Photo courtesy New York City Dance Alliance

From the excitement of travel to rubbing shoulders with your dance idols, the life of a convention assistant is a whirlwind—and an exciting goal for lots of young dancers. The position has its glamorous moments, but it's also a ton of hard work. Curious about what it takes to earn one of these coveted spots, and what's involved once you do? Dance Spirit spoke with choreographers and assistants to find out what it takes to make it to the stage.

Assistant Aspirations

Technical excellence is just the starting point. Convention assistants work with every teacher, so they must be skilled in a variety of disciplines. “As a convention assistant, you're required to adapt to each choreographer because you're demonstrating for them," explains former New York City Dance Alliance assistant and current faculty member Cindy Salgado.

Beyond being outstanding technicians and stylistic chameleons, dancers must also be able to pick up choreography quickly, be able to assist fellow dancers and be generally friendly and helpful. “Personality is a huge part of becoming an assistant. All the Artists Simply Human assistants are down-to-earth and generous, and they'd help you in a heartbeat," says former ASH assistant Shannon Currie. Before you audition for a position, focus on helping fellow dancers work through tricky steps during breaks, befriend dancers from fellow studios, always perform full-out and take classes outside of your comfort zone.

Earning Your Place

To become an assistant, most conventions require dancers to attend a regional convention during the season and earn special recognition in the form of a title—like ASH Apprentice or Apprentice Runner-Up; Protégé (The Pulse); or Regional Outstanding Dancer or Runner-Up (NYCDA). A more formal audition or competition then occurs at Nationals. At events like NYCDA, the assistant role is earned as part of the National Outstanding Dancer title. In all cases, the final selection process may include in-class observation, learning and performing combinations in different styles in front of a judging panel or performing a solo. “The dancers are the best of the best from every city we've gone to. They all push each other to excel," says choreographer Cris Judd of auditions for The Pulse's assistants, who are called Elite Protégés.

You Got the Spot! What Should You Expect?

Assistants named at Nationals are required to assist at a minimum number of convention cities during the following season. Depending on the assistant's age, this can be a commitment ranging from 6 to 12 weekends, or more. On convention weekends, assistants arrive Thursday night or Friday morning and rehearse opening or closing shows performed by the convention staff, and have to be prepared to learn new roles and choreography each weekend. They may help with logistics, such as student check-in, and help backstage during the performance showcase or competition. But the bulk of an assistant's duties involve assisting in classes. They lead warm-ups, demonstrate choreography, clarify tricky steps and dance full-out at all times. “Being an assistant can be very trying and difficult. There's a lot of responsibility. Their job is super-important—we instill trust in them because we've chosen them to be there with us," Judd says.

Over the course of the weekend, it can add up to as much as 30 hours of dancing and convention-related duties, so living up to differing expectations from the variety of choreographers and learning steps on the spot (not to mention getting enough sleep!) can be a challenge. But all the hours and sacrifice are often worth it—convention assistants frequently go on to work in the professional dance world, where the networks they've built serve them well. Six months after finishing her season as an Elite Protégé, Theresa Stone started touring as a dancer with Lady Gaga, and has since choreographed for artists including Todrick Hall and A Great Big World. She credits The Pulse with setting her on this trajectory: “Assisting is a huge growing experience for anybody who is considering a professional dance career. It's the ultimate stairway to success in the industry."

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“I vividly remember my first convention,” says choreographic superstar Brian Friedman. “I was 10 years old and so eager to take every single class—I didn’t want to miss a thing. I couldn’t sleep at all the night before. I had butterflies in my stomach. The fact that I can still remember that exact feeling 30 years later—clearly, going to convention had an impact on me.”

Conventions help breed top dancers in nearly every corner of the dance world, from ballet to ballroom to “So You Think You Can Dance.” From getting the opportunity to train in a plethora of styles to taking advantage of post-class networking, conventions will give you a leg up as you prepare to enter the professional (and crazy-competitive) dance world. But if you’ve never attended a convention, the whole concept can seem daunting. Fear not, convention newbies: We’ve gathered the best tips and advice from our panel of convention pros.

