Five ballet dancers share the moments that catapulted them to stardom

My own big break came when I was a corps member with San Francisco Ballet and Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson cast me as the Sylph in La Sylphide. I was scheduled for one performance only—one chance to live up to expectations and fulfill my dream of headlining a story ballet.

I was well coached and spent hours working by myself in the studio. The performance, though, was a blur—I lost myself in the role and barely remember floating from scene to scene. But my hard work paid off! I was promoted to soloist and then to principal a few years later. Without a doubt, that night was a turning point in my career.

One opportunity like this can change a dancer’s entire trajectory. A single class, rehearsal or performance can be the right exposure at the right time and put you on the fast track for success.
DS talked to five ballet dancers from around the country to learn about their big breaks. Their responses prove that when your moment presents itself, you’ve got to seize it!


Dancer: Dana Genshaft

Company: San Francisco Ballet

Date of Big Break: March 30, 2006

Role: A part in William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite

Scenario: Corps member gets the chance to work with one of the greats.

The Process: “Bill brought ‘fierce joy’ out of us,” Dana says of working with Forsythe. “That is how he wanted us to dance. I felt like I had broken out of a shell. I vowed to take that inspiration with me into the future.”

One day Forsythe “pointed out that I had to lead with my elbow to get my leg up in arabesque. It worked. Later he called to me and said something like, ‘When you were going over the steps in the back, you looked like you knew something. Keep doing that.’ To have someone notice you like that is incredible!”

The Verdict:
Ballet Master Ricardo Bustamante says of Dana’s recent promotion to soloist, “Her repertoire is so extensive and you can always count on her. Basically every choreographer that comes to our company wants to have Dana in his or her ballet.”

Looking Back: Dana insists that there was not one specific breakthrough moment. “Some of the biggest changes are the ones that no one sees,” she says. “Those are the ones that people just sort of notice months down the line and wonder what happened.”


Dancer: Katharine Precourt

Company: Houston Ballet

Date of Big Break: September 22, 2007

Role: Lead in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated…

Scenario: Principal dancer is sidelined with an injury. Corps member gets the chance to shine.

The Details: “Artistic director Stanton Welch came up to me the night before the dress rehearsal and said that I would get to do it. It would be a test to see if I could step up and do the part” in performance, recalls Katharine, who was originally just an understudy. “That night was the first time I did the pas de deux full out. He told me the next morning that I’d be doing the show!”

The Pressure: “It was all so last minute,” says Katharine. “But I had watched the video so many times that I felt prepared.” Plus Katharine had written all of the steps and counts down to keep track! Katharine was also thrown into Jirˇi Kylián’s Petite Mort on the same program, demonstrating her versatility and readiness to take on principal roles.

The Verdict: “Wow!” exclaims Welch. “I certainly think that a big achievement for her this year personally was with In the middle, somewhat elevated… She did extremely well. She remained calm; she walked onstage and she delivered.”

Looking Back: Enjoying her recent promotion to demi-soloist, Katharine reflects: “Getting the opportunity to dance these ballets has been one of my career goals,” she says. “I prepared as best as I could. I was just living in the moment.”


Dancer: James Moore
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet

Date of Big Break: November 3, 2005

Role: Mopey, a 13-minute solo by Marco Goecke

Scenario: Artistic Director takes a chance and casts young dancer in major role.

Why Him? “James struck me as an untapped talent brimming with energy and excitement,” says Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB. “Mopey seemed to fit him perfectly.”

The Process: “Sean Suozzi [soloist with New York City Ballet], who staged Mopey, was a friend of mine from The School of American Ballet,” James says. “The piece was choreographed on him, so it was cool to learn it from him.  I got nervous when he started teaching us the choreography because it’s a modern ballet with seemingly random steps, so it was hard to keep up.”

The Verdict: “James took the opportunity and ran with it,” Boal says. “It’s made him somewhat of a star at PNB and earned him many more opportunities, all of which he has triumphed in.”

Looking Back: “Before I was just the new corps guy,” James admits. “But now even people on the street stop me. What was even cooler were the letters we got from the audience. I got a letter from a 75-year-old man who wrote in to say how moved he was by the performance. It was great to know that someone appreciated your work.”

Dancer: Gabriella Yudenich

Company: Pennsylvania Ballet

Date of Big Break: February 2, 2007

Role: Myrtha in Giselle

Scenario: Dancer scheduled to perform gets injured and corps member is bumped up to first cast.

Why her?
“Watching her in class, she had a natural carriage that lent itself to the role,” says Roy Kaiser, artistic director of PB. “Even the way she would stand would exude authority. I felt like the role wouldn’t be a stretch for her.”

The Pressure: “When I found out I’d be doing opening night, I was petrified!” she says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach and in a panic that I’d fall over on the very first promenade.”

The Verdict: “When the reviews came out, I was shocked, flattered and kind of embarrassed,” Gabriella says. “They were very nice! I wasn’t supposed to have that opportunity. It was very special, and I had to take it and dance to the best of my ability.”

