Jordan Lindamood and Ivan Tocchetti. Bill Prouty, Courtesy NYDP

Could This Trend Redefine Pre-Professional Training?

For generations, dancers have been thrust into professional life at a young age without much preparation or tools, sinking or swimming on their limited industry know-how. Today, some independent programs are presenting unique models that bridge the gap between student and professional life through networking, performance opportunities and more.


A Career Focus

One of the primary purposes of these pre-professional companies and training programs is to give students an expansive network, and thereby help them land a job. Take New York Dance Project, which offers full-time training for emerging artists and freelance professionals in New York City. According to the group's founders, former Joffrey Ballet dancers Nicole Duffy Robertson and Davis Robertson, they've become a place where companies—from Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to New Chamber Ballet to Parsons Dance—can come in search of new dancers. "Our dancers don't do cattle-call auditions," says Duffy Robertson. "They get seen before in company class, or we bring directors in to observe classes."

Unlike traineeships or apprenticeships that are connected to a larger company, the dancers are not fighting for a single spot, but working together so that each of them can succeed.

These programs often tout perks not typically offered in traditional schools. For example, Z Artists Group, a Manhattan-based, pre-professional training program for middle- and high-school–aged dancers, emphasizes advocacy work, developing skills that will aid dancers in an ever more socially conscious world. And Intrepid Dance Company in Ontario, Canada, a postsecondary training program for commercial dancers, includes seminars in injury prevention, show production, studio ownership, public speaking, choreography and adjudication. Intrepid dancers leave the nine-month course with a professional resumé, video reel, headshot, bio and meetings with agents in Los Angeles and Canada.

Performance Opportunities

Many of these programs have a performance-driven structure that creates a high-stakes, company-like atmosphere within a low-stakes educational environment. Z Artists Group performs five times per year at places like the Guggenheim Museum, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and The Joyce Theater. North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, a performance troupe of tap dancers ages 8 to 18, performs twice per month, and hasn't turned down a performance in 37 years. "Sometimes the phone rings off the hook," says artistic director Gene Medler. "There is no curve later on when these kids get into a professional company. They don't even flinch."

Dancers also gain professionalism and connections by working with big names—like Michelle Dorrance at NCYTE, Sarah Lane at NYDP and Mia Michaels at Z Artists Group. "When you have that level of professionalism in the room, they learn what it takes," Robertson says. "We teach what expectations the director will have for them, what parts they will be responsible to know other than their own, how to pick up choreography quickly." NYDP tours cities in the eastern U.S. and will be performing in Italy this summer, giving dancers on-the-road experience and survival skills.

Affordability

For dancers looking for stepping-stone training programs, affordability is key. Z Artists Group founder Joelle Cosentino says her program's tuition is a flat yearly fee based on slashing in half those of local and national suburban dance studios. Some dancers receive scholarship money to cover that cost, and private donors finance the company's travel. NCYTE is entirely free (including shoes), sustained through money dancers earn performing. "Some days we might do a small half-hour show for $400, and then the next weekend we will have a $4,000 gig," Medler says.

Four young tap dancers in blue shirts and black pants onstage with a drummer and keyboard player. They are lined up downstage, facing the side with one leg kicked out in front of them.

Disha Dewan, courtesy North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble

Who They're Right For

Though these programs offer compelling alternatives to the traditional training route, they aren't for everyone. For starters, they exist primarily in cities, which means the cost of living is often high. They also tend to be high-pressure. "This is not a suburban experience," Cosentino says. "These kids have to be a bit tough."

And not everyone leaves with a job. At NYDP and Z Artists Group, dancers who don't receive offers are welcome to stay on a case-by-case basis. "Most have left us with jobs; others have decided they are ready to go back to school or become teachers," Duffy Robertson says.

Still, these programs offer something unique—and valuable. "A happy, healthy working environment doesn't happen enough in the dance world," says Duffy Robertson. "The oldest method is to throw everyone into the same pit and see who is the strongest one to crawl out of it. That is the opposite of what we do."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021