Logan Epstein, student at PACE University, former dancer at Westchester Dance Academy in Mount Kisco, NY

Brian Friedman, creative director of The PULSE on Tour, self-described “100 percent convention kid” growing up

Alyssa Ness, student at Marymount Manhattan College, former National Senior Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance

Anne Smith, director of Hollywood Vibe

Students in a DanceMakers Inc. Nationals class (photo courtesy DanceMakers Inc.)

Be prepared for a long day.

“At most conventions, you’ll take 5 to 7 classes per day, and each class is 45 minutes to an hour long. They move pretty fast, and it may be crowded.” —Ness

Dress to impress…

“Your look is important. Your eye goes to the girl with the cool haircut or the guy with the swagged-out outfit. If you can get someone to see you, they’ll stick around to watch you dance.” —Friedman

…and to be remembered.

“I stay in one outfit the whole day, including during scholarship auditions. If you’re competing for a scholarship, one of the judges might have taught a class you were in earlier that day, and may remember you based on what you’re wearing.” —Epstein

Load up your dance bag.

“My bag weighs a ton during conventions! I pack at least two bottles of water, Emergen-

C for extra energy, snacks, Advil for when the soreness kicks in, and all my dance shoes.” —Epstein

Be extra early.

“Get to the ballroom 30 minutes before class starts. Give yourself time to stretch and warm up without feeling rushed. Not all classes will include a full warm-up, so take responsibility for your own body.” —Epstein

Work the entire room.

“Don’t stay in one spot, and avoid surrounding yourself with dancers from your studio—then you’ll dance just like you do at home.” —Friedman

Shhhhhhh!

“Don’t talk during class. Teachers hate it, and it shows you don’t want to be there. If you want to talk to your friends, do it outside the ballroom or at lunch.” —Epstein

Go to every class—especially the ones you’re nervous to try.

“The biggest mistake a dancer can make at convention is skipping class. Don’t

focus on your strengths—focus on your weaknesses.”—Friedman

It’s OK to drop down a level.

“If you can’t keep up with the pace of class, you can always ask your teacher if you can switch levels. You want to get the most out of your experience.” —Smith

Don’t worry so much about being seen.

“Many dancers—including my former self—are so worried about making sure the instructor sees them. If that’s your entire focus, you’re not getting the most out of class. If you’re clearly having fun, you’re a bright light in the room, no matter where you’re standing.” —Friedman

Know you’re not alone.

“Even dancers who have been to a thousand conventions still get nervous. You’re not the only one feeling that way, and you’re definitely not the only first-timer in the room!”—Smith

Be persistent, not perfect.

“No one expects you to be perfect—they just want to see who you are as a dancer and an individual. If you’re completely lost, it’s OK to raise your hand and ask a question. Teachers never mind questions!” —Epstein

Say ‘thank you’!

“There’s usually time after class to thank the teacher and take a photo together, but if he’s running late, don’t bombard him. There will be more opportunities to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ ” —Epstein

Don’t give up if you can’t keep up.

“I was totally the kid who just couldn’t keep up with the choreography we were learning. But the brain is a muscle. Train yourself at home, take extra classes, watch YouTube tutorials or DVDs and constantly be learning new choreography.” —Friedman

Competition

Competing a solo with your dance studio is a big honor—and responsibility. To make sure your solo is uniquely yours, and to expand your horizons as a performer, you may decide to hire a choreographer who doesn’t regularly teach at your studio.

The challenge? The more high-profile the guest, the less time he or she might have to work with you. “People think we set a solo and it’s an instant masterpiece,” says New York City Dance Alliance faculty member Andy Pellick, who choreographs solos for students across the country. “But it’s really up to the student to rehearse and clean the piece and make it her own.”

