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.
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.