The Creative Process
Louise Flores, courtesy Chavez

Tessandra Chavez has always had a desire to create: The San Diego native founded her own company, Unity Dance Ensemble, when she was just 15 years old. Today, her intensely emotive work on music videos, concerts and TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars" has garnered her an Emmy win and two World Choreography Awards. Her latest endeavor brings her back to her company as they compete for the top spot on NBC's "World of Dance."

Chavez recently spoke with Dance Magazine about how the show has taught her new skills, and why she embraces both criticism and failure.

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Career Advice
Freelancer Melissa Toogood. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Building a freelance career takes guts, no matter where you're based. Most dancers assume you need to live in major dance hubs like New York or Los Angeles to find enough work. But as these four dancers who are thriving in unique and burgeoning scenes prove, freelance opportunities abound.

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Inside DM

Lessons learned as a recent college grad on the audition circuit

When I graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts last May, I felt totally prepared to audition. I had listened to the faculty’s advice, gleaned insight from alum and visiting choreographers and learned everything from how to build my resumé to dressing the part. I felt ready, armed with all the tools to book the concert and commercial work I desired. Or so I thought. I quickly learned that nothing could replicate the experience of auditioning for professional work.

Redefining Success

One of the greatest—but most nerve-racking—things about auditioning is that I still see my classmates. Just as badly as I want that job, so do they. Sometimes, I make it to the next round. Other times, I watch my friends make the cut. Self-doubt can creep in quickly, and I wonder, Why not me? But I’ve learned that taking it personally gets me nowhere. As much as I’d like to think I know what choreographers or casting directors are looking for, I don’t. There are so many variables outside of my control, whether it’s height, body type or even where I was standing in the room.

In these moments, I try to define success for myself. Success is personal, not universal. Now, I measure it on how often I work and how much I love the process.

Burnout Is Real

Staying motivated can be hard when sometimes I feel more like a professional auditionee than a professional dancer. At first, I was ashamed that I felt burnt out on auditioning—wasn’t this my life’s purpose, what I paid to go to school for? After graduation, when I went to several large auditions and nothing stuck, I became frustrated and completely exhausted. I took some time off from auditioning to clear my head, and after talking with friends, I realized this feeling isn’t that uncommon.

I started to give myself permission to take a break when I get overwhelmed—there will always be more auditions. I try new fitness classes (anything from running to trampoline cardio), explore a neighborhood or dive into a good book. If I don’t give myself a breather, I become judgmental of myself and my movement—the opposite of what I want to present at an audition. Now I aim to attend two a week so I don’t feel stretched too thin.

Recently, I also pledged that I wouldn’t audition for work that didn’t compensate me well enough—financially or otherwise. There are gigs that might not pay much but will offer me high-quality rehearsal and performance clips, exposure to an artist I’m interested in working with or a flexible rehearsal schedule.

But if I’m feeling stagnant, I’ll mix it up and whip out my character heels for a musical theater audition. Or I’ll find a hip-hop audition to refresh myself with a great challenge and a good laugh.

Learning to Fail Better

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if I’m not ready to fail—a lot—then the process will be brutal. A couple of months after I graduated, I had several callbacks for a promising opportunity. When I got cut, I shut down. I thought, If I didn’t book this one, there’s no way I’ll book the next one. For a time after that, I avoided auditions altogether. I feared failure. Slowly, I was able to let go of that fear, which allowed me to do better work and learn from my missteps. When I learned to fail better, my fear lost its power.

Each cut presents an opportunity to reevaluate my path, and each audition is a chance to collaborate with different artists. During recent auditions for immersive dance shows, I discovered a desire to create similar work. So I became rehearsal director for a new immersive project with Billy Bell called The God Complex. I’m grateful for what auditioning has taught me about myself as an artist. When I book my next job, I know I’ll be a better performer because of it. 

Health & Body

Taking a tip from sports nutrition, more dancers are turning to protein powder to pull off long days of rehearsals. Some grab a protein shake after class, others sprinkle it on meals to give their muscles an extra boost. But does this convenient solution really meet a dancer's needs?

The Right Amount of Protein

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that 15 to 20 percent of the calories athletes eat come from protein. But does that require a protein supplement? “For 98 percent of dancers that I work with, the answer is no," says Emily Cook Harrison, director of Atlanta Ballet's Centre for Dance Nutrition. In fact, research shows that most dancers are getting far more protein than they need. “You're not using that extra protein," says Harrison, “so your body stores those extra calories as fat."

The large doses of protein powder can backfire. “Overconsumption of protein is hard on your kidneys, and doesn't provide any benefit," says Joy Dubost, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eating too much protein creates excess nitrogen in the body, which the kidneys must overwork to expel. Harrison adds that high-protein diets are associated with weaker bones over time, a danger for dancers, who are already at a higher risk for stress fractures.

When It's Helpful

So, does protein powder ever have a place in a dancer's diet? “Protein powder can be beneficial when dancers don't have access to protein right away," says Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist for the School of American Ballet. Grabbing a shake can help you get the protein you need after dancing to assist with muscle repair. “But don't rely on it," Skolnik adds. Instead, she suggests that most of your protein intake come from whole foods, like poultry, fish, soy, nuts and nut butters, milk, yogurt, eggs, beans and seeds.

Read the Label

There are many different types of protein powder on the market, including whey, soy and hemp. “I recommend a plant-based protein powder, rather than dairy or whey-based," Harrison says. “Hemp, for example, is full of omega-3s."

Beware that supplements are not always tested by the FDA, and can contain ingredients that are not approved. “Look for a protein powder that's NSF [National Sanitation Foundation] certified," says Dubost. That ensures that there's nothing present that isn't on the label. Skolnik suggests dancers scan labels for creatine, which can cause gains in weight and muscle mass. And avoid any anti-caking or whitening agents, such as silicone dioxide or titanium dioxide, says Harrison, as well as hydrogenated oils, maltodextrin, arsenic, cadmium, lead or acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame K)—all common additives and preservatives.

Strike a Balance

“There's nothing magical about protein powder," Skolnik says. As long as dancers maintain adequate protein consumption, she advises, grabbing or making a protein shake full of fruits, veggies and even nuts and seeds can help fuel you through a long day. “Dancers are athletes, and it's great for them to view their bodies as such," she says. “They need to fuel themselves for performance and for well-being." A protein shake once in a while won't harm you, but don't regularly substitute them for real meals.

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