Your Best Body: No Big Deal

Don't let nerves sabotage your summer intensive audition.
Published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue.

Dancers audition for Houston Ballet's summer program. Photo by Bruce Bennett.

At 15 years old, Elizabeth Murphy gave herself an assignment: Get accepted for summer study at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Then a student at The Rock School for Dance Education in Pennsylvania, she traveled to New York to audition.

It did not go well. “I did a développé side, the simplest thing, and just toppled over,” she remembers. “I fell again in a pirouette combination—consecutive turns from fifth. And again, during a traveling combination. At first, they were concerned, but I really knew it was bad when they weren’t even worried about me anymore. ‘Oh, that girl fell again.’ I look back now and just laugh at myself. It was probably the worst class I’ve ever taken.”

She was devastated, and skipped PNB’s audition the following year. But as time passed, Murphy came to realize the mistake she’d made: “I was thinking, ‘I need to be perfect.’ And if you have ‘perfect’ as your goal, that’s a lot harder to achieve than just doing your best. Going for more than you’re capable of can hurt you.”

Now 23, Murphy can say with confidence that she’s learned how to beat her nerves. Oh, and she’s now a corps member at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

All dancers agree: Auditions are tough. They’re also unavoidable. “No matter how good you are, this is a skill you need if you want a career in ballet,” says Allison Walsh, 27, of BalletX in Philadelphia. “There are a lot of beautiful dancers who just don’t make it because they don’t audition well.” For most dancers, chances are good that their first major audition experience will be for summer study. For many students, these programs mark the point in their training where a pastime becomes a passion. And the outcomes of the auditions are often students’ first measure of how their talent stacks up nationwide.

Which Strategies Work?

So, how do you handle the anxiety that comes with that pressure? First, recognize that any audition will be stressful, and the more you want the opportunity, the more nervous you’ll probably be. And that’s okay: Feeling slightly hyper might actually help you. Adrenaline can translate into productive energy as long as you know how to harness it so it powers you toward your goal, not away from it. Think of the challenge as something to be excited about, rather than something to fear.

To get into that mental zone, you’ll need to avoid any outside distractions. Murphy packs her bag the night before with extra supplies and shoes. “You’ve got to prevent little situations from throwing you off,” she says. Get plenty of rest, eat a good breakfast, know exactly where you’re going and arrive early. Walsh admits that, when she needs an extra boost of self-confidence, “I’ll call my mom and have her say something nice to me.” She laughs. “That’s always helpful.”

There’s no rhyme or reason to which stomachs get butterflies, when or why. Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet, notes that “some people are never nervous, no matter what age.” At auditions, she tries to calm the room by offering a little inside information. “I start off by telling them that I did the same thing—I auditioned at their age,” she says. “Think of this as just a class you’re taking that might be a little different from what you’re used to. But the teacher isn’t expecting you to grasp everything she’s telling you.” Mazzo remembers clearly the audition she took for SAB as a Chicago ballet student at age 11. “Madame Antonina Tumkovsky gave a brisé. And I raised my hand and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that is!’ She said, ‘That’s alright. You don’t have to do it.’ That’s still true for young dancers. Something like that will never be a reason why we wouldn’t take a dancer.”

Frances Chiaverini, 31, and an inaugural member of Benjamin Millepied’s new company, Los Angeles Dance Project, says that auditioning is 90 percent psychological. “It’s hard to be objective about something you hold so close to your heart,” she says. “But we’re all different and we all offer different things. That can help with the feeling that you’re up against everyone else in the room. For me, it’s better to think of auditions as workshops or master classes, a chance to expose yourself to something new.”

This approach also helps the process feel more like a two-way street, with both parties searching for a good fit. Mazzo says students who audition for SAB’s summer program “should look at the kind of class we’re teaching and consider whether or not it’s right for you. Ask yourself, ‘Do I like this? Is this for me?’ ” Chiaverini points out that it’s important to remain rational and realistic when asking yourself these questions, and to ask them for the right reasons. “Don’t reject first as a defense mechanism.”

