account and a great idea.

 

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Inside DM

Every New Year’s Eve, we make promises to ourselves about our health. But are you choosing the right goals? Nutrition experts share the resolutions you should be making.

1. Set smaller goals.

“We all focus on the finish line, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Joy Bauer, official nutritionist for the New York City Ballet. “But it’s all the little checkpoints we pass along the way—choosing the stairs over the elevator, passing on seconds of your favorite dessert—that help us stay motivated.” Whatever your overall target is, setting short-term goals and celebrating each small achievement will help you get there.

2. Pack more snacks.

Bringing homemade food with you to the studio ensures that you’ll be able to fuel up frequently without resorting to the drive-through window. “If you’re not a morning person, prepping your food needs to be a nonnegotiable part of your nightly self-care routine, like brushing your teeth,” says Nikki Estep, a registered dietitian nutritionist who provides on-site nutrition services at Houston Ballet.

It doesn’t have to be culinary greatness, adds Emily Harrison, who counsels dancers from around the world through her business, Dancer Nutrition. “Cut up an apple, throw carrot sticks in a bag or make overnight oats with yogurt, flaxseeds and berries,” she suggests. Eating more throughout the day will also help you cut down on late-night snacking, a red flag that your body isn’t getting enough food during the day.

3. Don’t give 100 percent.

No one is perfect, so instead of following an ironclad meal plan (and punishing yourself for every errant bite), Bauer recommends a more realistic 90/10 approach: Eat healthfully 90 percent of the time and color outside the lines the other 10 percent. “That leaves you some wiggle room to enjoy the indulgent foods that you would normally try to steer clear of.” Adds Estep: “Remind yourself that all foods can fit into the big picture in moderation.”

4. Give your diet a “plant slant.” “Whole foods and plant-based carbs lower inflammation and lead to better physical performance,” says Harrison. Try making your lunch or dinner with mostly plant-based foods a few times a week. Think soup, salad, stir-fry and beyond—Harrison recommends bean-flour noodles with tomato sauce or burritos with black beans, brown rice, peppers, corn, tomatoes, spinach and guacamole. “You’ll significantly change how you feel and improve your ability to build muscle mass,” she says.

5. Rethink carbs and protein.

“The most popular myth I bust is that more protein makes food magically better for you,” says Harrison. “We have become protein-obsessed, while we fear carbohydrates, the preferred source of fuel for anyone who needs short bursts of energy, like dancers.”

Become more flexible in how you think about both wheat and meat. “I respect all the different ways that people want to eat, but I’ve seen some pretty significant nutrient deficiencies stemming from gluten-free and vegan diets,” says Estep. If you’re getting injured often or your hair is falling out, your body could be trying to tell you that your diet is not working. “If you weren’t an athlete, maybe you could pull off a vegan diet with a B-12 supplement and a multivitamin, but while you’re dancing, maybe it’s better to be a vegetarian or a pescatarian to get all the protein sources and nutrients that you need.”

6. Let your body lead you.

Devote your energy to mindfulness, not adhering to a daily calorie count, says Estep. Pay attention to when you’re hungry, and every time you eat, ask yourself how that food made you feel. For example, did it satisfy your hunger? Did it give you the energy you needed to comfortably reach the next meal or snack? If you recognize that cheeseburgers make you sluggish, you’ll be less likely to reach for one when you need solid energy.

7. Educate yourself.

Research how the right nutrients can help you in the studio. But get your information from reputable sources, says Harrison, not friends

in the dressing room or websites devoted to trendy diets. She likes nutritionfacts.org and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website (pcrm.org) for up-to-date nutrition information and tasty recipes from qualified professionals.

8. Respect your body.

“So many dancers focus on what’s wrong with their bodies instead of all the amazing things they can do, like run, leap and pirouette,” says Bauer. Appreciate the beauty of your body as it is, and, Estep adds, be realistic about what you’re asking it to do. “Dancers rely on their bodies to handle eight-hour days filled with intense, superhuman activity,” she says. “Give your body enough fuel, and you’ll be that much more powerful.” 

