Four dancers who made the transition from comp kid to professional dancer
You're a comp kid—and proud of it! But at some point, you’re going to have to move beyond the circuit to find your niche in the professional dance world. DS spoke to four successful pros who competed as kids and teens, to find out how they made the transition. Here, they share the pluses and minuses of their competitive past, and offer advice for dancers who want to follow in their footsteps.
JEREMY HUDSON COMP KID TO COMMERCIAL
When Jeremy Hudson won his first title, Teen Mr. Starpower, he didn’t just gain a trophy—he also got a dose of self-confidence. “I’d only been dancing for two or three years, and I was up against a lot of really talented guys,” says Jeremy, who trained at The Southern Strutt in Irmo, SC. “I wasn’t confident in myself as a soloist, and I was amazed to even be considered for a title. Winning seemed like my first step toward a career.” Jeremy went on to participate in “Star Search” at 16 and won Outstanding Dancer of the Year at the first JUMP Nationals.
Now 21, Jeremy has been dancing in L.A. for four years. He spent his first year out of high school assisting choreographer Mark Meismer, then booked a Redken industrial in Las Vegas, choreographed by Ray Leeper. “I was working with people who have worked in L.A. consistently,” he says, “and I was by far the youngest. That was the stepping stone—I was like, ‘Yes, I can do it!’” More recently, he’s danced with Meismer’s Evolution Dance Company, in Daniel Ezralow’s “Why Be Extraordinary When You Can Be Yourself,” and in industrials for Nike and Skechers, music videos for Jessica Simpson and Will.i.am and the “Dancing with the Stars” workout video.
Jeremy credits his competition experience with helping to broaden his horizons. “When we traveled to compete, it opened up a new world,” he explains. His biggest challenge as a pro was learning to make the most of his award-winning technique in an audition. “I had to step outside of my comfort zone,” he says. “In the workplace, you have to learn to adapt, to make yourself a tool so the choreographer can mold you. But in a convention setting, there are so many different teachers, classes and performance opportunities. It trains you to step into that next world easily.”
KARLA PUNO GARCIA COMP KID TO MUSICAL THEATER
“From the beginning, I was taught that the only person you compete against is yourself,” says 23-year-old Karla Puno Garcia, who just finished a stint in the national tour of Wicked. Growing up at Fran’s Studio of Dance in Oxon Hill, MD, Karla studied ballet, tap and jazz and competed at Dance Educators of America, Dance Masters of America and others. She took home Teen Miss Dance of America at 15—but, she says, came in second as often as she won. (In fact, the girl who beat Karla for the title two years in a row ended up being her roommate at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts!)
Karla got her professional break during her senior year at Tisch in 2006, when she auditioned for the Broadway show Hot Feet. She booked the show (“Maurice Hines said to me, ‘You can dance!’”) and took a semester off from school to rehearse and hit the stage. But when Hot Feet closed after three months, Karla headed back to school to finish her degree, then hit the audition circuit again. “I was lucky to get that first show,” she says, “but you can be on top one day and back auditioning the next. It took some time to get another job, and I started feeling bad about myself.”
The lessons she’d learned through competing kept her motivated until she landed more work. “There are parallels between competing and working,” Karla says. “Booking jobs often depends on factors you can’t control, just like in competition you can’t control the judges or your competitors. But the competitive process of setting a goal and working toward it, developing focus, motivation and aggressiveness—it’s all vital when you’re auditioning. Being aggressive and competitive with others helps you in the future, as long as you stay grounded.”
BLAINE HOVEN COMP KID TO BALLET COMPANY
To look at American Ballet Theatre corps member Blaine Hoven, who’s taken on leading roles in Stanton Welch’s Clear, Twyla Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen, Jorma Elo’s C. to C. and classical favorites like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, you might not picture a former comp kid. But
before shifting his focus to ballet full-time, Blaine was a competitive dancer at Sheffield School of the Dance in Mobile, AL—he took home Tremaine’s Dancer of the Year at age 12!
