"I Have No Idea What I Want to Do After High School"
Every high school dancer faces life-changing decisions as graduation approaches: Do I want to keep dancing? Should I audition for companies right away, or get a degree in dance, or major in something else and join my school’s dance team? Should I try to go to college while pursuing professional dance opportunities? What if I make the “wrong” decision and miss out on something great?
If you think the options seem overwhelming, you’re in good company. Aspiring professional dancers feel pressure to begin their careers as early as possible—but they’re also often told to have a normal college experience and get a degree, “just in case.” Here’s the truth: There are a million different routes to a rewarding dance career. Read on to hear from five dancers about the decisions they made after high school—and how those choices got them to where they are today.
Meredith Webster and David Harvey in Meyer (photo by Angela Sterling)
Alonzo King LINES Ballet company member
Studied environmental science at the University of Washington while training
at Pacific Northwest Ballet
In high school, I knew I wanted to dance professionally. I grew up thinking every professional dancer gets a job right after graduating high school. But that’s not true anymore.
I went to a couple auditions my senior year of high school, but since I didn’t get any job offers, I entered the professional training program at Pacific Northwest Ballet. My parents said the only way they would support me going to PNB was if I went to college at the same time. So I enrolled in one class every quarter at the University of Washington.
At first I was super-resistant. I was the only dancer in the PNB program waking up for an 8:30 am college class before dancing all day. But it turned out I liked having a connection to “normal” life, and I ended up really enjoying the classes I took.
After two years at PNB, I decided to go to school full-time to finish my degree—and to keep dancing. The modern teacher at PNB had her own company, so I performed in two shows a year with her. By then, I was less sure of what I wanted. I loved dancing, but I was also considering pursuing a job in wind power, which was what I was studying. When I was about to finish school, Donald Byrd came to Seattle and took over Spectrum Dance Theater. It felt right, so I auditioned, and I’ve been dancing in a company ever since.
I haven’t had as many years to perform as some other people my age. But I wouldn’t take it back. As an artist, the broader your experience is in the world, the more you can bring to your work. I had experiences through the university that I wouldn’t have had if I’d gone straight from high school to wearing pink tights all day every day.
(Photo by Marcel Indik Photography)
Moved to L.A. straight out of high school
I’ve always known I wanted to dance professionally, so I decided I needed to dive in and move to L.A. to give it a try. I told myself school would always be there if I wanted to go back, but this was something I needed to do while I could.
My mom and I decided I would take online classes my senior year while I focused on my dance training and added singing and acting lessons to my schedule. At the end of the year, I auditioned for an ABC Family movie called Lovestruck: The Musical, and I booked it. After that, I signed with an agency in L.A. I work as a waitress at night so I can support myself, and I go to auditions during the day.
Moving to L.A. at 18 was scary, but I’ve always been independent, and 95 percent of the people here are doing the same thing I am. I’ve never been more stressed and confused than I am now, but I’ve also never been happier.
You have to pay your dues in L.A. by showing your face at a lot of auditions and classes. So I feel like I have a head start. I’ve been here two years now, and although it took a couple months to book my first job, I worked my way up to dancing with Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, and I recently booked the TV show “Hit The Floor.”
Corina Gill in Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker (photo by Gene Schiavone)
Boston Ballet corps de ballet member
Majored in dance at University of California, Irvine
When I was in high school, not going to college wasn’t an option for me—that’s the way I was raised. I knew I wanted to be in a ballet company one day, so my major concern was how I would keep dancing in college. I chose to major in dance at UC Irvine, and the connections I made there helped me get the job I have now at Boston Ballet.
For a ballet dancer, college is a hard route to go. You start your career four years later than many people, and dancers already have such a short shelf life. But looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. College rounded out my dance education as well as my academic education. It exposed me to different ways of thinking and different kinds of people. Now, a few years into my dance career, I have to start thinking about what I’m going to do after dance—and while some of my colleagues are working on their bachelor’s degrees, I’m working on my master’s in nonprofit management.
Johnny McMillan in Jonathan Fredrickson's For the Wandered (photo by Todd Rosenberg)
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company member
Became an apprentice with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s second company soon after graduating high school
I was always interested in joining a company right out of high school, but all of my friends were doing the college thing—so I joined them and auditioned for The Juilliard School, The Boston Conservatory, Purchase College, SUNY and California Institute of the Arts. The Boston Conservatory offered me a scholarship, and I accepted.
I was worried I might be making a mistake by going to college. I went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in Michigan, so I had done the “dorm life” thing, and having a degree in dance wasn’t something that interested me. I was ready to get out there and learn what it was like to be a professional dancer.
That summer, I attended Hubbard Street’s summer intensive program on scholarship, and after the summer, I was offered an apprenticeship with the second company. I took the job instead of starting my freshman year at The Boston Conservatory.
Since I got my foot in the door early, I have many dancing years ahead of me. Jumping into professional life isn’t easy: You have to figure out things like insurance and taxes and how to take care of yourself. I also felt like an outsider to my peer group—I missed the college experience. But I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Having a group of older and more mature dancers around me has improved my dancing, and being in the company has taught me the business side of dance.
(Photo by Jordan Matter)
NYC-based freelance artist
Deferred a college enrollment to focus on her dance career
When I graduated high school, I felt a little behind as a ballet dancer because I hadn’t started training seriously until I was 14. I’d received a scholarship to Bard College to study international relations, but as I talked with some of the mentors in my life, I realized college was something I could come back to, while dancing was something I needed to do now. Bard let me defer a year so I could focus on my dancing.
I moved to NYC to train at Ellison Ballet and to intern at Pointe magazine, since one of my passions is writing. At the end of that year, I got an offer to join Tulsa Ballet’s second company, and Bard let me defer another year. At the end of that year, I had the opportunity to join the Gelsey Kirkland Studio Company in NYC. This time, Bard said I needed to choose between the scholarship and the dance company. I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to dance with Gelsey Kirkland.
Since then, I’ve been freelancing as a dancer and actor. I’m also directing a preservation program for monarch butterflies. My goal is to create art and tell stories that have a healing or empowering effect on human beings, especially children.
I do think it will be important for me to get a degree in the future. I’ve noticed that in some circles, there’s a stigma associated with not having a college degree—it’s equated with a certain level of intelligence. People will say to me, “You’re so well-spoken for someone who didn’t go to college!” But I can always go to college, and I’m going to make it a priority before I have a family of my own.
Because I came to NYC at 17, I feel like I could go anywhere in the world now and be OK. I’ve been empowered by the understanding that my decisions are my own. If you look at the kind of people who are living the life you want to lead, and backtrack to see how they got there, it’s surprising to see that there are many unique, winding roads.
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.
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!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
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.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.