Career Advice
Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. Photo Courtesy DM Archives

At one performance of David Parker's Nut/Cracked in 2005, three-quarters of his audience walked out prematurely. But the same moment that caused the offense—a duet between two men with their thumbs in each other's mouths—earned Parker hearty laughs from the remaining crowd, and eventually an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Humor is subjective, and it can be tough to get right. Though there are many moments of brilliant comedy in dance, there are also so many failed attempts that, well, it's not even funny. There's no exact formula for grabbing a laugh. But experimenting with these ingredients can help you tap into your funny.

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Career Advice
John Bethea

So often, a great competition soloist sweeps the awards for an outstanding work they've thoroughly mastered—but then falls apart when trying to learn anything else. How can you avoid a similar fate? By approaching your competition prep strategically so it can enhance your training.

Dance a character outside your comfort zone.

When selecting variations for their students, Slawomir and Irena Wozniak at Master Ballet Academy in Arizona often look for roles that contrast the dancers' natural temperaments. “To get hired you must show range," Slawomir says. The happy prince, full of love, has a different approach to the same steps as a cocky Basilio from Don Quixote, and learning the distinctions can enhance your artistry.

Push for tougher choreography.

Kelly Burke, artistic director of Westchester Dance Academy in New York state, sees dancers improve when given something to aspire to. “Knowing we'll have a weekly private session to rehearse the solo, I give dancers choreography that's technically harder than what they can do," she says. “Of course, I'd never let them perform it until it's done correctly." If your solo is well in hand, ask the choreographer if you can shoot for an extra turn here or a riskier weight shift there.

Analyze every step.

If you have a one-on-one with your teacher to fine-tune your performance, don't stop at cleaning up arm placement. “Look at all the technical details," says New York City Dance Alliance faculty member Suzi Taylor. “Go beyond checking your lines and examine whether you're using your back to support your arms and overall alignment. Is your supporting leg fully turned out every time?" These details translate to everything else you do.

Study your transitions.

Burke finds that when she spends a whole coaching session on specificity in the moments between steps, her dancers wind up doing a lot of work on technique that supports the rest of their dancing. Look at engaging turnout as you step up from the floor or identify where your weight is as you come out of a turn, she says.

Build strength with musicality.

Matching the music can stretch your limits. Take a juicier approach to a développé when the music swells, for example, and over time you're sure to feel stronger in your supporting leg and in the extension. “Playing with the way you approach your port de bras in the solo may bring some upper-body clarity to your other movement," says Taylor. “That's improving your total carriage, the full picture."

Fill in the blanks on your own.

Use your competition solo to dive deeper. If there's something you're struggling with in your solo, pay extra attention to it in class. Or give your brain a workout, and run the variation starting on the opposite leg. Do a little research to establish an emotional connection to the work. “Maybe you need to read about French history or dancers who have come before you," Wozniak says. It could make a difference in front of the judges and in your overall understanding of the movement.

Career Advice
Michael Slobodian

Whether you're getting paid less than your male counterparts to guest or you're seeing more creative opportunities go to the guys, what can women do when they're being treated unfairly in the studio?

Talk About Your Goals

The fact that men are more coveted in dance doesn't have to mean that women lose out on opportunities. Emily Molnar, artistic director of Vancouver's Ballet BC, believes your emboldened male peers could be asking for the opportunities that you're only hoping for. “Initiative makes change and asking is always worth it," she says. “A few of my dancers recently came to me and expressed an interest in directing, so I'm having them rehearse each other. It might not happen right away, but most companies today are open to these ideas. You can also look outside the company for opportunities to choreograph or gain other experiences." Try setting work on college dancers or starting a community-based group for new work, and remain vocal with your company leadership about your goals as they evolve.

