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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Career aspirations: when is it time to stop?


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I will re-emphasize that MOST schools, even including some in BW's list, must take students whom they doubt will have a ballet career. Many of the pre-professional schools that have "early release", "release time" or "pre-pro" (as opposed to recreational) still do include dancers whose bodies, for one reason or another, or whose lack of musicality or something else will make it nigh impossible for them to have ballet careers. The pre-pros have to take many of them anyway.


In some years, they don't. That's only a reflection of the pool applying in those years.


It reminds me of public school special education. In any given district, the students who are the worst off in terms of succeeding in a regular classroom will get the special services easily. Services are provided from the bottom up until the money runs out. So you could have students who are easily a year or two behind in reading, math or writing skills go unremediated simply because the money isn't there in that district at that time. Of course, if parents insist and know how to work the system, they might get their kids "drop in the bucket" help but that's another story.


Well, same thing (in reverse, in a way) with accepting ballet students. If the school has openings but doesn't have qualified candidates in any given year, they'll take the best that apply until their roster is full. In another given year, they might not be able to take a student of that caliber or they might have to not re-accept someone already in the midst. It's supply and demand and it's true for all but a very tiny handful - I'd whittle BW's list down even more - of schools.


No criticism here. Schools have to do everything they can to stay alive.

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When I gave the Egon Madsen example, I did not intend to imply that an 11 year old's potential would reflect in the same way that a 16 year old's training might. What I wanted to say, and hoped I had, was that no one Artistic Director or School Director should make a decision for your dancing child. I hoped that I had conveyed the message that it is possible for well-meaning experts to make mistakes. While it may be obvious that your child is the one who will be a star or that your child is the one who, even with wonderful training, has no talent at all, for most the path will not be that crystal clear.

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My daughter's residency does indeed ask back students on a year-to-year basis. At spring break, those students who are in jeopardy of not being asked back are sent a letter explaining the concerns the school has about the student. Then, ALL students receive letters on the last day of school either asking them back or not.


Her school also holds conferences with each student every 6 weeks throughout the year. The teachers are very frank with the students about how they are doing and whether they believe they have the potential to make it professionally. The conferences are with the student's two main teachers only. So, the teachers a student has one term do not always agree with the teachers a student has the next term or in many cases, a student makes the necessary changes and all of a sudden, their teachers do believe that they have what it takes. But, throughout the year, they are told many times and in many ways where they stand from their teachers' perspective.


By and large, almost everyone at a pre-pro school of this calibre has the potential for a career. There are many who are turned away and so most of these schools can choose dancers who have something that leads them to believe that they will make it. If something changes for the dancer or if the faculty decides they were wrong about the dancer's potential, then they are not asked back the next year and another hopeful takes their place. HOwever, I think that 15 is probably too young to say with any certainty which ones will succeed. Some who are thriving at 15, are burned out or injured or have not continued to keep pace with their peers or have had body changes by 18 that make a career unlikely. By the same token, I've seen girls who were in the lowest level at the school at age 16, come back transformed the next fall and find themselves in soloist and principal roles, when the previous year they were in the back of the corp or not cast at all and certainly not considered to be among the favored dancers in their class.


This is a whimsical business. As much as I want to make it cut and dried, it is not. A family does need to know how far they are willing to go in pursuit of this dream with their dancer and that decision will vary greatly from family to family, depending on lots of factors.


I've learned a great deal about where my daughter stands in the grand scheme of things this year simply because she is in a residency situation where the calibre of dancer is high. Seeing where her talents fit with other dancers at the school, watching which seniors are getting contracts and where they are getting those contracts, observing how casting is done and seeing how her teachers perceive her and her abilities and progress have all been good indicators to help us determine whether this is a realistic dream for her.


With only one year at a residency under her belt, my observations are that almost all of the graduating seniors are able to find work with a pro company if they are trying to find it (there are a handful of seniors - who are very fine dancers - who did not audition for any companies, but instead applied to colleges for either dance or other pursuits.) Of those who were looking for ballet jobs, the size of the company and the offers that were made varied widely. I tracked this last year at her school as well and the statistics were similar.


