PC Catherine Park

How to Find a Competition Coach–And What to Do When You Get One

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?


What a Coach Does

Coaching is one part science and one part inspiration, says Ilka Doubek, artistic director of Litchfield Dance Arts Academy in South Carolina. "A coach should be able to create exercises that help you build up to the skills you'll need and get you to express yourself through the movement," she says.

Bo Spassoff, PC Catherine Park

But there's no one-size-fits-all approach to coaching, says Bo Spassoff, co-director of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia. "For some students it may be important to have someone tough, but for a student who is very self-deprecating, the coach's ability to give positive reinforcement may be the biggest priority." Either way, a coach should analyze exactly what you need to do to reach your goals and match your level of commitment.

How to Find the One

As important as it is to find a coach who can bring out your best, the final pairing may not be up to you—your parent or teacher may end up making the call. Studio-hoppers or dancers from a large academy may get the value of multiple perspectives: At The Rock School, Bo and Stephanie Spassoff have a unique approach in which dancers are coached by multiple faculty members. "Once the variation has been taught by one of us, we start rotating within the coaching staff so there are a lot of eyes on them," says Stephanie. Dancers benefit from each coach's specialty, whether it be turning, jumping, musicality or character—almost like a board of advisors.

Stephanie Spassoff with students

The Spassoffs admit their approach is atypical. They recommend trying the more traditional route of looking at top schools in your area to see if someone on faculty has extra time to spend with you, or developing a relationship with someone from your own studio.

If you need to lock down a coach outside of a studio environment, think of it as finding a mentor, says Doubek. Go to summer intensives and master classes, and look for teachers whom you relate to.

Don't Get Comfortable

You might think you know what teaching style works best for you and picture learning a variation in that kind of environment. But succeeding at competitions isn't just about being proficient at the steps—a large part of a coach's role is to push the dancer to understand the arc of her character and the feeling of her variation. "We work together to carry a story through the steps," says Claudio Muñoz, who serves as ballet master for Houston Ballet II and has coached students for the Prix de Lausanne and Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition.

Claudio Muñoz, PC Jaime Lagdameo

To challenge yourself, find a coach who can take you outside your comfort zone. "The truth is that the meanest teacher might be the one to connect and relate best with you about the artistry of the variation," says Doubek.

When you're considering working with someone new, Muñoz says that a rapport may take some time to establish, but you have to see the potential to trust each other, because the process won't always be easy. "You may have to lose something to gain something, to unlearn the wrong way of turning to be able to get it right, for example," he says. "If the dancer doesn't trust in me, it's very difficult to get through that."

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Brandt in Giselle. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Skylar Brandt's Taste in Music Is as Delightful as Her Dancing

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's dancing is clean, precise and streamlined. It's surprising, then, to learn that her taste in music is "all over the place," she says. (Even more surprising is that Brandt, who has an Instagram following of over 80k, is "in the dark ages" when it comes to her music, and was buying individual songs on iTunes up until a year ago, when her family intervened with an Apple Music plan.)

Though what she's listening to at any given time can vary dramatically, the through-line for Brandt is nostalgia: songs that take her back, whether to childhood, a favorite movie or a piece she's recently performed. Brandt told us about her eclectic taste, and made us a playlist that will keep you guessing:

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

NYCDA Is Redefining the Convention Scene Through Life-Changing Opportunities

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

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Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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