For dancers who've spent their lives in pink tights, signing a big ballet company contract can seem like the be-all-end-all goal. But ballet-trained dancers aren't one-trick ponies, and many end up leading successful dance careers outside the ballet world. Before you say “ballet or no way," get inspired by dancers who traded in their pointe shoes for something a little different.
Makeda Crayton, Soloist in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity
I trained under former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal Homer Hans Bryant, and always dreamed of following in his footsteps. But when DTH went on hiatus in 2004, I decided to look for other jobs, and I ended up finding my dance home at Cirque du Soleil.
I love Cirque's storytelling aspect. It reminds me of performing story ballets, but you're given a lot more freedom to develop your character. Right now, I play the African Queen in Zumanity—I have a solo that opens the whole show. It's up to me to pull the audience into our world, and I'm constantly reinventing my character to find new ways to connect. I still do a floor barre before every performance, and I'm thankful for my ballet training. The show's acrobats are always shocked at how quickly I can pick up movement. Before DTH reopened in 2013, I was invited to take class with its traveling repertory ensemble. While it reminded me how much I missed ballet, I realized my path as a dancer had changed. I love what I do.
Brandon Leffler in costume for "On the Town" (Monica Simoes, courtesy Leffler)
Brandon Leffler, dancer in Trip of Love, off-Broadway
I was on The Performing Arts Center in L.A.'s commercial track when I first fell in love with ballet. The school's director helped me switch around my schedule so I could do a classical concentration, and I ended up booking a job with Ballet Austin II after attending the company's summer program.
I spent a year there, and it was an amazing experience. Ballet Austin is a small company, so we got to dance in the corps for larger ballets. Once
I got used to the day-to-day rigor of ballet company life, though, I realized I needed a bit more freedom. That's when I set my sights on Broadway. I moved to NYC to take a job with Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, and began auditioning for musical theater jobs. About a year later, I booked a national tour of Cats, and haven't looked back since.
The greatest gift ballet gave me is my solid technical base. In musical theater, you're doing the same movement eight times a week. Unless you're using your body properly—and ballet teaches you how to do that—you're going to get injured.
Wada as a member of Sidra Bell Dance (David Flores, courtesy Sidra Bell Dance)
Madison Wada, Sidra Bell Dance New York
Growing up in the small town of Lancaster, CA, I studied many styles at a local studio, but I fell in love with ballet. I looked up to ballerinas like princesses. When I decided ballet was my dream, my mom started driving me an hour each way every day to train at Los Angeles Ballet Academy. It was a rigorous school, with graded exams at every level. But after spending a summer at Alonzo King LINES Ballet post-graduation, I decided I wanted to go in a more contemporary direction. As much as I loved classical dance, I knew even if I gave 125 percent, I still probably wouldn't make it—I just don't have the feet or the stature. When I started to explore contemporary dance, first at LINES and then with Sidra, I began to appreciate the value of my movement quality, beyond the height of my leg or the number of pirouettes I could do.
Usborne in her bunhead days (Patrick Baldwin, courtesy Usborne)
Georgia Usborne, Gallim Dance
My second-year ballet teacher at Central School of Ballet in London told me I didn't have the facility to join a company—and that I needed to learn to maximize what I had. Ballet was my passion, but with the limitations of my body, I knew classical technique would always be a struggle. I ended up spending three years at Bern Ballet in Switzerland, which has a more contemporary repertoire and allowed me to further explore that kind of movement. I had to break down a lot of mental walls to find my artistic voice, and taking Gaga class in Bern helped me find that freedom of expression. Now, at Gallim, I've found the perfect balance of ballet and Gaga.
Prominski backstage at "Dirty Dancing" (courtesy Prominski)
Katelyn Prominski, Broadway dancer
I started off on a pretty successful ballet track: I trained at San Francisco Ballet, toured with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, spent four years in the Boston Ballet corps and then joined Pennsylvania Ballet. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, I got very sick. I didn't know what was happening to my body—ballet became miserable. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and decided to retire.
My boyfriend at the time (now my fiancé) was touring with Billy Elliot, and as I started to get better, I realized musical theater could be a great way for me to return to performing, because it's a slightly less grueling, more flexible environment than the ballet world. I just finished touring with Dirty Dancing, where I used my ballet training every day. Broadway choreographers love ballerinas—they know I'm going to give them a six-o'clock penché, sky-high leaps and can-can kicks to my face.
Emnace in her ballet days (Oliver Endahl, courtesy Emnace)
Ariana Emnace, Commercial dancer
I trained intensively in ballet, going to summer programs at San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and competing at Youth America Grand Prix. ABT was always my dream. I was fixated on joining a ballet company and becoming a principal—it's what I thought I deserved after training so hard.
