Susan Pilarre leading a class at the School of American Ballet (Ellen Crane, courtesy SAB)

As dancers, we're always trying to take our dancing up a notch, to improve our technique and artistry. Here are six crucial things that'll make all the difference in your training this year. Check them out!

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Congratulations to our June 2017 Cover Model Search Editors' Choice video winner, Brooke Cox! Here she is performing her solo, Creep. Enter the Cover Model Search at dancemedia.com.

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Competition
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Competing a solo with your dance studio is a big honor—and responsibility. To make sure your solo is uniquely yours, and to expand your horizons as a performer, you may decide to hire a choreographer who doesn't regularly teach at your studio.

The challenge? The more high-profile the guest, the less time he or she might have to work with you. “People think we set a solo and it's an instant masterpiece," says New York City Dance Alliance faculty member Andy Pellick, who choreographs solos for students across the country. “But it's really up to the student to rehearse and clean the piece and make it her own."

How do you make the most of your time with the choreographer? Dance Spirit asked the experts.

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Choreography
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Today, 20-year-old choreographer Emma Bradley spends her days touring with the dance convention NRG Dance Project, making work for students across the U.S. and Australia. But her first choreographic ventures were far more personal: During her junior and senior years of high school, Bradley started creating her own solos for dance competitions. “Making work on my body totally influenced the way I think about and process choreo-graphy," she says. “And it set me on a different artistic path than I imagined."

These days, more and more dancers are testing out self-choreographed solos at competitions. It can be risky—you could be going up against seasoned choreographers like Travis Wall—but the potential rewards make it worth taking the chance. “Choreographing your own solo is an invaluable learning experience," says Andrew Winghart, a judge and choreographer for JUMP Dance Convention. “It forces you to look outside of yourself as a dancer, to really analyze your facility and how you can look your best." Tempted to try your hand at self-choreography? Read on to find out more about taking creative control.

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Competition

For many dancers, the experience of competing a solo is equal parts thrilling and intimidating. You want to be the best possible version of yourself onstage—and usually that means performing in your favorite style.

But is choosing what’s familiar always the best

decision? What happens when you challenge yourself, “So You Think You Can Dance”–style, to take on a new genre? DS asked teachers from top competition studios to weigh in on why branching out for your next solo might be the best move you can make. They’ve got some great advice for how to do so successfully, too.

The Benefits

“Working on a solo is a great opportunity for growth,” says Julie Webb of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, CO. “You get invaluable one-on-one time with a choreographer specializing in that style, which means you’ll make significant improvements in a shorter amount of time than in a group class setting.”

Alison Thornton works one-on-one with Grace Anderson to polish her solo (photo courtesy Michelle Latimer Dance Academy)

Teachers and choreographers will appreciate your extra effort. “I notice that dancers who open themselves up to different genres for their solo work tend to have a lot more versatility in their movement,” says Emily Shoemaker, tap director at CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, NC. “And usually, when they’re versatile, they also come with an open mind—an awesome quality in a young dancer.” (Variety impresses competition judges, too.)

You’ll prepare yourself for professional life. “If you want to go pro, know that not every single situation is going to be perfect and comfortable,” Shoemaker says. “You’re going to have to have the confidence to walk into an audition with the attitude of, ‘I’m going to try it!’ ”

 

Jacey Carroll of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy performing a musical theater solo (photo by Milan Cook)

Steps to Success

Be strategic about branching out. If tap is your strength, consider pushing yourself to learn and compete a hip-hop solo. “Tap creates through your feet what hip hop creates through isolations in your body,” Webb says. Jazz and musical theater also go well together. “Fiery jazz performers feel more comfortable doing musical theater because it’s performance-based.” And if you have a ballet background, contemporary can be a natural next step.

Put in the time to build your technique. Take classes in the new styles, and seek out mentors at conventions and at your studio. “The more people you learn from, the greater the artist you’ll become,” Webb says.

Be smart about music and costumes. “In a style you’re not used to, they become twice as important,” says Allison Thornton from The Dance Club in Orem, UT. The right costume can help you psych yourself up: In a musical theater solo, for instance, a particularly theatrical costume can help buoy a dancer who is nervous about her acting ability.

Try to get in a “practice” performance, such as an exhibition or recital, before competing. And when you select competitions, Webb suggests considering smaller regional competitions where you’ll feel less pressure.

Feeling Accomplished

Set realistic goals for yourself. They might not be related to score sheets or awards. “Having the courage to step out there and do something that is very difficult for you—and getting through your routine with confidence—is a major accomplishment in and of itself,” Webb says.

Don’t worry too much. “Dancers are hard on themselves. We stand in front of a mirror every day and critique ourselves. It’s OK to try something new and not be perfect at it,” Thornton says. “That’s how you improve. Let yourself be open to new things.”

