(Photo by Lucas Chilczuk)
At this time of year, summer program auditions can feel all-consuming. There’s tons of pressure to get into the intensive of your dreams—and one of the most nerve-racking things about the audition process is that no matter how well you prepare, it’s always unpredictable. The class could be packed so full you can hardly move. It could be led by a teacher you can barely understand. You could even be working through a last-minute injury.
What’s the secret to handling scary audition what-ifs? It lies in knowing what you can and can’t control, and in adapting quickly to tricky situations. “You can’t be a machine that does every audition the same way,” says Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet artistic director Alexandra Damiani. “You have to be sensitive to each environment.” Here’s how to deal when that environment is less than perfect.
What if the room is too crowded?
Big opportunities draw lots of dancers, which frequently means the audition studio is super-full. “I’ve been there—I know it’s challenging to work in a really crowded room,” Damiani says. “But as a director, I can learn a lot about you as a dancer from watching how you deal with that.” Getting visibly frustrated—huffing and puffing—will only show the instructor that you’re easily frazzled. Do your best with the space you have, and be sure to treat the other dancers with respect. If you bump into someone, smile and apologize. Better yet, incorporate the mishap into your movement if the circumstances allow for it—especially during the freestyle/improv portion of the audition. Think of mistakes as opportunities for creativity.
Don’t let the confines of the space turn you into a shrinking violet, either. Houston Ballet II member Tyler Donatelli says that while it’s important to be courteous to the other dancers, you should take any opportunity you can to move forward and be seen.
What if I can’t understand the teacher?
The instructor leading the audition may decide to give barre combinations all the way across the studio from you, or she might speak in an accent you’re not familiar with. Don’t be shy if you need more information. “You shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question,” says Juilliard Dance Division artistic director Lawrence Rhodes. “It shows you want to get it right.” Just be careful not to go overboard, and be careful about your timing. Damiani says that questions are always welcome when the class is learning an exercise, but once it’s time to perform the combination, you’re too late.
What if I show up wearing the wrong thing?
Figuring out an audition outfit is a tricky balance: You want to appear professional without being forgettable. Always look at the school’s website to see if it offers guidelines. (At Juilliard, for example, there’s an audition dress code.) If no instructions are given, Damiani suggests bringing an assortment of options to the audition. That way, you can determine which will work best after entering the space and seeing the other dancers. When in doubt, it’s usually better to wear more conservative pieces in vibrant colors, so that you catch the auditioners’ eyes without going over the top.
If you do show up in a less-than-ideal ensemble, use your dancing to send the right message instead. “So you misjudged and wore something too flashy? That’s not the end of the world,” Damiani says. “What you can change is the way you approach each combination. In your energy, you can say, ‘I’m serious. I’m here, and I’m no joke.’ ”
Smiling helps Saori Yamashita relax at auditions (Cheryl Mann, courtesy The Joffrey Ballet)
What if I have to dance in a style I’m not familiar with?
Sometimes, your audition might take you out of your comfort zone. You could be asked to improvise, or to use Balanchine technique instead of the Vaganova style you’ve trained in. Keep in mind that summer intensives are a great way to expand the horizons of your training, and the people at the front of the room know that. What they want to see is potential, not that you’ve mastered every style out there. “Give yourself a pep talk: I’m going to learn something new,” Damiani says. Rather than dancing tentatively, go all out—even if you’re not sure you’re doing everything perfectly. “Show them how open-minded, eager and hungry you are,” Damiani says.
What if I have an injury?
How you should handle an injury during audition season depends on what kind of injury you have. Two years ago, Joffrey Academy Trainee Saori Yamashita hurt her ankle before summer intensive auditions began. She wanted to push through her audition lineup, but eventually the severity of the injury forced her to skip several tryouts. Though she was disappointed at the time, the decision kept the problem from becoming more serious and really cutting into her training time later on. In short: Don’t ever ignore intense pain for the sake of an audition.
If your injury is less severe, attending auditions may still be worthwhile, but it’s important to tell someone. Rhodes recommends approaching a staff member at registration, before class begins, to make them aware of your injury. “That way, if we see what we think is real promise, we’ll come to terms with the fact that you’re not jumping today,” he says. “It’s better to let people know than to suffer in silence.” Sometimes you can even follow up an in-person audition with a video. If you’re unsure, ask your regular dance teacher for advice. She can help you put auditions in perspective, and figure out if dancing on your injury is worth the risk.
What if I’m really nervous?
It’s completely natural to feel a little shaky walking into an audition. But make sure you harness that energy instead of letting it derail you. If your nerves are really overwhelming, Damiani and Rhodes recommend taking a few minutes to meditate and visualize your dancing before you enter the room. Acknowledge the what-ifs worrying you, and address each one with a solution that’s within your control. Don’t let the dancers around you add to your nervousness, either. You’re there to impress the teachers, not the other girls at the barre. “I like to isolate myself by putting my headphones in,” Donatelli says. “That way I can make sure I’m ready physically and mentally, without getting distracted.”
For Yamashita, the solution to nerves is simple: “I always smile when I’m nervous, because it helps me relax.” She’s on to something: Studies have shown that even if you’re not feeling especially happy, the act of smiling can improve your mood. And your bright face will make you stand out in a room full of anxious dancers.
The judges are fine with you making a mess onstage—as long as you clean it up afterward! (Cory Jones/C Event Pics)
Competition weekends should be easy enough, right? Rehearse your stuff beforehand, arrive at the venue with your costumes ready to go, hit the stage, dance full-out and, later, graciously accept whatever award you’re given. And while it’s your onstage performance that matters most, competition directors and judges are paying attention to your offstage etiquette as well. A bad attitude, sly eye-roll or sarcastic dig at your competitors could be just the thing to turn your platinum into a “thanks for showing up.” So what do comp pros love—and hate—to see from dancers? We got five of them to spill.
DO rehearse before you come to compete. In the studio, dedicate yourself to learning the ins and outs of your routine. Then, when it comes time to dance onstage, you’ll be free to enjoy and experience your moment rather than fear it. —Katy Spreadbury, JUMP
DON’T rush around. Get dressed and dance in your costume before you’re in front of the audience, paying attention to possible malfunctions or issues that can be resolved before you step onstage. Focus on your grooming: Do you have enough makeup on? Do you look like you put care into presenting yourself? —KS
DO check in on time. Backstage managers always recognize prompt dancers. —Melissa Burns, Turn It Up Dance Challenge
DON’T check in and then disappear. When you check in, you’re telling us you’re ready to perform. If you forgot something and need to go back to the dressing room, let the backstage director know. —MB
DO give yourself the luxury of time. Time allows you to relax and take care of the innumerable things that come up before your performance. Leave enough time to warm up and stretch. —KS
DO remember it’s not the audience’s job to love you—it’s your job to entertain them. So go out there and do your job! —Jackie Sleight, L.A. DanceMagic
DON’T be late. Tardiness doesn’t just affect your own experience onstage. If you’re not ready, for whatever reason, it translates to onlookers as a lack of care and respect. That’s not the reaction you want from your audience. —KS
DO realize you’re part of a larger picture. Everyone involved with the competition, from the judges to your peers, wants the weekend to run smoothly and efficiently. Do your part to keep things moving. —Ayodele Casel, L.A. DanceMagic
DON’T make someone else pick up after you. Be mindful of the backstage space you share and clean up after yourself. —AC
Clapping for everyone: always a major DO. (Cory Jones/C Event Pics)
DO be courteous to backstage managers. —Ray Leeper, NUVO
DON’T warm up or rehearse in the wings while another group is onstage. If you can see the judges, they can see you, too. —RL
DO show everyone how much you love dancing. Smile when speaking to people in the dressing room or when you’re addressed backstage. Say thank you when you’re handed an award or recognized in any fashion. —KS
DON’T scream and yell during a serious performance. Although your enthusiasm for the piece is appreciated, it’s distracting to the judges, performers and other audience members. —RL
DON’T clap just for your studio during awards. One of my biggest pet peeves is when dancers clap only for themselves. We’re all at competition together to learn and have fun, and we need to support each other. —MB
