Dancer to Dancer

Applying for a college dance program can feel like a guessing game. Should you highlight all your competition titles and awards? How important are your academic grades? And how should you act in the audition? Here's advice from admissions officers from some of the top dance programs in the country about how to make your application stronger.

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Dance News
Michael Becker/FOX

The competition is officially heating up—meaning this week, the Top 8 danced not only with their respective All-Star partners, but also with each other! Yay! (The solos have been great and all, but additional duets are way more exciting.) But first...

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Dancer to Dancer
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

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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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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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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.”


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