Embracing competition circuit students into college dance

"Sometimes my class is honestly quite unsatisfying to former competition dancers." —Meghan Durham

Sophomore Lindsay Deitchman says it took her a full semester to feel comfortable at Ohio State University’s dance program. Competing with studios in Westchester, New York, she had little modern dance training and didn’t understand how it would benefit her career. “It was really hard for me to accept that this training was going to be helpful. I knew it was going to be different, but I didn’t think it was going to be completely on the other side of the dance spectrum,” she says.

A competitive dancer’s transition from studio to college can be jarring. It can be hard to excite them about learning new approaches to dance. They will most likely have to change the way they execute steps, try unfamiliar and uncomfortable styles and perform repertoire that they find downright boring or strange.

Andra Corvino, a ballet professor at The Juilliard School, guesses that more than half of the department’s recent incoming freshmen came from competition studios. “We’ve been accepting them more because it seems to be the kind of talent pool that interests us,” she says. Often, these dancers have trained in a way that develops great technical facilities, and they’re not hesitant to use these skills to their greatest ability. “Competition dancers are incredibly fearless,” says Corvino. “They obviously love to move, are extremely curious and have a wonderful energy.”

A Different Mentality

The biggest barrier college professors have to break is perspective. “A lot of our job is to release some of the expectations that these students have about dance. College isn’t about doing what you’re told. It’s about nurturing inquisitiveness,” says Megan Durham, a professor at Ohio State University. It’s often the aesthetic of her postmodern dance class that shocks newcomers most. “I think sometimes my class is honestly quite unsatisfying to former competition dancers. They will tell me, ‘I just don’t get this,’” she says, admitting a dance BFA isn’t for everyone. A few dancers from competitive backgrounds left the program this year to seek other career paths.

To get a feel for a prospective incoming class, Juilliard interviews applicants as the last step of the audition process. “We want to know that the students have an open mind about learning a broader view of dance and theater, to truly taste and embrace a culture that may have eluded them,” says Corvino. Durham has new students write a letter about their goals in training and performance so she can figure out how she should proceed with each group. She returns letters at the end of the semester so they can track their growth.

Relearning To Dance 

Polishing technique often means unlearning habits formed in previous training. One issue for some students entering Juilliard is poor alignment, says Corvino, especially since dancers raised on the competition circuit tend to be extremely hypermobile. “Their bodies can do a lot of interesting things, but they don’t always understand them,” she says. “It’s not that they shouldn’t use that ability, but they must learn to use it healthfully. Just because your leg goes there doesn’t mean it should.”

Nuanced quality of movement is another area where these students struggle. “They seem to place a high value on sharp attack and dancing in pictures as opposed to really dancing in between,” Durham says. This was the biggest correction Deitchman got upon arriving at OSU. “Competition is a showcase, and I was always worried about how I looked. Now, instead of me saying, ‘Oh, I’m kicking my leg up and that looks great,’ I feel the sensation of how I’m moving and I don’t need to look in a mirror to know if it’s right or not,” she says. In fact, OSU studios don’t have mirrors, forcing the dancers to rely on feeling their movement for self-evaluation. Durham says that once students understand dance isn’t just about poses, they can relinquish the idea that every step must be given full physical effort. “Muscular efficiency sometimes means don’t give it your all. Otherwise it limits a dancer’s qualitative range,” she says.

Learning repertory helps put these ideas into context. Juilliard dancers often start with classics like Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies or Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, and perform newer work from up-and-coming choreographers later in their undergrad study. These frameworks make for effective “show, don’t tell” methods. “They start to understand how their classwork will fit theatrically, and it gives them a reason to go through the frustration of retraining their bodies,” says Corvino. It also prepares them for professional life, where dancers have to constantly adapt to different styles, techniques and choreographers. (Corvino says that students from competitive backgrounds work in many different fields upon graduation, including musical theater, modern/contemporary concert dance, commercial work and choreography.)

Experiences like these inspired Deitchman to experiment, even outside her courses at OSU. After having discussions with professors and peers, she sought out Gaga classes—a task-based method pioneered by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company. Deitchman says it has been one of her biggest eye-openers because it taught her a new way to move and listen to her body.

Whatever the hurdles competition dancers face, Durham says that most are ready and willing to accept the challenge. “These students are not shocked by the physicality of dance,” she says. “In fact, some of them tell me they’re not dancing enough!” Deitchman says keeping an open mind helped her work through her uncertainties. “It’s the best way to make sure there’s no room for disappointment,” she says. “Then there’s only room for learning.” DT

Maree Remalia, courtesy of Meghan Durham