How do you make the most of your time with the choreographer? Dance Spirit asked the experts.

Finding Your Choreographer

If you’re hiring the choreographer directly, keep in mind that this isn’t the time to reach out to a total stranger. “You want to choose someone you’ve already worked with—in a convention, a master class or an intensive,” says Terri Howell, owner of All American Dance Factory in Tampa, FL. “That way, you’ll know if you can artistically grasp their style.”

Having a relationship with the choreographer means he or she will already be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and have an idea of what movement will best suit your abilities. Plus, it helps to know the choreographer’s teaching habits before you enter the studio.

Tatiana Melendez performing Faun, choreographed by Andy Pellick (photo by Propix, courtesy Melendez

Optimizing rehearsal Time

It’s normal to have just one rehearsal with your choreographer. And since rehearsals typically range from two to five hours, arrive ready to dance full-out.

As intimidating as it may be to work one-on-one with a choreographer you admire, speak up. “You don’t want to be shy,” says 15-year-old Tatiana Melendez from All American Dance Factory, who’s been working with Pellick on her solos since she was 11. “If you like certain lines or jumps, you want to mention that so the choreographer can work them in.”

Staying Positive

While you’ll want to feel at home in your solo, it should still be a challenge for you—that’s the point of stepping outside your comfort zone in the first place. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t nail it during those initial rehearsals with the choreogrpaher. “Dancers usually can’t do a new solo all the way through at first,” says Shaping Sound Dance Company’s Travis Wall. “Either they get winded because they haven’t figured out where to breathe, or some of the transitions are rough.” But Wall stresses that he doesn’t expect a solo to be perfect. “You need to have something to work toward.”

And as much as you want to impress your choreographer, try to be confident. “Do what comes naturally and feel your way through it,” Pellick says, “and I’ll correct and fix you.”

Recording and Remembering

Learning a guest choreographer’s solo means absorbing a lot of info in a short time. “I always have the dancer take a video once we finish,” Pellick says, “so she can remember it after I’m gone.”

The video should include you and the choreographer performing the piece. It’s also a good idea to have someone tape individual sections of the solo, along with the choreographer’s comments and cleaning suggestions. Howell recommends asking the teacher who’ll run your rehearsals for the rest of the year to film—or at least to be in the room for the final run-throughs.

Tatiana finds that while video recording is good for recalling steps, style is something you should try to pick up while in rehearsal with the choreographer. “If you don’t pay attention to style while you’re learning your solo, it kind of gets lost,” she says.

Cleaning Your Solo

The bulk of the work will happen after your choreographer has left—and your first cleaning rehearsal can feel overwhelming. Pellick recommends beginning by breaking everything down. “Listen to the music a thousand times to hear what the choreo-grapher did, and visualize your approach to the steps,” he says. “Then work with your teacher to clean little sections at a time.”

While a teacher from your studio can provide an extra set of eyes, work independently, too. “When I’m with my teachers, we get technical aspects as clean as we can,” Tatiana says. “On my own, I work on creating my story. I focus on movement quality and getting the steps in my body so it looks natural when I perform.”

Some choreographers will let you send a video of your progress or a performance, and they’ll provide feedback by email or phone. Occasionally, a rehearsal via webcam can be useful—Tatiana once rehearsed with Pellick via Skype. In special circumstances, you may be able to have an additional in-person rehearsal.

But no matter who else is in the room—or on your computer screen—it’s up to you to do the work. “No one else is dancing this solo,” Wall says. “It’s yours.”

Choreography

Today, 20-year-old choreographer Emma Bradley spends her days touring with the dance convention NRG Dance Project, making work for students across the U.S. and Australia. But her first choreographic ventures were far more personal: During her junior and senior years of high school, Bradley started creating her own solos for dance competitions. “Making work on my body totally influenced the way I think about and process choreo-graphy,” she says. “And it set me on a different artistic path than I imagined.”

