Giving Comps Credit
If you can’t make it to Boston to see Melissa Hough dance, do a YouTube search and you’ll find she’s every bit as versatile as her repertory suggests. In a pas de deux with Mateo Klemmayer from Diana and Acteon, the Boston Ballet soloist proves herself to be a leggy, supple dancer who glides effortlessly from one dewy lift to the next, while in David Dawson’s The Grey Area, she’s all hip swivels and sky-high extensions. At only 22, she’s danced an impressive array of works, from Petipa to Kylián to Morris, and made headlines at prestigious ballet competitions, like USA IBC at Jackson, MS.
But before she worked her way into the ballet big leagues, she was on the competition circuit—an experience she says was as vital to her artistic and technical development as studying at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. While on tour with BB in Helsinki earlier this year, Hough took some time to talk to DS about how jazz competitions can help a savvy ballerina succeed.
DS: How did you get started on your career path?
Melissa Hough: Colleen Parker, the owner of my studio [Dance Explosion in Glen Burnie, MD] is ABT principal Michele Wiles’ aunt. When I was 9 years old, Michele was studying at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, but she came back to teach master classes at the studio. She had been a part of the competition world and so she choreographed solos on me. She inspired me like you wouldn’t believe. She pushed me very hard, and eventually I decided to follow in her footsteps.
DS: When did you decide to pursue ballet as a career?
MH: I was 11. Ballet was the most challenging style of dance for me, so I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough to pursue it and succeed.
DS: Was competing helpful? Would you do it again?
MH: The competitions were probably the most helpful part of my training as an artist. Between the six solos, three duets and 13 group numbers I was in as a competitor, I was performing more than some professional dancers will perform in their entire careers. There was never time to get nervous or be afraid of the stage or worry about what to do if I messed up.
DS: What can students do to succeed in the competition world?
MH: There are a million crazy stage parents and teachers at competitions, but my parents did an amazing job of protecting me from that. I was able to focus on dancing and making friends with the many great kids who were competing for the same reasons I was. Having down-to-earth parents is key to succeeding in the competition world.
DS: What positive qualities do you have today that you credit your comp experience for?
MH: Versatility. New York City Dance Alliance stresses that versatility in a dancer is the biggest asset you can have. It was a challenge for me to keep up in a lot of the classes they had at their convention when I was 13 and 14 years old, but it pushed me to improve. I took an entire summer to focus on getting better at hip hop, and now I feel more comfortable with it. Believe it or not, that training has come in handy at Boston Ballet. Also, the versatility I gained from competitions is the reason I can pick up choreography faster than most. And I learned my fearlessness from competitions.
DS: For dancers who want to pursue ballet, are there drawbacks to the circuit?
MH: You have to be extremely smart about it. You can’t get too serious about the competition part or rely solely on competing to make you a well-rounded artist. Always make it about the work.
Sometimes competition studios get possessive of their dancers, and it hurts their students. It’s possible to be loyal to your studio and find help from other sources. You have to worry about yourself if you want to make it in this vicious dance world we love.
DS: What advice do you have for those who want to follow in your footsteps, but currently train at competition studios?
MH: Take ballet class at least three times a week, and if your studio doesn’t offer it that many times, find somewhere else to get those extra ballet classes. Constantly remind yourself why you love dancing, and then live it. If you love it because it’s challenging, keep finding a new challenge to overcome. Visit New York whenever you can and take class. Find Joe Lanteri and talk to him. He’s brilliant and will guide you wholeheartedly.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.