Assert Yourself Creatively

A more subtle example of sexism might give a male dancer more creative freedom in the studio. “The male lead may have the option to change a manège in the piece to suit his strengths, but the woman's variation just is what it is," says Marissa Parmenter, a company dancer with Festival Ballet Providence. “Having a choice actually gives a dancer confidence and helps her define her role as an artist." If you'd like to change solo choreography, don't be afraid to ask, if it's appropriate. Of course, it's important to proceed with caution when questioning a choreographer's artistic choices, and to approach the situation from a place of respect.

Don't Get Shortchanged

Men and women should receive the same paychecks, but this isn't always the case, especially if you're guesting. “I have three or four years more experience than my husband, but I almost always get paid less, sometimes for working longer hours," says Parmenter. “I think if you go to the artistic director or person doing the hiring, most will just be honest with you if the male dancers are paid on a higher scale." But it can be a tough conversation if you'd like to see that change. Jenifer Ringer, who spent more than two decades with the New York City Ballet, urges dancers to break out of the expectation that you should never speak to those in charge. “In the real world, you have a voice and value. So say that you want to talk about your paycheck and how it is determined," she says, adding that if your company is affiliated with a union, a representative should help make sure that you get a meeting and that your concerns are recognized.

Cite Examples

When it comes to any unfair company policy, from equal pay to maternity leave, it's best to arm yourself with examples of how it's done at other companies before making the case for change. You may spark a movement in your current workplace or uncover information that will help you decide where to go when it's time to move on. “In my career, I've made choices to dance where I felt inspired or where the choreographer gave me a stronger voice," says Parmenter. “Some communities are more open to change than others." Tap your network of peers to find out what other work environments are really like.

Find a Mentor

If you're struggling but it doesn't feel appropriate to sit down with your choreographer, Ringer recommends talking to a dancer who has been through it. “There are a lot of great female mentors who would love to share their success," she says. “Find a woman you admire and ask what barriers she's had to overcome." It may change your perspective.

Expect Leadership to Listen

Conversations about sexism are not easy, but we must be willing to have them, because feeling defeated won't change a thing. “It's challenging to speak with your boss," says Molnar, but they may surprise you. Just because sexist patterns exist, it doesn't mean there's necessarily a negative motive behind it. “The directors I know care about the art form and the artists," says Molnar. “We do make mistakes—it's a stressful job and sometimes we can't see it all—but dancers have a lot of power to wake us up and allow us to grow with them."

Career Advice

Part of dance's beauty is that its perfection is elusive. At the same time, this can be one of the most frustrating things about the form. Whether you've been cursed with tight muscles or have picked up a distracting habit, fixing your technical hang-ups can feel like a never-ending battle. But the truth is, all professional dancers, even those with seemingly effortless technique, have their share of struggles.

The Experts

Suzi Taylor: Master teacher at Steps on Broadway and New York City Dance Alliance. Photo Courtesy Taylor.

Annette Karim: Director of dance medicine at Evergreen Physical Therapy Specialists in Pasadena, California. Photo by Evergreen PT Specialists, Courtesy Karim.

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Career Advice

Networking, budgeting and strategically aiming for your goals is an art form in itself.

RACHEL S. MOORE, CEO of Los Angeles Music Center

If you see yourself as an artist, there’s a good chance you’d rather leave business and finance to someone else. But if the goal of training hard is snagging that dream role or company slot, then the less glamourous part of achieving your dreams is negotiating the contract, joining a union and managing the money you make while doing what you love. Not all dancers have the luxury of hiring an agent to take care of everything that falls outside the realm of artistry. That’s why Rachel S. Moore, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Music Center and former CEO and executive director at American Ballet Theatre, shares in-depth advice about how to think more strategically about your career in her new book, The Artist’s Compass: The Complete Guide to Building a Life and a Living in the Performing Arts, out this month. She recommends dancers take these five steps to treat their careers more like a business.

