I have been getting this question a lot lately from parents and students (who are in or approaching their senior year of high school). Should Susie go audition for a company or should she go to college? See, there is this stigma in the dance industry that if you go to college, you are not good enough to “make it”. If you don’t join a company at 18, you will be too old at 21. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I see young dancers (who are basically still children themselves) diving into the professional world way too young. They don’t have enough life experiences or the ability to handle the mental and physical demands of being a professional dancer fresh out of high school. It’s sad because I see many of them (young dancers) jump into the scene and end up burned out or slip through the cracks of companies. This is not to say that this happens to all young dancers, some actually do make it and become very successful. These are the stories we hear about. What we don’t hear about are the ones who didn’t make it. Let me tell you the number is a lot higher on the latter of the two.
Personally, I know that I was not mature enough to jump into a professional company right out of high school. I needed more time to mature and grow artistically and personally. I needed more one on one coaching (which you will not receive in at the entry level of a professional company). This was the best decision for me as a young dancer- to embrace both the college life and professional life as well. So, I attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City on scholarship. I was able to be coached personally by Ms. Paula Weber (one of the finest instructors and coaches). She fine-tuned my technique and gave me the opportunity to explore principal roles in a “safe” environment.
During my sophomore year, my school let me begin to dance professionally by offering me performance credits through a work/study program (I danced professionally in New York as well as in Kansas City, Missouri). So, essentially, I had the best of both worlds. I was able to work on my degree, receive individual attention by an amazing coach, build my repertory, and also dance professionally. Through this amazing opportunity, I was able to grow into a confident and capable Artist. Upon graduation, I joined a ballet company full-time and I danced the principal role in the company’s first production that year. This was my press review for that production, “In truth, I enjoyed the loveable aspects more than being scared. The dancing was excellent particularly the pas de deux of Jennifer Grapes and Freddie Fourie in Act II.” (The Oakwood Register, Review of Dayton Ballet’s Dracula.)
Another benefit of taking the college route was that it afforded me the opportunity to really dive deep into my artistry and explore roles that most dancers don’t get to do until their late 20s. See, this is the thing with developing artistry: You can’t teach it. It is based on your own life experiences. You need life experiences and wisdom in order to truly become a successful Artist. In other words, it is a good idea to step outside the studio and smell the roses once in a while. This is why principal parts in ballets are usually danced by the older, more “seasoned” dancers. They know what roses smell like, and what love, loss, betrayal, etc., all feel like.
Oh, yes, and pas de deux. Pas de Deux, work of two (Partnering). Dancing a principal role usually involves dancing a pas de deux. At my university, this was something else that I was able to really work on and become comfortable in. It is so important. I see a lot of dancers who get to the company level and their partnering work is so weak. At the professional level, directors do not have time to go over the basic skills of partnering. It is a tool that you absolutely must have and also be savvy with. Because I was able to become familiar with, and also perform the principal pas de deux “staples” as well as contemporary works at school, I was already another step ahead of the game. This is also why I found it so important to offer my students a weekly pas de deux class with professional male danseurs at my Academy.
Lastly, but certainly not least, college taught me better communications skills, both written and spoken. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this. As a dancer, you are constantly in the public eye. You attend functions, parties, balls, press interviews, etc. You have to know how to speak not only well, but eloquently. You have to use good eye contact, proper grammar and spelling, and be knowledgeable about the history of your chosen profession. I tell my students all the time, “How can you know where you want to go if you do not know where you came from? Know who was here before you and respect the path that they laid out for you.”
The most important thing to remember is that EVERY dancer is different. There should not be one choice for everyone. Going to school was the best decision for me. It’s what I needed to help me become a successful dancer. I encourage everyone to open their minds and listen to their teachers, parents, and their own hearts as well. Be honest about your expectations and goals. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. Also, just because you decide to take a certain path does not mean that you can’t change your mind either. Keep checking in with yourself. Becoming a dancer is no easy thing to do. It requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and intelligence. It’s important to have a plan to guide you, but leave a margin for add-ins or changes. Please, also, take this one piece of advice that my father always told me. When you are young, you think you are invincible, but no one can change the fact that time does pass very quickly. Have a back-up plan for your post-performance career. It’s such a short career and goes by in a flash. If getting a college degree is not for you, develop other hobbies or interests OUTSIDE of the dance studio. It’s your entire world right now, but one day it will be time to leave. Make yourself a home away from home.