Ballet Competitions 101

Sarah Lane and Joseph Phillips performing at the YAGP 2008 Gala. Photo by Gene Schiavone

Picture this: It’s 1990, and Jose Manuel Carreño, a young, relatively unknown Cuban ballet student, has just wowed the judges at the USA International Ballet Competition with his ultra-powerful jumps and incredibly controlled pirouettes. At the end of the competition, he’s presented with the Grand Prix City of Jackson Award of Excellence—a prize even higher than the competition’s senior division gold medals. Suddenly, Carreño is on the professional ballet world’s radar, and he’s quickly snatched up by the English National Ballet. Fast-forward to today: Carreño is living every ballet dancer’s dream as an internationally renowned principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.

At their best, ballet competitions do just what they did for Carreño, catapulting young unknowns into the limelight. At their worst, they’re still a great learning experience. While most dancers won’t win medals, nearly all competitors will benefit from the preparation, performance opportunities and feedback from judges.

The four major ballet competitions each have different vibes and offer different opportunities. To help you figure out which one is right for you, DS put together a guide highlighting key aspects of each.

The Basics

Most ballet competitions accept dancers ages 15–19 and expect you to bring prepared variations, both classical and contemporary. Some provide scholarships, while others award medals and professional contracts.

Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP)

YAGP is a competition for everybody. Its goal is to find new talent, and any dancer age

Eseban Hernandez at the 2009 YAGP. Photo by Nina Alovert

9–19 can compete. “One of the things that sets us apart from other competitions is our wide age range,” says Sergey Gordeev, director of PR and external affairs. “We include very young dancers, and rather than just evaluating them wherever they are in their development, we try to identify their potential and help them fulfill it by channeling them to world-class dance schools and giving them scholarships to study there.”

Founded in 1999 by the former Bolshoi Ballet dancers Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, YAGP holds semifinal competitions around the world and a final round in NYC every year. Students compete for medals; for the opportunity to receive contracts from professional companies; for the chance to perform at various international galas and dance festivals; and for scholarships to leading dance academies, like the Royal Ballet School, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Danish Ballet School. Though medalists at the NYC finals receive cash prizes, the scholarships have little to do with first, second or third place. Instead, “representatives from big schools observe competitors and judge their potential based on their performance onstage and in class,” Gordeev says.

Next competition date: March 21–25, 2010 (NYC finals)

Famous alumni: Sara Mearns (2001), principal, New York City Ballet; Sarah Lane (2002), soloist, American Ballet Theatre; Kiril Kulish and David Alvarez (2006), Tony Award recipients for their performances in the title role of Billy Elliot on Broadway

For more information: yagp.org

Sarah Lamb at the 2000 NYIBC by Marbeth

New York International Ballet Competition (NYIBC)

The NYIBC, founded in 1983 by Ilona Copen, is a competition for high-level preprofessional dancers. Held every two years at Lincoln Center in NYC, it’s limited to 48 participants who compete as couples. Dancers ages 17–24 from any country may apply, either as a soloist or with a partner who is also applying to compete, and a selection committee chooses the final group of competitors.

To ensure that no participant has an unfair economic advantage, the NYIBC covers the cost of competitors’ room and board, transportation within the city and entertainment and cultural activities. And unlike other competitions, the NYIBC does not announce the repertoire competitors will perform until all participants arrive in NYC. Dancers then learn, rehearse and perform these selections over the course of three weeks, studying with the same teachers and working under the same conditions. “The main goal is not the competitive part; it’s the training,” says NYIBC artistic director Eleanor D’Antuono. “We bring in coaches of the highest quality, like former ABT ballerina Cynthia Gregory and Indianapolis City Ballet artistic director John Meehan.”

After the final round, medals are presented, and some medalists may receive contracts with professional companies, such as The Joffrey Ballet.

Next competition date: June 2011

Famous alumni: Gillian Murphy (1996), principal, ABT; Sarah Lamb (2000), principal, The Royal Ballet; Kathleen Breen Combes (2003), principal, Boston Ballet

For more information: nyibc.org

Julie Kent at the 1986 Prix by Francette Levieux

Prix de Lausanne (Prix)

The Prix de Lausanne is a selective competition for dancers ages 15–18 who are ready—or nearly ready—to enter the professional ballet world, but have not yet danced professionally. The annual event, based in Switzerland since its inception in 1973, offers a variety of scholarships to prestigious international dance schools and companies. The artistic committee reviews video submissions and then selects a maximum of 75 dancers from around the world to participate in the competition.

At the Prix, students have the chance to rehearse both classical and contemporary variations under the supervision of prominent coaches including Patrick Armand, ballet master at La Scala Ballet in Milan, and former Royal Ballet principal Viviana Durante. Competitors who do not make it to the finals are still permitted to take an audition class viewed by school and company directors.

The Prix requires that dancers pass a strict health examination before they are allowed to compete, and also monitors its scholarship winners over the course of the year, making sure that they receive a good academic education in addition to their ballet studies. Deborah Bull, a member of the artistic committee, says, “The health and well being of the dancer, both during the competition and in the long term, is central to the Prix’s philosophy. We firmly believe in taking a holistic approach to the dancer first and foremost as a person.”