Looking Back: Now a soloist, Gabriella reflects on her big break: “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is my first serious role ever. Now’s the time I have to shine.’ I went into it feeling like I had to do well for my career, but I also wanted to have fun and feel the music.”

Dancer: Kathleen Breen Combes

Company: Boston Ballet

Date of Big Break: May 13, 2006

Role: The title role in Jorma Elo’s Carmen

Scenario: Principal dancer gets injured. Young soloist steps up.

The Details: “It was my first full-length ballet,” Kathleen says. “As a principal carrying a ballet you have to portray so much more detail and depth.”

Why Her? “She has proven herself as extremely reliable and a spirited, dynamic performer,” says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of BB. “She has versatility and a uniqueness that truly stands out.”

The Verdict: Kathleen’s spirited performance earned critical praise and more principal roles for the following season.

Looking Back: “It was a huge opportunity,” Kathleen says. “No one cares if you’ve been rehearsed or not; you have to make it work one way or another. Jorma is an incredible person to work with—he trusts you completely. To have him say ‘Don’t worry’ made it much easier because I didn’t feel like I had something to prove to him. But it was one of those things that I wish I had enjoyed more. You hope that you’ll have that opportunity again, but you don’t know when it will arrive.”


Photo: Erik Tomasson


One of the most beautiful things social media has brought us is the ability to feel like we're up close and personal behind-the-scenes with all our favorite dancers. And one of our favorite stars to Insta-stalk are actually two casts of 36 scintillatingly synchronized precision dancers. I'm talking, of course, about my mild obsession with the legendary Radio City Rockettes.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
(via @tran247fitness on Instagram)

Have we mentioned lately how much we love dance dads? Especially ones who show up to their daughter's ballet class sporting a tutu, like Thanh Tran.

Keep reading... Show less

You've seen it a million times: A glamorous, toned dancer posts a perfectly styled shot of her colorful smoothie bowl. The caption gushes about how great you'll feel if you eat "clean"—but what does that actually mean? DS asked registered dietitian/nutritionist Rachel Fine and holistic health coach (and founder of The Whole Dancer) Jess Spinner for all of the dirt.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Kathryn Morgan

In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email dearkatie@dancespirit.comfor a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I'm being bullied by one of the girls at my studio, and it's awful. I've talked to my dance teacher and confronted the bully directly, but it hasn't made a difference. What should I do?


Keep reading... Show less
(Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy BAE)

Consistent turns are a must for aspiring professional dancers, but pretty much everyone struggles with pirouettes at some point. Luckily, since we're all beholden to the same rules of physics, there are concrete steps every dancer can take to reach his or her top turning potential. “Three is the new two when it comes to pirouettes, but the secret to turning is technique, not magic," says Bojan Spassoff, president and director of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.

Falling out of your doubles? Aspiring to go revolution for revolution with your class's star turner? No matter where you lie on the turning spectrum, our 360-degree guide to pirouettes will help you improve.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Ray Batten (left) teaching class at Wagner Dance and Arts in Mesa, AZ (courtesy Batten)

You rehearse your group routine to perfection, but when the big performance rolls around, everyone turns into speed demons. It's the runaway-train effect—and it only takes one loud tapper, or zippy turner, to throw the whole group off the music.

While nerves and excitement are partly to blame, the ability to keep to tempo begins in the studio. A well-developed sense of musicality is your best defense against the dreaded speed trap. "When you understand how the steps fit with the music, going too fast won't just feel like rushing," says Jeremy Arnold, lecturer of tap at the University of Texas at Austin. "It'll feel wrong." How can dancers develop that musicality? It all starts with learning to listen.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Angela Sterling

Bunheads, this one's for you. They say you can tell a Nutcracker by its "Snow" scene—and we fully believe it. There are so many versions with extra goodies—olive branches! Fake snow! Sleds! Choirs! Snow queens!—and each brings a special something to the holiday favorite. But do you know which ballet has what?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo (Photo by Nathan Sayers, courtesy Pointe)

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Read more at!

(Lucas Chilczuk)

Let's face it—spare time is pretty tough to come by when you're a dancer. You're either rushing to get ready for rehearsal, rushing to rehearsal, a combo of the two, or in rehearsal (or performing, or in class, or at an get the picture). Well here at DS, we understand the struggle is REAL, which is why we've rounded up our favorite foolproof makeup hacks, approved by resident #LazyGirl when it comes to makeup (spoiler alert: it's me). On to the hacks!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Kalea Hidalgo (Photo by 567 Photography, courtesy Stacey Hidalgo)

Kalea (pronounced kah-LAY-uh) Hidalgo knows how to move. Her decisive, dynamic dancing commands the stage: She gobbles up space so confidently it's hard to believe you're watching a mere tween. Unsurprisingly, that presence and power have started turning heads in a serious way. Not only did Talia Favia choreograph one of her solos in 2017, but Kalea also recently signed with Bloc Talent Agency in L.A. and, last summer, placed first overall in the junior contemporary solo category at Radix Nationals.

"When you're out on the dance floor, don't ask for permission—ask for forgiveness."—Kalea Hidalgo
Keep reading... Show less


Want to Be on Our Cover?





Get Dance Spirit in your inbox