When Winning Isn’t Everything

April 26, 2011

At ballet competitions, dancers get seen, receive scholarships, and sometimes carve a path to a job.
Dance Magazine’s contributing editor Nancy Wozny spoke to three artistic directors who have served as competition judges. She also talked to one winning dancer from each company to get their best advice for others who are thinking of competing.



Boston Ballet

Mikko Nissinen, artistic director

Competition affiliation: Boston International Ballet Competition

“It’s how you approach the competition experience that matters. It’s best to focus on artistic vs. gymnastic goals. Competitions can be springboards, stepping stones, and a place to test yourself. The objective is not to go for the gold but to learn from the rehearsal process, meet your peers, and start building a global network. You will learn to deal with pressure. If one of our dancers wants to go to Jackson, I always ask why. If the answer is healthy, I say ‘Good for you’ and support them.

“However, a company is a team sport and a competition is all about the individual. There are dancers who do well at competitions but do not end up with a career. It’s like you are good at cooking one dish.”


Whitney Jensen, second soloist

“Find a great coach who can help you progress. Select variations that are well suited to your personality and your technique; without that you cannot show your true potential. Make sure you are willing to put in the time and effort needed, so everything is ready and you are completely prepared with confidence to compete.”



Houston Ballet
Stanton Welch, artistic director

Competition affiliation: New York International Ballet Competition

“Competitions have proved an excellent source of talent for the Ben Stevenson Academy [affiliated with Houston Ballet] and some of these students have gone on to the company. Competitions can be character-building, and any chance to perform is good for a dancer’s development. But there is little in the experience that determines whether a dancer will fit into a company situation. Winning doesn’t necessarily mean you will know how to work in an ensemble, and there’s no indication that you can dance other styles.”


Jim Nowakowski, corps member

“Take competing as a big learning experience. You will learn to deal with pressure, which happens all the time in a company when you are asked to fill in for a role last minute. This is a great time to learn to control your emotions and nerves. There’s a lot of commotion at competitions, so make sure to take quiet time for yourself, away from the crowd. Listen to your music on an iPod to get ready. Learn from everyone else too: Since you are watching the same variation 30 times, take things you like to benefit your own artistry.”



Cincinnati Ballet
Victoria Morgan, artistic director

Competition affiliation: New York International Ballet Competition

“Competitions are wonderful for networking, for getting out of our own spheres and seeing what’s out there. I can see the training and coaching of dancers from all over the world. It gives us a point of comparison. This profession is so demanding and obsessive; we can feel isolated. It also says something about the drive and determination of a dancer to put oneself out there among national and international peers to be judged against. You have to find your concentration in the whirl of nerves and adrenaline. The sense of adventure and risk-taking will show onstage with the home company. Dancers return from competitions enlivened, inspired, humbled, and better educated. It’s also a way for others to see the caliber of training going on at Cincinnati Ballet—so we get our name out there.”


Janessa Touchet, principal

“Know what you’re going to do and do just that. Be prepared to a T. Push yourself in rehearsal, but don’t try something new onstage. Practice, get it down, and stick to that. Also communicate with the other dancers there. When you put yourself out there, you are being watched every minute. Be prepared for a very high level of nerves!”



Jim Nowakowski in
La Bayadère. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB.