Ballet Business | How to get into ballet

September 15, 2011

Ballet Business

How to get into ballet

Snowflakes in Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photograph by Andy Ross.

Snowflakes in Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photograph by Andy Ross.

I know what’s going through your mind.  There you are, centre stage.  Spotlight on you.  Only YOU.

Cut … The reality is that there is NOTHING glamorous about ballet training and that your chances of ever being seen in that spotlight are tiny.

The ballet world

If the ballet world were a shape, it would be a pyramid.  Think about that very wide base, that supports all the dance students around the world in vocational training as well as all the pre-school children taking ballet classes and aspiring to join a vocational school.  Then the sides begin to narrow, as students drop out of training (typically in teenage years as other interests take over or physical characteristics are no longer suited to ballet) and only the most dedicated and talented students move upwards through the vocational years and towards a professional company contract. Many more students will be assessed out each year (meaning that they no longer fit the criteria set by the school) and some will leave of their own volition to pursue other interests or through injury. Now the pyramid is really tapering towards a sharp point and the very top is where the Principals reside.

Think about how many Principal dancers there are worldwide, actually working in a professional ballet company.

Below them are ranks of professional dancers, starting with the corps de ballet dancers who are all working long days, learning every part of every ballet in order to be promoted by the company’s artistic director and dance bigger roles, more solos, and of course, to be noticed by the audience. It has to be said that many dancers are happy to remain in the corps de ballet for their whole career – and it’s an achievement just to get there.

There aren’t any lazy, successful people in ballet.  It takes more than 10 years of daily training, the sort of dedication that will see you in the ballet studio while your friends go to sleepovers and birthday parties and spend time shopping or playing sports.  You’ll need the support of your family; financially, but also to drive you to auditions around the country and for lots of other practical matters. You can’t do it on your own.

The training has to be specific – not just hours in ballet class but training smart. Training in the right way, at the right time, focusing on your goal with the right amount of rest, the right nutrition and healthcare.

If you’re still with me… great!  You may have the focus, passion and determination you’ll need to overcome obstacles that may include injury, stress and disappointment which all come about because your career will be out of your control almost all of the time.

What is your motivation for becoming a ballet dancer ?

It probably won’t make you rich or famous and it’s definitely not glamorous but a career in ballet can be one of the most rewarding.

pointe shoes

pointe shoes in rehearsal at English National Ballet Photograph : Bex Singleton

So, what do you need to do to have a career in ballet ?

Hopefully you’re already taking classes, because starting at an early age is very helpful for a vocational career. Scientific studies have shown that the vast majority of training has to be done before puberty.

It’s absolutely crucial to find a good teacher – ask what their performance experience is (do you want to be taught by someone with none ?), ask what their students have gone on to achieve.  Watch a class and the way that teacher works – does it suit your outlook ?  Is it too serious ?  Or too relaxed ?

When you’ve found the right teacher for you – and that can take some research – LISTEN to them.  Really listen and take notice.  Don’t rush ahead into pointe work if your feet aren’t strong enough; don’t enter competitions if they stress you out.

Read Ballet News, especially the Cupcakes & Conversation interview series with professional ballet dancers from around the world. They have given a lot of practical advice and wisdom.

Read Jennifer Kronenberg’s book called So You Want To Be A Ballet Dancer ? because it’s packed with practical tips about stagecraft and ballet company life that no-one teaches you and that you need to know.  Jennifer is a Principal dancer with Miami City Ballet so she knows what she’s talking about!  Her book will save you a lot of research time.

There are a couple of other books I’m recommending that you read : Anatomy Dance Technique and Injury Prevention and The Everyday Dancer.

Watch as much good ballet as you can, preferably live. This will help you later on if you want to get into a company because you’ll already know whether it’s the story ballet’s that you’re drawn to or modern, abstract works, as well as which choreographers you’d love to work with.

Ask if you can shadow a dancer who you admire.  How ? Use your initiative.  You’re going to need a lot of that.

Find a mentor – get in touch with me if you need help with this but understand what mentoring is and how it might help you.  Be clear about your ambitions in relation to your experience and potential.

ballet dancer rests on the grass

Ballet News World Exclusive illustration by Noemi Manalang

Ballet auditions

Not many people like them. They are uncompromising.  It’s rare to know in advance what the teachers are looking for and don’t expect feedback afterwards if you’re unsuccessful.

When it’s time to audition for a place at a vocational school, prepare thoroughly with the help of your teacher.  Research the schools with your parents if you can; find out which might suit you rather than adopting a blanket approach that can be expensive and demoralising. Study the bio of the Artistic Director – does the company have the sort of repertory that interests you ? Look at the dancers – are they similar to you ?  It will be the same process if you graduate from one of the schools and need to audition again for a professional contract.

There’s no point in auditioning for a company that likes tall dancers, if you aren’t, or has a particular look which you can see doesn’t fit with yours.  Hopefully your school teachers will help you, but if this is a process you’ve already adopted when finding early teachers, classes and vocational schools then you’re on a good route.

If you need funding then research that too – there are various schemes available depending on where you live but be prepared to write many letters and to make many phone calls to gain sponsorship as it’s highly competitive.

Don’t compare yourself with others – your competition is in the mirror.  Be the best you can be. But keep this in mind too :

“The mirror is not you.  The mirror is you looking at yourself.” George Balanchine

Look after yourself.  Make use of physiotherapy, massage and Chiropractic treatments if you need them. Don’t let bunions develop.  See a Chiropractor as soon as you feel there might be a problem.  Don’t be tempted to wait. A Chiropractor can prevent bunions – it’s an absolute myth that if you wear pointe shoes, you are stuck with bunions.  Bunions develop for two reasons – mis-aligned joints in the foot/ankle and very (and I mean, very) ill-fitting shoes (not only pointe shoes). So get your feet checked early on in your training; know whether or not your joints are properly aligned before problems surface.  Once a bunion is present, there’s little that can be done and if it flares up, it could stop you in your tracks for months on end. It’s not worth it.

When it comes to buying pointe shoes – take your time – it can take years & years to find the right pair.  Go to a shop with an experienced fitter – this is really important.  Try on as many brands as you can, and keep doing so until you find a pair that you can work with and that suit your foot.  Some are more expensive than others – think about that too because if you arrive at a professional company with a signed contract one day and are used to wearing the most expensive ballet shoes, your allocation will be a lot smaller than that of other dancers (as your expensive shoes will be expected to last much longer). The transition from student life to company life takes its toll on your feet with the increased workload so really take your time to find the right shoes and look after your feet. It’s also a time when you may change your brand, because you’ll hopefully have a shoe mistress who can advise you on fit and also – and very importantly – on the look that that particular company expects to see on stage.  Be flexible and be prepared to change your shoes if necessary because there are companies who only allow one brand of pointe shoe.

Steven McRae

Steven McRae demonstrates the exercise Photograph : Cheryl Angear

Ballet career

Once you’ve realised your dream and made it into a professional company – that’s when the work really begins !  If you’ve looked after yourself until now, this is the time when your care will pay dividends because your workload will increase as never before and you’ll need to be fit, healthy and working smart in order to keep up with it. If you’ve found your dream pointe shoe by now, that’s a blessing.  If not, enlist the help of the shoe mistress and really try to tackle it because you don’t want foot problems to develop due to ill-fitting shoes.

One very important thing – don’t be in awe of the company.  Yes, it’s a dream come true and you’ve beaten off intensely stiff competition to get there.  So, you’ve earned your place and you’ll be earning it all the way through your career.  Remember that. Keep looking out for yourself.

If you’ve been lucky (and talented) enough to join the Company attached to the school where you trained, then you’ll be the top of the class.  On joining the Company, you’ll find yourself in the Corps de Ballet along with the top of the class from every year before you (and after).  Yes, after just a few short months the latest intake will be snapping at your heels. During this time you need to work smart. Grab opportunities when they come your way, attend as many rehearsals as you can fit in, even if you’re not called, work really hard.  But there’s one thing you don’t want to do, and that’s blend in.  If you become part of a homogenous whole, which is a part of being in the Corps, how will you ever be noticed ?  You have personality; use it to devastating effect.  Yes, you might need to dance as one, but for the rest of the time you are an individual so make that count.