(Photo by Jennifer Verrecchia)

When Pennsylvania Ballet corps member Elizabeth Wallace was in seventh grade, she decided to enroll in private lessons with her teachers at Lexington Ballet in Kentucky. “What I needed help with was different from the other girls,” she says. One year later, Wallace placed in the Top 12 at Youth America Grand Prix in South Carolina, and at the finals in NYC earned scholarships to five different schools.

These days, competition dancers and principal ballerinas alike are taking private lessons to supplement their regular training, and for good reason. Whether you want to develop your artistry or fine-tune your technique, working one-on-one with a teacher can help take your dancing to the next level. But what’s the deal with private lessons? We asked teachers and students to open up and give advice about “privates.”

What are the benefits of private lessons?

When it’s just you and a teacher in the studio, you get all the attention. “The teacher can hone in on your weaknesses and design the whole lesson just for you,” says Jennifer Miller, who teaches private lessons in Milwaukee, WI. If you’re having a problem with turns or you want to gain more flexibility, the teacher can tailor exercises to help strengthen those weaknesses. You don’t have to have a specific problem or focus to take private lessons, but it helps to talk to your teacher about your goals and keep an open line of communication.

Liezl Austria, who teaches at Alonzo King LINES Dance and ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco works with a student. (Photo by Ed Azuar)

The teacher also gets to know you as a person and can help you develop emotionally as a dancer. “It’s like there’s a wall between the students and teacher in a typical class setting,” says Miller, “but you can’t help but start to build a relationship during private lessons.”

If you’re at the top of your class, a one-on-one session can challenge you. If you’re slightly behind, the time can be spent going over basics. Maya Kreitman, 13, takes private lessons in addition to her regular classes at Ballet Chicago. She’s been studying ballet for less than a year and needs extra help to catch up. “I like privates because I can slow down and figure out what I’m doing wrong,” she says. “It’s easier to go at my own pace.”

What are the drawbacks?

The biggest downside to private lessons is cost. Most teachers charge anywhere from $40 to $150 per hour, and you might have to pay a $15 to $25 studio rental fee on top of that. Finding space might be hard, and teachers’ schedules are often full during after-school hours. If you’re not home-schooled or can’t get out of school early, you might have to stay at the studio late or do private lessons on the weekend.

Which teacher should you choose?

“Think about how a particular teacher makes you feel,” suggests Miller. “You need one who makes you comfortable but will still push you.” Consider the teachers you already know—and who already know you. They’ll have a good sense of your learning style and what you need.

If you’re not sure, ask to sit and watch the teacher give someone else a private lesson (and make sure it’s OK with that student, too). “I’m very hands-on,” says Leslie Hench of Ribbon Mill Ballet in Carlisle, PA. “I like to sit on the floor and move the dancer’s legs and feet for her. Some people might not like that.” Observing a lesson will give you the opportunity to see the teacher’s style and decide if it’s right for you.

Maya Kreitman takes a private lesson with Megan Wright-Otto. (Photo by Margo Ruter)

Is it OK to take a private with someone who doesn’t teach at your home studio?

As long as your studio knows what you’re doing and you’re not breaking any rules (some schools don’t allow students to take classes anywhere else), it’s fine to take lessons from a different teacher. “If someone good is available, take advantage,” says Hench. Just remember: Opting to train with someone other than the teachers at your school may cause conflict and hurt feelings, so be sensitive about your decision to seek additional training elsewhere.

How often should you work one-on-one for maximum benefit?

“Go as much as possible,” says Hench. “Having privates every day is beneficial, but it’s expensive.” If you can’t go every day, try to schedule private lessons at least once a week. Write down your corrections and apply them during your regular classes. You’ll improve even faster.

And don’t necessarily opt for tons of private lessons over your group classes. If you’re only taking privates, you miss the opportunity to watch other dancers in class. “We learn well in a group,” says Liezl Austria, teacher at Alonzo King LINES Dance Center and ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco. “When it’s just you in class, you’re in a tunnel with no other dancers to inspire you.”

Competition

Alayna Carlson performing at StarQuest in Minneapolis (by King Shots Photography)

There are myriad reasons you might dislike one of your group dances for competition. Every dancer prefers a routine that makes her feel like a rock star. But even if you’re never going to be in love with that one dance, there are ways to make friends with it, or at least call a truce. Here are six of the most common scenarios—and advice on how to handle them like a pro.

Help! I hate the choreography!

In the professional world, dancers are frequently asked to perform things they don’t necessarily love. You won’t always agree with your teacher’s taste, but try to see that as an opportunity to become more versatile.

