Why Do Some of the Most Talented Dancers Never "Make It"?

A successful career takes more than great technique. Photo by Thinkstock

Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.


"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough moti­vation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."

While we most often talk about the few dancers who make it in a big way, there is a lot to be learned from the much larger group who don't get there. Why do some seriously talented dancers never end up fulfilling their potential?

"It is not about talent—it's about personality and perseverance," says Ray Leeper, director of NUVO Dance Convention. "The process of becoming a professional is different than being a professional."

The Problem: Being Unprepared

A mentor will help you understand what it takes to make the transition from student to professional. Photo by Unsplash

After graduation, most young dancers spend a year or two auditioning or doing second company work. This limbo can be confusing to navigate and many young dancers—and their parents—do not have a realistic idea of what to expect. For instance, what should your schedule and priorities look like when you are auditioning or in between jobs? What will a transition year or two really cost?

The Solution: Get a Mentor

Seek out a trusted professional or former professional who can answer your questions and act as a guidance counselor when you are thrown off course. Someone who can help you understand what your days will actually look like and assess whether or not this career is for you. Of course, it would be great to have a mentor with professional connections to help you network, but the important part is finding someone who wants to help, who has the information and experience, and who can give you much-needed moral support. If you don't have teachers or connections you feel you can turn to, check out online resources like mentorly.co and balletmentor.com. "The first year is the hardest," says Saveliev. "And it is even harder to do it by yourself."

The Problem: Financial Stress

Getting a side job in the industry will likely give you more flexibility to fit in auditions and rehearsals. Photo by Thinkstock.

Not everyone has parents who support them during this transition. Some dancers also have college loans that need repaying. It can be anxiety-inducing to live in a state of constant financial uncertainty, not knowing whether or when you will land a new gig or a contract.

The Solution: Find a Day Job in the Industry

Make a plan for how you are going to manage your bills during a year when you may not make much money. If you have to get a side job to make ends meet, Leeper recommends keeping it inside the industry if you can. Working as a teacher or administrator will probably give you more flexibility to continue to take class, stay in shape, rehearse and go to auditions.

The Problem: Growing Disillusioned

Getting cut is a normal part of the process. Don't let it diminish your drive. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.

For prodigies who are used to constant praise, the biggest shock can be that the professional world is full of rejection, says Leeper. "Many dancers fall off when no one is telling them they are wonderful anymore." It can be deflating to be cut from audition after audition, or not get any feedback in company class.

The Solution: Stay Open and Say Yes

The truth is, dancers who already think they're amazing are unlikely to improve. "You have to be open to correction, be open to not knowing," advises Susan Jaffe, dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, who likens the experience to being an explorer. "You have to channel the desire to expand yourself in order to make it, and then again even when you are professional, in order to be an artist."

If you have the financial flexibility to donate your time to choreographers in your community, it will help you to keep honing your craft and remind you of what you're struggling for, suggests Leeper. Plus, you never know when that person will get their next big job and bring you along. "Many choreographers want to use people they know and have used before," says Leeper.

The Problem: Getting Distracted

Don't waste your time comparing yourself to Insta stars. Photo by Thinkstock

Following all of the latest contortionists on Instagram can draw your focus away from the daily rigors and restorative downtime that dance requires. "People are so distracted by information, checking their phones constantly. There seems to be very little time now in life for rest, reflection, for the imagination," says Jaffe. Wasting time comparing yourself to Insta stars will only make you feel inadequate for not being able to développé on a BOSU ball or not going on tour with Beyoncé yet. "Everything seems like it has to happen so quickly when you are measuring yourself up against someone else's success on social media," says Leeper.

The Solution: Ground Yourself

Face-to-face, human connections will help you stay grounded and focused on your goal. "Disconnect from the background noise, surround yourself with people who are healthy and productive, and find your place in the community," says Leeper. Go to performances, talk to other dancers after class, and make it a point to meet one new person at every event or class you attend.

The Problem: Apathy

Writing down a training plan to keep yourself accountable. Photo by Unsplash

To be successful, you can't rest on your laurels. "No matter how beautiful the execution of a step, that's not all there is," says Jaffe. "Being a professional means going so much deeper and becoming so much more dimensional, developing your emotional connection, coordination, musicality, intentionality and creativity." Yet when you're not in a structured training program or company, it can be tempting to try to get away with the bare minimum.

The Solution: Make a Schedule

Stay disciplined by keeping yourself accountable. "Plan. Write it down. Make yourself a real schedule," advises Leeper. "You have to be in class constantly when you are in between gigs or looking for work—ballet classes, too." But don't just go through the motions. Apply everyone's corrections, stay present and curious. And don't forget to pencil in cross-training, too.

The Problem: A Major Injury

Use time away from the studio to explore the world outside of dance. Photo by Thinkstock

A serious injury at the wrong time can throw unprepared dancers off track, says Saveliev. It can force you out of your schedule, which can be depressing. Without a long-term vision to get back and a plan for how to use all of your newfound time, it can be tempting to give up.

The Solution: Focus on Artistry

Think of ways you can develop the mental and emotional strength that recovering from an injury requires. "Nourish yourself with music, museums, painters, the world," says Jaffe. "When you have many interests and the deep education of being a human, you will be able to impart that to audiences." Nothing has to be lost, not even weeks or months spent recovering, if you use your time well and come back stronger.

And if you still don't make it?

"It's never failure. There are just different paths," muses Saveliev. "We don't all have to climb the same mountain." Life as a professional dancer is ultimately not for everyone, but the lessons of dance training can be applied successfully to any profession.

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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