Class at Dance Theatre of Harlem's summer intensive (Judy Tyrus, courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem)

Don't Let An Unexpected Level Placement Get You Down

You fought through your audition nerves and earned admission to your dream summer program. You managed to pack all your dance necessities into two suitcases. You survived your tearful good-byes with Mom and Dad. You even broke the ice with your new roommate. It's time to relax and settle in for a great summer of dancing, right?

But if the results of your level-placement class are disappointing, you could be facing a whole new set of anxieties. What if you're placed too low—will you end up perfecting your tendus all summer? What if you feel like your level is way out of your league? What if you're separated from your friends? Here's how to conquer the mental challenges your level assignment might raise.


Situation 1: “I'm in over my head."

If you're stressed out by a top-tier level placement, start by focusing on the positive. “You showed something that caught the eyes of the program's directors," says Dr. Toby Diamond, a psychologist who consults with Pacific Northwest Ballet. And remember that that doesn't mean you have to be perfect. Diamond urges students not to expect to have mastered everything in an advanced class—there's supposed to be room to grow. “Give yourself a break, and work to gain that strength and technique," she says.

When 17-year-old Erik Osterkil earned a spot in Hubbard Street Summer Intensive's Level III last summer, he knew he was in for a challenge. A three-year member of the company's Youth Dance Ensemble, he'd previously attended the intensive's Levels I and II. But Level III, which attracts top dancers from around the country, is a whole different ball game. “I was mostly worried about keeping up in ballet class," Erik says. He coped by zeroing in on the strengths that earned him his Level III position. “I'd tell myself, 'Modern class starts in 20 minutes! That'll be my time to shine.' "

Erik also found it helpful to track his progress over time. “At an intensive, you're basically compressing six months of training into four weeks, so you're going to see improvement fast," he says. Diamond recommends journaling during your summer intensive, so that you have a concrete record of your own growth—something to turn to on days when you're feeling overwhelmed.

Situation 2: “This level won't challenge me."

Getting placed in a lower level than you anticipated can be a real self-esteem blow. But here's a mantra you need to recite on repeat: It doesn't mean you're a bad dancer. “Level placement is often more a function of strength than talent," Diamond says. Maybe your joints can't handle the stresses of advanced partnering, or you're too young for the pointework required in the high-level class. In some programs, like the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' Commercial Dance Intensive, levels are actually explicitly based on age rather than ability. “We throw so many different styles at our dancers that there's never going to be one kid who's 'the best' in the level," says director Casey Noblett.

Rather than letting a low-level placement get you down, focus on the advantages that can come from a full summer spent working on the basics. Frequently, dancers improve most rapidly when they slow down and analyze the nuts and bolts of their technique. Reframe your intensive experience in your head: Getting placed in a lower level doesn't mean you've failed—it means you've been given an opportunity to perfect the fundamentals.

Situation 3: “I'm separated from my friends."

If you attend a summer intensive with friends from your home studio, it's important to anticipate the possibility that you won't end up in the same level—even if you are in the same class back home. “My third year at Dance Theatre of Harlem's summer intensive, I was one of the only dancers from my friend group placed in the intermediate class, instead of the advanced class," says Amir Sanders. “At first, I was really upset. But I used it as motivation to focus and push harder."

If you're really worried, Noblett recommends requesting to room with your friends. “They might not be able to be your safety net during class, but that doesn't mean you can't blow off steam with them at night," she says. Diamond also points out that summer intensives offer plenty of social activities outside of class to reconnect with your friends. “And keep in mind that this is an opportunity to meet new friends," she adds.

Ultimately, it comes down to keeping things in perspective—and not giving up, whatever level you're placed in. Professional dance life is full of these kinds of challenges, which makes them great preparation for your real-world career. “If you can manage to stick it out for the summer," Noblett says, “you're building the mental strength it takes to make it in this business."

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