These Pros Prove That It's Possible to Start Training Later

May 28, 2020

These days, it feels like in order to master the technical feats required of professional dancers, you can’t get enough of a head start on your training. Younger and younger Insta-protégés knocking out quadruple pirouettes or showing off their extreme flexibility give the impression that spending those formative childhood years immersed in dance gives you a leg up in an increasingly competitive field. Right?

Not necessarily. Some of today’s top dance professionals who began in their late teens or early 20s prove that stereotype wrong. Though the exception rather than the rule, these artists show that the path to success can start later.

Ayodele Casel

Casel in a warehouse-looking setting, with large windows and wooden floors. She is up on the toe of one of her tap shoes, and kicks her other leg forward.
Patrick Randak, Courtesy Casel

A tap dancer and choreographer, Ayodele Casel has performed at The Joyce Theater, Carnegie Hall, the White House, Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and has worked with some of tap’s greatest luminaries, such as Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

How she got started:
“I started tap dancing at 19 as a sophomore at New York University. I was an acting major and we had to take movement classes. They offered us tai chi or tap dance.”

On choosing her own path:
“Starting later, for me it felt like I was in control of my journey since I was doing something I loved and I got to choose the route. A lot of my practice was self-directed. I don’t know if that’s the case in other dance forms, but with tap you can do it all day, every day. I never felt like I was trying to catch up. Looking at it as a viable career didn’t trump me wanting to just do it really well. I was more in the pursuit of artistry, technique and understanding rather than making money off it.”

Her advice:
“Enjoy it! I find that many adult dancers are so stressed. Remember that this is supposed to be fun!”

Melany Centeno

Centeno, in athletic wear, jumps in the middle of a street, arms behind her and one leg bent in front of her.
Alex Larson Photo, Courtesy Centeno

As a commercial dancer, model and actress, Melany Centeno has appeared as a featured dancer on television and in film, and has performed with Jennifer Lopez and Jason Derulo.

How she got started:
“In college a bunch of my friends were on the dance team. My best friend told me, Let’s do this instead of running track. I had never danced before in my life, so I looked at her like she was crazy.”

When she knew dance was right for her:
“After college, I started dancing salsa. I got obsessed! I eventually joined BAILA Society and began teaching salsa classes at Peridance Capezio Center, which was where I got exposed to other styles. I think because I ended up focusing my attention on an urban style, I didn’t feel as alienated as I would have if I had begun studying concert dance in my 20s. I felt very welcome.”

Her advice:
“Social media can give you the wrong idea about where you need to start to be successful. Be humble, patient and open to learning. You should be a student from day 1 to your grave. It will give you great longevity.”

Jo Kreiter

Kreiter hangs upside down off a white structure, wearing an all-black outfit.
Josh Coe, Courtesy Kreiter

An aerial dancer, choreographer and activist, Jo Kreiter founded San Francisco apparatus-based dance company Flyaway Productions in 1996. Flyaway dancers perform suspended vertically on buildings and steel structures. She is a five-time Isadora Duncan Dance Award recipient and runs the arts outreach program GIRLFLY.

How she got started:
“The very first dance class I took was from Baba Chuck Davis as a senior in college. I had a degree in political science and had no plans to be a dancer, but I just couldn’t stop moving. Soon after, I saw the Dance Brigade and realized that one could combine political activism and dance. That was a life-changing moment.”

When she knew dance was right for her:
“The first thing I did when I arrived in San Francisco in 1987 was a summer workshop with the Dance Brigade. They then invited me to be a part of their very first Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, a political reimagining of the ballet. One scene, the underwater world, was choreographed by aerial master Terry Sendgraff. That did it. From then on I was hooked on aerial dance. When I was 30 I made my first evening-length piece. I realized how much I loved the totality of that experience.”

On the pros and cons of starting later:
“One disadvantage in starting later is that I don’t have a thorough dance history education. I’ve tried to go back and educate myself. But for me it was an incredible blessing that I got to choose the training and timing that suited my body. I never had any burnout. I still love taking technique class. I love studying with new teachers.”

Her advice:
“Be in the body you love. If that means training as a dancer, that’s great. There are so few rewards; you have to do it on your own terms.”

Brandon Leffler

Leffler, wearing only beige underwear, leans to the left, with his left hand on the floor and left leg bent. His right leg is extended all the way straight, foot on the floor.
Liz Cooper Photography, Courtesy Leffler

After beginning his career with Ballet Austin, Brandon Leffler has racked up credits that include the Broadway productions of On the Town, Cinderella and Wicked, the national tours of My Fair Lady and Cats, “30 Rock,” “Gossip Girl” and the Tony Awards.

How he got started:
“I began dancing at 16 at a competition dance studio. I remember feeling, ‘I will never get this.’ It was so confusing and felt unattainable. We took ballet twice a week. It was hard and I didn’t see the importance of it. For me, ballet was that dark, leafy green vegetable you don’t want to touch as a kid.”

On the pros and cons of starting later:
“Physically, the biggest challenge was flexibility and line because I didn’t have those childhood years to mold my legs and feet. I had to work doubly hard on that. I stretched like crazy. Even though it can be tough as an older dancer, you’re still a blank canvas. You don’t have to undo bad habits and you don’t get as many overuse injuries.”

His advice:
“It’s easy to just want to do the flashy commercial stuff. But it’s so important to have a strong technical foundation because, ultimately, it will give you such a range of opportunities.”

Silas Riener

Riener performs wearing a colorful striped button-down shirt, bright pink shorts and dark blue socks. he has one leg in a turned-in side attitude, standing leg bent, and he leans over, looking at his hands.
Paula Lobo, Courtesy Riener

Silas Riener danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 2007 until its closure in 2011. He remains a licensed stager for The Merce Cunningham Trust. Since 2010, Riener has been collaborating with Rashaun Mitchell. Their work has been shown at The Joyce Theater, New York Live Arts and Danspace Project.

How he got started:
“I started dancing at 19 during my freshman year of college. At first, it was humiliating. Not only being the only boy but also being totally unindoctrinated into the culture. There is all this unspoken stuff that nobody ever explains. For example, I kept turning around at the wrong time at the barre, or changing direction at the wrong time. Why do we start with the left hand on the barre, anyways? I was really confused.”

On the challenges of starting later:
“I think what’s weird about coming to dance later is that your brain is fully formed, whereas your physicality is still developing. I could watch the combination and understand what I was intending to do, but then not be able to transfer that knowledge to my legs. I had a thousand questions about everything. I kept asking ‘Why?’ One thing that’s painful about coming to dance older is that you can see exactly what you’re not doing. I could not make my body do the things that other people could. The catch-up took a long time. I did as much as I could. I showed up early. I stayed late. I cross-trained.”

His advice:
“It’s very easy to link awkwardness and shame. There’s a lot about dance training that encourages you to feel bad about yourself. That’s a toxic path, so try to avoid using negative motivation. The things we do with dancing should feel good!”