Something that is important to note here is that there is always the phenomenon of a dancer who is very good, but narrows their auditions to only a few highly sought after and selective companies. When they do not get offers, it does not mean that they could not find work, it means that they didn't look in the right places to find it. Sometimes dancers are unwilling to work at a small company, where the wages are low and the company is small and so they end up moving on to other interests. But, there are others who may be less talented, who are very happy to take those less lucrative contracts for their first jobs and will end up being the ones who succeed in their dream to dance professionally.


I really think that you have to use all of your senses, all of your deductive reasoning, all of your investigative powers and be constantly aware of where your dancer fits into the greater scheme of things in ballet. You can't put on blinders, but you also must not let one teacher's opinion or one rejection carry too much weight. It seems to me that if you look around perceptively, listen intensely, weigh what you hear carefully, compare what you hear one place to what you hear another place and are brutally honest in your own assessments of your dancer and their progress, then the question of whether they are pursuing a viable dream or not becomes rather easy to answer. When it does seems murky, I would start asking lots of questions, doing more research and digging for more clues.


If anyone ever comes up with an easy to read road map for this journey - I'll be first in line to buy one! :(

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I have been pondering this thread. I agree that the older teens have a feel about where they fit in the scheme of all things ballet. However, I have seen older teens that had body issues overcome them and continue to a dancing career because they did not give up the training. Also, kids that had everything, decide that they did not want to put forth the effort anymore that bombed out at 18 or 19. The family should never be sacrificed to the dancer's dreams, but I have found that there is always a way that works out fairly for all concerned(except maybe the parents). We have juggled multiple "dreams" for years--and others cost as much as the dance. As long as there are multiple plans,a,b,c....,I say support the child and they will make their own decisions in the life path. Give them the backup and the skills to make those decisions and bite your own tongue at times while letting them make a few mistakes. It will serve them well as they grow and you aren't looking over their shoulder.

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The thing with dance is that you never know where it will lead you. If at 16 I had been accepted into the teacher training programme at the Royal Ballet School instead of the dancing programme, I think I'd have jumped off a bridge! Teaching was something for the far distant future when I could no longer dance. I didn't consider that getting married and raising a family did not (in my case) go with performing in a company, whereas teaching was compatible. I also found that I adored teaching and that it suited my temperament better than a performing career, as I didn't have the "elbows" necessary to push myself forward in a company. I was in later years, in fact, sorry that I had never taken any formal teacher training.


Of course, at the end of my training when I didn't get taken into the Royal Ballet company, it seemed to me then the end of the world, and yet it wasn't. I have had a very fulfilling career, both as a performer and a teacher. Maybe I didn't fulfill my original dreams, but I have certainly fulfilled my current ones!


So, yes, you can pretty much tell at 16 if a child has the potential for a pro career, but even at that age kids can surprise you - a lot depends on a child's determination and desire, and how things work out.......

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DD is at the age when many say she should "get off the bus" (15 yo). I say, why? Fortunately, I can afford her classes and her shoes. She has a passion, and as long as the grades stay up (for the plan B that we discuss), what is the harm? So many girls her age are aimless. She is so much more focused and mature than others her age. She does have outside interests that lend themselves to down time.

Even for those few who might make it to the top- a plan B is essential. One- or more-injuries- and it's over. Lisa Apple of PNB made it- and had to retire very young due to repetitive knee problems.

Perspective: it could have been a passion for horses. Now there's an expensive pursuit!

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BW, I think that even schools that strive to place all their dancers professionally should still be seen first as providing ballet training, not as a surefire track to finding a job.


It is really up to the individual to find his or her way, and the dance training is only one piece of what is needed to find a place in a company.


Otherwise, it is too easy for the parents and dancer to operate under the assumption "but I thought if I completed the program at the [insert big name school], I'd be sure to find a job."

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Absolutely the training is paramount. :wub: I think most of these schools have their insurance built in to their school literature re the "but I thought if I completed..." - I know SAB certainly does.