When I started auditioning, my ballet teacher convinced me that joining an agency might be a better fit. I signed with Bloc and began looking for commercial and ballet jobs. For a while, nothing really happened. Then Mystic Ballet of Connecticut offered me a spot in their training program—right as I booked a private audition for Chris Brown's BET Awards performance. I told myself if I didn't book the Chris Brown job, I'd move to Connecticut and recommit to ballet. But I got the gig, and I took that as a sign. Since then, the commercial world has really opened up for me. I've realized this is my path.
Rutledge (right) with Reid Bartelme in Lar Lubovitch Dance Company's "Elemental Brubeck" (Nan Melville, courtesy Lar Lubovitch Dance Company)
Laura Rutledge, former dancer with Lar Lubovitch Dance Company
I danced at Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, California Ballet Company, State Street Ballet and Ballet San Jose, and I thought ballet was my home. But when I was a member of Company C Contemporary Ballet, I was introduced to Lar Lubovitch's choreography. From day one of rehearsal, I totally fell in love with the movement. I felt my whole body sigh. I decided to make the cross-country move to NYC to dance with the company.
It was a huge transition for me—no more pointe shoes, and I really had to learn to drop my weight. But all of Lar's movement is based in the ballet vocabulary. You always have to find clarity in your lines. Honestly, I don't think he would've hired me if it weren't for my solid ballet foundation.
Let's face it: If you wanted an easy, straight-forward career path, you probably wouldn't aspire to be a professional dancer. First of all, there's no set path to success. If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school. A lawyer? Law school. And while there are tons of great higher-ed opportunities for dancers (check out our September issue!), the programs are far less standardized—and job placement immediately following graduation is the even more challenging. Dancers have to face all kinds of other tough stuff—like auditions and typecasting and rejection and understudying and side jobs and injuries and...you get the picture.
Long story short: It ain't easy! But with a little help and guidance, navigating the world of show biz needn't be quite so daunting.
Broadway veteran Adam Cates' new book, The Business of Show: A Guide to the Entertainment Business for the Performing Artist, is just what it sounds like: a one-stop shop of career advice for aspiring performing artists. Want to know how to use social media for self-promotion? Wondering what kind of pay you can expect for different gigs? Nervous about understanding the industry jargon in your contract? Want help navigating the networking process? Cates (the assistant choreographer of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) answers all these questions and more, bringing together advice from dancers who've made it big—and the artistic directors, choreographers, producers, agents and casting directors who helped them get there.
You already know that taking on a new role requires lots of homework, from perfecting the steps to figuring out spacing. But while it's easy to become wrapped up in technical demands, a little extra research can make all the difference in your performance—because each piece of choreography is inspired by something, whether it's a person, a time in history or simply an abstract harmony created by a composer.
Ah, New York—the center of all things dance, and the place young professionals flock to in hopes of starting a career. Want to join in on the Empire State of Mind, but not sure how? We asked three rookie dancers, who all moved to the city recently, for their advice about everything from finding an apartment to getting around town. See how they've learned to navigate life in the Big Apple, so you can make your own transition as seamless as possible.
The City of Angels has a lot more to offer than overcrowded tourist spots. It's also home to flourishing underground dance, art and music scenes, delicious off-the-beaten-path restaurants and unique places to shop. We asked four pros who call the city home for their top picks—so you can do L.A. like the indie kids. —Courtney Bowers
It's a question every serious dance student has to ask as she approaches high school graduation: What's next? College, or a company gig? A full-time dance career, or…something else? You can't take this big decision lightly. But how can you know if you're ready to go pro after high school? What about at age 22, with four years of college dance classes under your belt?
Pro dancers have all had their share of nutty jobs—anything from ridiculous choreography to hilarious costumes. After all, if it’s fun and harmless, why not make a little extra cash? And sometimes, those kooky gigs can be surprisingly rewarding.
Clockwise from left: Jolina Javier (courtesy Javier); Hillary-Marie Michael (courtesy Michael); Mollie Sansone (Wheatphoto.com, courtesy Sansone); Kyle Robinson (Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images); Michael Gross (courtesy Ingrid Bonne); Francesca Forcella (courtesy Forcella)
Jolina Javier, FREELANCE DANCER
Wacky work: Performed as a dancing bear in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
“I was a ballerina bear for four years. The costume wasn’t too heavy—it was sort of like dancing in a Snuggie. You stepped into the bear body, and the head went on top. The snout was right in front of your face, so it was like looking through a screen. At first, it was a little scary. I’m claustrophobic, and when the head was on, you could hear yourself breathing. Not being able to fully see was the most disorienting—especially when on pointe. Pointework is hard enough without a big suit! On my first opening night, I fell onstage. It was so embarrassing. I couldn’t believe I fell—in a bear suit—in front of 6,000 people.
“When you’re growing up, you always imagine yourself in a tiara, or as a Rockette. But looking back on the experience, I love that I got to be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Hillary-Marie Michael, tap dancer and Jersey Tap Fest director
Wacky work: Tapped dressed as Kim Jong-il on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”
“A colleague’s husband works on the show, and she told me they needed a few tap dancers for one episode. I immediately said yes—no questions asked. It was going to be my first
experience on TV, so I dropped everything to do it. All I knew was the piece had to do with a North Korean ban on imported Italian tap shoes. The six of us got to hair and makeup and we saw our costumes: We were going to be dressd as Kim Jong-il—green jumpsuit, wig, glasses and all. The experience was pretty cool: Colbert is a tap super-fan, and he came out and did a few shuffles with us. But when you’re expecting an artistic performance, a 20-second shtick in a silly costume can seem pretty disappointing. That was the day I learned to always ask questions before signing or agreeing to anything.”
Mollie Sansone, Nashville Ballet
Wacky work: Performed as a fire dancer
“During Nashville Ballet’s off season last year, I danced with Quixotic, a multimedia performance company that’s sort of like Cirque du Soleil. For one section of the show, I wore metal clamps on my fingers. The clamps attached to metal skewers with wicks on the tips that were lit on fire. My immediate reaction was pure excitement—I’m a bit of a daredevil."
“I performed barefoot, wearing a leotard with a hood to cover my hair. The work was very grounded—not a lot of jumps and no partnering—so I felt safe with the flames. Of course, I had to be careful: If my fingers pointed downward, the fire would shoot up and burn my hands. And if I moved my hands too fast, the flames would go out. The first rehearsal was a little scary, but after that I loved it. What a rush!”
Kyle Robinson, Shaping Sound Dance Company
Wacky work: Played an exotic dancer dressed as Abraham Lincoln on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”
“I was the last appointment at the audition for the part, and when I walked into the waiting room, it seemed like every guy in L.A. between 5'10" and 6'4" with brown hair and muscles was there. I thought by the time I got into the room, the agents would have already seen a million abs.
“Finally, it was my turn. I tried my best moves: I ripped open my shirt and I threw my head back as I landed on my knees, channeling Flashdance. I did a headroll, a handstand with a twist—and as I pretended to remove my belt, I heard yelling: ‘Stop, stop! Mr. President, put your pants back on!’ They loved it! Two days later, I heard I’d booked the gig. Being on the show was an incredible experience.”
Michael Gross, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Wacky work: Performed as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland at a fundraiser for the Chicago House and Social Service Agency
“For the benefit performance, I wore a black and white checked singlet, an oversize hat that kept falling over my eyes and patent leather white go-go boots with two-inch heels. It wasn’t my favorite choreography—but it was for a good cause and I figured I wouldn’t know anyone in the audience. Right before I went on, though, Hubbard Street’s artistic director, Glenn Edgerton, approached me. At the time, I wasn’t in Hubbard Street, but I had auditioned for the company a couple times and had yet to make the final cut. I kept thinking, Please don’t stay and watch this! He did, of course. Little did I know that about a year later, he’d be my boss. We haven’t actually talked about the show yet…it might be better that way!”
Francesca Forcella, BalletX
Wacky work: Danced in a circus-themed fashion show for Macy’s
“When I was in Houston Ballet II, three dancers from the company were chosen for a fashion show. We assumed we were going to model—and we were so excited! On the day of the show, however, a Macy’s representative brought us to what she called the ‘talent room.’ The talent room? We walked in and saw a bearded lady and another woman with a monkey. It turned out the show was circus-themed, and we had to dress up as faux Cirque du Soleil performers. My friend was the ringleader, and I danced down the zigzagging runway in a silver unitard and full-footed tights. They didn’t have shoes for us, so we performed in stocking feet, trying not to slip. It was a crazy day, but it ended up being fun: I was with my friends, and we made the best of it.”
NYCB principal Gonzalo Garcia (photo by Chris Hardy)
Sometimes it's hard to remember that professional ballet dancers aren't superhuman. But in reality, they're just like us.
I mean, when you watch a breath-taking pas de deux, do you ever wonder what they ate for breakfast or if they need to buy toothpaste after work? Probably not.
That's why we love it when dancers provide a glimpse into their very human lives. And that's just what New York City Ballet Principal Gonzalo Garcia does in The Dancer, a new short film by Ezra Hurwitz.
The film follows Garcia through a typical morning—everything from shaving and riding the subway to warming up and dancing. And sure, we might get distracted by Garcia's extraordinary back muscles, or by the behind the scenes shots of him in Lincoln Center's Koch Theater. Ultimately though, we're watching a regular NYC man go to his (not so regular) job in NYC. And that makes his dancing all the more impressive, right? Enjoy!