Check your contract terms, union agreements etc and don’t just sign up because everyone else has.  Don’t be afraid to exercise your democratic right and think about what’s on offer.  You are a talented individual and you need to think about your career long-term now. Are you better off negotiating your own terms and conditions or is the union better placed to look after your best interests ?  Are they doing that ?  Talk to other dancers before you sign on the dotted line. Part of your salary will go on this.

In some countries the unions will work on your behalf especially with regard to proper photographic credits, insisting that your name as well as the photographers is on the credit.  This is a good thing, and actually it doesn’t happen everywhere.  It should ! So think about what you’d like in your contract and whether you are best placed to negotiate it.  If you have an annual appraisal, does that give you any leeway to change your contract terms (keep in mind that the company may also use this opportunity to do this) ?

Some dancers have agents – of course this will cost you part of your salary but if you want to guest around the world as you become well-known, it’s an option, but research very, very carefully.  Some dancers (not many!) expect to be paid for every piece of publicity they do – is that what you want and if so, who is going to negotiate with the press and others on your behalf ?  It’s important to remember that the company press office works for the benefit of the company, and promotes those dancers whom the company wants to promote in the press.  That may or may not be you.  You may wish to promote yourself, or at least have the option to, so think about hiring a PR (especially useful if you are working away from home but want your local area to know what’s happening in your career).

You may wish to do other work outside the company – guesting or other commercial projects – have you negotiated a term in your contract that allows you to do so?  Don’t expect it to be there already. Sometimes this is about controlling the company message – and I’ve seen instances where this can work for you and against you.  Look at the recent press surrounding Royal Ballet dancer Sergei Polunin and learn from it. I’ve said to before but don’t be so in awe of the company that you agree to anything that could jeopardise your career later on or that effectively brands you as a commodity; at least think about it at this early stage. Of course you don’t want to rock the boat having just arrived but at all times, remember your worth and that your dancing career is short, short, short. You will want to make money while the sun shines and if you are invited to appear in Galas around the world, does your contract allow you to ?

Finally, think about other careers in ballet besides being a dancer – teaching, choreographing, notation, pianist etc,.

And please, have an exit strategy from the very beginning.  Even if you reach that spotlight – and I really hope that you do – a ballet dancer’s career is a very short one and you’ll need another string or two to your bow at some point.

Good Luck!  Perhaps one day you will be interviewed for Cupcakes & Conversation on Ballet News!

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9 Responses to “Ballet Business | How to get into ballet”

  1. May Says:

    Great piece – and also good to find out as much as possible from dancers themselves, whether that is from actual conversation after a workshop or class, or reading one of their works, like Jennifer Kronenberg’s book recommended in the article. Former NYCB dancers Toni Bentley and Christopher d’Amboise have also written books (individually) about life in a company.

  2. Grace Says:

    Wow what a great article!!!! How can I “get in touch” with you to find a mentor???

  3. Ballet News Says:

    @Grace thank you very much. You can whizz over to the ‘contact me’ page (link is at the top) and I’ll do my very best to help.

  4. Starlight Says:

    Loved this!! Thank you :) <3

  5. Ballet News Says:

    Starlight – thank you!

  6. Sweetpea Says:

    Great article. I’d like to add however-regarding the featured question “do you really want to be taught by a teacher with no performance experience”-teachers with no performance experience or little can be excellent teachers! I have found that often these are the teachers who are primarily interested in the student, as they may have gone in to teaching because their body shape may not have suited performance work. They may also be the dancers who’s interest and passion was always and is primarily to teach dance. They may be a true technician and a very critical eye. Teaching is very much do as I say and not as I do. Of course, ex performers can also be these things, but some can be said to move in to teaching with the thought of not knowing what else to do after a performance career, and as such some I have experienced have been more interested in themselves and demonstrating their skills than showing interest and dedicating time to the student. My point is there is good and bad teachers out there, whether with performance experience or not. I think as the student becomes serious about ballet, she should do classes with a variety of teachers i.e. one who may not have performed in a big company but is an excellent technician, and another with performance experience who is willing and unselfish to share this knowledge, it is important also to do a mixture of syllabus and non-syllabus classes. For this reason it’s important whether with performance experience or not, the teacher is unselfish and willing to allow students the freedom to attend many different dance schools. Too many teachers are territorial over their students, but no one knows everything! Not even a principal dancer! The skills of a great dance teacher are completely different to that needed to become a performer, being a performer does not guarantee a good teacher. (apologies for typos…iPhone)!

