- Jennifer Milner
Pacing, Planning, and Practicing
Every January, well-intentioned non-dancer friends high-five me and say, “Hey! Nutcracker season is over! You finally get to rest!” I smile politely and nod in agreement that yes, Nutcracker is indeed over. And then I head home and get to work.
Any person who works for him or herself - and I do believe that every artist, regardless of contracts signed, does ultimately work for him or herself - knows that the months with an emptier performance calendar aren’t necessarily slower. Or easier. It’s those times when we do the work that is perhaps unseen, but still vitally important to our long-term career.
January, for me, is an intense month for both my pre-professionals and my professional dancers. First up is a calendar full of summer intensive auditions. The weekend before school started back up in Dallas, there were at least FOUR (4!) auditions for summer programs. From there until mid-February, it’s multiple auditions every weekend. The strategizing has already been done: parents, dancers, teachers, and I have talked through options, planning out what summer program might benefit the dancer best, playing Tetris with the schedule as two major schools hold auditions on the same day (do you scramble to make both? Or drive to a different city on another weekend for one of them? And how does that domino on subsequent auditions?). We’ve moved out of planning for summer auditions - this is the month of pacing themselves, having enough headshots and arabesque photos and run-free tights and flattering leotards.
And dealing with the nerves, and obsessively refreshing their inbox to see if a notice has come yet. But let’s leave that for February.
My professionals have also been busy planning: looking at company auditions across the US and Europe, planning a travel itinerary, and researching companies. Who is hiring? What type of body do they want? What’s their repertory like? What’s their reputation like? Variations have been chosen, worked, filmed, and submitted in hopes of being invited for a company class audition. Professional auditions happen a bit later than summer intensive auditions, but there’s more groundwork to be done before the actual audition (should they score one if it’s invitation-only), and so January is for finishing up his or her “package”, submitting, and, yes, pacing oneself as you try to push to get in better shape while not tempting an injury.
If you're lucky enough to be fairly advanced in your career, you spend January trying to recover from the 7-20 guest artist roles you danced for Nutcracker, while preparing for whatever spring guest appearances you're doing. You've got Gala solos to prepare, partners to find so you can go do Don Quixote as invited; social media to keep up on; and your health to stay on top of so you can fulfill all the promises you've made and contracts you've signed. And if you're simultaneously in a company while trying to grow your independent guest artist status, you're doing all this while still dancing a full rep load with your company. And maintaining your instrument. Down time? What down time?
And then we’ve got YAGP. The Youth America Grand Prix, along with other similar ballet competitions, begins in January and continues through April. Variations have been chosen and many of my dancers have been working them since last summer, but now’s the time to build stamina, get it thoroughly into their bodies, and know it backwards and forwards so nerves can’t throw them. Artistry must be coaxed out, nuances discovered and polished, and so January is for practicing, practicing, practicing those solos.
As my dancers try to stay calm and focused in January, I go over the arc of their training for the next six months: how we’ll work during this intense “preparation and presentation” season, when we’ll push for extra strength training, what our goals will be before they head off for summer intensives or new contracts. I’m keeping an eye on the big picture of their season while they focus on the details this month. And for myself, I’m talking with summer intensives and studios, signing contracts to teach at summer programs, and starting to piece together my own summer.
So January might be the month without a Nutcracker or spring show on the calendar, but it’s a fairly intense amount of activity and emotional pressure. I feel like my dancers are all ducks on a pond right now - paddling furiously, bodies gliding serenely while the feet are churning underwater. Slow and steady will see them to the other side - not much to show while it’s happening, but a whole lot of effort and patience to get there. So the next time you wonder why you’re so tired or stressed or harried when there’s “not much going on” this month, just remember how much you’re really doing. Pace yourself physically AND emotionally, find moments to step outside of all this and truly unwind, and remember this career is a marathon, not a sprint. There will ALWAYS be another show/audition/competition, and learning how to be steady in your pursuit, not pushing frantically, will help keep you healthy and balanced for your entire career.