  1. Define success.

Explore strategic partnerships: David Hallberg joined the Bolshoi partly to enhance his skill set. Hallberg in ABT’s Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Make sure that your vision of success is true to you. “Ask yourself what really excites you,” says Moore. Do you want to land at a big company with name recognition? Or would you enjoy working somewhere you might have more opportunity to perform lead roles? Do you want to tour Europe, or see yourself on TV? Envision that end goal, then allow yourself to recalibrate your definition of success as you grow and gain experience. You don’t have to yearn to be the headliner, either. “For me, I only wanted ABT and to be a star, but that was a narrow view of the world. The corps de ballet is an incredibly important and respected piece of the art work,” says Moore. “The dance world is vast. Keep an open mind. You’ll get much more satisfaction from your career.”

2. Build your brand.

Using social media strategically can highlight what sets you apart from other dancers. This could translate to more roles, more supporters and more showrunners approaching you about a gig. “Your brand is really an embodiment of your aesthetic and an extension of what you do onstage—opening your heart—so let that shine through on social media,” says Moore. The key to self-promotion, according to Moore and ABT principal dancer Daniil Simkin, who provides his personal tips for social media in the book, is authenticity. “People can spot a phony,” says Moore. “You have to believe in everything you post online. Your photos shouldn’t just make you look pretty; they should reflect how you see your art. Go back to why you’re in this business to identify your unique voice. It takes courage!” If you’re afraid of oversharing, consider having professional social media accounts and a separate personal one for only those close to you, but once you’re committed, don’t go dark on your followers. Keep posting on a regular basis.

3. Line up a “board of directors.”

Moore recommends building a network, based off the concept of a board of directors, rather than following the advice of a single mentor. “Seek out people with all different skill sets, personalities and views, who are at different points in their career,” she says. “Peers will tell you the truth about a dance company’s culture, while someone mid-career will have a very different perspective than a younger dancer. You should also find someone who will talk to you honestly about how your image is coming across.” Your closest advisors should be people who can help you make connections, know your temperament and abilities and will listen when you need counseling.

4. Embrace your inner CFO.

Simkin (here in Fancy Free) says authenticity is key to marketing yourself successfully online. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.

Artists are often much better with finances than they give themselves credit for. “Nobody is more frugal than a dancer on a budget, and money management is really just problem solving—something we do all day in the studio,” says Moore. Let go of the tendency to dismiss yourself as bad with math or business simply because you’re a dancer. Instead, think of your creative-thinking skills as financial skills. You may feel empowered to not only budget more deliberately but also to save for retirement, invest in real estate or take charge of contract negotiations. Your power suit is a leotard and tights.

5. Seek out growth opportunities.

Most of us want to do the things we’re already good at, but this won’t allow you to grow. “Look at your tendencies and strategically increase your skill set,” says Moore. Great examples: Misty Copeland’s pursuit of meticulous Balanchine work to complement her natural lyricism and David Hallberg joining the Bolshoi partly to work on jumps, for which the company is world-renowned. Look for opportunities to fill the gaps in your training while you’re on the job. That way you’ll be even more marketable for the next one. 

Kristyn Brady, a former dancer, is a writer in Vermont.

Career Advice

Strategies to take the anxiety out of auditions

Elena Bello’s positive audition approach resulted in a job at Richmond Ballet. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, courtesy Richmond Ballet.

During one of her first auditions, Richmond Ballet dancer Elena Bello was a nervous wreck. “It was for the Rockettes’ Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and I wanted it so bad,” she says. “My whole nervous system was tight, my movement didn’t flow and I just knew I could do better.”

No matter how many times you’ve pinned on a number, auditions are always a high-pressure situation. In order to be successful, you don’t just need solid technique—you have to be on top of your mental game. “At the highest levels, what makes the most successful performers rise to the occasion is mostly between their ears,” says Dr. Charlie Brown, a performance psychologist who works with dancers from Charlotte Ballet. But getting into the right mind-set for an audition isn’t always as simple as “I think I can.”

