So what’s it really like to make your living as a professional dancer? Between classes, auditions, rehearsals, performances and tours, would the lifestyle suit you? At some point, all students considering a career in dance ask themselves these questions.
While one aspect of going pro is gaining technical proficiency through lots of great training, another is acquiring the stamina to move audiences with your performances night after night. Many schools and performing groups take the stage a handful of times each year, in showcases and on the competition circuit, but another option exists. The following youth dance companies (all nonprofit organizations) offer pre-professional students technical instruction plus a large number of performance opportunities. Read on to learn more about what it’s like to be part of a company before going pro.
Teen Dance Company of the Bay Area
Cutting-Edge Contemporary Dance Meets Top Technique.
Remember Katee Shean from “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 4? Katee is not only a former member of Teen Dance Company in Mountain View, CA, she’s also the epitome of a TDC dancer. She’s got incredibly clean technique, stage presence galore and versatility—she can tackle styles from Broadway jazz to hip hop.
TDC’s mission is to prepare young dancers for university studies and professional work. To achieve this goal, the company provides its members with classes, professional choreography and a student choreography project, and requires them to participate in auditions for performance pieces.
Members range in age from 12 to 19 and complete about 13 hours of class weekly, plus rehearsals. This puts them at an average of 20 hours in the studio per week!
Classes include classical and contemporary ballet and modern (students can also take tap and Pilates). Professional jazz and hip-hop master teachers and choreographers also ensure members become familiar with all genres.
Plus, the company performs the works of at least 10 top choreographers per year, like Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Mia Michaels, Jason Parsons, Mandy Moore, Jennifer Backhaus and Robert Battle. Performance venues include local events, biannual TDC productions, conventions and events during National Dance Week.
Chelsea Henriques, 16, says she began changing and growing as a dancer and person after her first class with the group. “TDC has helped me be confident, open up and take risks,” Chelsea says. She also choreographed her first group piece for an audience at TDC’s student choreography program this year.
TDC graduates have gone on to join professional companies, and to study dance at colleges and universities. The staff even functions as college dance program advisors, helping students with the application and audition process. In fact, they’ve placed approximately 30 students in college dance programs across the country, including Juilliard, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase. (Katee was enrolled at Chapman University before making it onto “SYTYCD”!)
So how else is the company fostering such talent? Executive Director Darlene Castro-Easterling says, “Our only reason to be here is to give the dancers everything we have—the faculty, our time, the room. Everything belongs to them.”
Fast Facts About Teen Dance Company
- Open auditions are held each summer at the end of a weeklong intensive; auditions are also available during the year.
- TDC has performed during half-time at Stanford sports events for the last three years.
- The company has had as few as 18 dancers and as many as 36.
- Company members have gone on to dance at several professional companies. Currently Shannon Bynum is at Ballet San Jose; Lindsey Parker is at Compagnie Flak in Montreal, Canada; Ashley Paige is at BARE Dance Company in California; and Bret Easterling is at Gallim Dance in NYC.
Xtreme Dance Force
Hip-Hop Dancers Hitting it Hard.
The explosive, technically trained hip-hop dancers from Xtreme Dance Force in Naperville, IL, have danced on a broad spectrum of stages, including regional and national competitions, high school assemblies and television broadcasts. Xtreme has even opened for major recording artists, including Ludacris, Soulja Boy, Ciara, Chingy, Tyrese and Bow Wow!
Xtreme’s mission includes offering members a pre-professional foundation in hip hop and a strong education in jazz, contemporary, lyrical and ballet. It also prepares dancers’ “minds and bodies for future challenges,” says director Sam Renzetti.
Xtreme has several divisions for all ages and skill levels, but Xtreme Dance Force is the most advanced. The 60 company members, ranging in age from 13 to 19, learn all styles of hip hop and jazz. They push themselves by working closely with guest teachers, learning choreography quickly, networking, auditioning and handling rejection. “Every dancer has to audition for a spot on the stage,” Renzetti says.
Seventeen-year-old Spencer Baumgart has dreams of becoming a backup dancer. He says XDF has taught him essentials for success in L.A. and helped him meet choreographers. “Sam brings in a lot of master-class teachers and professional instructors from L.A.,” Spencer says. “That taught me how to network.”
Although Xtreme’s staff choreographers, Sam Renzetti, Alvin Ramirez, J.C. Renzetti, Sarah Burney and Gil Mata, set 60 percent of the choreography displayed, the company brings in outside choreographers as well, including Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Tokyo, Justin Giles, Kevin Maher, Brooke Pierotti and more.
Class requirements depend on the division in which members dance and whether they dance in multiple disciplines. They may take four to 12 classes per week and be in the studio up to seven days per week! Jazz rehearsals occur on weeknights and hip-hop rehearsals on weekends from afternoon until late evening. Master hip-hop classes are held twice a month from October through July.
While some Xtreme graduates want to go pro, others choose colleges with great dance programs. If they decide to go for a career, Sam Renzetti helps them find agency representation.
Spencer says he’s learned to work hard, be disciplined and be part of a team at Xtreme. He’s also made lifelong friends. “I go there, dance, do what I love,” he says. “And hang out with my friends!”