Often, when dancers dislike choreography, it’s because they don’t feel they look good doing it. Rather than letting the dance crush your spirit, acknowledge the obstacle and form a plan of action. Donnajean Kline, owner and artistic director of The Dance Academy in Holland, PA, recommends finding a buddy to practice with, videotaping and watching a rehearsal, or taking extra classes in the style. Your teacher or an assistant may even have time to give you private lessons. “It’s exciting to be uncomfortable,” says Tawney Giles, who teaches at The Southern Strutt in Irmo, SC. “It’s tough to see that in the moment, but when you look back at what you’ve accomplished, you’ll see it’s a big deal.”

Help! My costume is getting in the way of my dancing!

A troublesome costume can throw off an entire dance. It’s important to sort this out as early as possible: At your fitting, make sure you have a full range of motion, and don’t be afraid to be vocal (in a polite way) if the bodice is so tight you can’t breathe, or if you’re afraid of “popping out.” Test tricks and lifts in costume a few times before dress rehearsal and tell your teacher about any problems. In the end, the sequins might still be scratchy, but the costume shouldn’t interfere with your dancing.

If you’re worried the costume is unflattering or doesn’t fit the dance, that’s a decision to leave to your teacher. If you’re truly uncomfortable performing in the costume, though, mention it to her one-on-one and see what she advises. And if you’re embarrassed by a silly costume like a pony or duck suit, Dana Adames, owner and director of the Talent Factory Performing Arts Centre in North Kingstown, RI, recommends embracing the ridiculousness as a rite of passage. Even your Broadway heroes have been there.

Alayna rehearsing at her studio, Summit Dance Shoppe (by Kendall Meuwissen)

Help! One section of the dance is too hard!

If competition season is coming up and you still aren’t nailing that triple pirouette, it’s time to talk with your teacher. Ask her to watch you the next time you run the dance. She might have a quick solution—maybe your hip alignment is off. Or she might say you look great and have been worrying unnecessarily.

Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee, owner and director of KJ Dance Designs in Plano, TX, recommends a “five time” rule: After trying a step five times on your own without improvement, ask for help. If competition is right around the corner and you’re still struggling, be prepared to step out of that section. But don’t feel defeated! Keep working to master it, and show your teacher when you have. She’ll be impressed by your persistence and might be able to place you back in the section at some point.

Help! My partner is letting me down!

Open up a productive dialogue by asking your partner if there’s anything you can do differently to improve the collaboration. Alayna Carlson, 15, who dances with Summit Dance Shoppe, says if you don’t know your partner well, making an effort to befriend him or her can make a big difference. “Open yourself up, and he or she will feel like, ‘OK, you’re trying to get past this. I should, too,’ ” she says.

If things don’t improve, Blakeslee recommends talking with your teacher. She says partner issues are like a “squeaky wheel”—your teacher might not notice them at first, but when left unresolved, they can get worse and end up bringing the whole team down.

Help! The music makes me want to gouge my eyes out!

Now’s the time to remember your job: to make the choreographer’s vision look amazing. Rather than going onstage hating life (the audience will notice), take on the challenge of finding something to appreciate. Adames recommends Googling the lyrics. “Every song has a meaning,” she says. “You just have to make it mean something to you.”

Dancers rehearsing at The Talent Factory Performing Arts Centre in Rhode Island (by Kayla Aucoin)

Help! No one can see me in the back row!

It’s never fun to feel hidden, but you’d be surprised how well dancers can be seen on all parts of the stage. In group dances, you have to set aside the competitive “solo” mentality in favor of team spirit, even if that means accepting a supporting role, Blakeslee says. Teachers love it when you’re enthusiastic and hardworking, even (and perhaps especially) when you’re not in the spotlight. It shows you’re humble and easy to work with—and it might inspire the teacher to give you more opportunities in the future.

If you feel overlooked for featured parts, it’s OK to speak with your teacher once the creative process is over. Set up a meeting time, share what you’ve been working on lately and ask something like, “How can I improve in rehearsal? What can I work on to become someone you turn to for featured roles?” That will let your teacher know you’re interested in more opportunities, and you’re willing to work for them.

Dancers rehearsing at The Talent Factory Performing Arts Centre in Rhode Island (by Kayla Aucoin)

Is it ever OK to drop out of a dance?

This is a hot topic at many studios, and each one has its own policy. Some teachers say “absolutely not,” while others may be open to it, as long as you have an understudy and let your teacher know far in advance. (If you’re in tech or dress rehearsals, it’s too late.) Remember, you’re on a team, so unless you’re injured or sick, it’s important to honor your commitment and put the team’s best interest above your own tastes. Dropping out at the last minute “could ruin not only the dance, but the team’s trust in you,” says dancer Alayna Carlson. Sticking with it shows the team they can rely on you, even when things get tough.