These days, more and more dancers are testing out self-choreographed solos at competitions. It can be risky—you could be going up against seasoned choreographers like Travis Wall—but the potential rewards make it worth taking the chance. “Choreographing your own solo is an invaluable learning experience,” says Andrew Winghart, a judge and choreographer for JUMP Dance Convention. “It forces you to look outside of yourself as a dancer, to really analyze your facility and how you can look your best.”

Tempted to try your hand at self-choreography? Read on to find out more about taking creative control.

Emma Bradley performing her self-choreographed solo, "Hater," at The PULSE on Tour (photo by Propix, courtesy Emma Bradley)

Choosing Music

Do pick a song you enjoy listening to. “It’s so much easier to choreograph for yourself if you choose a song that already resonates with you,” says 18-year-old Regan Norton, who competed self-choreographed contemporary solos during her junior and senior years of high school. Finding a personal connection with your music is a great first step toward making something that’s truly you.

If you know what style you want your solo to be, start by listening to music that will complement it—and you. Take note of musical artists that catch your attention, and explore their greater bodies of work on iTunes or YouTube. Or, look to your own iPod for inspiration, like Bradley does. You never know what gems you’ll rediscover.

Don’t use a song that’s in the Top 40. There’s a good chance that many other soloists have “connected” with it, too. “We tend to get a lot of the same songs,” says Brett Hahalyak, a judge at Nexstar, World-Class Talent Experience and International Dance Challenge. “I like to hear things that are kind of out of the box, rather than popular or current music.”

Setting Movement

Do create a solo that showcases you and your talents. One way to learn how you move best is to improvise when you start your choreographic process. “I would record my improv and see what kind of choices I made repeatedly,” says Bradley. Incorporating those

favorite movement patterns into your choreography will help the final product feel more natural to your body.

Don’t rely on tricks alone. It can be tempting to pack all of your most crowd-pleasing stunts into one solo. But with little more than two minutes onstage, you need to leave some time to tell your story. Throughout your creative process, think about what the piece means to you—and how you can communicate that message through movement. “I want to see a moment where you become more than just a dancer onstage,” Winghart says. “I want to see you take time to connect with the audience.” As much as you may love the wow factor of 16 turns in second, it’s probably not the best way to make that connection.

Do challenge yourself. Setting goals for your solo throughout the year can keep it from getting stale after the first few performances. Both Bradley and Norton adjusted their solos after competitions, adding new, more difficult movements as they felt ready. “The great thing about doing your own solo is you can kind of edit as you go,” Winghart says.

Don’t present something unpolished. While it’s important to push yourself, make sure you allow enough time to practice and clean each section before your performance. The stage is not the place to debut that new triple pirouette or switch leap. “You have to be super-solid in all elements before you get onstage,” Hahalyak says. If you can’t consistently perform a move in the studio, don’t bring it in front of the judges!

Getting Feedback

Do ask a teacher to stop by and help you with your process. Sure, you have ultimate creative control, but it’s still a good idea to have another pair of eyes looking on. This can be especially helpful when the dreaded choreographer’s block sets in.

It can also keep you on schedule. For example, when Winghart was choreographing his own competition solos, he would give his teacher a specific time to watch the finished piece. “She would hold me to those deadlines,” he remembers.

Don’t let your teacher’s opinion overshadow your creative vision. As the choreographer, you have the final say about what goes onstage. And while your teacher may have more experience making work, you know yourself better than anybody. Trust your gut!

Dance Team

You’re devoted to your dance studio, but you’ve also dreamed of joining your high school’s dance team for as long as you can remember. Worried you won’t be able to balance your commitment to your studio with dance team responsibilities? Don’t stress! Get advice from three dancers who made it work—and the dance team coaches and studio owners who helped them do it.

How do I tell my studio owner I’ve decided to join my high school team, too?

