Tag Archives: audition

How a Mentor Changed My Life

Who are the people who have changed your life? Somewhere in the middle of celebrating Mother’s Day I thought about someone who was like a mother to me: my first ballet teacher, Irene Wiley Lander (referred to as “Miss Wiley” to her students). Even though she wasn’t my mother she was a very important part of my life. She was not only the person who shaped my dance technique, but the driving force that lead me to audition for the School of American Ballet, which eventually led to a professional ballet career. Through her guidance, support and relentless demands to reach higher and work harder, my life was forever changed.

I started classes with Miss Wiley when I was 5, after my preschool creative dance teacher suggested I go real ballet classes because she thought I had potential. My first ballet classes always started with everyone sitting in a circle on the floor; we learned ballet terminology through show and tell. Miss Wiley would hold up a giant cardboard flashcard with the name of a step and ask for a volunteer to go to the barre and demonstrate for the rest of us. Hands shot up in the air— there was always fierce competition to be the shower. After show and tell was over, the real work began with Miss Wiley frequently reminding us to “sharpen our pencils” (straighten our legs and point our toes) and “fix our telephone poles” (stand up straight! and pronto!). She was strict and a little scary, so we listened to what she said.

© Grier Cooper 2008

A good ballet teacher (like Miss Wiley) gives his or her students a solid foundation of dance technique. But performance opportunities are important too. After five years of classes with Miss Wiley (except for that one year I took off to pursue competitive swimming, which she never quite forgave me for), she had me audition for a local theater production that needed a young dancer. I ended up performing twelve weeks on stage, and after that I was hooked (getting a paycheck was pretty cool, too… I earned enough money to buy a horse, but the idea was immediately vetoed by my parents).

Two years later Miss Wiley arranged for me to audition for the summer intensive at the School of American Ballet. Miss Wiley rode the train with me to New York and brought me to the audition. I was accepted, and at the end of my second summer intensive, Miss Wiley was the one who went into Madame Glebov’s office to receive the news that I had been asked to stay on as a permanent student. She then talked my parents into letting me move to New York by myself (I was fourteen)… a feat that I still can’t quite wrap my head around.

But everything I’ve shared so far only paints part of the picture. My home life was dysfunctional and difficult and these problems sometimes made it impossible for me to be my best in ballet class. I’m not sure if Miss Wiley knew that my mother was an alcoholic, but she did know there were issues at home and she spoke to my mother on my behalf several times. She even went out of her way to take me on outings (probably to get me out of the house and away from my mother)… we often went to the beach or the movies. Now with hindsight I’d say she saved me from years of more abuse from my mother by making sure I went to New York.

Here’s an interesting dichotomy: although Miss Wiley was instrumental in jump-starting my dance career, she was also the one who told me, years later, to leave dance altogether when I felt like I had hit a wall. I’ll never know why she advised me to go to college and start life over; perhaps because she knew from experience how difficult and painful the world of ballet can be.

I know many of my fellow dancers at SAB had teachers who helped them advance to the professional level, like Miss Wiley did for me, but as my first mentor she took things to an entirely different level than most. It still amazes me that someone would be willing to give so much time and energy simply to help someone else. I am forever grateful to her.

Who are your mentors? How have they changed your life?

New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck talks about her greatest mentor.

More on dance mentors from the Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins blog.

Alvin Ailey’s Robert Battle on his mentors.



Favorite Dance Firsts

January is a month of firsts. With just a few days left to this month, I thought I’d share some of my favorite and memorable dance firsts:

1. First ballet class

Although I have already admitted that I was initially a reluctant ballerina, once I got into the studio I always had fun. These were the days when there was no uniform so it was fine to show up in over-the-top girly tutus. Back then ballet meant complete creative freedom, and my favorite thing in the world was “run-run-jump”, where we would do flying grand jetés over pretend puddles.

photo by Grier Cooper

2. First time en pointe.

Nothing beats the thrill of the first time you put on a pair of pointe shoes. Most young ballerinas dream about this day for years before it actually happens, waiting until they get the go-ahead from their teacher. Pointe shoes must be properly fitted as no two dancers’ feet are alike. My big day was a big deal: we had to drive forty-five minutes to the nearest shop. But that was all forgotten the moment I rose on my toes and took the first step towards a professional career.

photo by deafstar


   3. First partnering experience

Hello, awkward moment. When I got a last-minute phone call to fill in and perform in place of an injured friend, I didn’t exactly know what I was signing up for. Turns out I had to partner with one of the hottest boys in school and I’d never partnered with anyone before. I have never been so aware of every contour of my body and I don’t think I breathed the entire time.

