Prepare Your Students for Their Best Audition Ever With These 6 Strategies

William Whitener held countless auditions when he directed The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and he himself learned from legendary choreographers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse about what it takes to make it on Broadway. Now he coaches ballet students on these skills when he guest teaches around the country. "Auditions require a certain amount of strategy," says Whitener. He holds mock auditions and discusses all aspects of the process—registration, class and even how to make a professional exit. "Practicing for this kind of performance works better than telling dancers what they should do," he says. "They need to actually do it."


At some point in their training, most dancers will likely audition for a summer intensive, school production, commercial gig or professional company. How they present themselves from beginning to end can play a huge role in determining their level of success. To help dancers prepare for these opportunities, you must offer lessons in more than just technique. Reinforce the importance of positive and professional behavior while sharing tips on parts of the audition process that are often overlooked.

1. Some auditions should be skipped.

As their teacher, you can help dancers by assessing their individual needs and potential, then pointing them to the most appropriate audition opportunities. "Auditioning can be very expensive, so I try to encourage just a few options," says Olivier Munoz, principal teacher at Orlando Ballet School. "Maybe I know they don't have the right body type for a certain school, or maybe they just want to do an audition class for the experience. I try to guide them."

2. Research pays off.

Marty Kudelka, who choreographs for stars like Justin Timberlake, advises dancers to research the job or the production before going into the audition. "With social media, it's easy to find out what types of dancers they're hiring and the qualities they share," he says. "Find out about the choreographer and assistants, and what they're doing now."

3. First impressions are more important than you think.

Dancers are first seen when they approach the registration table. "Students should say their name and make eye contact with the assistant or director, then step back a bit so they can be seen," says Whitener. At the end of the process, they should move away with good posture and efficiency. "Even when dancers are assembled in crowded spaces, stretching and filling out paperwork, they should know that we're aware of how they're interacting with each other and taking note of their organizational skills," he says.

4. Audition order matters.

Encourage your students to sign up one after another, so that they might dance next to each other during the audition class. "If I'm dancing with someone I know I dance well next to, I'm probably going to feel more confident," says Kudelka. "As a choreographer, it's a lot easier for me to check off the whole group rather than sifting through who stays and who leaves. I'd say that trick works 90 percent of the time." The earlier students can register, the better, since they will probably be positioned in the most visible spots. Late registrants might be stuck with a barre spot halfway out the door of a very crowded studio.

5. Proper apparel goes a long way.

Remind dancers to dress appropriately and not hide behind warm-up clothing. "The body should be without any cover," says Munoz. "I've watched dancers take an audition class wearing legwarmers and even sweatpants. The director would say, 'They obviously don't want to be seen. Next!'" Munoz recommends neat hair, simple yet elegant leotards and clean, broken-in shoes.

6. Body language tells a story.

How dancers behave at an audition will speak volumes. Whitener advises not to fidget between combinations, for example. "Stillness is very important, so we can focus on the dancer," he says. "The eye is going to fall on the calm and collected person, not the agitated and disorganized one, no matter how talented they are." Have students practice how they enter and exit the floor between combinations so that they move with a quick walk or a slight run. For ballet auditions, Whitener suggests looking at Degas paintings for ideas about how they should stand on the side. When dancers are excused, remind them to thank the people in charge and exit the room gracefully.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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