Dancer to Dancer
Makeda Crayton as the African Queen in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity (Eric Jamison, courtesy Zumanity)

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.

Dancer to Dancer

Doug Varone leads a class held at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. (Alex Springer, courtesy Varone)

Top dance programs attract top faculty—people who direct companies, tour the world and, most importantly, hire dancers. That's why we've rounded up a list of all-star choreographers who are particularly committed to teaching and mentoring undergrads. You're just as likely to encounter them in the classroom as you are to audition for them after you graduate. Get to know them, and then look for their names under your course listings this fall.

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Sure, dance is fun, but these performers have other skills they’re putting to good use:

Alexandra Johnson in Sidra Bell's House Unrest. (Jubal Battisti)

Alexandra Johnson

Sidra Bell Dance New York

Hobby: Reupholstering furniture

“My mother has always been into sewing and she’s worked in interior design, so I latched on to her interests. Now, I own a lot of furniture that I’ve reupholstered. People don’t realize that reupholstering isn’t hard if you’re willing to take time to do it—and it saves money!”

Sarah Braverman and Ian Spring (Lois Greenfield)

Sarah Braverman

Parsons Dance

Hobby: Learning Italian

“I decided to take up Italian because two of the dancers I work with speak the language and we spend a lot of time together. Plus, Italy just happens to be on Parsons’ tour schedule! At the end of a long day it feels good to have something spark my interest that’s outside of the dance world. Keeping your mind open makes your dancing more informed.”

Jermaine Terry (Eduardo Patino)

Jermaine Terry

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Hobby: Costume design

“I discovered costume design in college. I had choreographed my senior piece and my roommate suggested I buy slips and add to them for costumes. So that’s what I did. I started to do it professionally later by accident. In rehearsal one day, I was wearing a pair of jazz pants I had made. The choreographer liked them and asked if I would make the costumes for his piece. People have been asking me to make things for them ever since.”

Shelby Elsbree in Christopher Wheeldon’s Sleeping Beauty (David Amzallag)

Shelby Elsbree

Royal Danish Ballet

Hobbies: Blogging, cooking and photography

“A little over a year ago, my sister encouraged me to do something with my free time besides working out. I invested in a camera and took a picture of a chocolate cake baked by my sister. It was the most beautiful picture ever. I love food and cooking, so I combined these side passions with dance and started a blog. Tutus & Tea was born.”

Sona Kharatian in The Great Gatsby (Brianne Bland)

Sona Kharatian

The Washington Ballet

Hobby: Knitting

“During Nutcracker season, I’ll knit scarves and socks to give as Christmas presents. If someone has me as their Secret Santa, they know they’ll get something knitted.”

Suluashvili and his wife, fellow Joffrey dancer Victoria Jaiani. Suluashvili says his favorite piece he’s crocheted is a shawl for Jaiani! (Herbert Migdoll)

Temur Suluashvili

Joffrey Ballet

Hobby: Crocheting

“One day I decided to pick up crocheting needles and see what happened. I thought it could be a fun challenge. With crocheting you can do a little at a time—a few minutes here, a few minutes there, and before you know it you have a scarf or legwarmers!

When you’re dancing all day, it’s nice to have something calming to do when you get home. It lets your mind and your body rest, and you create something beautiful in the process.”

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