"Just be yourself." These three words became something of an in-car mantra for Toya Ambrose as she prepared to walk into her first audition in more than a few years. The role? Head coach of the Chicago Luvabulls, the official dance team of the Chicago Bulls.
The Luvabulls spent the last NBA season on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team's return to the court in the 2021–22 season will be a homecoming of sorts, and the organization wanted innovative energy to lead the resurgence. Ambrose, a former Luvabull with over 20 years of coaching and directing experience at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Connecticut, as well as at the high school and all-star levels, fit the bill.
"I went and set some choreography on a small number of dancers just so they could see how I worked, and the dancers were kind of interviewing me, too," explains Ambrose, whose choreography has won numerous national dance team titles. "I had never put my work out there to be judged in that way, so I was nervous. I was in the car literally meditating, and I'm like, 'Just be yourself, just be yourself.'"
By the end of June—following weeks of interviews—Ambrose was offered the job and began the process of selecting her dream team of strong, athletic dancers with that compelling performance thing. She offered her three-word mantra to each of the 400-plus dancers she auditioned for the 20-spot team. "It's funny because that's what I wound up telling all the candidates," Ambrose says. "I took my own advice. That's why I'm standing here."
There's more advice where that came from. Here, Ambrose shares some wisdom from the other side of the audition table.
Know That Your Path Is Your Path
Ambrose had an unconventional start to her dance career. She didn't begin her technical training until she was 15 years old and auditioned for her high school dance team with zero experience. Despite the late start, she went on to be a leader of the team and later danced for two collegiate teams (the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Memphis on a full scholarship) and two professional teams (the Chicago Bulls and the Memphis Grizzlies).
"There is no right or wrong way to accomplish your dreams," she says. "You're going to get there somehow, if you have the drive."
Dare to Show Out
Most dance team auditions have an improv round, or feature a few eight-counts of freestyle in the audition choreography. Ambrose urges dancers to take a smart approach to the movement, consider the vibe of the choreography and let the judges learn a little about you. In other words, do you. "Show me that you want to be seen," she says.
Research, Research, Research
Ambrose advises dancers to "research the crap" out of their program(s) of interest. You should bring originality to the table while showing you're a fit for the program. "Know who the veterans are before you get there," she says. "Visualize yourself on that team, matching the vibe and style."
When it comes to audition attire, Ambrose recommends looking back at old audition photos for inspiration and, when in doubt, be prepared for anything. "[I would] have character shoes, I would have jazz shoes, I would have hip-hop sneakers, I would have dance socks, I would have Dance Paws," Ambrose laughs.
Step Into Your Uncomfortable Zone
One of the many things Ambrose enjoyed about selecting the dancers on her current team was observing how the candidates handled learning new styles. "Is she frustrated? Is she having issues? She's missing all the choreography, but is she beating herself up over it? Or is she just like, 'Woosah, let's move on to the next thing,'" Ambrose explains. "I said this a lot: Be really open to feeling uncomfortable or learning something new to your body." She's more attracted to dancers who embrace the process and growth over those who fight for perfection.
Keep Your Negative Self-Talk in Check
Filed away in the list of things directors don't love to see: imposter syndrome. That's when you doubt your abilities or let negative self-talk sabotage your potential. Unfortunately, it can happen to the best of us in this industry, especially when it comes to auditions. "I'm learning that you're going to have negative self-talk and self-doubt at every level," Ambrose says. "It's just how you react and respond to it. That is the key."
Trust yourself, your abilities, and just go for it.