The Age Equation
When it comes to dance, the general rule of thumb is that the younger you begin training, the better. Serious ballet dancers, for example, are often expected to be career-ready by 16. But what if you didn’t start dancing at age 2? Is there room in the professional dance world for late starters?
The short answer: Yes! Read on to hear from six dancers who started dancing later than their peers—and still became pros.
Misty Copeland with Roman Zhubrin in Alexei Ratmansky's Firebird (Gene Schiavone)
Misty Copeland, soloist
at American Ballet Theatre
Age she started dancing: 13
How did you get started? I auditioned for the dance team at my junior high school, and the coach told me my potential as a dancer went beyond that local team.
When did a professional career start to feel possible? When I discovered American Ballet Theatre. I memorized every company member’s background and studied videos.
What kept you going through the tough times? The encouragement I got from the people around me. And ABT was the light at the end of the tunnel. Watching videos and seeing live performances kept me motivated.
Were there benefits to starting late? I didn’t feel burnt out at the age of, say, 15. Everything was so new that I was always eager for more.
Do you have advice for other late starters? Be mindful of how you treat your body, especially early on. You’re in a different place physically than a 7-year-old beginner. Consider cross-training to help develop your technique more quickly.
Richard Riaz Yoder in Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies (Scott Suchman)
Richard Riaz Yoder, Broadway performer
Age he started dancing: 17
How did you get started? I saw a couple of my high school show choir friends doing a time step and got them to teach me. When I showed my mom, she took me to a teacher who owned a studio for adults. At 17, I was actually the youngest person in my first class by 20 years!
Did you ever doubt yourself? I was weird in that I wasn’t self-conscious at all in those early classes. Even if I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I was going to do it as best I could.
What obstacles did you encounter? Learning dance terminology was hard. I had a teacher early on in college who asked us what dance steps we knew—and I didn’t know any. So I went home and memorized the name of every tap step. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I knew the names of every one.
Were there benefits to starting late? I was able to make sure I got high-quality training from the beginning. I’ve seen dancers who, early on, had bad habits thanks to poor training.
Janette Manrara with Robbie Kmetoni in Burn the Floor (David Wyatt)
Janette Manrara, Burn the Floor
Age she started training seriously: 19
How did you get started? My family is from Cuba, so salsa dancing was always a part of my life. I started studying musical theater at 12. Then the dance teacher at my musical theater school opened his own studio, and I started taking dance classes every day.
What obstacles did you have to conquer? The worst was seeing parents or other students look at me with confused faces. They didn’t understand why a girl in her 20s was taking ballet with 12-year-olds.
When did you know you wanted to dance
professionally? As soon as I set foot outside of “So You Think You Can Dance”! Being on the show during Season 5 opened so many doors for me.
Phillip Chbeeb, hip-hop dancer
Age he started dancing: 16
How did you get started? I was a jack-of-all-trades kid—I did everything from basketball and track to theater. After a (now) comical incident when I took a line drive to my face playing baseball, I had to ease off sports for a while. That’s when I took my first dance class.
What obstacles did you encounter? I had to learn when to incorporate my own natural tendencies into someone else’s choreography—and when not to. I had to figure out how to break movements down into pieces: the bounce, the pivot. That helped me become more aware of my body and its subtleties.
Were there any benefits to starting late? In a way it’s good that dance isn’t “my life.” I’m inspired by things outside of dance, and I think that helps me better express myself.
Alice Klock and Jason Hortin in Jonathan Fredrickson's Untitled Landscape (Todd Rosenberg)
Alice Klock, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Age she started dancing: 11
How did you get started? I was home-schooled, and my mother wanted me to get out and meet people my age, so she asked, “What about ballet?”
How did you catch up? I worked outside of class. In academic classes like math, the more you study on your own, the better you’ll do in class. It was the same for me with dancing.
Were there benefits to starting late? I’m actually glad I started when I did because I developed as a person before I became a dancer. This is a life-consuming art.
Do you have advice for other late starters? Never compare yourself to other people in class. I learned so much from dancers who were three or four years younger than me because I didn’t let age get in the way.
Michael Wood (Jack Hartin/courtesy Abhann Productions)
Michael Wood, tap dancer
Age he started dancing: 18
How did you get started? When I was auditioning for musical theater college programs, a friend told me about Oklahoma City University’s dance program. I figured, why not? And I got in!
What kept you going? My parents. I couldn’t always feel myself getting better, but whenever they came to see my performances, they’d say, “You’ve come further than you think.”
Did you have any breakthrough moments? During my junior year of college, a teacher said, “Michael, I think ballet has finally clicked for you.” And that was exactly what happened. One day I stopped feeling like I was trying to do ballet, and just started doing ballet.
Do you have advice for other late starters? There’s so much emphasis in this industry on what you can do at what age. But it’s all hot air. If you want to do it, just do it.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.