The Age Equation

Misty Copeland with Herman Cornejo in Alexei Ratmansky's Firebird (Gene Schiavone)

When it comes to dance, the general rule of thumb is that the younger you begin training, the better. Serious ballet dancers, for example, are often expected to be career-ready by 16. But what if you didn't start dancing at age 2? Is there room in the professional dance world for late starters?

The short answer: Yes! Read on to hear from six dancers who started dancing later than their peers—and still became pros.

Misty Copeland with Herman Cornejo in Alexei Ratmansky's Firebird (Gene Schiavone)

Misty Copeland, soloist

at American Ballet Theatre

Age she started dancing: 13

How did you get started? I auditioned for the dance team at my junior high school, and the coach told me my potential as a dancer went beyond that local team.

When did a professional career start to feel possible? When I discovered American Ballet Theatre. I memorized every company member's background and studied videos.

What kept you going through the tough times? The encouragement I got from the people around me. And ABT was the light at the end of the tunnel. Watching videos and seeing live performances kept me motivated.

Were there benefits to starting late? I didn't feel burnt out at the age of, say, 15. Everything was so new that I was always eager for more.

Do you have advice for other late starters? Be mindful of how you treat your body, especially early on. You're in a different place physically than a 7-year-old beginner. Consider cross-training to help develop your technique more quickly.

Richard Riaz Yoder in Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies (Scott Suchman)

Richard Riaz Yoder, Broadway performer

Age he started dancing: 17

How did you get started? I saw a couple of my high school show choir friends doing a time step and got them to teach me. When I showed my mom, she took me to a teacher who owned a studio for adults. At 17, I was actually the youngest person in my first class by 20 years!

Did you ever doubt yourself? I was weird in that I wasn't self-conscious at all in those early classes. Even if I didn't know what the heck I was doing, I was going to do it as best I could.

What obstacles did you encounter? Learning dance terminology was hard. I had a teacher early on in college who asked us what dance steps we knew—and I didn't know any. So I went home and memorized the name of every tap step. I wasn't sure what they were, but I knew the names of every one.

Were there benefits to starting late? I was able to make sure I got high-quality training from the beginning. I've seen dancers who, early on, had bad habits thanks to poor training.

Janette Manrara with Robbie Kmetoni in Burn the Floor (David Wyatt)

Janette Manrara, Burn the Floor

Age she started training seriously: 19

How did you get started? My family is from Cuba, so salsa dancing was always a part of my life. I started studying musical theater at 12. Then the dance teacher at my musical theater school opened his own studio, and I started taking dance classes every day.

What obstacles did you have to conquer? The worst was seeing parents or other students look at me with confused faces. They didn't understand why a girl in her 20s was taking ballet with 12-year-olds.

When did you know you wanted to dance

professionally? As soon as I set foot outside of “So You Think You Can Dance"! Being on the show during Season 5 opened so many doors for me.

(Mike Ruiz/FOX)

Phillip Chbeeb, hip-hop dancer

Age he started dancing: 16

How did you get started? I was a jack-of-all-trades kid—I did everything from basketball and track to theater. After a (now) comical incident when I took a line drive to my face playing baseball, I had to ease off sports for a while. That's when I took my first dance class.

What obstacles did you encounter? I had to learn when to incorporate my own natural tendencies into someone else's choreography—and when not to. I had to figure out how to break movements down into pieces: the bounce, the pivot. That helped me become more aware of my body and its subtleties.

Were there any benefits to starting late? In a way it's good that dance isn't “my life." I'm inspired by things outside of dance, and I think that helps me better express myself.

Alice Klock and Jason Hortin in Jonathan Fredrickson's Untitled Landscape (Todd Rosenberg)

Alice Klock, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Age she started dancing: 11

How did you get started? I was home-schooled, and my mother wanted me to get out and meet people my age, so she asked, “What about ballet?"

How did you catch up? I worked outside of class. In academic classes like math, the more you study on your own, the better you'll do in class. It was the same for me with dancing.

Were there benefits to starting late? I'm actually glad I started when I did because I developed as a person before I became a dancer. This is a life-consuming art.

Do you have advice for other late starters? Never compare yourself to other people in class. I learned so much from dancers who were three or four years younger than me because I didn't let age get in the way.

Michael Wood (Jack Hartin/courtesy Abhann Productions)

Michael Wood, tap dancer

Age he started dancing: 18

How did you get started? When I was auditioning for musical theater college programs, a friend told me about Oklahoma City University's dance program. I figured, why not? And I got in!

What kept you going? My parents. I couldn't always feel myself getting better, but whenever they came to see my performances, they'd say, “You've come further than you think."

Did you have any breakthrough moments? During my junior year of college, a teacher said, “Michael, I think ballet has finally clicked for you." And that was exactly what happened. One day I stopped feeling like I was trying to do ballet, and just started doing ballet.

Do you have advice for other late starters? There's so much emphasis in this industry on what you can do at what age. But it's all hot air. If you want to do it, just do it.

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