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  • Jennifer Milner

Are Ballet Competitions Right For You?

“Ballet” and “competition” - the words seem to be antithetical, incompatible. How can you objectively judge art? In a competition between Picasso and Monet, how would one discern the “better” painter? And though ballet competitions are increasingly a part of dance life these days, they’ve actually been around for quite a while in one form or another.

I have very clear memories of watching the 1982 Varna International Ballet Competition, live on television. For several days I was glued to the set watching Janie Parker and William Pizzuto reveal Ben Stevenson’s astonishing choreography. I witnessed LI Cunxin compete for China just days before defecting to the US, and saw young Kathleen Healy burst onto the dance scene with her astonishing balances at age 15. Watching those elite dancers inspired me for decades to come - but I never even thought about seeing my young self on that stage.

Ballet competitions used to be more for young professionals, as a way to raise their international profile. Even today, Varna has its “senior” division as 20-25, and “junior” as 15-19. This, however, is not the case for several competitions today: many current organizations span ages 9-19. Thus,they are clearly geared towards the PRE-professional, rather than the professional, dancer, which raises the competitions questions - and pressures - at an earlier age. As your Instagram feed is bombarded with images from YAGP, Prix de Lausanne, ADC-IBC, and more, you might start to feel the pressure to compete yourself, worrying you’re missing out on scholarships, potential contracts, and lots of fun. But ballet competitions are stressful, time-consuming, and expensive! So how do you know if competitions are right for you? Ask yourself these questions:

Why do you want to compete?

Do you worry that you won’t get considered for companies without a few medals and awards on your young resume? While companies do come scout some of the competitions, it’s by no means a requirement to be considered for a contract. Having a Grand Prix or national Hope Award will absolutely catch a director’s eye - but NOT having one isn’t going to hold you back, and remember, for every dancer who walks away with a title or prize, there are thousands more each year who don’t. Success at competitions can keep a star dancer in the public eye, or bring a new hopeful onto the international stage. But not being a competition headliner doesn’t mean you won’t work!

Do you long for more opportunities to perform? Competitions can be a valuable way to gain experience on the stage - and a helpful focus for your training year. Spending six to nine months perfecting a variation teaches young dancers how to develop artistically and technically over time, versus learning something for a month and never re-visiting it. Many times I’ve had a pre-professional dancer enter a competition as a way to get more one-on-one coaching time, and that’s completely valid. Once you have your variation polished, attending multiple competitions may give you the chance to get used to performing in front of a large audience and enjoy that onstage sense of freedom so many dancers crave. Just remember that being ready for these competitions DOES take time - don’t sign up three weeks before the competition and then start figuring out what you’ll dance.

Are you looking to raise your profile on the dance scene? Competitions can be a great way to do that. I have one dancer who won back-to-back Hope awards, then didn’t compete again until she was getting ready to audition for companies. She spend her “in-between” years working hard, taking lots of classes, and then re-entered the competition scene at the top of her game, ready to get noticed by companies. Ballet competitions can be a great choice as you strategize your transition into a professional career, from catching the eye of different companies to networking and laying the groundwork for future business relationships.

Are you feeling pressure from your coach or school? The vast majority of schools truly have their students’ best interests at heart, but let’s face it, we teachers are only human. I absolutely feel like a proud dance mama when one of the dancers I train does well in a competition, and it is great advertising for any school whose students garner accolades. If you’re not fired up about competing but don’t feel you can say ”no” perhaps it’s time for an earnest chat with your director - and parents - about your goals and dreams.

Is it a Fear Of Missing Out moment? Watching your Insta-friends gear up for competitions- and post several pages of happy, optimistic photos backstage - may make you anxious and feel like you’re getting left behind. And it’s true that the intensity of these experiences can forge deep friendships and give you incredible memories. But if that’s the whole reason you’re considering this , put down your social media and walk away. There are lots of good reasons to enter a ballet competition, but FOMO’s a terrible reason to compete.

Take some time to think through why you’re really considering signing up. Figuring out why you want to compete is the first step in the discernment process.

How will I handle the pressure? Listen, do not fly through this question. I know in my heart of hearts that I would not have handled competitions well. If you suffer from high anxiety that’s not being addressed, if you have disordered eating habits, if you’re entering a tough year of school and know there will be lots of demands on your time and requests for perfection, think long and hard before subjecting yourself to a barrage of criticism - some constructive, from judges and teachers, and some snarky, from fellow competitors. It’s a tough world backstage, and even my most well-adjusted dancers drive themselves to tears sometimes over turns they’re not nailing or transitions they can’t get to go smoothly. And if you don’t win - and odds are you won’t, just to be fair here - how will you take that? Not making Gold or Top Twelve or First Place can be devastating if that’s what you’ve set your sights on. Be realistic in how you’ll deal with the whole process.

Is there room in my schedule? Stop laughing! I know a dancer’s schedule is ridiculously tight, so it’s an important question to ask: what’s going to give? Does your studio build an hour a week into the schedule to work/run variations? Do you have to give up technique classes to get a private? Will you be staying until midnight on Tuesdays to have studio space? Make sure taking on this big commitment is realistic - and won’t take a huge toll on your time and health.

What do I hope to gain from it all? Again, be realistic. Hoping for Insta-worthy moments to brag with? Don’t do it. Praying desperately a company will run up to you with a contract in hand? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a two-minute variation. Looking to get better as a dancer, and have a long-term goal to work on all year? Great idea - go for it! Are you already successful, and ready to raise your social media presence and lay groundwork for a career? Competitions can definitely help put you on the map. Just don’t pin ALL your hopes on them.

What are disadvantages to competitions? Like anything, competitions can be good and bad. It’s easy to get caught up in the politics - real or imagined - and lose sight of your joy of dancing. You can get discouraged chasing after that elusive medal or placement, and miss out on all the positive feedback you’ve gotten from judges. You might spend hundreds of hours working on your variation, to the detriment of your regular classwork - and find that while your variation shines, your work in the master classes is less than sparkly. Competitions come at no small cost: registration fees, custom-made tutus, choreographer’s fees, travel costs, private coaching all add up quickly, so be sure you are able to spend this money -and that this is where it’s best spent. Like anything else with high pressure and exceptional levels of competition, you can get overwhelmed emotionally, financially, and physically. Make sure you’re in this for the right reasons.

Why are we thinking about this NOW? Isn’t the season winding down? Yes, yes it is. And if you’ve been part of it and you’re exhausted and bitter, it’s best to do some soul-searching before you re-enlist for another year. If you’re pondering this path for the first time, spring is a great time to sit down with your coaches and begin discussing what next year would look like. Summer is a great time to try out different variations and start working on them, and having a long-term plan for the year - which competitions to attend, where to get a tutu, etc. - will keep you from stressing last-minute.

Listen, competitions are great for many reasons: you get to work with some amazing teachers in the master classes, and receive really helpful feedback from professionals who have seen a lot and can offer you great words of wisdom as judges. At the same time, ballet competitions aren’t for everyone, and if you know your mental stamina isn’t optimum, or you’re feeling burned out, then there’s no shame in staying on the sidelines. But if you are clear on your goals, in good physical health, and have the time and finances and support of your training team, competitions have the potential to improve your technique and artistry, elevate your career, and make you a more consistent dancer over the year. In that case, plan mindfully, work hard, and merde!

All photos used with permission. Featured dancers, from top to bottom (all links are Instagram):

Isabella Meier @bellameier

Caroline Powell @carolinepowelll (yes three "L"s!)

Caroline Love @carolinealove

Kali Kleiman @kali_kleiman

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