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Ballet Talk for Dancers

A Dose of Brutal Reality

Guest Watermill

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In our highly competitive society, I think that it is easy to fall into the mindset that only the best is good enough and anything we consider below the top tier, is often considered a failure.  This pertains to many aspects of life in the USA, but it seems particularly relevant in the world of ballet.


Thank you balletbooster for a very well-thought out, objective, and not to mention, thought-provoking post!


Your thoughts above got me to continue to remind myself that the road to happiness & success is not always going for first place or the "gold medal." Just participating in one's passions is sometimes -- or most times -- what the goal should be.

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Balletbooster... What a great post! You are so right in so many ways as I've seen this happen over and over... dancers I've known and watched for years (not phenoms!) suddenly coming into their own at some point after years and years of hard work. I can't tell you how many times I've gone on to company sites and have seen their pictures and have marveled that they've reached their goals and are now professional dancers. Having so many excellent regional companies in this country (I'm discovering new ones all the time) with wonderful reps are making it possible for so many to live their dream. The season offerings by these smaller companies are often just as impressive as the offerings of some larger companies giving these dancers a chance to really flourish. Times have really changed since I was a dance student as the possibilitiesof a career are really quite tangible now for so many!

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:D Bravo Balletbooster!



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Thanks! I was wondering if anyone was going to mention this. While DD would, of course, love to dance for a particular "big name" company, her second choice is a totally random company nobody outside the art world has heard of and her third and fourth choices are much smaller, mid-tier companies. Being totally unfamiliar with the dance world, other than having a dancing kid, I just presumed it was like other professions, where often the best professional in the field is NOT an ivy league grad, and was not the brightest star in the field during his/her education. I presumed that many of these dancers who were not "it" during training, could and would still go on to happy and successful careers. I was disheartened by the earlier posts on this thread. My non-dancing son is ranked academically in the top 1000 or so kids for his age. Teachers, professionals, etc., all see this as an absolute indication that he will be a huge star in his chosen field, and he is on all colleges' radar screen. He might not get a full scholarship to Duke or Oxford, which are his SAB and ABT, but he'll for sure get a good scholarship somewhere good. His chosen field (like he knows at age 12!) is a very small one with limited positions available, but that doesn't affect everyone's excitement about him and expectations of him. Dancers who are in the top 1000 kids or so of their age, based on SI placements, etc., should presumably get the same type of feedback but they don't. My question is why we are making this unduly stressful for our kids and why are they not getting that type of feedback? DD has sooooo much confidence in every area of her life that she plows ahead regardless, but we know many very talented kids who give up because they feel there is no chance. Maybe we need to re-evaluate this a little. I'm not saying uphold the star ballerina dream for EVERY child, but certainly uphold the employed in your chosen field dream for the students with the facility, the drive and the joy in dance.

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Good points dance1soccer1. It requires everyone, including teachers, parents and students to be a lot more focused on the joy of the journey and less focused on the destination. Keep moving forward and keep your mind open to the opportunities that life may present.


I was just talking with my non-DK about that last night. Go ahead and make your plans, but be prepared to take a detour, to change plans or even, be prepared for the possibility of acheiving more than what you dreamed of. Anything could happen. My husband gets ribbed a lot for "dreaming big", but he loves it and it effects his life in a very positive way.


I love that Michael Jordan was once asked if it was his goal to become the best basketball player in the world. He answered, "no". That if that was his goal, he would have never attained it. He said his goal was always "to go out and be better today than I was yesterday."

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I have to add my thanks for this post Balletbooster. It came at a perfect time for me. My DD is just starting her junior year in HS and is has mentioned frequently that she is beginning to feel the pressure of her options after High School. She has mentioned that she is starting to feel like she is "running out of time" to get where she needs to be if she wants to dance professionally, and that scares her. She gets particularly frustrated because her physical development is "young" for her age and that has presented some real challenges. I've tried to be reassuring as we explore all of the various options and, having gone through this search with another non dancing daughter, I do believe she will find her "spot." But I have to say that your perspective and insight gives me a bit more confidence in encouraging her to keep a dance career in the mix. Thanks!