Next competition date: January 2011

Famous alumni: Alessandra Ferri (1980), former principal, ABT; Julie Kent (1986), principal, ABT; Carlos Acosta (1990), principal guest artist, The Royal Ballet; Christopher Wheeldon (1991), artistic director, Morphoses; Gillian Murphy (1995), principal, ABT; Misa Kuranaga (2001), principal, Boston Ballet

For more information: prixdelausanne.org

Misa Kuranaga at the 2006 USA IBC
Photo by Richard Finkelstein/ Courtesy USA IBC

International Ballet Competitions (IBCs)

International Ballet Competitions are held in several cities around the world. They’re intended for serious preprofessional and professional ballet dancers ages 15-26, who vie Olympic-style for gold, silver and bronze medals.

The IBCs have a complicated history. The first IBC was held in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1964, and that competition then rotated annually between Varna; Moscow, Russia; Tokyo, Japan; and Jackson, MS. While the IBCs no longer follow this schedule, Moscow and Jackson still hold competitions every four years and Varna holds one every two years; the Jackson competition was made home of the USA IBC in 1979. Other IBCs have since been established in Helsinki, Finland and Budapest, Hungary.

Participants must submit video applications to be invited to compete in either the junior (age 15–18) or senior (age 19–26) division. “Students and young professionals in the junior division compete to test themselves against our high standards,” says Sue Lobrano, executive director of the USA IBC. “They learn so much about professional ballet life from the strenuous pace of the classes, rehearsals and competition. Senior division dancers, on the other hand, have generally already started their careers, but will receive additional exposure and publicity through the competition.”

In addition to medals, dancers can win cash prizes, contracts and scholarships. Even after they’ve been eliminated, dancers are permitted to request a critique of their performances and to attend classes and competition performances for free. This year, new awards will be handed out at the USA IBC, including six one-year contracts with companies including Miami City Ballet and the Washington Ballet.

Next competition date: June 12-27, 2010 (USA IBC in Jackson)

Famous alumni of USA IBC: Nina Ananiashvili (1986), artistic director, State Ballet of Georgia; Jose Manuel Carreño (1990), principal, ABT; Rasta Thomas (1998), freelance performer and artistic director, Bad Boys of Dance; Misa Kuranaga (2006), principal, Boston Ballet

For more information: usaibc.com (USA IBC); varna-ibc.org (Varna IBC); russianballet.ru/competition (Moscow IBC); balcomphel.fi (Helsinki IBC); nureyevibc.com (Nureyev IBC in Budapest)

Reasons to Compete

Preparation: A competition requires lengthy preparation, focusing on artistic and technical details. This intensive training helps build discipline and pushes you to be your best. “The process is the prize,” says Bo Spassoff, co-director of The Rock School.

Education: Where else can you meet, watch and interact with dancers from all over the world? “Use it as a learning experience,” says Carlos Molina, a Boston Ballet principal who won the Igor Youskevitch Award at the NYIBC in 1996. “Take the opportunity to learn from other dancers.” And if you make a friend or two, that’s even better, especially since many of the dancers you meet will end up being your co-workers in the future!

Performance: Ballet competitions offer amazing performance opportunities, particularly for dancers from smaller studios. It’s not often that 16-year-olds get to tackle Odile’s furious turns or Kitri’s tricky hops on pointe onstage—except in competition! Performing challenging ballerina roles will strengthen your technique and your artistry, and give you the chance to command a professional stage.

Exposure: Competitions guarantee visibility, even if you don’t take the top prize. “You don’t have to win a medal to earn a place in a company,” says Sue Lobrano, executive director of the USA IBC. “Many directors are looking for a particular type of dancer and hire non-medalists all the time.”

Common Competition Mistakes

All flash and no finesse: “Sometimes in competitions, people ignore the beauty of the art form and go for dazzle—high extensions and multiple pirouettes—hoping to impress the judges,” says Bo Spasoff, co-director of The Rock School. “While there’s an athletic component to dance, there’s also an artistic component. Don’t lose sight of the artistry of the work when you’re performing at a competition. Allow your individuality and love of dance to come through.”

Training for competitions and not your career: “I saw dancers at Varna who turned in beautiful performances night after night and yet struggled in a ballet class to put two or three steps together,” says Roy Kaiser, artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to win a competition; it’s to develop clean, solid technique. Don’t skip class to practice your variations, and while you’re in class, focus on the clarity and purity of your dancing. A strong foundation will enable you to adapt to different styles and will make you an attractive candidate for professional companies.

Bad behavior: Don’t be a diva. You may be performing principal parts in competition, but stay humble; remember that nearly every ballet career starts in the corps. And throwing a tantrum when a variation doesn’t go your way will only show directors and judges that you’re not ready for the professional ballet world. No matter what happens on- or backstage, keep it classy.

Did You Know?

Ballet competitions can be especially helpful for international students. Medalists from abroad often have a leg up when applying for U.S. working papers, making it easier for them to work with American companies.

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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