Fast Facts About Extreme Dance Force
- Dancers of any level can audition in mid-September to become an Xtreme member; individual auditions are available up until four months after the main auditions.
- MTV’s show “Made” hired Sam Renzetti to be the coach for two episodes.
- Xtreme’s different divisions compete one or two times per month and perform one or two times per month.
- Xtreme performed with recording artist Lupe Fiasco as the main act for the MLS All-Star game halftime show, which was broadcast live on ESPN.
- Xtreme was the first company in 20 years to win the StarPower victory cup with a hip-hop routine and has now done so three years in a row.
- Alumni include Joe Slaughter (who is touring with the Pussycat Dolls) and Aubree Storm (who appears on Nickelodeon’s “Dance on Sunset”).
North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble
Kids Turned Hoofers.
From cutting-edge contemporary tap choreography and body percussion to the percussive dance forms of indigenous Americans and other cultures, you’ll see it all when the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble hits the stage. This international touring company (with 35 members, ranging in age from 8 to 18) performs more than 40 times per year at tap festivals, schools and in concert halls. (But they never compete.)
NCYTE offers tappers a creative “mixing bowl” in which to exchange ideas, says Gene Medler, founder and artistic director of the group. Ensemble members mentor each other, becoming accomplished hoofers and genuine performers who dance to express themselves. Success stories include Michelle Dorrance, Jared Grimes, Jeremy Kiesman, Grady McLeod Bowman and Micah Geyer.
Rising star Elizabeth Burke, 16, says dancing with NCYTE has shaped her life. Being a member takes up a lot of time, but “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she says. “I feel so lucky to have had opportunities to travel the world doing what I love.”
NCYTE members attend a three-hour rehearsal on Saturday afternoons and additional rehearsals are held before performances. Members must also take at least one tap class per week and are encouraged to take ballet, modern and jazz classes, as well.
The ensemble’s two-fold mission—to embrace tap’s roots and to explore new work—is accomplished by introducing members to a variety of choreographers, including Lane Alexander, Brenda Bufalino, Savion Glover and Sam Weber.
“I’ve learned from some of the greatest tap dancers in the world,” Elizabeth says. “When I see masters perform and teach, their respect and devotion to the art is evident, and that inspires me tremendously. I fall more in love with tap every day.”
Fast Facts About North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble
- NCYTE has appeared at the New York City Tap Festival, Vienna Tap Festival, Tap Encontro in Rio de Janeiro, Feet Beat Tap Festival in Helsinki, the International Tap Festival in Berlin and in Heidelberg, Germany.
- NCYTE was featured in the PBS documentary “Juba! Master of Tap and Percussive Dance.”
- NCYTE makes regular appearances at the St. Louis Tap Festival and the Chicago Human Rhythm Project.
- Open auditions are held each September.
- NCYTE’s two-hour show is often coupled with an outreach program involving a master class.
Photo: Paige Day
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
For more on choosing whether to compete or not, click here.
I started dance classes at a young age. By the time I was 3, I was training at The Dance Club, and I grew up there. I started with the basics—ballet and jazz—and eventually added tap, tumbling, contemporary, and hip hop.
Early on, I did compete. I remember my first time: I did a trio at a small local competition, and it got first place. The trophy was as tall as I was, and I loved it. I attended conventions as a mini, and had the opportunity to take classes from Travis Wall, Sonya Tayeh, Andy Pellick, and Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh. There was so much variety—I was in awe.
For more on choosing whether to compete or not, click here.
My mom was a dancer growing up, and she went on to become a dance teacher, so I've really grown up in the studio. I started classes when I was 2, and by the time I was 9, I was training at The Dance Club and knew I wanted to dedicate all my time to dance.
Daphne Lee is a queen, and not just in the "OMG Girl Boss Alert" sense of the word. She's an actual queen—a beauty queen. Crowned Miss Black USA in August, she's been doing double duty as she continues to dance with the Memphis based dance company, Collage Dance Collective. Lee's new title has given her the means to encourage other black girls and boys to pursue their dreams, while also pursuing dreams of her own. The scholarship money awarded with the pageant title will assist her as she earns a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Hollins University.
When a choreographer finds a composer whose music truly inspires her, it can feel like a match made in dance heaven. Some choreographers work with the same composers so frequently that they become known for their partnerships. New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, for example, has tapped composer Sufjan Stevens numerous times (last spring, the two premiered The Decalogue at NYCB, to rave reviews); L.A. Dance Project's Benjamin Millepied's working relationship with composer Nico Muhly has spanned a decade and two continents; and when tap dancer Michelle Dorrance premiered the first-ever Works & Process Rotunda Project, a site-specific work for New York City's Guggenheim Museum, last year, percussionist Nicholas Van Young was by her side as an equal partner. Successful collaborations require compatibility between artists, direct and honest communication, and flexible, open minds. But when the stars align, working with a composer can be extremely rewarding.
For ballerinas, it's the dream role to end all dream roles: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the type of part dancers spend years preparing for and whole careers perfecting. And it's a role that New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck never thought she'd dance. Though Peck is one of the world's preeminent ballerinas, her short stature made Odette/Odile, typically performed by longer, leggier dancers, seem (almost literally) out of reach.
Then—surprise!—her name popped up on the cast list for NYCB's fall season run of Swan Lake.