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Balletbooster - thank you for your insight - so well put. It is also very important to remember that while ability plays a part in your success as a dancer, you need so much more to succeed. A supportive family - a strong backbone - thick skin - stick-to-it-tiveness and the ability to ignore what you shouldn't pay attention to and hear what you need in order to improve.


My DD who recently received her first contract with one of the big 5 was never considered worthy of that success by her home studio teacher. :devil: She labored for years beneath more talented and favored dancers. She had to work twice as hard and be much better to get recognition for her abilities. Throughout it all - I stood by, my heart breaking every year Nutcracker casting would be posted and watched her stick with it when every indication from her teacher was that she would never make it.


For her - she always felt that being the small fish in the big pond was better. She kept with it and when she graduated - she moved on. It was a tremendous relief for her to be somewhere new - a new set of eyes on her - a new opinion. Thankfully it all worked out and the reward was her contract. Along the way - when I would watch her dance - I would tell myself that even if she were to stop - right then - she would forever have the memory of having accomplished something that most people would only dream of.


The very best thing about not being the teacher's favorite - it taught her to work. It taught her to prove people wrong. Interestingly, where are the "talented favorites" now? Behind the desk at the home studio. What did that teacher say to me yesterday? "I never would have thought that --- (my dd) would have made it." Thanks for the support. :yucky:


There are hundreds of companies out there - each one so worthy because they are attempting to bring the beauty of dance to the masses. It is important to remember, if you are being paid to do something you love - then you have found your success.


I know I am waxing poetic and putting things down much less coherently than Balletbooster. :wacko: My point with all this is - how do we define success? If it is only by getting the very best placement with the very best company then the percentage of dancers who consider themselves "successful" will be way below the 2%. However, if you look "outside the box" you may find yourself with a dance job!

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As a ballet dad with a soon to be 15 year old DD on a professional training track,I am "haunted" by a figure I read here on BT: When Boson Ballet AD Miko Nissenen looked to reshape his company, he held three auditions, saw over one thousand dancers and hired approx twenty.


My math skills are dreadful but I can still figure that to be around two percent.  With the downturn in government & private grants to arts orgs in general resulting in company/season cutbacks which results in more experienced company dancers on the market, the competition may be even fiercer than before.  I am of course sure that some of those dancers not hired by BB still found jobs elsewhere, but whether the percentage is 2% or 4% it still points to an apallingly low number of employment opportunities.


As our family begins to nudge the $10,000 mark per year of training expenses, (this includes all costs: shoes, travel, lost work days etc), I must admit that I'm watching both my daughter's progress and the general employment situation like a hawk.


How do other parents wrap their minds around this brutal reality?


slightly tangential, but i think it may help put some things in perspective:


from 5th grade thru 12th grade, my parents sent me to a prestigious private school for my education. The tuition NOW is about $20k/yr, excluding books and fees. MIT's announced admittance for the class of 2008: 16%


They used to tell us that that >25% would not graduate. SO that puts the number of graduates down to 12%.


I ended up being waitlisted at MIT and instead went to Carnegie Mellon University (a prestigious U of its own, but often ranked behind MIT in technical fields).


Regardless of the career choice, to excel is always going to be a small percentage (natch). AND if you focus too much on how difficult it all is, it WILL be difficult.


As Homer Hickam said (as shown in the movie OCTOBER SKY), "we weren't smart enough to know we couldn't do it and so we did it."



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It is also very important to remember that while ability plays a part in your success as a dancer, you need so much more to succeed. A supportive family - a strong backbone - thick skin - stick-to-it-tiveness and the ability to ignore what you shouldn't pay attention to and hear what you need in order to improve.


