So, You've Graduated. Now What?
How to navigate the tricky time between college and career
Juilliard grad Michele Carter helped secure her job with BODYTRAFFIC through face-to-face networking. Photo by Jim Webber, Courtesy BODYTRAFFIC.
In college, a dancer’s work is scheduled almost to the minute. You train intensely, discuss goals with advisors and put all that you’ve learned to practice. But when you graduate, the structure is gone. There’s little certainty of what the next year—or month—will hold.
When Beka Burnham graduated from The Boston Conservatory’s musical theater program in 2014, she “kind of felt like a slacker,” even though she was actively auditioning. “You have to battle the anxiety,” she says, “and know that your job is different from a normal person’s—that it doesn’t mean you’re not on the right track.” The reality is that it can take months, even years, of auditioning to sign a contract. That jobless time can be terrifying, but it doesn’t have to derail your career. Creating a plan to keep up with your technique and stay positive will help guide you until you land a job.
The first to-do is establishing some kind of routine. A central part of that is finding a dance studio where you can train consistently and receive feedback, says Melissa Lowe, a dance professor and the director of Student Services and Advising at the University of Arizona. “Dancers are some of the most disciplined and organized people on the planet. But they’re used to being attached to somebody who’s looking after them,” says Lowe. “As soon as you remove yourself from that structure, your self-direction can really be challenged.”
Finding a “home studio” will help you establish routine. Above: Class at Broadway Dance Center. Photo by April Cook, Courtesy BDC
That said, few graduates have the funds to take three classes a day. But ideally, you should train six days a week in some form. “Class becomes not a duty but a luxury,” says Michele Carter, who graduated from The Juilliard School in 2014 and moved back to her hometown near Los Angeles. She took ballet twice a week, and supplemented that by giving herself class at the studio where she grew up training. Many studios also have work-exchange programs.
Tailor your training to auditions you’re targeting. “About 60 percent of the classes should mimic movement that you will do in an audition,” says Megan Richardson, a clinical specialist at New York University’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. “The other 40 percent can supplement.” Even if you’re only auditioning for ballet companies, for instance, there should still be variety in your training. “At auditions, you never know what’s going to happen,” she adds.
Don’t neglect cross-training. Cardio, specifically high-intensity interval training (short bursts of high-energy effort during a sustained workout), best mimics the demands of an audition. Try incorporating four minutes of high-intensity work—physical enough that you can’t talk during it—into your regular workout, then recover and repeat. Apps like HIIT Timer help keep track of your exercises. In the days before an audition, replace HIIT workouts with something restorative, like yoga or Pilates.
Keep Your Head Up
Graduating without a job can come with high levels of anxiety. To ground yourself, start by identifying elements of college life that made you feel safe. “Was it the people, the classes or living on your own?” says Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet. “Then ask, ‘How can I create some of that?’ ”
Don’t wait until you land your dream job to start building a fulfilling life. Kaslow recommends setting up a routine that consists of more than dance. Explore other artistic outlets, see shows and do any activities that help you figure out what you value. “Those areas that you now have time for can enhance your dancing,” says Carter. When it comes to supporting yourself through a non-dance job, assess whether you’d thrive in something dance-related, like teaching, or something less physical, like an administrative position.
Of course, self-doubt will creep in. “I want people to be realistic, but not overly worried or anxious,” says Kaslow. It can be especially hard as fellow graduates and friends get job offers. Remember that the first big contract comes at a different time for everyone, and that your peers’ successes don’t undermine your own. If anything, they connect you to a greater dance network.
Maximize the Job Search
Auditions are the most obvious way to book a job. But you can waste a lot of time and energy if you don’t have a strategy. Going after every opportunity can lead to burnout; one or two auditions a week may be an ideal number. But don’t limit yourself to only the jobs that seem perfect for you. Burnham almost skipped a Wicked audition because she didn’t believe she’d be chosen. To her surprise, she ended up booking its national tour.
There are plenty of other resources that can help you with your job hunt. A good place to start is your college’s local alumni association, which may offer workshops, classes and career counseling. For Carter, connecting with Juilliard alumni was invaluable. “Even if they’re just three years ahead of you, they know exactly where you’ve come from and where you’re trying to get to,” she says.
And you’ve heard it before: Networking is vital. Stay in touch with teachers who have contacts at companies. Get to know choreographers through regular classes. Attend shows of companies you’re interested in and reach out to congratulate the directors. After hearing promising feedback from BODYTRAFFIC, Carter kept in touch by sending an updated video reel, attending classes and workshops and seeing performances. “I tried to have as much face-to-face interaction as possible,” she says. “E-mail and phone are good, but if a director can get your essence, that’s definitely a better thing.” At the end of the summer, BODYTRAFFIC offered her a contract.
The job may not come quickly, but that doesn’t mean it never will. “It’s okay not to have your next step completely planned out,” says Carter. “It just means that there are a lot of opportunities you can explore.”
Don’t Make These All-Too-Common Post-Graduation Mistakes
2) Making friends with negative dancers.
It’s a fast track to feeling jaded about the dance industry. “Having a peer group outside of the dance world gives you balance and perspective,” says Atlanta Ballet psychologist Nadine Kaslow.
3) Not researching a job thoroughly before accepting.
University of Arizona dance professor Melissa Lowe once had a student who accepted a job in Australia, where he was asked to shave his head, only to be laid off the next day. Research the company, have a lawyer look at the contract and try to talk to a former dancer before signing on.
4) Setting unrealistic goals.
Don’t plan to take seven ballet classes a week if you can only fit in three. Likewise, a career timeline, like landing a Broadway show by the end of the year, isn’t under your control. Measure your success by your training, auditions and industry relationships you develop. —AR
Melissa Lowe teaching at University of Arizona. Photo by Taylor Noel, Courtesy Lowe