Students auditioning for Canada's National Ballet School

As we ring in the New Year, many devoted dancers are already thinking about how they’re going to spend the summer. Every year, starting in early January, they head to auditions held across the country, all with the same goal: to be accepted into a coveted summer study program.

Once dancers and their parents agree that summer study is a feasible option, it’s up to students’ teachers to equip them with the tools to realize that goal. By knowing what to expect and preparing students accordingly, dance educators can help every dancer audition with confidence and grace.

Let Go of Stress

Helping students defuse the tension and anxiety associated with auditions is essential to making the experience a positive one. "Dancers need to think of doing their best without worrying too much," says Franco De Vita, director of The Young Dancer Summer Workshop at American Ballet Theatre, which is open to students ages 9 to 11. (For more about De Vita and ABT’s National Training Curriculum, see "The Pioneers" on page 30.) "They need to think of relaxing while being focused, so they can enjoy the audition experience, whatever the outcome."

As students develop strength and technique with age, options for summer study multiply, raising the bar for auditions. Beyond showing off technique, however, dancers should look at auditions as opportunities to get a taste of what summer programs might offer in terms of style and teaching methods. "We understand that an audition can be very nerve-wracking," says Margaret Tracey, associate director of Boston Ballet School’s Center for Dance Education. "So we try to create a welcoming environment in our auditions. Students should try not to worry about being perfect, but try their best and enjoy the experience by looking at the audition as a master class."

For dancers on the brink of a professional career, summer intensives may lead to scholarships, full-time study at a major school or even company apprenticeships. For instance, several students chosen for Boston Ballet’s trainee program came from the company’s Summer Dance Program. Researching programs to suit students’ individual needs can ease audition stress by preparing them for the particular stylistic and technical demands of their desired program.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Directors agree that a put-together appearance and respectful attitude are great selling points. You can help your dancers develop good audition habits by requiring good hygiene and tidy hair (pulled off the face or in a bun) in daily classes. Just before the event, help your young dancers choose appropriate class attire—steer clear of bulky warmups. "Undisciplined behavior, lack of focus and a messy appearance are things that will make me turn a dancer away," says De Vita.

For preprofessional auditions, a dress code is almost always required. Often this means a simple black leotard and clean, pink footed tights without holes. "When a student does not adhere to the dress code, we may be suspicious as to whether the student will adhere to the rules and procedures of our program," says Tracey.

While it’s important to follow dress code requirements, an original touch can help attract a director’s eye. Joanne Whitehill, artistic director of Burklyn Ballet Theatre, a summer intensive in  Vermont, advises students to wear a distinguishing hair ornament or leotard in order to stand out from the crowd. "Sometimes those of us at the front of the audition will say, ‘Did you see the one with the blue bow or the one with the special ribbon?" Whitehill says. "It helps to place a name with a face when there’s a room full of black leotards and pink tights."

Teaching dancers about etiquette and respect, both to directors and fellow dancers, is also key. "We don’t want  anyone to get injured and we don’t want anyone in the way of other dancers," says Whitehill. "Students should have a general idea of how to move across the floor." In a crowded audition studio, maintaining a sense of space should be a priority.

Be Yourself

Because technique cannot be the sole deciding factor for younger dancers, De Vita says he "looks for that spark that shows that a child has the imagination and intelligence that will likely make them develop artistically." In addition, he looks for musicality, natural coordination, potential and enthusiasm—qualities teachers can instill through daily classes and by encouraging students to reach their own potential without feeling competitive. "Teachers should not give students any kind of expectation," De Vita says. "When  students give their best, that is what should make them happy."

Enthusiasm is likewise important for students auditioning for Burklyn Ballet Theatre’s Intermediate Program, open to dancers ages 10 to 12. "We love to see kids who are dancing because they want to and they love it," Whitehill says. "We don’t know whether these dancers are going to be professional or not, but we’re educating people who might turn around and give back to dance companies or work in dance marketing or something like that. You don’t just go to a summer program because you want to be a professional dancer."

Build Technique

For older dancers, such as those aiming to attend Boston Ballet’s Summer Dance Program for ages 15 to 19, technique becomes a more important part of the audition process. Teachers can help students prepare for this level of audition by instilling confidence and continuing to hone technique. Tracey advises dancers to not take time off beforehand. "Try to add more classes prior to the program in preparation for a demanding schedule and to avoid injuries," she says.

Whitehill believes that providing students with a diverse range of classes and teachers is also beneficial. "It’s important to learn different ways of putting steps together," she says. "You never know who the person giving the audition is going to be." Exposing students to guest teachers and outside technique can help them pick up combinations quickly and apply corrections effectively, two essential qualities sought by directors.