Competition

Christina Ricucci performing at Youth America Grand Prix (VAM Productions)

Thinking of adding a solo to your competition repertoire? You should! The experience of taking the stage alone can bring you a lot more than a shiny new trophy. Here are 11 reasons—from top judges, teachers and soloists—you’ll benefit from having a solo.

1. You’ll learn to love your quirks.

Working on a solo is a great opportunity to learn about yourself as a one-of-a-kind dancer. “You learn the styles and music that suit you and which steps you look best performing,” says Katherine Kelly, 18, who dances at The Dance Academy in Holland, PA.

“Your choreographer can find your gifts and let them shine,” says Andy Pellick, a New York City Dance Alliance judge who also choreographs solos for dancers around the country. “I know a girl who’s really tall, and was embarrassed by her height. I worked with her and told her, ‘No, that’s your biggest asset.’ ”

2. You’ll gain confidence.

“There’s something fulfilling about going through the process of learning something by yourself and achieving your goals alone,” says Michelle Latimer of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, CO. “You come away feeling like you can tackle any challenge.”

Andy Pellick working on a solo for Mackenzie Bessner at KJ Dance in Plano, TX (by Kristy Ulmer)

3. You’ll get one-on-one time with your teacher.

When you meet with your teacher to practice your solo, you get to work on more than choreography. “We can focus on the things I’m having trouble with,” says Jack Wolff, 12, from Precision Dance Academy in Pearland, TX.

Rehearsals are also a chance for your teacher to take a closer look at your technique. “When we’re working on a solo, my teacher can point out things she might not see when I’m in class with a group,” says Fallon Walsh, 12, who dances at The Talent Factory in North Kingstown, RI.

4. You’ll push your limits.

In group dances, it can be easy to relax and hold on to bad habits. “Some dancers get comfortable in a group because they feel surrounded,” Latimer says. If you feel stuck, tackling a solo could get you back to that slightly uncomfortable place where you’re improving rapidly. Christina Ricucci, 14, who dances with Murrieta Dance Project in Murrieta, CA, loves difficult solos. “I like solos that aren’t in my style or that have a certain move that’s challenging,” she says. “I practice and perfect them, and I grow as a dancer.”

5. You’ll show off what you do best.

When you’re dancing in a group, your job is to make the whole group look great. But when it’s just you onstage, you can tailor everything to your strengths. If you’re an amazing turner, for example, you can throw in that 10th pirouette. “You don’t have to worry about fitting the mold,” Katherine says. “You get a chance to show what makes you the dancer you are.”

Eric Schloesser from Michelle Latimer Dance Academy performs his solo at West Coast Dance Explosion. (by Jen Kurtz)

6. You’ll grow as a performer. 

When you’re onstage alone, it’s up to you to tell a story. According to Mary Ann Lamb, Broadway veteran and judge with Showstopper American Dance Championships, a dancer’s choreography is her script, and each dancer must infuse it with life. “You could give two dancers the same choreography, and those solos would look completely different from each other,” she says.

7. You’ll be better prepared to go pro.

From your solo, you’ll have a video you can post online or send to casting directors—a tool that’s more vital than ever for dancers who are interested in working professionally. Plus, when you’re at an audition and someone asks you to “just start dancing,” you’ll have solos you can pull out for inspiration.

8. You might find new opportunities along the way.

If you’re a dancer who doesn’t pick up choreography quickly in class, a strong solo can show judges what you’re capable of. According to Pellick, if you catch a judge’s eye with your solo, he or she will likely watch for you in convention classes.

You may even be approached by an industry professional. At competitions a few years ago, a casting director asked Jack to audition for Billy Elliot on Broadway, and an agent offered to represent Katherine. Soon after Christina performed a recent solo, she got a call from Stacey Tookey asking if she’d be interested in working together on a new solo.

Jack Wolff performing at
New York City Dance Alliance (ProPix)

9. You’ll learn how to make it work.

It’s the inevitability of live theater: Something will go awry, and in a solo, it’s up to you to fix it. “When you go out and nail something, you don’t learn much,” Lamb says. “But when things go wrong—a halter top breaks, you fall out of a turn, you can’t hear your music—that’s when you learn who you really are.” You’re on your own to figure out what to do.

10. You’ll learn how to set goals—and achieve them.

This could be the year you finally nail that triple pirouette. According to Krystie Whetstone Sutch, owner of Krystie’s Dance Academy in Warren, OH, “When you’re working on a solo, you can decide, ‘This is what I want to accomplish this year. I want to learn these new skills and improve my technique.’ ”

11. You’ll see yourself improve.

After a couple years of competing solos, your videos will become a time capsule of your training. “It’s something you can look back on to document your growth,” Latimer says. “You’ll say, ‘Wow, look how far I’ve come!’ ”

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