The very best thing about not being the teacher's favorite - it taught her to work. It taught her to prove people wrong.


I'm not sure you can get more inspirational than that! It's already copied and pasted to my own DD. Not just for dancing, but for life itself! Bravo! :yucky:



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It is also very important to remember that while ability plays a part in your success as a dancer, you need so much more to succeed. A supportive family - a strong backbone - thick skin - stick-to-it-tiveness and the ability to ignore what you shouldn't pay attention to and hear what you need in order to improve.


The very best thing about not being the teacher's favorite - it taught her to work. It taught her to prove people wrong.




As Homer Hickam said (as shown in the movie OCTOBER SKY), "we weren't smart enough to know we couldn't do it and so we did it."


These are the very things that have made DD stronger. She was one of the favored at her studio, but certainly not The Favored. She was the "also" dancer; always behind someone else. Last year she got her chance to shine in a solo variation. But even receiving that part, she knew she was "second choice" and was constantly reminded by her teacher that her teacher wasn't sure she could do the part. As recently as the week before the performance, the teacher was telling her how the teacher would awake with nightmare's about DD's variation.


DD and I had many talks about "taking what you can from the teacher's remarks/corrections letting the rest roll off your back, turn a deaf ear, and dance the best you can and do it for yourself.l"


Beginning with the dress rehearsals on stage, in costume, with lighting, the teacher (who sat out in the house) would make special trips down the aisles to gush to me about how breath-taking DD was in this variation. Usually, I don't seek the choreographers out during this time (as some parents do); I prefer to be "invisible"---they are very stressed at these times! She did this not less than three times over the next few days during rehearsals and after the performance. I know she also expressed that view to a mutual friend during the actual performance. She told me she was so impressed and that DD was doing this and "at only 15, unbelievable."


However, not once did she ever convey any of those sentiments to DD--not during the rehearsal, not after the performance. She made no comment at all to her other than the overall "good job" to the group. DD observed her congratulate various other soloists on their individual performances. Now, keep in mind, DD is one of this teacher's "favored few", just not one of the "Preferred Favorites".


Just recently, DD was telling me how she really does think it has helped her NOT to be "the favorite" and that always being the "second" dancer has prepared her better for things. She just keeps working hard and harder. Not getting the dreamed-of role is never fun, but she doesn't sulk or fall to pieces about it. She just keeps working, doing the best with whatever part she is given.


We can't help but believe that this will serve her well in the long-run.

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Dancemaven - merde to the continued success of your dd. She has what it takes. I always told my dd that this place (her home studio) was not her "life" it was what she had to get through to get on with her life. Many would tell you that she was a favorite but she was just like your dd - always just a bit less than right for anything but used because there wasn't anyone else. She was always perfectly capable - just never the favorite of her teacher.


While at home she never danced with abandon - always held back just a little bit - afraid to make a mistake because that would be used against her next time casting rolled around. In class - dancers standing around her would be corrected in a "sweet" tone of voice while she would be chastised for her errors in a cutting, biting tone.


When she moved on - she watched other dancers fall apart and quit because at their home studios no one had ever spoken to them like that. When they didn't get the best roles they couldn't believe it. They couldn't handle not being the best and having to work for something for the first time. She was just amused by their reactions as she had been through it all before. Now, not much ruffles her feathers and she gives credit to her home teacher for her ability to sift through the bulls--t and carry on.


Watching my dd perform now - she has transformed into a self assured and confident dancer. Although she tells me she is always worried she won't be good enough (probably all dancers feel the same - no matter what the level of their proficiancy), I consider her success a triumph for all those underdogs who keep on working at what they love.


To all the dance parents out there - it is the most difficult thing to stand by and watch your dancers suffer the emotional pain that comes with the long road to professional status, but I do believe that if you and your dancers can focus on the bigger picture you will prevail no matter what the choice eventually is.


