If you’ve ever attended a competition or convention, you’ve seen them—the select few dancers who tour with the companies. They’re the ones performing onstage with faculty, helping with registration and assisting classes. Being a part of one of these companies means fast-paced days, hard work and long hours, but in return you’ll refine your technique, meet top teachers and choreographers, and learn leadership and responsibility, all while traveling the country. Young dancers who’ve tested their skills on the road—and the directors who gave them the opportunity—tell it like it is.
To recruit dancers for their touring groups, competition and convention companies hold auditions at regional events prior to the tour season. Most look for well-rounded dancers between 12 and 20 years old with superb technique in multiple forms—ballet, jazz, hip hop and tap. “They have to be at the tops of their studios and be able to handle a lot of pressure,” says Desiree Robbins, director of the Tremaine Performance Company, the touring group for Tremaine Dance.
Tour members serve as faculty assistants during convention classes by demonstrating choreography, giving attendees extra help with tough moves and making sure dancers line up correctly for across-the-floor combos. Demonstrating on a platform in front of hundreds of students requires confidence, focus and discipline. “You have to be able to comprehend what the teacher tells you in seconds and produce what he or she wants,” says Frances Manzo, 20, of L.A., who has toured with Tremaine for several years.
Because tour members usually rotate between classes, they assist the entire roster of teachers, which expands versatility. “You take classes with 10 different teachers, and they all have their own styles,” says Barry Kramer, 17, of Daytona Beach, FL, who spent two summers with Caravan Kids, the touring group for Hoctor’s Dance Caravan.
Take the Stage
Besides helping out with classes, tour members also perform for attendees at competition openings and closings. Performing for crowds in cities like L.A., Chicago, Las Vegas, Dallas, Orlando and NYC alongside faculty members gives dancers a taste of what it’s like to be a professional dancer on tour, says Kristin Orozovich, assistant co-director of Hoctor’s Dance Caravan.
“I really improved my stage presence. You get so much confidence, because you’re up there onstage showing kids what performing is all about,” says Gina Pedula, 17, of Glen Mills, PA, who danced last summer with VIP, the touring group for DANCEAMERICA/Dance Olympus.
As one of the few guys touring with Tremaine, Michael Philips, 15, of Shreveport, LA, knows he’s automatically a role model when he steps onstage. “You can always see those little boys in the audience looking up at you, and a lot of them come from studios without that many guys. I know I looked up to the guys in Tremaine [Performance Company] when I was younger,” he says.
Because you’ll learn choreography for touring shows in a short amount of time—often just a day or two beforehand—you have to be a quick study. Tremaine dancers are sent videos of the choreography before the tour and are expected to have it memorized and ready for fine-tuning at rehearsal the day before the convention begins.
Behind the Scenes
Don’t expect to spend all your time in the spotlight. Tour members are often responsible for administrative duties that keep the event running smoothly, like fixing stereo equipment, helping with registration, tallying scores for judges and lining up competitors backstage. “The first day of the convention, my day starts at 7 am putting wristbands on attendees,” says Frances. “I’ve learned about the business end and how things work
behind the scenes. There is so much work that goes into a convention to make it successful that people never see.”
Tour members are expected to act professionally at all times and are typically responsible for greeting dancers and teachers and answering questions. “It’s your job to [build] good rapport for the company,” Gina says.
Enhancing your Dancing
Expect to put your technique and endurance to the test, as tour dancers adhere to an intense dance schedule, taking class 5 to 7 hours a day, up to 7 days a week, plus performing and rehearsing. “We were living and breathing dance for three weeks straight,” Gina says. “You learn you have muscles that you didn’t know you had.”
Company directors see tour members improve steadily from the first city to the last. “Most of these students have only taken [class] from their hometown studios,” says Nancy Stone, vice president of DANCEAMERICA/Dance Olympus. “They learn how to pick up choreography quickly, because they’re learning from many different teachers.” Robbins says Tremaine company dancers grow technically, too, as they are constantly observed and critiqued by convention faculty. “It’s a true test for a lot of these kids, who are at the tops of their studios and looking for the next thing to do,” she says.
On Your Own
Spending weeks on the road without mom and dad will teach you practical skills you might not learn at home, like doing your own laundry and budgeting your spending money. “I had to mature a lot the summer I toured with Dance Caravan, since I had to get along with a big group and watch my own money,” says Sierra Lynn Smith, 15, of Pocatello, ID.
Stephanie Mueller vouches that touring as a VIP dancer taught her essential social skills for college. “Touring for three weeks taught me how to live with three other girls, be away from home and get used to meeting many new people,” says the 17-year-old from Iowa City, IA.