4. First serious audition (SAB)

My ballet teacher brought me to my first real audition at the School of American Ballet. I was twelve. We rode the train from Connecticut to Grand Central Station. While the building that housed SAB was completely ordinary, the studios were the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. Huge, pristine, light-filled and perfectly appointed. A glossy black grand piano stood in the corner, and a pianist played live for class. The infamous Antonina Tumkovsky conducted the audition and half the time I thought she was speaking a different language altogether. Embarrassing moment: she asked me to demonstrate a jump combination and the heel of my pointe shoe slipped off in the middle of it. I kept going but I was sure I would never get in.


photo by William Berg-Hillinger

5. Leaving home.

I left home and moved to New York City when I was fourteen after SAB asked me to stay on as a permanent student. I quickly learned how to navigate the streets and public transportation, although it was overwhelming. Life was a delicate balancing act of ballet, school and homework which didn’t leave much time for anything else. Even though it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I missed my family it was the opportunity of a lifetime and that is what serious ballet dancers do.

photo by melodi2










6. First Hair Accessory

This is going to sound silly but it wasn’t until I went to my first SAB summer intensive that I had an epiphany: buns were made to be decorated. I wasn’t one of those people who wore a color-coordinated bow to match every leotard. Instead I fell in love with flowers. One of the older dancers made and sold hair combs decorated with fake flowers. She’d lay the multi-colored assortment out at her feet at lunchtime while she sat quietly sewing ribbons on her pointe shoes.

photo by Laura Morariu

 7. First solo.

My first solo also happened to be my first New York performance. I was lucky enough to have the chance to perform with Pacific Northwest Ballet for their production of Chaconne, an ethereal, hair-down Balanchine ballet. It was also the first time that my family saw me perform, which made the occasion triply memorable.

8. First costume made for my exact measurements.

There are always issues when you wear costumes from past seasons, made to fit other dancers. A tutu might be a little short in the torso (causing a pinch in the crotch, seriously uncomfortable) or too large in all the wrong places. But when you are the first cast to ever perform a new ballet, your costume is custom made for you. Mine was a beautiful purple romantic tutu made by the uber-talented Haydee Morales of Miami City Ballet.

photo by Piotr Bizior, www.bizior.com

 9. First Nutcracker.

I performed my first Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet. Night after night I was a flower and angel (winner of the most hideous costume since forever award) Performing was a blast but this was the first Christmas I did not spend with my family because our last performance was at the end of December.

10. First international tour

Israel seemed like an exotic place to visit and it was seriously old. Anyone who’s read the Bible knows that this is the place where it all happened.  I will never forget this Miami City Ballet tour, for so many reasons, including bombs at breakfast, touring Bethlehem, Masada, Jerusalem, swimming in the Dead Sea and riding a camel.


My First Summer at the School of American Ballet

School of American Ballet, 1936, by Alfred Eisenstaedt for LIFE









Like most young dancers who wish to make the jump to the professional level, I took my first big step by auditioning for and attending a summer intensive at the School of American Ballet. It was a big stretch for me in many ways; I religiously rode the train each morning (with Rebecca, another young dancer and a car full of newspaper-toting suits) an hour each way from Connecticut to Manhattan then took a bus uptown to the school.

I was thirteen years old.

New York held the promise of a potential new and exciting life, a life I’d dreamed of for a long time. The chance to study at SAB meant I was one step closer to that life and becoming a full-time student… perhaps one day a member of New York City Ballet.


Although it sounds glamorous, I assure you it was not. Particularly that first summer. Our days were spent sweating it out, both literally and figuratively, vying to stand out from a crowded roomful of dancers (many of whom had made a cross-country trek for this privilege). In between morning and afternoon classes we had a brief recess for lunch.

But every lunch break brought up the serious question of whether or not we would survive crossing the stupendously large and busy intersections of Broadway and Columbus Avenues to get to the local deli. This was a thought-provoking question for two distinct yet equally important reasons: 1) Crossing any intersection in New York often meant taking your life in your hands because motorists (especially taxi drivers) tended to speed up when they had potential victims lined up in their sights and 2) a freak heat wave (temperatures hovered around 104 for weeks) made the streets so hot that you could fry an egg on them in seconds… you had to seriously consider whether or not a trip to the deli was really worth it… and whether or not your shoes would disintegrate on the asphalt.