I always think that it is the most amazing thing - what we allow these dance teachers to do to our children's minds during their training. We would NEVER allow a teacher at school to say and do the things to them that a dance instructor does. AND we PAY big bucks for that! What's wrong with us? :yucky:

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How do other parents wrap their minds around this brutal reality?


Now that I'm revisiting this question from the "other side", with a daughter no longer in student ballet training, I think the one-word answer to Watermill's question is flexibility. Despite the "brutal reality", ballet-trained dancers can find fulfilling work if their minds are as flexible :D as their bodies.


Elementary and high school-aged children are always looking to the big 5 or 6 or whatever number has been determined to be the cream of the crop companies. But as a student dancer matures, that thinking becomes more flexible. For some, this happens in late high school, for others it happens a little later. These more mature dancers start searching for the company that suits their skills.


It may or may not include ballet. Lots of these kids shift to other performing areas and thank goodness for that! The casts of Broadway and off-Broadway are filled with these dancers. The bios of many TV and movie actors/actresses include solid pre-professional ballet training. My current favorite - don't laugh too hard at me for this :rolleyes: - is Jennifer Garner of "Alias" (thanks to BW and her daughter, who introduced my kiddo to the show :yucky: ) She never would've gotten that job were it not for her many years of serious ballet training. She sees all her action scenes in terms of ballet terminology.


And this, from Shirley MacLaine:

After my junior year in high school, I went to New York to study. Auditions were being held for the revival of Oscar and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma. I auditioned and got a part in the chorus. I knew immediately that I would be happier here than in a ballet company. I was certain I wanted musical comedy. I knew I would be good. I also knew that at 5'7" (over 6 foot on point) the only thing that I could partner with was a tree!


So, while ballet dancing may not be how they spend their adult lives, they've discovered vocations (that make considerably more money :thumbsup: ) thanks to their ballet training.


And then there are other kinds of dance companies. My daughter's worked with a contemporary company off and on the last two+ years. It requires strength, balance, teamwork, and musicality to the nth degree. The dancers are involved in the choreographic process. They must be independent, responsible and mature to do all that traveling. Ballet dancers with excellent training and ability to connect with audiences are sought after (as are gymnasts). Although this company long predated Cirque du Soleil, some call it a "dance-y Cirque". Not for the faint-hearted, not for the poorly trained, it's a company that spends a great deal of time traveling throughout the world. She's now a full-time member of the cast.


And since she "gave up" ballet, she's been asked 3 times to guest perform at - guess what? - small ballet companies. Some members of her contemporary company have put together a life that continues to include ballet; they're guest artists or choreographers for ballet companies. They've made it work: they get paid to travel throughout the world performing iwith their contemporary company and they STILL are engaged in the ballet world.


I don't find the reality so terribly brutal. :thumbsup:

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I look at the success of a professional dancer as being similar to the success of a professional musician. It's getting gigs. Maybe you'll be the star or get the long run contract but more than likely you'll work alot of different gigs including teaching. Very few people in many careers end up with tweenty years and a pension.

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Jacki--Thanks so much for posting your DD's story and journey which is not over by a long shot! These are the stories our parents need to hear as much as the one's of "top company" success. These are the students living their dreams in a place right for them but still living dreams after all.


As parents, we need to broaden our acceptances & expose our DK's to the broad ranges as well as still helping target for the top. The ballet world takes care of making the 2% brutal reality. We don't need to help that along, it just is. However, who says you have to settle for the 2% or take nothing. Bravo to vagansmom's DD for "finding a way or making a way!"



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Thanks, Jacki. It's an awareness of so many variations and twists and turns that can help us have faith that one way or the other things will work out towards a fully engaging life.


(of course that awareness always leaves me feeling slightly teeter-totter, as one never know what wonderful thing may lead nowhere or worse, and what seemingly ill accident of fate will lead to a great opportunity. Alas, the limits of the omnicience of we human beings. :D )

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