Stuck? Moving Up, On or Out

August 26, 2008

The day she got a call from American Ballet Theatre offering a corps contract, 18 year-old Stephanie Walz screamed ecstatically and ran to call her mother. Wide-eyed and eager, she set out for New York City, where she danced alongside the stars she had idolized. That first honeymoon year was sweet, filled with exciting opportunities to understudy soloists and upper corps members. With her passion, focus, and talent, Walz’s ABT future looked promising. Choreographers Glen Tetley and Ulysses Dove both recognized her potential and cast her in their pieces.


Walz threw herself into intense rehearsals wholeheartedly. Not listening to her body’s warning signs, she sustained a serious neck injury that benched her for three months. Once she healed, Walz wanted to pick up where she left off. But she discovered that her momentum in the company had stalled. While she danced some featured roles, no promotion seemed in the offing. Eight years after that life-changing phone call, Walz realized she was stuck.


Nearly all dancers hit a wall at some point. Sometimes it’s created by external factors: an injury that sets back a dancer’s progress, a new company director who has a different aesthetic, resources that limit the number of promotions and opportunities a company can offer. Other times, the wall has been built from within by the dancer’s own approach to her work. Realizing what’s contributing to feeling stuck can be the first step to going from a discouraged dancer to a fulfilled artist.

Technical Problems

Getting into a company can make a dancer complacent about her technique. It may take a while before she realizes where she needs to improve. After joining the Joffrey Ballet, April Daly discovered its diverse repertory often pushed her outside her comfort zone. She began staying extra hours in the studio with a company friend to get a better handle on tricky partnering, a particular challenge for her. She soon felt her skill and confidence improve, and it made an impact on the quality of her performances.


Pennsylvania Ballet’s Barette Vance also found that she needed to make a conscious effort to strengthen weak areas. Even during her summers off, she took class religiously to move her technique towards soloist level. She also sought performance feedback from a dancer who originated a role she had been cast in, which proved particularly helpful.


As dancers become familiar with a company’s demands, they find out how much difference their technical facility can make. Jennifer Muller, artistic director of Jennifer Muller/The Works, believes dancers who “haven’t taken care of their technique and haven’t moved energy through their entire body will not excite the choreographer.” Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director, recommends that rather than being astounded by exceptional dancers, company members should watch them closely, then work like them, and emulate their commitment.

The Artistic Side

Fortunately—or unfortunately—technique is only one piece in the puzzle. “The biggest misconception dancers have is if they can do good pirouettes, they will get good parts,” explains Wheater. “They are confused about what artistry is.” Choreographers and directors want artists to bring more than their technique. Muller sees great dancers as having “charisma, verve, and dive-into-it-ness. They have to be just as creative as the creator.”


Some performers keep a shield up onstage, whether unconsciously or out of fear of letting go. This can be self-defeating. Breaking down that wall begins in rehearsal and class. Experimenting with internal dialogue, sparking off and learning from other dancers’ expressiveness, and creating back-stories can help transform guarded movements into energized, flowing ones. Some dancers even take acting classes to help uncork their onstage emotional range.


Yet longed-for roles can remain elusive, leaving dancers disheartened. Muller says she choreographs with specific characteristics or stage presence in mind. “The fourth duet of Lovers is adagio-esque, and I look for someone tall, statuesque, and with mature presence. But other parts require someone shorter and vivacious.” Many parts are not interchangeable, so dancers need to be realistic about which roles they fit; it can fend off needless disappointments.


Trial and Error

Many dancers dream of having featured roles only to discover that centerstage comes with its own pressures. Guesting for smaller companies can give a taste of the spotlight. One dancer may learn she’s comfortably happy in the corps, while another may find the encouragement to work towards a promotion or find a smaller company with lead spots. “Dancers with outside gigs often have a special glow when they return to their full time position,” says Dance Magazine’s advice columnist Linda Hamilton. “They stand out.” Not sure how to get on the guesting circuit? Websites like post opportunities regularly, and having an agent will also help.


It’s natural to get discouraged, but letting it affect work habits is destructive. Abdul Latif, a current member of JM/TW, says that early in his career he blamed shortsighted casting for his lack of progress. “I would think, ‘I’m not tall enough, I need to get my leg higher.’ I wasn’t looking at my development as an artist.” During his first year with Muller in 1999, he wondered why he wasn’t being used more. “I had this fire inside; I wanted to be the star. I felt stuck with my parts; it became a job and I was just punching in.”


In search of growth, Latif bounced around for several years. He joined Donald Byrd/The Group, then moved on to Broadway’s The Lion King and Hairspray. “On Broadway you get pigeonholed too,” he says. “If you are good at covering, then that’s what you will do. You can spend years being the cover unless you work hard during every single show.” Latif says continuing a variety of dance classes helps increase a dancer’s appeal, but that in the end becoming unstuck has a lot to do with timing.

Professional Realities

Many dancers overlook the financial aspects of casting and promotions. The performing arts are a business too, and every contract must fit within a company’s budget. Dr. Hamilton reminds her clients constantly that promotions cost money. “One ballerina I worked with talked to her director, who told her there was no reason not to move her up, there just wasn’t a spot open,” she says. “There was no implicit criticism, so I told her to give it another year in the corps.” The next year a spot opened and the dancer moved up immediately.


Dancers communicate through movement, but sometimes talking is the best step you can take. If a company does not have yearly evaluations, Dr. Hamilton suggests dancers be proactive and set up an annual meeting with their director. “Build a relationship, have conversations to find out where you stand. It is always scary, but it’s better to know.” Wheater cautions against questioning other dancers’ parts; instead he suggests focusing on learning what you need to work on.


For Walz, those meetings didn’t provide magical solutions. “Looking back, I realize the key is to stay objective, which is hard because you can get pretty emotional,” she says. “Be clear about your concerns, and try to get specific answers.” After several meetings, Walz realized she needed to cultivate her dancing beyond what the corps could offer. It was a painful decision. “ABT was always my dream and I was single-minded, so I didn’t know where I wanted to go.” After a fruitless audition tour through Europe, she accepted an offer from co-artistic director David Palmer (whom she later married) with the newly formed Maximum Dance Company in Miami.


“I finally got to do pas de deux instead of standing on the side, and being in a small company felt like a family,” she says. “I was so excited I couldn’t sleep!” While sometimes she missed the glamour and luxury of ABT—the costumes, the orchestra, the sets, the dancing, the pay—Walz never regretted making the move.


Have a clear sense of your goals can make a big difference psychologically. April Daly wants to stay at the Joffrey and continue to work her way up. Barette Vance moved into a soloist position at PAB this month and has principal aspirations. Latif found his way back to JM/TW where he now feels challenged artistically, while he ventures into his own choreographic work. “Feeling stuck was about not being present,” says Latif. “It was my blind focus on the future.”


This past year, Walz made a full circle. She came home to ABT, where she graduated from the company’s first teaching intensive focused on its new national curriculum. She learned “about the best way to pass down our art to new generations.” She and Palmer recently moved to Washington, DC, where he begins as Washington Ballet’s artistic associate. Walz will dance freelance and guest teach at The Washington School of Ballet.


Being wedged in a career corner is no place for a dancer. Dealing with feeling constricted begins with artists recognizing their free will. Nothing is ever written—or danced—in stone. To stay or leave, to work hard or work less, to express feelings or rein them in; the dancer has these choices.


Jen Thompson Peters is a dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works and a frequent contributor to
Dance Magazine.