Summer Scholars

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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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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