First and foremost, it’s vital you let your studio owner and your dance team coach know you plan to continue dancing with both groups. “Tell your studio owner in person so she doesn’t hear it from someone else and think you were trying to keep it a secret,” says Highlands Ranch High School pom coach Amanda Humphrey. “Be honest—inform her of your future commitments, so she’s aware of your schedule.”

Sarah Gates, a freshman on HRHS pom team and a dancer at Starstruck Academy of Dance in Centennial, CO, says the best approach is to explain to your studio teacher why being involved with your high school team is important to you. “I love dance team because I get to be involved in school and dance with my classmates. It also gives me opportunities to perform more often—which helps boost my performance in studio competitions,” Sarah says.

Chandler Wolfe (right) at USA Spirit Nationals (photo courtesy Chandler Wolfe)

I have a studio performance and a dance team competition scheduled for the same time. What should I do?

“Determine which commitment will be hurt the most by your absence, and try to attend that one,” says Kasia Kerridge, a senior on HRHS pom team and a dancer at Starstruck Academy of Dance and Metropolitan Academy of Dance in Colorado. “And let your teacher or coach know as soon as you discover a conflict.”

You also should realize that your absence could mean getting pulled from a piece. Melenie Reynolds, owner of Impact Dance in Mesa, AZ, currently teaches six dancers who are also involved with their high school pom teams. She says, “If there’s a major conflict, we let the dancer make the choice. If she chooses to miss, it’s her decision to be temporarily—or permanently—replaced in a piece.”

There may be financial penalties to consider, as well. “Our policy is if someone fills in for you at competition, you pay their competition fees,” Reynolds says.

My teammates are upset with me for missing a performance. Help!

“Explain to them why you were absent, and be sure to always give 110 percent when you’re with the team,” says Chandler Wolfe, a junior on Mountain View High School’s Toro pom line and dancer at Impact Dance. Kasia agrees: “If you have to make up classes to prove to your team you can pull your own weight, do that.”

Lisa Holtz Odell, owner of Starstruck Academy of Dance in Colorado, suggests going out of your way to show your commitment to both teams. “In addition to making up every class you miss, meet with another dancer after missing rehearsal to be sure you’re completely caught up.”

Wolfe (front right) competing with her studio, Impact Dance (photo courtesy Chandler Wolfe)

The two-team schedule is so intense. How do I find time for homework, family and friends?

Kasia writes down a plan for her day and checks things off as she goes. Similarly, Chandler uses the calendar on her phone and sets reminders throughout the day so she doesn’t forget anything.

Sarah works on homework anytime she has a spare moment at the studio. “Starstruck has rooms where we can hang out and study between rehearsals,” she says. “I find the busier I am, the more focused I become.”

And your social life? Chandler says time can always be found, even if only a couple minutes. “The best way to make room for your social life is to never procrastinate on your school work,” she says. And don’t forget that your teammates will become some of your best friends—and a huge part of your social life.

Competition

There are tons of amazing things about conventions—the celebrity teachers, the variety of styles taught, the chance to bond with friends from across the country. The floors, on the other hand, generally aren’t so amazing. Dancing on carpet or a slippery parquet floor can seriously hinder your movement. More important, it can lead to injury (and we’re not just talking rug burn). How can you get the most out of convention classes despite the floor you’re dancing on? Dance Spirit investigates.

Carpet Cons

When you enter most convention classes, you have a choice: Find a spot on the central ballroom floor or spread out on the carpet. Sixteen-year-old convention regular Morgan Geraghty, who dances at Millennium Dance Complex, Movement Lifestyle and EDGE in L.A., usually heads straight for the carpet. “I tend to find the ballroom floors too slick,” she says.

But while that carpet may look soft and forgiving, looks can be deceiving. It’s likely just a thin plush layer atop hard concrete. Katie Lemmon, an athletic trainer with Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, warns that for those used to dancing on sprung studio floors, surprisingly hard surfaces can cause a jolt to their bodies—especially when jumping. “Since there’s not as much give, it’s important that dancers really use their plié before and after a jump to absorb some of the shock,” says Lemmon, who works with dancers at The Joffrey Ballet. “Keep strong through the core to avoid strain on the lower legs, feet, back and hips.”

