“From Passion to Career”

A professional dancer’s perspective on pursuing a career in dance.

Last month, at The Turning Pointe, (a local dance supply store), Ballet Academy teamed up with Mary Ann Claud to promote her novel, “Alex Dances”, about a young girl who follows her dream of becoming a professional dancer.  In harmony with the book, a discussion entitled “From Passion to Career” was lead by Ms. Sarah Bowdoin, dancer with Palmetto City Ballet (formerly Ballet Evolution) and Ballet Academy instructor, on the topic of how to successfully pursue a career in dance. With some two decades as a student, pre-professional and professional dancer, Ms. Bowdoin used her own experience as a reference as she expounded the options available to aspiring, young dancers. 

Ms. Bowdoin commenced the discussion with a brief history of her own training and career. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Sarah attended Rowland’s School of Ballet with the pre-professional dance company, Kingwood Dance Theatre that brought in teachers from places such as Houston Ballet and Regional Dance America. After graduating high school, she attended Oklahoma University where she received a double major in Ballet Performance and Nonprofit Organizational Studies. Ms. Bowdoin then began her professional career with the Charlotte Ballet, dancing with them for one season, eventually making her way to Ballet Evolution in Charleston (now Palmetto City Ballet) and is now going on her 3rdseason with the company. In addition to this experience,Ms. Bowdoin has participated in hundreds of auditions, inlcuding over 50 professional auditions.

Ms. Bowdoin is also an accomplished teacher, having just begun her third year with Ballet Academy of Charleston where she instructs both the young children and teenagers as well as the adults. She also teaches yoga and is certified in Progressing Ballet Technique U.S.®. (See the article, “What is PBT?” )

“Do I want to audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree or gamble on my dream by putting off a career to go to school?”

Ms. Bowdoin then advised her listeners on what steps to take in their pursuit of a professional career as she enumerated the choices before these budding protétés. Below is a summary of the course Ms. Bowdoin recommended:

Phase 1- What To Do Now:

1. Find a local school that has teachers with professional experience.

2. Take summer intensives. Explore local intensives but also be willing to travel to other areas where more opportunities may exist. 

3. Embrace versatility. Learn different styles and techniques, and develop the ability to pick up choreography quickly.

Phase 2- Planning Your Future:

4. Work hard outside of the studio. Practice what you have learned in the studio and stay active during time off. Consider supplementing your dance training with similar activities such as yoga, Pilates®and PBT®. 

When you graduate from High School, decide which path you want to take:

Option 1:  Audition for trainee programs in professional dance companies to begin your dance career immediately. 

Option 2:  Attend a college or university and obtain BFA, BA, or both, then pursue a career afterward. 

In order to determine which path is best for you, ask yourself the following: 

Do I want to audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree or gamble on my dream by putting off a career to go to school?

If you are still unsure, ask yourself if you are really ready to audition.

Not every 17 or 18 year old is emotionally or technically ready to handle the competitive environment of professional auditions and company life.

To help you determine whether you are ready, you can apply to college then take a few pre-pro auditions to see where you stand. Additionally, when auditioning for jobs, decide if you want to go for either the top tier or regional companies, knowing that top tier companies will most likely want you to go through their trainee program, school or 2ndcompany programs (occasionally regional, too), and that the competition in these companies will be greater.

You should carefully weigh the benefits versus the risks of each decision, perhaps making a pros & cons list. For instance, if you determine to enter a trainee program, you can attend college part-time or online to earn a degree while gaining experience with a professional company. Additionally, after some time, your experience as a trainee can act as a bridge to a second company that might pay. Such a course may be particularly demanding, however, since you will likely have to obtain additional work to support yourself. This may be the case regardless of whether you attend a college or university as it likely be the reality you face as a professional dancer since this career rarely pays well. 

Conversely, if you decide instead to first attend college or university, understand that you will be putting your career on hold for the time it takes you to complete school; Time, thought by some to correspond to important and formative years as a dancer. However, there are still opportunities to gain experience, especially if you choose a school that offers a dance program. And more and more, company directors are expecting to receive their trainees at a somewhat older age, as many are opting to attend school first. 

If you choose to attend college and want to obtain a double major, do your research. For example, a BFA program can offer a conservatory style without much room for other interests. However, it does provide a  “company feel” with lots of performance opportunities to help you gain the needed experience as a professional.

When considering ballet and dance majors, ask the following questions:

  1. Where do the graduates end up?
  2. How accessible are second majors and minors?
  3. What are their performance opportunities?
  4. Who are included in their faculty and guests?

