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.

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