In the end, it is important to reinforce the idea that, whether or not a summer intensive audition is successful, it’s still an opportunity to take class, meet other talented dancers and take risks. Melissa Allen Bowman, artistic director of ABT’s summer intensives, offers the following advice: "Soak it up, learn and take it with you to help yourself on to the next step." DT

Taylor Gordon is a dancer and writer in New York City with a master’s degree in publishing.

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night just to look at my first pointe shoes, or walk in them to go to the bathroom,” says Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo soloist Noelani Pantastico. A dancer’s first pair of pointe shoes are like a graduation cap: They mark a rite of passage. Finding the right cap is tricky, however—and that cap isn’t always comfortable right away. All students require a bit of time to develop their own pointe shoe routines and rituals. But ballet teachers have passed down many tried-and-true solutions to common pointe problems over the years. Share these tips with your new pointe dancers to ease their transition.

Fit First
Finding the best shoe for a beginner can be a daunting process. “The first fit is the most important because it sets you up for the future,” says Mary Carpenter, pointe shoe expert and fitter for Freed of London.

Be clear about your shoe preferences when sending students to be fitted. There are generally two schools of thought: Some think beginners need a hard shoe for support, while others prefer a softer pair that help develop the supporting ankle and leg muscles. Judy Weiss, master pointe shoe fitter at Grishko, says: “George Balanchine thought that a very light shoe would force students to learn to work their feet instead of being held up by the shank. I’ve been fitting shoes that way ever since.” (If you do encourage your students to buy soft shoes, however, be sure to have them begin with very simple strengthening exercises at the barre to avoid the risk of injury.)

Get to know the pointe shoe fitters in your area, and send your students to the one who best adheres to your ideals. Having all of your students work with one reliable fitter will help ensure that both the students’ needs and your preferences are satisfied.

The Break-In
Once students buy that famous first pair, a few adjustments will probably need to be made. Every dancer’s break-in routine is personal, but show your students some of the more common tricks and techniques to get them started.

Carpenter uses the heel of her hand to flatten a new box before giving the shank a bend at the 3/4 mark. “Once the shoe is on, I mark where the natural arch lies and then curl that part over the barre,” she says. Water can soften the bunion area of the box, but should be used sparingly. Kathy Sullivan, who has taught pointe at STEPS on Broadway for 15 years, uses a spray bottle on the outer sides of the box and then has students work while the shoes are still damp. “That way, the shoes conform nicely to the shape of the foot and half-toe action is easier,” she says. But it’s best to discourage bending shanks to extreme pliability or dousing shoes in water, which “kills” them too quickly.

If the shoes do become too soft, Weiss recommends applying Jet Glue or Pointe Shoe Glue on the inside to the softened areas. Gluing too soon can warp the shoes, so Pantastico stresses doing this only after wearing. “You need to allow the dancer to mold the shoe to her own shape,” she says, and warns dancers to be sure that the tip of the shoe remains flat after gluing.

Sew What?
“The ribbons are like the icing on the cake, but they’re also functional,” says Carpenter. To help your students determine where to place their ribbons, Weiss suggests that you have them fold the heel of the shoe in toward the box, marking where it meets the side satin. When attached there, ribbons support the arch without hindering the demi-pointe position. Many instructors also tell new students to sew ribbons deep inside the shoe, so they nearly touch the shank, which helps stabilize the heel and allows the shoe to move with the foot.

Sullivan recommends using ribbons with built-in elastics, which provide more give around the Achilles tendon. “They are the greatest invention this decade! They give everyone a snug fit around the ankle,” she says.

Advise your dancers to use thicker thread—or even dental floss—when sewing their ribbons, to keep them securely fastened. And show them how to melt the ends of pointe shoe ribbons with a lighter to prevent unsightly fraying.

What’s on the Inside Counts

Every dancer’s foot is different, but generally “less is better,” says Weiss, when it comes to choosing toe pads. Silicon gel pads that cover only the top of the toes and bunion area allow the sole of the foot to feel the floor, as does lambs-wool, a more traditional cushion. Have students experiment with varying amounts of padding.

Toe spacers can help feet conform more comfortably to the box. Have students with bunions or slanted toes try a spacer between the first and second toes. This stabilizes the foot inside the shoe and relieves pressure on the sides of the foot. Toes may also be taped to prevent blistering, but be sure to tell students to allow enough leeway for them to bend. Pantastico prefers construction-grade painter’s tape to avoid too much bulk.

Though it can be a painful process, beginning pointe work—especially when your students are armed with these tips—is an exciting, transformational part of a dancer’s career. As Carpenter puts it, “It is a privilege to be on pointe. It’s a step toward becoming a ‘real ballerina.’”

Taylor Gordon is a dancer and writer in NYC.