Morgan Geraghty prefers the extra friction provided by carpet to slick ballroom floors (photo by Mario Sinclair, courtesy Morgan Geraghty)

Turns and quick direction changes can also be problematic on carpeted floors. “Because of friction, carpeting doesn’t let your feet move as much,” Lemmon warns. “So you might need to limit what you’re doing.” And, trust us, your favorite teacher will understand why you opted for a slow double pirouette instead of a quadruple. “You have to be careful,” says NUVO Dance Convention faculty member Ray Leeper. “I hate seeing twisted knees or rolled ankles because dancers threw themselves into a turn on a carpet.”

Parquet Problems

At conventions, Erin Smith, 17, who dances with CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, NC, prefers parquet floors—the laminate wood-like surfaces that are generally in the middle of the ballroom. “It’s easier to turn and it’s more stable than the carpet, where I sometimes have trouble finding my center,” she says.

But that parquet floor comes with a list of problems as well. First of all, like the carpet, it’s not going to have as much give as a sprung studio floor, so the same rules about using your core and your deepest pliés still apply. And parquet presents

another potential hazard: cracks and crevices. Erin remembers cutting herself several times on the cracks between the panels,

especially during floor work.

“The worst part to dance on is that little strip of metal on the floor’s perimeter

between the wood and the carpet,” says New York City Dance Alliance and Monsters of Hip Hop teacher Tony Testa. “If you’re near it, be careful of rolling your ankles.” Testa warns that even when the metal is covered by tape, the tape will usually peel back as the weekend goes on. After tap classes, especially, the metal might stick up at odd angles. “It’s possible to catch your foot on one of those metal edges,” he says. “And that will quickly ruin your day.”

Lemmon also recommends being aware of the slip factor: “Your foot sticks differently than it does on a marley surface,” she says. “You might have to modify your movement based on how slippery it is.” But, she warns, that doesn’t mean clenching your toes to the floor, which may be your body’s first instinct. “Focus on using the core to hold your balance, and try to actually be more relaxed through your standing feet and toes,” she says. “Gripping the floor may lead to shin splints or tendonitis of the foot and ankle.”

Shoe Solutions

What you put on your feet can make all the difference when dancing on a strange floor—and that might mean going against popular trends. “Socks are all the rage right now,” says Ray Leeper of NUVO Dance Convention. “But we advise dancers at NUVO not to wear them, because we’ve seen too many kids in socks go down on a parquet floor. Going barefoot or wearing the right shoes is better.”

L.A. dancer Morgan Geraghty likes to be barefoot, no matter which surface she’s dancing on, but she’ll opt for thick-soled boots or sneakers in hip-hop class. Erin Smith, a dancer with CC & Co. Dance Complex in North Carolina, uses a more broken-in pair of jazz shoes (since new shoes can be slick) for jazz class on the ballroom floor.

Tap can be tricky. Of course, you’ll be in tap shoes, but those soles can be a slide-y mess on a parquet floor. On the other hand, you won’t be able to hear your taps on a carpeted floor. “The hard floor is always really crowded because everyone wants to hear their sounds, but if you think about it, with all those people crammed onto a small space, you’re not going to be able to hear yourself anyway,” says Erin. “If you’re on the carpet to avoid slipping, you can still know if you’re making the right sounds based on what they’re doing onstage.” And if you’re slipping uncontrollably on the parquet floor, remember that tapping quietly with bare feet is better than face-planting in tap shoes.

Ultimately, the shoes you choose for each class will depend on where you’re standing and what the choreography is like—so your footwear decisions will need to be made at the last second. “Always bring all the shoes you could possibly want for each class, then feel it out once you get there,” advises Morgan. “It’s all about testing the waters and seeing what works.”

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