When Kylie Peitz, an independent dancer in West Palm Beach, FL, took the stage to perform "The Impossible Dream" last year, she wasn't just dancing another competition solo. A couple years earlier, Peitz had left her studio for financial reasons, but she didn't want to let that stop her from working towards becoming a professional dancer. The solo depicted her post-studio journey through movement. "That was basically the story of me leaving my studio and saying that this is a dream I want to pursue," she says. "You can tell me that I'll never make it on my own, but I'm still going to push as hard as I can to reach my dream." She performed the solo at several competitions, winning titles like Top Solo and Teen Miss Hype at Hype Regionals, and First Overall Elite Teen Solo at Fusion Nationals.
Going independent has helped Kylie broaden her training and get more serious about her goals as a dancer. But while competing independently allows a certain level of flexibility and freedom, it can also mean having less of a support system. If you're thinking about giving it a shot, here are a few things to know.
Independent dancer Kylie Peitz (Nicett Ferro Rodriguez, courtesy Star Action Shots)
Making Your Own Rules
One benefit of competing independently is that you get more control over what, when, and where you perform. Jill Wolins, who's judged dance competitions for 14 years including Starpower and Star Dance Alliance, finds that students often choose to give it a try because they want to expand their training beyond what their studio offers. "If you belong to a studio that does not allow you as a team member to go to other events to perform or take classes, that may be a reason—you want more education," Wolins says. For Kylie and her family, going independent gave them more control over what they spent their money on. Instead of paying to attend required conventions and competitions, they focused mostly on Kylie's training, and she stuck to local competitions unless she earned a scholarship or was sponsored.
Now 15, Kylie currently dances at her high school, Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, during the week, and trains with her teacher, Sheryl Tautiva (who she originally met at her studio), on the weekends. Tautiva choreographs Kylie's competition solos, which they tailor to her specific needs. "We're able to pick music that will fit me and do certain moves that look best on my body, and make costumes that go exactly with the piece," Kylie says. "I connect to my solos more, because I can make them more about my life." She also feels she's been exploring a wider range of techniques, including ballroom styles, that she didn't get to learn at her studio.
Dancer Sarah Reasons also found that going independent allowed her to learn more about her own dancing, and get better at self-evaluation. Sarah grew up training at Club Dance Studio in Arizona, but then she was cast in "Dance Moms" Seasons 4 and 5. That led to her booking other jobs in L.A., and going back and forth between Arizona and California became difficult. Though she loved being on a team and getting the consistent training of a studio, "I thought it would be best if I went independent, so I could still train and compete, but I wouldn't have to worry about letting my team down," she says. Working more on her own, "I feel like I definitely found my own style and what looks good on me, because I kind of had to," she says. "I didn't have a teacher telling me. I had my video camera on my phone telling me what looks good."
Jill Wolins on stage with students at The Big Show Nexstar (courtesy Wolins)
Sticking with Structure
With more flexibility comes more responsibility to make your own schedule. "It's definitely not for everyone," Wolins says. "You have to be 100 percent self-motivated. Not even all adult professionals have it in them to stay motivated and to stay in dance shape. You have to create your own structure." Though it can be great to be able to attend as many competitions as you choose, Wolins stresses the importance of maintaining a strong technical base, and continuing to seek out technique classes. "When people only do conventions and competitions, they get injured," she says. She also likes to remind dancers that, while they're mostly performing solos as independent dancers, they should prepare to be in a group setting at some point again. "Once you get into the professional world, you're auditioning to be one of Beyoncé's dancers or in the corps de ballet or in the ensemble of a Broadway show," she says.
For Sarah, upcoming college auditions helped her stay focused. "I figured out that I wanted to pursue dancing in college, and that was definitely a motivator to get me to really work on my technique and my tricks and my movement," she says. She currently dances on Utah Valley University's dance team. Kylie has started working with some of Tautiva's other independent students to mix things up, allowing her to perform partnered or small group dances in addition to solos.
Wolins leading an audition for the Royal Caribbean Cruises (courtesy Wolins)
Spreading Your (Social Butterfly) Wings
Another challenge of going it alone can be attending competitions without the built-in social life a team provides. But this can be an opportunity, too. When she first started competing independently, Kylie remembers, "I really didn't know anybody, because I was so used to being with my studio, so I did kind of feel isolated." Once she started gaining recognition for some of her solos, and getting more comfortable, she started making friends backstage. "I feel like I have a connection with a lot of different dancers from Miami, from New York, lots of places where I never got the chance to meet people," she says. Sarah also found it difficult to make friends at first, but she came to enjoy the experience of learning from new people. "If you're dancing with the same people every day you kind of get stuck in the same style," she says. "I thought it was really cool to try new styles and find new people to dance with when I take class."
There's no right or wrong decision, but Wolins stresses that competing independently is not something to do casually. "The dancers who want to go independent, generally speaking, are those who really think they want to make a living as a dancer or have dance as a large part of their life," she says. For Kylie, at least, it's been worth it. "I felt like it gave me a different opportunity to see the dance world, and a different outlook on what I wanted to pursue," she says.