Higher Ed

When dancing high school seniors consider their postgraduation options, they often overlook community colleges. But the dance department at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Arizona, is one place where they can take their next steps in dance.

“We’re like a stepping stone into the professional world or the university world,” explains program director Lenna DeMarco, who has been with GCC since the dance department’s inception in 1989. “We take them from high schools or private studios and start to impose the discipline it takes to become a professional dancer.” The school, which offers a two-year Associate of Fine Arts degree, is now known as one of the top programs of its kind in the state.

Growing Pains

Things weren’t always this way. DeMarco’s dance courses were initially listed under the physical education department and there wasn’t an official dance major. Classes were considered “activity” courses that met for 50 minutes, twice a week. Since joining the performing arts department in 1997, dance has gained its own set of course listings and classes have been expanded to an hour and 15 minutes or longer.

“We have really grown,” says DeMarco of the nearly 400 students she serves, approximately 25 of whom pursue dance as a major. Courses offered include traditional technique classes in ballet, modern and jazz, plus other forms like world dance, flamenco and folklorico, depending on teacher availability. DeMarco is the only full-time professor, although there are currently four adjunct professors, a number that varies each semester.

Dance history, intro to dance and career guidance are also available under the Dance Humanities listings. “I love taking the history classes because they expand on each other and upon all the different styles,” says second-year student Caitlin Rodriguez. A dancer since age 3, Rodriguez considered attending other schools in the area but wanted a more developed program. “I saw the variety of classes they offer, and that’s what really moved me to choose GCC.”

Students typically take at least three hours of technique per day, in addition to rehearsals and academic courses. Depending on scheduling, some classes are billed as “intensives” and last two hours or longer. “The technique classes are fabulous. I love having so much more time to be able to dance,” says Rodriguez.

Since GCC is a community college, all are welcome to enroll in dance courses, which sometimes makes maintaining a high standard of dance a challenge for DeMarco. But she insists that while a university may be more selective, she still sets a high bar—and succeeds in making students reach for it. “Even though it’s a challenge, I like that I can take people who haven’t had much training—or not very good training—and really improve them. I give them a taste of what it takes to dance at a more intense and more demanding level,” she says. “It’s been very positive for me.”

Stage Time

GCC provides its majors numerous outlets to showcase their talent. In all, majors generally have four or five performance opportunities per semester, while many larger institutions offer half that number. Concerts are held in the fall and spring, with work by faculty and guest choreographers from across the country. Recently, students worked with choreographer Melissa Rolnick, and other past guest artists have included the esteemed Jacques D’Amboise, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Project, former Bill T. Jones Dance Company member Germaul Barnes and many others. “We also do lots of reconstruction of historical modern dance,” adds DeMarco.

Majors can also audition for the student dance company, PHYSICAL GRAFFITI. “Lenna’s always told us that when you’re trying out, you’re devoting your time to the company,” says recent graduate Danielle Donaldson. “It’s not just a Tuesday/Thursday class. Always expect to have outside rehearsals on the weekends.” Students keep as busy as if they were in a professional company by performing with local groups. Last October, they performed at the Arizona Dance Festival and with Center Dance Ensemble. They are also members of the American College Dance Festival Association. (GCC is one of just a few community schools out of the group’s 347 members.)

A Step Toward the Future

While some graduates go on directly to professional dance companies, cruise ship jobs or Disney shows, the majority decide to pursue a four-year degree after receiving their AFA. Rodriguez, for example, is considering The University at Buffalo after she graduates in May 2009. She was inspired to apply for the program after GCC hosted a master class with UB’s Thomas Ralabate, an associate professor of dance at UB.

For those looking to stay close to home, GCC’s program has recently formed a new relationship with Ottawa University in Phoenix that allows students pursuing a BA in dance education to transfer their AFA credits—an option that makes attending the college more affordable. GCC faculty members also teach there, and dancers continue to take technique classes at the community college.

Donaldson is taking advantage of the easy transition to Ottawa. “A lot of the classes I’m going to be taking are based on dance education,” she says. The remaining credits toward the BA degree include pedagogy and kinesiology.

A Community Inside and Out

“One of the things I like about being at a community college is that the faculty is not bogged down by the need to research and publish. We do more teaching and our contact with students is greater,” says DeMarco, who is retiring after this school year, but plans to continue teaching a few classes at GCC and staying active in promoting regional dance in Arizona. The school will begin a national search for her successor in January, when they’ll receive federal funding for the year. DeMarco says she’ll miss her relationship with the students most of all. Because the nature of the school is small, she says, “we are very close and you really can see your own personal impact on students. You see them grow and develop not just as dancers, but as people.”

The students benefit from the close-knit environment as well. “The teachers are always there for you if you get stressed out between rehearsals and classes,” says Rodriguez. Adds Donaldson, “You come in all by yourself, and you come out missing your second family. Lenna makes it very family-oriented and always finds a way for us to click.”