  7. Ballet News Says:

    @Sweetpea thank you for your comment. You don’t say what your experience is based on, so it’s hard to gauge what your comments are based upon.

    Based on my professional experience, the vast majority of dance students want to perform – that’s their goal at the end of a very long training period. They want to get into a professional company and live the life of a professional ballet dancer, on stage. Indeed, the special experience of performing is often what makes it so very hard for dancers to stop.

    So I’d say that from my experience, those who go straight into teaching from school are (mostly) the graduates who haven’t got into a company and who have to find a way of supporting themselves whilst staying the dance world. A tiny number of dance students may train with the specific intention of teaching, but they are a minority and almost everyone in the ballet world would agree that performance experience is invaluable when it comes to teaching. That’s not to say that a teacher without this is necessarily ‘bad’, as you say; just that a teacher with performance experience has that to offer as well. Of course it doesn’t ‘guarantee’ a good teacher.

    I think that at the end of a professional career, dancers have had so much longer to figure out what to do next that going into teaching is more, not less, likely to have been a deliberate choice. It’s also the case that many of these dancers will prefer to only teach/coach semi professional and professional dancers, so again they make that deliberate choice based on experience.

    I know that some professional dancers take class with other teachers – sometimes when their company has a lay-off period there is no choice – but I don’t think it’s routine to have a varity of teachers at the same time. I think that could lead to a lot of confusion!

  8. Sweetpea Says:

    My comments are from the point of view of the young student (Pre-vocational level I guess), still considering vocational training. So my belief that a small variety of teachers were in mind of this group not professional dancers, I think the young student benefits from a couple of teachers who offer varying expertise as we can not be all things to all people. I think it pushes young students and encourages agility of mind, and expands the students awareness, important preparation I think for auditioning and as a professional dancer.

    I dance for a small ballet and contemporary company and was lucky enough to have a successful audition at the late age of 29 after returning to dancing seriously after a break of pursuing another career. I am a student dance teacher also, however I’d always known from a young age that performing wasn’t completely for me despite being encouraged to go down this route at a young age, so the performing I do now as an adult is a calculated decision made to gain experience and to gain insight with my potential students in mind, rather than fulfilling any strong personal desire, I have always been more interested in the learning process and am more of a technician.

    But yes I think that is the case, that most young girls attend class with the aim of joining one of the big companies! I think it’s a shame, that in my experience, schools (pre-vicational level) do not often highlight the other options available within the profession to the dancer who has honed a skill for years if not decades should performing not be for them for whatever reason, I think this is a factor in the number of teenagers who drop out of class. I also for example would not hesitate, as a teacher, to seek out another teacher with more expertise and experience than myself to benefit the student if it became obviously necessary, I recognise that my area of interest and skill may lie in technique, and the student who is pursuing a performance career would benefit from support of a teacher more familiar with this territory. I think it’s a shame that in my experience a lot of schools are very inward looking. I think your article is excellent at pointing out the realities of dancing for a company by not glamourising, it was a really interesting read. I do agree with your article, but also adding that ultimately dancers/teachers need to work together to produce the all rounded best experiene for our students, as we all have something to offer the student performer or not. Therefore I think whether a teacher has danced for a company or not isn’t the making of a good teacher, performing and teaching are two completely different skills and require different personalities. My music teacher was the most inspiring knowledgeable teacher I have ever had, yet he had never “performed”, and successfully helped those who did want to perform gain careers in the field.

    Your article has really got me thinking on this subject-thank you! :)

  9. Ballet News Says:

    @Sweetpea I know that some vocational schools do, for example, insist on the student learning a musical instrument, so that if they find that music is more suited to that student, they can be encouraged down that path instead of ballet.

    Thank you for your comments about my article; I’m certainly trying to keep it real, here.