In my earlier posts, I was trying my best to respond to AsleepAtTheWheel's questions or "talking points" from my own experiences both in the past and what I am aware of today. Again, there are no hard and fast rules in ballet trajectories unless there are real physical limitations and there will always be exceptions to any generalities.


The idea of expecting honest feedback from any school doesn't seem too much to ask for..of course just because one teacher says that so and so doesn't have what it takes should not be the death knell...nor one school's reasons for asking a student not to return. I know we have examples right here on BT for D of dancers who've gone on to begin their professional careers - when one door closed, another opened. However, there are real clues that can be used to judge the likelihood of a dancer's chances or, yes, even abilities of having a shot at a career and they should be looked at, if that is the student's desire - to dance professionally. Again, I'm not advocating that all students at age 16 or 15 or 18 be given a "reality test" and if they can't past muster that they should end their ballet classes - goodness no! I'm trying to focus my responses to Asleep's original questions.


P.S. dufay, yes "horses" sure can be an expensive passion, luckily for me I went to college in a part of Ohio where I could enjoy my passion for almost nothing. :D

Edited by BW
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Just to clarify here -- I don't think AsleepATheWheel's original post was suggesting that any student who didn't have clear professional potential by a certain age should quit ballet altogether -- and neither am I. I think this thread is about helping a student develop and manage realistic expectations. I'd hate to see a kid totally quit ballet just because s/he realized they didn't have what it takes to make it professionally. I've seen young dancers downshift into something more recreational but very enjoyable once they hop off the pro track.

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When one considers the numbers of students training for ballet careers... that is what boggles my mind. There are several cases that I know, kids who have not made it into residencies or SI's but are training seriously at pre-pro's with their parents confident that they have the elusive 'what it takes' for an on stage career in ballet. I really commend their parents for supporting their kids, but at the same time, how realistic is it to train such a vast number of kids where there are really only going to be a limited number of jobs? Not to mention this training takes up literally all of their spare time, so that they have no time (and often no money) to do anything else. What of the hundreds of YAGP participants? The time, money and effort that students, parents and teachers put forth in order to showcase their talents. I am guessing that most of these kids are hoping for a career in ballet and perhaps, they will even have the jump on everyone else because they are putting themselves out there!


So, perhaps there is not even an age that can be given, but maybe a point at which student and parent both feel that the means no longer justifies the unguaranteed end result.


The conflict I feel is that ballet is such a beautiful form of expression. Watching a ballet can be incredibly inspiring and uplifting. The behind the scenes grit and sweat, tears etc. that it takes for dancers to make it to that level is perhaps the foundation they must lay down, over time, for a solid career.

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I can think of two instances that might apply here:


One kid was refused admission to a pre-pro program because there was a concensus that the student didn't have what it took...this student is now on a full contract with a medium sized professional company, supporting themselves completely by being a full-time dancer, and this is their 3rd year with the company.


Another student had it all: the body, the artistry, etc. was offered a full contract to a large professional company, and suddenly decided that this was not the route that they wanted to take so they quit ballet, lock, stock, and barrel, and are now in law school.


So you see, we're all dealing with unknowns here, and while some kids may have the perfect body etc., there's no guarantee, no matter which way you slice it. And the others, with very difficult bodies, may surprise you. Desire is a very strong thing.


All we can do is try to help them decide which way they want to go, to guide them and advise them, to be honest with them, and inform them of the possible challenges or perhaps, lack of problems they may face, based upon the various things they have demonstrated to us. But I don't think anyone has a crystal ball, and can definitively point out " You, over there, you will become a ballerina!" You might be able to say "You have a greater chance of becoming a ballerina because you have A., B. & C."


You can't even say anymore that the more zaftig amongst them won't make it- (obviously, they shouldn't waste their time shooting for classical companies) there are several companies out there hiring only plus-size dancers! :D Granted, few & farther between are those jobs! I'm just trying to make a point.