You can also bet that spending so much time with the same group of dancers will spark close friendships. “I now have lifelong friends from Tremaine. We’re basically family, like brothers and sisters,” says Michael.
Prepping to Go Pro
If you’re considering dance as a career, a convention tour will introduce you to the intense demands of professional touring life. “It’s hard work, and will help confirm your decision that dance is what you want to do for the rest of your life,” says Barry. Melissa Hagy, 17, of Bastian, VA, toured with Dance Caravan last summer and agrees that the experience has weighed in on her career plans. “I didn’t know if I wanted to tour or dance with a company based in one spot. I realized that I absolutely love touring, being in different places and always being on the go.” An added bonus for teens aiming to dance professionally is that touring allows you to get to know prominent teachers and choreographers and form connections for the future.
What's the Cost?
Though touring with a competition and convention company is a full-time job, you won’t be getting paid; rather, traveling to a half dozen cities will cost you some serious cash.
Tremaine dancers attend convention classes for free, but are responsible for arranging and paying for their own hotel stays, meals and travel. Dancers attend a minimum of six cities in the summer, and can also tour during the year if their schedules allow; they often buddy up to save money on travel and hotel rooms. ”Our feeling is that if the participants—both dancers and parents—in our program have to invest in their dancers, they are more likely to take it seriously, so we weed out those who are not completely committed,” says Desiree Robbins, director of the Tremaine Performance Company.
Other companies charge dancers a lump sum that pays for travel, hotel stays, costumes and group activities, like seeing a Broadway show when touring in NYC. VIP dancers with DANCEAMERICA/Dance Olympus pay $4,500 for a three- to four-week tour, while participants touring with Dance Caravan pay approximately $7,000 for the six-week full tour or $4,000 to $5,000 for a three-week half tour.
While the majority of dancers are supported by their parents, others work to pay their own way. When Gina Pedula, 17, of Glen Mills, PA, was the first dancer from her studio to be selected to tour with VIP dancers last summer, she collaborated with her studio to fundraise; she sold candygrams and flowers at a recital, sold snacks between classes and taught a workshop for kids. Casey Emens, 18, of L.A., who has toured with Tremaine since 1999, teaches at local dance studios, daycare centers and elementary schools to finance her travel expenses.
Some companies do offer merit scholarships. Melissa Hagy, 17, of Bastian, VA, was chosen for Dance Caravan’s group in past summers, but wasn’t able to accept the offer until summer 2004, when she won a full tour scholarship that covered all expenses except meals. Dance Caravan offers scholarships for 3 dancers; 30 to 40 dancers tour with Caravan Kids each summer. Tremaine Performance Company and DANCEAMERICA/Dance Olympus do not offer merit scholarships for travel expenses.
Touring Taiwan: One Dancer's Diary
Touring with a competition and convention company isn’t the only way to dance and travel at the same time. Tamara Warta, a 24-year-old dancer from Santa Clara, CA, looks back on her summer in Taiwan touring and performing with Youth with a Mission Montana Summer of Dance program.
I’ve been dancing since I was 4, but it wasn’t until last August, when I was halfway across the world, that I realized I couldn’t live without dance.
In March 2004, I was accepted into Youth with a Mission Montana Summer of Dance program, a two-month performing arts camp for Christian dancers from the U.S. Not long after being accepted, I realized there was no way I’d be able to raise the $4,000 needed to pay for airfare, room and board. So, I wrote letters to friends and family asking them to help sponsor my trip. About a week before the program’s start, I received enough donations to pay my way.
I packed my bags and flew to Lakeside, MT, to join the team’s eight other dancers from all over the country. In three grueling weeks of intensive training, we created and rehearsed a 90-minute show with jazz, hip hop, modern, lyrical, tap and swing dance.
With our minds crammed with choreography, we landed in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, on July 10. We toured the country for six weeks, visiting cities such as Tamshui, Pingtung, Chiayi and Keelung. Wherever we went, we danced, performing our show an average of three times a day—sometimes at an hour’s notice—at theaters, festivals, orphanages, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. At first, I was nervous to dance at the nursing homes, but it was there that I met the most wonderful, wise people. Using dance to reach out to them was the highlight of the trip.
At times, the trip was so physically challenging that I didn’t think I was capable of making it to the end. The heat was unrelenting, and we were constantly dumping bottles of water on ourselves, trying to stay cool and able to perform. Our living quarters were cramped—all nine of us shared a room at some points—but it humbled me. I have so much compared to a country where poverty is prevalent and the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. It seemed to me that people either didn’t have a lot, or they had so much that they lost grip on what’s important.
Youth with a Mission Montana accepts applications for its summer excursion every spring, and the destination varies from Asia to Africa to South America each year. For more info, visit ywammt.org.