DO be aware that your behavior during competition is a direct reflection on your studio. Represent it well. —AC
DON’T use lots of large or elaborate props. Less is more. —MB
DO tell yourself, “I’m happy to be here and easy to work with.” That attitude will get you far with the crew and other artists. Plus, it will help you keep a positive mindset before your performance. —JS
DON’T let the results of a competition dictate your reaction to the experience. Too often we see students disappointed or disheartened at the end of a competition based solely on the medals they hold in their hands. Dance competitions are progress reports. They do not predict your future. Use competitions as opportunities to get practice onstage, observe your peers and learn something. Medals don’t make you a winner—doing the best you can and leaving with a sense of what more you’d like to do with your dancing is the true prize. —KS
DO make new friends and connections. You never know who you’ll run into down the road. Keep in touch with teachers, directors and fellow competitors after the event ends. —MB
Last March, Kendall Shepherd, coach of the Lake Oswego High School dance team, led her group to competition victory. “We were thrilled to win for the second straight year,” she says. But the enthusiasm quickly turned to disappointment. “We hadn’t even left the arena before the backlash started. Within hours, my girls saw updates on Twitter about the unfairness of the competition, saying the trophies were awarded based on popularity, not dancing.” The team’s big day was tainted.
You’ve probably posted online about an accomplishment, whether it’s a competition win or a pirouette record. You’re riding high—until someone posts a negative response. You can get 50 compliments about your routine, but it only takes one mean-spirited comment to deflate your excitement. Dancers have a natural instinct to share their work, and everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. But poor internet etiquette has an instant, hurtful impact. So what’s appropriate online behavior? Read on.
Don’t Stop Posting
Hannah Frederick, a student at Broadway Dance Center in NYC, knows the frustration of getting negative responses—but that doesn’t stop her from posting performance videos online. “It’s impossible to make destructive comments feel good,” she says. “But when you shut yourself off to criticism, you stop growing.”
You may worry about someone writing a nasty response to something you’ve put out there. But the internet is a fantastic forum for reaching a wide audience. “Today’s online media give people powerful opportunities for feedback,” says Stefan Becker, a licensed mental health therapist whose clinical work includes youth counseling. “When you post your performances, you have an instant audience.” Hannah adds: “It’s important to share what we can give the world. It takes courage, but it’s worth it.”
Master the Art of Humble Bragging
It’s natural to want to share your victories, but there’s a fine line between being proud of yourself and bragging. Instead of filling your news feed with posts like “Just did 10 pirouettes in class! I’m the new record holder at my studio!” try: “So thankful to my teacher for helping me reach my pirouette goal.” Showing gratitude changes the tone of your post. Being humble makes you more likeable online, where it’s hard to figure out a poster’s tone.
Don’t Feel the Need to Respond
When negative comments are made, it’s hard to undo the damage, and harsh words are more likely to stick with you than happy ones. But don’t take it too personally, and if you’re receiving mean comments, the best thing to do is say nothing in return. “A negative remark is felt as an attack by the person on the receiving end,” says psychologist Amy Stern Stoffelmayr. “If your response is defensive, that escalates negative feelings.” Sometimes people just want a reaction, and a back-and-forth exchange fuels that fire. “The commenter feels attacked and responds, so it continues and builds emotional distress,” Stoffelmayr says.
If you feel it’s important or beneficial to respond, proceed with caution. Imagine you’re face-to-face with the person you’re writing back to. “Ask yourself if you’d make the same comment to them personally,” Becker says. Then, wait 24 hours before you respond. “If you find yourself wanting to lash out, think about why you’re feeling angry,” Stoffelmayr says. Give yourself a chance to cool down, so your comments are thoughtful and not impulsive.
If You Want to Critique Someone Else
Maybe you’re watching a friend’s routine online and feel you can offer advice, or your cousin posted a photo of a wobbly arabesque and you’ve got the perfect tip to help her. Go ahead and comment—but choose your words wisely. “Online criticism is very public,” Becker says. While constructive criticism is often appreciated, telling someone she “might want to speed up her spot to stay on the music during her fouettés” isn’t the same as posting that she “stinks at turning.”