Other than that, it's all a crap shoot...but so is sending your kid to Harvard Law School. They may just wake up one day, and decide to grow their hair out and become the proud owner of a surf shop in Miami! :wub:

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And, as a master teacher once told me, "All of these children that want to dance are a new generation of arts patrons". I had never thought of that at the time, but of my 5 kids, 3 dance, 1 will probably be the only professional. However, I do have 5 children that enjoy and appreciate ballet and other dance forms and these are the types of people that will buy the future tickets. Truly, we cannot predict the future for any of our children. All we can do is provide guidance, and tools and allow them to use them.

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And in addition to being the future patrons of the arts, the future managers as well. A friend of mine went to Paris and returned as a "failed" ballerina. She now manages a small dance company and has a rewarding career in dance.

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The decision of what age will certainly vary from one person to the next. While there will always be exceptions, I believe experienced teachers and ADs can make a good estimate of those students that are capable of becoming members of classical ballet compenies. There are many other options for trained dancers, as have been mentioned here, but for many teenage ballet dancers in training, their ultimate ambition is to dance for a classical company.


I don't think it is the ballet school's role to dictate who should continue and who should not. After all, the school is focused on teaching an art form; it doesn't view itself as providing vocational training.



Yes, the ballet school is teaching an art form, but many ballet training programs are in fact caller 'pre-professional' or 'vocational'. My dd is currently in a stream at her ballet school which is called 'vocational training', which certainly implies training for a potential career. As this is the case, I absolutely expect honest evaluations from dds teachers. This does not mean that teacher says 'sorry, you have no hope' it means honesty based on their years of experience. For example, for the lovely dancer who the teacher knows just does not have that classic ballet body that companies are looking for (and again, yes there are exceptions, but we all know this is the case) the teacher may say to them "you have talent, but your body shape will be an obstacle to pursuing a classical career - you may have to work harder to prove yourself or also consider other options/companies " etc.


I know that as a parent, I can't honestly evaluate my dds skills and potential - not only do I lack the experience, but I am also completely unobjective when it comes to my gorgeous dancing daughter! I need the help of her teachers and depend on them to be honest. My dd also expects honesty from her teachers, from me and aims to be honest with herself.


While there are always exceptions and some dancers who were told they wouldn't make it, did, I think a school does a great disservice to their older teenage students who are holding on to a dream and spending six days a week in ballet classes but who realistically only have a one percent chance of making it. I know I would want my dd to have an indication of their ability by 15 or 16, rather than holding on to the dream only to be knocked back at every audition at the age of 18. This would be far more painful. If the student continues to dance at this level with the knowledge that they have only a one percent chance, then that is different.

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For example, for the lovely dancer who the teacher knows just does not have that classic ballet body that companies are looking for (and again, yes there are exceptions, but we all know this is the case) the teacher may say to them "you have talent, but your body shape will be an obstacle to pursuing a classical career - you may have to work harder to prove yourself or also consider other options/companies " etc.


This exact scenario happened at my daughter's residency this year to at least two students we know. We know of many others who have had similar messages given by their teachers over the years. I think the major residencies do indeed give this message quite frequently to their students. We also know several dancers who were told this or something similar by SIs that they had attended for several summers, that have a practice of asking some of their summer students to stay for year-round. In all cases, the schools were very clear about what they were saying, specifically talking about the specific body 'difficulty' that concerned them. None of them told the students that they would never dance professionally, but rather that it would be harder for them or that they were not right for that particular company because of the body 'issue'. ALL the situations I know about personally involved extremely talented dancers.


I think that the way the message is handled is quite important. As you said, you don't want them to say that the student can NEVER find work in a classical company. We all know too many who have proved that remark false! But, I agree that a good pre-professional school should be willing to let their dancers know what the likliehood is of their finding work in ballet. As I said before, one teacher does not make a consensus. So, even when a teacher makes a dire prediction, the teacher next term might not see things the same way. So again, it is so important to take such comments and put them into perspective with all the other clues you have from other sources.


If a school faculty is not forthcoming, have you asked for your own conference and asked pointed questions? Sometimes this is the only way to get such information. But, be prepared to hear what they have to say (both good and bad) and then weigh it judiciously. :)

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