Some top ballet programs (in not particular order):

  1. Indiana University
  2. University of Oklahoma
  3. University of Utah
  4. Butler University
  5. University of Arizona
  6. University of South Carolina

In conclusion, Ms. Bowdoin reminded her listeners that pursuing a career in dance won’t’ be easy, either emotionally, physically, financially.  Whichever avenue you choose to take will require a thick skin, persistence and great heart. However, if you are passionate and cannot imagine life without dance, all the struggles will be worth it because you will be “living your dream”.

Audiences Were Dazzled

This past Sunday, some 70 local students from various schools including Ballet Academy, were privileged to perform with The Moscow Ballet in “The Great Russian Nutcracker”. 

Audiences were dazzled by this spectacular showpiece performed twice on Sunday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.

 This singular take on the classic tale includes unique characters and aspects such as “The Dove of Peace” (a striking, feather-winged acrobatic duo gliding across the stage with angelic-like poise)  and a large matryoshka (Russian nesting doll) gracing the stage.  These cultural and visionary additions, however, did not overshadow the traditional aspects and feel-good nature of this beloved ballet classic. This tasteful combination of new and old left audiences awestruck and full of all the “warm fuzzies” that accompany watching a performance of the “Nutcracker”.

A big “Thank You” and congratulations to all of our students and parents who participated in this rare and memorable event!  And great thanks goes to the Moscow Ballet for providing this unique opportunity to local students.  We are eagerly anticipating next years’ performance!

10 Tips for Memorizing Choreography

We have all been there:  Struggling to memorize new choreography.  This happens for a number of reasons but let’s review some helpful tips, presented in no particular order, that may aid in the learning process.

1. Take it “one step at a time”.  “Chunking”, a term coined in cognitive science, refers to combining a few items that go together naturally.  In other words, taking the choreography one piece, or “chunk” at a time.  Often, instructors will teach this way; grouping the steps into “bite-size” pieces, reviewing them until the students feel they have it down, then adding on.  But, students can develop their own internal “chunking”, or memorization process, to help them learn the steps.  Additionally, you can use verbal or visual cues, whether it’s a word or phrase the teacher uses or something you come up with which you can relate easily to the movement.

2. Notes & Diagrams.  If you still find you are having difficulty committing the steps to memory you can try this technique:  Write the steps down in order, using words or phrases which make sense to you (or those given by the instructor), or even drawing diagrams using stick figures (you don’t have to be an artist!).  Multiple studies have proven that writing something down, as opposed to just trying to memorize it or even typing it, aids in memory retention and learning.  So, pick up that old-fashioned pen and paper and get to work!

3. Mini-Marking.  Going over the steps repeatedly in your head can be helpful, but involving a certain level of muscle memory can increase the effectiveness of these mental reviews.  If you’re wondering what “mini-marking” is then just recall the last time a teacher gave a combination or a bit of choreography.  Were you just standing by idly watching or were you mimicking the movement with either your hands or feet as you watched closely?  Likely, you were doing the latter.  The beauty of mini-marking is that it can be done anywhere and at any time:  at home, in the car or even while you’re waiting in line at the store!  Additionally, there is a theory called, “the mirror neuron theory”, which states that our brain cells respond equally to performing an action ourselves as they do when we watch another perform it.  So, watching and marking at the same time could theoretically double your intake rate, right?

4. Practice makes perfect. Repeating the steps, again and again, is obviously the most effective method.  Start by doing the steps slowly until you have them down and then gradually pick up the pace, eventually practicing with the music.  Music has become very accessible and can be downloaded in seconds.  You can even ask the instructor for the precise name and version of the music they’re using.  If you practice with the intended score, you will be more likely to be practicing the timing correctly.  And once you’ve begun practicing, don’t stop when you feel you’ve gotten it right, but keep going until you can’t get it wrong.

5. Play games.  Whether you generally have issues with memory, or it’s choreography specific, memory aid games can help your overall memory to improve and teach you to think “on your toes”!

6. Be in the moment.  This is an important one.  We all have a lot on our minds and can often allow our minds to wander during class or even when the teacher is giving instruction or choreography.  Don’t do this!  It’s very important that you be mentally “present” and focus on what is happening at the moment, minimizing all distractions.

7. Ask for help!  It may seem obvious, but many of us are too embarrassed to ask for help or clarification on a step or count we find difficult or confusing.  If you are too shy to do this during a rehearsal or class, (or the timing is inappropriate), you can ask the instructor afterward or even a friend who already has the movement down.  Adding to this, you can always invite a friend to practice with you! The social connection you feel along with the immediate feedback you get from a friend (who may know a step better than you) can go a long way in improving your understanding of the steps.  A famous proverb states:   “As iron sharpens iron; so one person sharpens the face of another.”  The point being that we can help each other to improve using our unique abilities, so why not take advantage of such an opportunity?

