How to Nail Your College Dance Audition

Just what, exactly, IS the faculty looking for?

David Dorfman leads class at Connecticut College.

Serious high school dancers are all too familiar with the drive to nail that extra pirouette, to thwack their legs just a little bit higher. But when it’s time to audition for a college dance program, sky-high extensions and picture-perfect fouetté turns won’t be enough. Students need to impress faculty on all fronts: technique class, improvisation, solos and interviews.

So what, exactly, are faculty members looking for in an audition? Essentially, they want mature, committed dancers whose goals align with that program’s unique focus and who will be generous, productive members of the community. Here, we address what students should focus on in each portion of an audition to best communicate those qualities.

The Audition Analysis

Technique Class

Most auditions begin with a technique class, often in ballet, modern and, occasionally, jazz. This is a dancer’s chance to demonstrate clean lines and correct form, but it’s also a place to show how they interact within a dance community. “I look for someone who is aware of others in the room,” says David Dorfman, department chair at Connecticut College. “It immediately shows us that they have a sense of community and want to stretch beyond themselves.”

Michael Vernon, program chair at Indiana University’s ballet program, says he can learn a lot about a dancer in just one class. “What I look for in a dancer is that they have the potential, in my opinion, to become a professional ballet dancer,” he says. This includes technique, of course, but another important element is demeanor. “There is a certain confidence that comes from a well-trained dancer—even if they don’t feel confident,” he says. “They look as though nothing phases them. People who aren’t as well-trained might look at the person next to them to see if they’re doing the right step.”

Audition adjudicators want to see that a dancer is mature as an artist, too. Vernon, Dorfman and Southern Methodist University dance chair Patty Harrington Delaney all note that musicality is one of the most important qualities to indicate mature artistry. In addition, Dorfman says that he looks for modern dancers with “a groundedness and an ability to use spiral and twist,” as well as a sense of presence and clear transitions. Delaney looks for jazz dancers with rhythm and the ability to pick up stylistic elements.

QUICK TIP apply corrections Adjudicators want students who will apply corrections quickly so that they can continue to grow in the program, says Vernon. Dancers should show faculty up front that they will be star students.

Solo

Some schools will request that students perform a solo, often one to one and a half minutes in length, in a style of the dancer’s choosing. At SMU, this portion of the audition follows an initial cut, after students take ballet class and perform modern and jazz combinations. Solo presentations may be open, for all applicants to watch, or closed, with only faculty present.

Though the solo is a chance to showcase a dancer’s best qualities, Delaney advises against trying to impress the faculty with every trick in a student’s arsenal. “If somebody pulls off a beautiful triple pirouette, I’ll note it,” she says, “but tricks are not what we’re looking for. It’s not that we don’t respect them, but having a lot of tricks is not necessary.”

It might sound like a given, but dancers should rehearse adequately so that they can go beyond steps and technique to demonstrate personality, emotion and artistic maturity. “We look for how they bring their passionate side through,” adds Delaney.

The solo is a chance for dancers to showcase their best qualities—but not every trick in the book.

Interview

If a school holds interviews for potential students, this may happen before the solos (while standing before adjudicators) or separately with just one faculty member. “We ask about their relationship with dance and what they would bring to our community,” says Delaney. “It gives them a chance to talk about their art.”

Think of the interview as a chance to demonstrate, in words, the same things a dancer has been attempting to show via movement: maturity, commitment to dance, an understanding of the program’s goals and a glimpse of their personality. Vernon interprets eye contact as a sign of dancers’ maturity. “They have to have a certain awareness of themselves, or it’s going to be hard for them,” he says. “We’re very nurturing, but college is a big change.”

QUICK TIP be seen Constantly standing front and center isn’t a good idea (it shows a lack of community awareness), but “don’t be invisible,” says Dorfman. “It’s really hard to make any impression if you’re in the back for the entire audition.”

The Wild Card

Some auditions include a technique or style that students may not have studied before. At Connecticut College, dancers may take class in West African and/or Afro-Caribbean dance. “We’re looking for potential and someone who wants to learn,” says Dorfman. “It’s about openness and joy, even in uncomfortable situations. We can work on the dancing.”

For some dancers, the modern, jazz or improvisation portions might be the wild card element, if they haven’t studied those styles—and that’s OK. “Our predominant technique is Graham,” says Delaney. “A lot of people have never done Graham before, and we know that. We’re looking for their openness to the direction, their attentiveness and spatial quality.”

In situations like these, dancers should show how well they handle and absorb new material, even when it’s overwhelming. (After all, that’s what students will be doing on a daily basis in college.) “An ideal match for us is someone who has an inner light,” says Dorfman, “who thinks, ‘I might not get this today, but I’m going to try as hard as I can and get a little better each day.’” Delaney agrees: “We’re looking for people who take direction well and are willing to put themselves out there.”

To put students at ease during the improvisation section, Dorfman’s colleague Heidi Henderson often includes a “noodling” exercise, or letting one’s body go like a spaghetti noodle. “Sometimes we can feel silly improvising and worry about how we are being perceived,” he says. “It’s nice to leave it at the door, and think, ‘What is this teacher asking me to do?’ Improvising builds a sense of awareness and gets you a little bit out of yourself. That feeling can serve you well in our department.”

QUICK TIP be yourself Students should show who they are as people and dancers, because that’s what the faculty really wants to see. “Dance is a very honest artform—it’s hard to lie with your body,” says Vernon. “Just be yourself. Don’t try to overimpress. Just show good training.”

Dance Photos

Most schools require dance photos, since they’re a helpful tool for discussing dancers a few days after the audition. While these don’t need to be professional shots, it’s important that a dancer’s technique and appearance be in top form in each photo, since they may be studied closely by the faculty. “A photo of a woman on pointe in first arabesque can tell you so much,” says Vernon. “How she holds her back, and especially the arms.” DT

Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.

Photos from top: by Adam Campos, courtesy of Connecticut College; by Paul Phillips, courtesy of SMU

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