Blaine went on to dance with Mobile Ballet, then studied at North Carolina School of the Arts on a ballet scholarship. As a teen, he attended ABT’s summer intensive five times, and in 2003, he was offered a contract with ABT’s Studio Company (now ABT II). He joined the main company in 2004, and he’s been getting noticed—most recently, he was selected as a 2008 Princess Grace Award winner. (This month, you can see him with ABT at the company’s annual New York City Center season, October 21–November 2.)
Though he only competed for a few years, the 23-year-old doesn’t dismiss his time on the circuit. “Competition benefited me because I got performance experience in front of large crowds,” he explains. And though he did have to buckle down on his technique once he decided to home in on ballet (“Port de bras was a major issue for me,” he says), he feels that the love and hard work competition dancers put into their art is vital. His advice for aspiring pros: “Continue to work hard, love what you’re doing and don’t do it because someone else tells you to love it. You have to be the sole contributor.”
LAURA SAVARIN COMP KID TO PROFESSIONAL DANCE TEAM
One of professional dance team member Laura Savarin’s favorite competition memories started with a first place trophy, but ended up meaning a lot more. “A little girl came up to me and told me how much she loved watching me dance and asked to shake my hand,” Laura says. “It brought tears to my eyes!” She remembers that experience now each time she hits center court. “Dancing professionally in front of 20,000 people, you have to know that somebody is always watching you,” she explains. “You can touch somebody just by waving or smiling at them. It’s so rewarding!”
The 21-year-old from Canton, OH, trained at Candy Apple’s Dance Center and competed at Kids Artistic Revue, Starpower, Dance Masters of America and others. She won Junior Miss Dance of Ohio in 2000, and then Miss Dance of Ohio in 2005. After high school, Laura spent two years at Kent State University in Kent, OH, during which time she took on her first professional gig: performing with the Cleveland Cavalier Girls dance team, where she danced during the 2005–06 and 2007–08 seasons. Next up for Laura? She’ll be trying her hand at NYC. “Being in NYC has always been a dream of mine,” she says, “so I’m really looking forward to seeing what opportunities are there.”
Laura is grateful to her competitive years for both the training she received and the people she met along the way. And though she sometimes struggled with being too hard on herself, she knows that she was preparing herself to be a pro. “Obviously the competition part of competing sometimes gets really intense, compared to just performing at a basketball game,” she says. “But if it weren’t for the experiences I had in competition, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now!”
COMPETITION PROS & PITFALLS
Why It Rocks:
Networking: “At competition and convention, you’re in class with—and being judged by—people who’ve choreographed for TV, movies, stage and tours,” Jeremy Hudson says. “Working with so many different artists puts you ahead of the game.”
Professional prep: “Conventions helped prepare me for auditions,” Karla Puno Garcia says. “You learn to stand out and get noticed—even what outfit to wear. You have to pick up choreography quickly and execute it at performance level right away. It’s a window into the business.”
Learning to dance well with others: “At competition, you dance in large groups,” says Blaine Hoven. “At convention classes, you dance in tight spaces with people trying to dance around you. Being in a large corps de ballet, you need to have spatial awareness in order to stay in line and dance together.”
Skills for future jobs: “You learn to respect each other and the choreographer, take care of your body, work as a team, pay attention to detail,
be precise and take direction,” Karla says.
Thinking that competing is the be-all-end-all of your dance career. “Winning a title doesn’t mean you’ve secured a spot on a show or on tour,” Karla says. “It’s great to be recognized, but don’t think that if you didn’t win, your career is over.”
Assuming that because you’ve won some titles, you’re the best dancer in the room. “When dancers who’ve had success at competition move to L.A., they walk into auditions like they own the place,” says Jeremy. “Choreographers don’t want to see that! You have to continue learning every day.”
Relying on your signature tricks. “Most of the time you aren’t doing a triple pirouette to a split to a switch leap in an audition,” Jeremy says.
Working yourself to death. “Sometimes I pushed myself too much,” Laura Savarin says. “I became overwhelmed and self-absorbed. I’d get stressed- out and tired. I had to remember that it’s not always about winning, it’s what comes out of it that’s more important.”
Photo: Courtesy Jeremy Hudson