As for DeMarco, she’s proud of what the department has achieved. “I think we’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people,” she says. “It makes me happy to see them out there and
succeeding.” DT

Taylor Gordon, a freelance dancer and writer in New York City, is pursuing a master’s in publishing at Pace University.

While there have long been academic honor societies to recognize students’ achievements in the classroom, only recently have dance educators found a way to formally acknowledge young dancers. Founded in 2005, The National Honor Society for Dance Arts aims to promote and honor outstanding dance students at the middle and high school levels. To date, there are just under 100 chapters at schools across the country.

“Until NHSDA, we had decades of tremendous professional dancers, but no way of honoring them for their artistic excellence as well as their academic achievements and leadership capabilities,” says Jane Bonbright, executive director of the National Dance Education Organization, a partner organization of NHSDA.

Modeled after the International Thespian Society, the world’s largest honor society for theater arts students, NHSDA is open to students ages 11 to 18. Those who are studying dance in private or public middle or high schools, dance schools/academies, performing arts centers or community centers with active dance programs are all eligible to apply for admission. “Theater students were inducted into the International Thespian Society, so I felt we should have something like that in dance, too,” explains Wrenn Cook, executive director of the South Carolina Dance Education Organization, and the first to found a NHSDA student chapter.

While the criteria is largely determined by the educators, or sponsors, of each chapter, NHSDA requires prospective inductees to earn a certain number of points (15 for middle school, 30 for high school) before joining. “We feel strongly that the sponsor knows her program better than we do and knows what level of achievement the students should be reaching for,” says Cook. Some of the ways students can earn points include participating in performances, taking extra technique classes or working behind the scenes of a production.

Student Rewards

Once they have accumulated enough credits, members receive a certificate and an honors cord and pin to wear during graduation. High school juniors and seniors may also be eligible to apply for the NDEO Artistic Merit, Leadership and Academic Achievement Award—the highest national honor in dance education. After screening at the state level, top applicants compete nationally through portfolio analysis, which includes a dance video, teacher recommendations and proof of a 3.0 grade point average or higher. One to four winners, who receive trips to conferences, mentorships and other benefits, are chosen annually.

In addition to the tangible benefits of membership, students also gain a sense of validation. “The kids love it,” says Laura Earnhardt, chapter sponsor of NHSDA at Holly Springs High School in North Carolina. “They appreciate knowing that they are part of an organization that wants to recognize them at such a young age. It acknowledges their dedication both to dance and to themselves.”

Last year, 200 seniors graduated with this distinction, and the numbers are growing. “We’ve made the program very broad and inclusive because we want students dedicated to dance to be able to receive recognition no matter where they’re receiving their education,” adds Cook, noting that nearly any dance teacher of a program offering public or private training is eligible to participate, as long as they apply to be an institutional member of NDEO.

To celebrate induction, many chapters hold formal recognition ceremonies that provide performing opportunities for students. Before handing out certificates this year, Earnhardt gave each student a candle: “I told them the candle is their young flame as artists and their job is to protect and nourish it—to light the path to success.”

School Perks

The students aren’t the only ones winning with NHSDA; the schools that implement chapters also see big results. It helps to bring credibility and national recognition to dance programs by acknowledging legitimate training, notes Earnhardt. “And this ensures that we’re delivering quality instruction to prepare students for the college level,” she adds.

In establishing the point system, sponsors can organize their programs to better suit the needs of students. And because it’s based on participation, pursuit of membership provides motivation for students to be involved in dance beyond the basic class requirements. “It’s a great way to structure your department or program,” says Nancy Petro, a state affiliate in Florida, where there are currently 26 chapters. “Like other honor societies, there are officers. The students can take some of the responsibility.”

In addition, sponsors can use the attachment to NDEO to promote school events, leading to greater visibility. “It’s the networking between the K–12 schools, the private dance institutions and the artists in the community that allows those who are conducting programs to recognize the power of their work,” explains Bonbright.

Earnhardt believes that she “has a duty as an artist to get my art out there. We represent dance, not just the school.” The members of her locally celebrated program perform for the community, which, she says, doesn’t always understand or appreciate the form. “Dance is common on television and is coming into homes, but [NHSDA] recognizes things beyond the entertainment value and sees why students are pursuing it.”

In encouraging the well-rounded dancer, NHSDA makes a point to recognize factors beyond innate talent. “It works to develop the whole student,” says Bonbright. “It integrates the mind, body and spirit with technique, academics and leadership. It makes them all equally important, which I think is a wonderfully wholesome way to go in our dance field.” DT

Taylor Gordon, a freelance dancer and writer in New York City, is currently pursuing a master’s in publishing at Pace University.

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