8. Focus on the music.  Sometimes I find that I’m getting too caught up in the choreography and am missing the connection between the choreography and the music.  Most choreography is very musical; meaning it complements or harmonizes with the music.  Sometimes just taking a moment to observe the connection between the two can help clear up any confusion you may have about when to do a step-because the music tells you!

9. Don’t linger over a moment.  If you’re getting stuck on one or two particularly difficult parts, don’t allow these to become your focal point.  Imagine a driver who centers their attention on only one thing on the road:   How would their driving fair?  Would they make much progress?  Often the approach of taking the choreography in as a whole can help clear up any trouble spots you’re struggling with.  For the time, just allow that to be a “problem area” and focus on getting the rest of the choreography down.  You can return to the problem area later.  You may find that after class when you have more time to work on it in a relaxed environment, or even after a good night’s sleep (oh so important!) that something just “clicks”.  If this does not happen, however, don’t despair!  Refer to tip number 7.

10. Tackle the feet first.  Your feet being what propel you across the floor, they are generally considered the “more important” part of the dancing process.  Of course, both the upper and lower body in dance is critical, including épaulement and facial expressions.  But when we are learning something new it can be helpful to apply the “chunking” principle to our bodies:  focus on one part at a time.  Once you have one part down, you can add from there.

These are just a few suggestions you can try out.  The process of learning choreography is very individual, so just try some of these and find what works best for you.  And remember to try to relax!  The more anxious you feel, the more difficult it will be.  Merde!

 

Does practice always make perfect?

We’re all familiar with the adage, “Practice makes perfect.”  But does it always?  Consider this quote by American scholar, Hamza Yusuf:  “Practice makes permanent, not perfect.  If you practice the wrong thing, you make the wrong act permanent.”  In other words, practice instills within us a permanent habit, for good or for bad.  It’s how we practice which largely affects how successful we will be, not merely the number of hours or repetitions spent on a given task.

The point is not that practice is unimportant, but that only when done correctly, can it lead to the results we desire. If you are attempting to drive a car forward while the gear shift is set in reverse and hit the gas 100 times, will the car eventually move forward?  The answer is obvious.  The point being, if you practice something incorrectly, you will learn it and perform it…You guessed it…incorrectly!  

So, how does one make sure they are practicing correctly?  The online education platform, TED-Ed states, “Effective practice is consistent, intensely focused and targets content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one’s current abilities.”  They offer the following suggestions:

  1. Focus on the task at hand and minimize distractions.  Avoid daydreaming or talking in class and listen to your teacher, even when the instruction seems unrelated to you.
  2. Start out slowly.  Coordination is built with repetitions. If you gradually increase the speed of quality repetitions, you have a better chance of doing them correctly.  When learning a new exercise, practice it carefully and slowly under the watchful eye of your teacher, being sure to do it correctly before you increase your speed!  This is especially crucial in dance, since performing certain movements improperly can result in injury.
  3. Be balanced.  Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers.  Many top athletes, musicians and dancers spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to their craft.  Many divide their time into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration.  Short practice sessions daily in between your weekly lessons can be immensely beneficial and will train your brain and body to treat the movement as second nature.
  4. Practice in your brain in vivid detail.  A number of studies suggest that once a physical motion has been established, it can be reinforced just by imagining it.  So, even when you can’t practice the steps with your body, you can “practice” them in your head!

In addition, a student may come to feel that their regular classes and at-home practice sessions are not quite enough to help them achieve the increased “edge” they are looking for.  Or they may be dealing with a discipline or movement which is particularly challenging for them.  If this is the case, a student should first approach their teacher and politely request specific feedback or exercises they can do on their own.  They may also consider speaking to their parents and teacher about additional classes and private lessons as a supplement to their training.  

Lastly, don’t expect perfection!  Sure, you want to try your best, but beating yourself up over a perceived flaw is neither productive or healthy.  

The conclusion?  Listen to your teacher, accept the correction and implement it to the best of your ability.  Practice as “perfectly” as you can, and the result will be a beautiful, healthy dancer, permanently.

 

Plan your summer now!

Summer will be here before you know it! Plan it now by enrolling early, so you can avoid last minute sign-ups and full camps. We offer something for every age and every level:
Our Summer Semester runs from May 30 through August 11, which weekly classes for all kid’s levels as well as adult classes.
Our camps are usually sold out quickly, so do not wait too long to register. We have a camp for 4-6 year olds, as well as some for older children.
If you have a serious ballerina in the house, consider signing her up for one of our Summer Intensives. Please note that this is only for the intermediate, advanced, or pre-professional student.
Sign up today!