Second Chance

How to help your student plan—and pick up the pieces—after a college admission rejection

Sarah Lustbader of Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen was rejected by all of her first-choice colleges.

It’s a high school senior’s worst nightmare. Sarah Lustbader, now a dancer with Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen and CabinFever, was rejected by all of her first-choice colleges. The New Mexico native dreamed of living in New York City, and she had applied unsuccessfully to New York University/Tisch School of the Arts, SUNY Purchase, Barnard and Fordham. “I found myself with no college to go to, which was devastating,” she says. “I felt like a failure.”

College admissions season gives students the jitters, with good reason. Top-tier programs accept a limited number of students (Juilliard, for example, accepts approximately eight percent of applicants to their Dance Division), meaning many young dancers inevitably face rejection from their top-choice schools. Teachers can support their students through the applications/admissions roller coaster by focusing on three Rs: research, reality checks and recovery from disappointment.

Research: Know the Programs, Know the Options

Acceptance into a college program rarely hinges on multiple pirouettes or a six o’clock penchée. Students can be rejected for reasons beyond a simple lack of training or technical proficiency. Karen Bradley, associate professor at the University of Maryland, notes that a poor understanding of UM’s program and faculty may be grounds for rejection. Students must research programs they’re interested in to determine whether and how they fit their interests, and vice versa. This way, during an audition or interview, they can articulate why they’re a good candidate for the school and demonstrate an understanding of its offerings.

Your students may be naturally drawn to top-tier programs, but make sure their list includes multiple options. Encourage them to search for schools based on program characteristics, rather than simply reputation or location. Dancers need to look deeply at what each school offers, keeping in mind a list of questions. (Is the program ballet- or modern-focused? What is the curriculum? Does it emphasize dancemaking?) The answers should help dancers assemble a range of programs that reflect their interests, including second- and third-choice schools. Of course they should try for their top choice. But, as Lustbader notes, “I should have had a couple of other options as well, instead of having all my eggs in one basket.”

A well-researched list of program options should also be prioritized based on admissions deadlines and audition dates. Dancers should plan out their audition schedules well in advance and know when they can expect to hear from each school, so they can adjust their plans, if necessary.

Reality Check: Know the Student

Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses, and be honest about them. Encourage her to aim high, while also guiding her toward programs that best suit her abilities. Look at dance techniques your student has been exposed to and ask where he or she shines the brightest. If he is lacking in ballet technique, say so. If you see great creative potential in her choreography, make sure she knows it. The more students know about their talents from experienced observers, the better they can determine which college programs are right for them.

Also, encourage students to articulate—for themselves and on applications—what they want from a dance degree, and where their other interests lie. Bradley says applicants may be rejected from UM if it seems “they haven’t thought about what they want to do in dance; they only seem to want to be accepted into the program, and then figure it out.” Susan Van Pelt Petry, chair of dance at The Ohio State University, adds that demonstrated interests beyond dance are a plus. “We like to see evidence of intellectual curiosity, and ability to make connections across different disciplines,” she says.

Recovery: Embrace Possibilities

If your students are rejected, be ready to console them and help them regroup. Let them know they have options, and discuss possible strategies for moving forward. For instance, they could apply to a new round of schools, attend a backup school for a year and try to transfer, or even take a year off to focus on their training. Some dancers might also consider entering their top-choice school (if admitted) as a nonmajor, and re-auditioning for the dance program later.

After Alex Tenreiro Theis was rejected from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she enrolled as a dance major at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In hindsight, she realizes she was unprepared for NYU’s conservatory training and had little choreographic experience. After attending CU-Boulder for one year, Theis re-auditioned for NYU—feeling much better prepared the second time around. “Having that freshman year to grow up and explore my technique matured my dance styling quite a bit,” she says. After her second audition, she was admitted to NYU, where she’s currently a sophomore.

Remind students, too, that being rejected by their preferred college doesn’t mean they won’t find success somewhere else. Lustbader attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle after auditioning via video (the dance auditions had already ended). Looking back, she marvels at the unexpected opportunities that emerged. “I was challenged in ways I never expected. [Cornish’s] program was so different than the others I’d looked at,” she says. “I thought I knew what path was in front of me, but then it redirected in ways I could have never imagined.” DT

Lea Marshall is interim chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.

 Photo courtesy of Catherine Cabeen - Hyphen

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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