Then there was the return trip to Grand Central to think about. Classes let out around 4pm each day – at the height of the day’s heat – and most of the busses weren’t air-conditioned. We’d exit the temperature-controlled halls of SAB and step out into a wall of heat. It felt like breathing hot bathwater. As the minutes ticked by while we waited at the bus stop we’d stare off into the wavy-lined, heat-soaked distance to see if the bus was even visible yet, wondering if we might expire before it arrived. A few days into the summer, Rebecca and I bought some groovy handheld fans at a little Asian shop, and I am pretty sure they saved our lives (lots of people died that summer…seriously).

School of American Ballet, 1936, by Alfred Eisenstaedt for LIFE










Although we were climatically challenged, this did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. It was one of those character-building experiences, the first of many that any dancer goes through.

Little did we know: this was the easy part.




What it Takes to be a Ballet Dancer











A lot of people ask me what it takes to be a ballet dancer. Here’s what George Balanchine said about it:

“Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don’t agree with that because policemen don’t have to look beautiful at the same time.”












Mr. Balanchine was right. It isn’t easy to be a ballet dancer. These days ballet is in the spotlight, with films like Black Swan and TV shows like Bunheads and Breaking Pointe creating a national obsession. It is every little girl’s dream to become a ballerina. However, for most people, this dream will never come true. Why? Because ballet is one of the most demanding and competitive fields in existence. Only a small percentage of people have what it takes to make it.

Here are the three things that all dancers must have in order to succeed:

• internal characteristics

• external characteristics

• an action plan.

We’ll start with the most obvious first: the external. A dancer must have the proper physical build. Dancers are slender and swan-like, with long, lean limbs and perfect proportions. They can’t be too tall… or too short. Basically, they are perfect.

Holy flexibility!













There are other, not-so-obvious physical traits that ballet demands: flexibility (for those high kicks and gravity-defying leaps) turnout, or outward rotation of the hips, and supple, beautifully arched feet… every dancer knows how important it is to have “good feet”. The wrong kind of foot looks like an unsightly ham hock while the right kind of foot completes the line beautifully.











Equally important is what’s going on inside. Obviously there is a burning desire to dance… that is true for all dancers. The desire lights the fire, but there’s got to be a whole lot more than that to keep the flame burning against when the going gets tough. What keeps the flame alive is what I like to call the three D’s of dance: determination, dedication and discipline.

 Determination means that defeat is eliminated from your vocabulary. You know deep in your core that you will never give up. Trust me, all dancers come up against plenty of discouragement. Determination means you keep on going no matter what.








Dedication means commitment to a task or purpose… practice, practice, practice because it must be perfect, perfect, perfect… but dancers must take dedication to a much higher level than most people realize: in order to be a dancer, dance comes first, often to the exclusion of many other things. Most of the hours of your days are devoted to classes, rehearsals, strength building and even private coaching, if necessary. More importantly, dedication to ballet means sacrifice: sacrifice of time and sacrifice of activities like skiing and horseback riding, a few of the things list of Forbidden Things for dancers… it’s a pretty long list …

Discipline means applying yourself, training by regular instruction and exercise… or to bring about a state of order and control. Both are true for ballet dancers.

The final piece of success is an action plan. Once a dancer decides to pursue to a career (usually during the early teens) it’s time to map that plan. Of course, the plan can change over time and often does. First choose a professional ballet school. Many ballet companies run professional ballet schools to train up and coming generations of dancers. These schools accept students by audition only and the competition is fierce. Many dancers start by taking summer intensives at these professional schools. If all goes well, they are invited to stay on as a permanent student.

When a student reaches the advanced levels in a professional school (usually anywhere between 15-18 years old) it’s time for more decisions. Sometimes the parent ballet company will invite students to apprentice with the company. Apprenticeships last about a year and are stepping stones to becoming a full-fledged company member.











More often dancers attend open call auditions to get work. Make a list of the companies that interest you and find out when they are holding auditions. Most dancers have a love/hate relationship with auditions because they are nerve-wracking and crowded. But they also represent opportunity and you never know which one will pan out.

Some dancers call companies directly to see if they are hiring. If so, they can arrange to take class with the company as a sort of informal audition.

Either way, it all boils down to making choices. You aim, you shoot… and hopefully you’re hired. If not, you keep trying until it happens.








As you can see becoming a ballet dancer is not simple… or easy. But if a dancer has what it takes: the proper internal and external characteristics and an action plan, they have the best chance for success.

NYCB’s Kathryn Morgan. Notice what she says about success.