Fright and Fight or Flight

First, make sure to acknowledge—not just suppress or dismiss—your nerves before an audition. “It’s important to realize that anxiety is normal. It’s the brain’s way of turning the body on for fight or flight, and a little is better than none at all,” says Dr. Steven Julius, a clinical psychologist who has worked with Cirque du Soleil performers and the Chicago Bulls. “Even if the tension means you don’t sleep as well the night before or technique isn’t coming to you as easily that morning, it’s a sign that you’re ready. So, let jitters occur, and then pass.”

Goals Within Your Control

Before an audition, take stock of your goals, which typically fall into three categories: outcome goals, performance goals and process-oriented goals. The first type, goals that focus on the outcome of the audition (“My goal is to get the job”), will usually lead you to compare yourself to other dancers, which is distracting, energy-zapping and unhelpful, since you have no control over what a competitor can do. Performance goals (“My goal is to knock out three pirouettes and nail the petit allégro”) are a step in the right direction. However, it’s possible that a slippery floor or an overly crowded room can get in the way. Process-oriented goals deal with what is under your control (“My goal is to perform to the best of my abilities”), regardless of what your competitors do or what the choreographer wants. Aside from calling on your technique and staying in the moment, says Brown, “this means going in well rested, hydrated and fueled.”

Settle Mental Struggles

Dancers can develop a routine for dropping into what Brown calls their “ideal performance state”—the way you feel when your technique is at your fingertips and you’re dancing your very best. It requires understanding how your brain works. The prefrontal cortex, known as the “top-down” part of the brain, is what allows us to think, learn and correct mistakes, says Brown, and it uses words—like the kind you hear in your head when you worry. Performance comes from the “bottom-up” part of the brain that consists of subcortical areas, the amygdala and basal ganglia. This is the part responsible for fluid motor movements, and it is highly influenced by images, rhythms, sensations and emotions. “This is the part of the brain you must engage, while the other part auto-fires to perform all the technique you’ve already learned,” explains Brown.

Beginning about an hour beforehand, focus on images or sensations you’d like to experience in the audition. “Picture the way you want to carry yourself through the door,” says Brown. “See yourself learning a new routine.” When negative self-talk arises, use what he calls the “hello–good-bye” technique: Say “hello” to the voice that says you can’t do it, then say “good-bye” to it and direct your attention to mentally rehearsing what you want to do and feel. If you miss a step and panic, take a deep breath from the abdomen “and turn right back to the music or imagery that helps you connect to the choreography,” says Brown.

Reframe Your Approach

How you view an audition can also change your mind-set. While it’s important to take things seriously, lowering the stakes might actually help. When Bello auditioned for Richmond Ballet in 2010, she says she never expected to make it past the first cut. “I didn’t meet the height requirement, so I thought I had no shot,” she says. “I thought of it as just another class.” She came in prepared with her headshot and the right attire, but she danced for herself and didn’t feel limited by the nerves that had taken over in previous auditions. “Not only did I pull off four turns—which I’d never done in class before—but the artistic director also saw the enjoyment on my face, and I got a spot as an apprentice.”

After the Audition

You may feel the most anxiety afterwards, whether you were cut first or you’re waiting for a callback. This is when you can use self-talk to elbow out negative thoughts, says Julius, and learn from the experience: “Tell yourself, ‘This was an important audition, but no more or less than the last one. I can only control myself.’ ” Recognize the level of talent you were up against and how great you must be to be able to compete with those dancers. If you aren’t offered the job, honor the emotions that come with disappointment—“cry, cuss, blow off steam”—but don’t dwell on it forever, says Brown.

One or two days after the audition, take inventory and make a plan for improving an area of technique where you felt weak or identify when and why you got distracted. “Mentally dealing with rejection is as important a part of becoming a professional dancer as getting offered a job,” says Julius. “If you never fail, you’re not taking the risks you need to grow.” 

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