Who Succeeds at Auditions?
Dr. Steve Julius (who’s affectionately referred to by his clients as “Dr. J”) is a former team psychologist for the Chicago Bulls. For more than 25 years, he’s helped professional athletes, figure skaters and Cirque du Soleil artists overcome performance anxiety. “Athletes and performers who do the best are the ones who can keep their egos under control,” he explains. “They don’t focus on the outcome. They remind themselves that this game, or this audition, is the same thing they’ve done a thousand times before.”

Yet the extra pressure of an audition can make the familiar seem foreign: You might find yourself second-guessing your abilities during combinations that are smack dab in the middle of your comfort zone. In these moments, hold on to what you love about dancing and approach each step one at a time—calmly. And remember to breathe. “When we’re looking at athletes for the Bulls during the college draft, we’re looking not just for their drive, but for their love of the game itself,” says Julius. “We want the kinds of players who just relax when they hear squeaky sneakers and the pounding echo of the basketball on the floor. In dancers, those are the people who can literally lose themselves in the music, in dancing with others. And that’s the difference between performers who consistently succeed and those who are great behind closed doors but seem to melt in front of an audience.”

And if it still ends up being the worst class you’ve ever taken? Remember that you can’t control the outcome, says Julius. “What you can control is your focus. Be in the moment. Love the experience, because that’s why you’ve sacrificed so much for it.”

Once You Pin on a Number, Remember:
1. Don’t be afraid of your nerves. Let the adrenaline boost your energy and sharpen your focus.
2. The teacher isn’t expecting perfection; she’s looking to see how you handle challenges.
3. Good auditioners are the ones who can forget about what’s at stake, and lose themselves in the movement.

Your Pre-Rehearsal Snack
Have a tough time remembering choreography? Try eating salmon before rehearsal. Salmon and other fatty fish, like tuna or mackerel, have a fat called DHA that helps your brain process and remember information. Nosh on a sandwich with lox or a grilled salmon salad whenever you’ve got some tricky phrases coming up.

Candy Land
December can sometimes turn into a monthlong sugar rush. But it’s not all bad news. One of Santa’s favorite treats, the candy cane, comes with a surprising benefit. According to studies at West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University, smelling
peppermint increases focus, and inhaling peppermint vapors improves athletic performance and substantially decreases fatigue. Talk about a sweet deal.

Over-the-Counter Savvy
Every dancer’s got a bottle of pain relievers in her bag. But do you know which anti-inflammatory to take when? For an acute injury, like a twisted ankle, immediately pop some ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil), which will help with both the pain and inflammation. But if your body is simply aching from yesterday’s rehearsal, reach for naproxen (Aleve), which has similar benefits but lasts twice as long.

Don’t Forget This Stretch
The hip flexors may be dancers’ most unloved muscles. While we spend hours folded over our hamstrings, this group of muscles, officially known as the iliopsoas, gets overlooked—until it starts causing problems. Because it wraps around from the lower back to the front of the inner thigh, ballet’s endless développés and passés make it super-tight. If you don’t stretch it, the iliopsoas will pull your hips back, and you won’t be able to get on your leg, warns Amy Schulster, a corrective exercise specialist and certified personal trainer who works with dancers in New York City. And that will make everything from balancing to turning to jumping harder.

Her solution: Every day before class, kneel in a lunge on your left knee, tuck your pelvis, and reach your left arm over your head to the right. (Be sure both knees are making 90-degree angles and your shoulders are aligned over your hips and knee—otherwise you’ll make the opposite hip flexors even tighter.) Hold the stretch for 30 to 40 seconds, then switch sides. Schulster says, ”It’s best to do this just before pliés. That way you’ll start class right on top of your legs.”

Fiber Smarts
Everyone from your grandma to the studio pianist knows that building more fiber into your diet is a smart idea. It fights food cravings by making you feel fuller for longer. But beware: Not all fiber is created equal. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently found that the added fiber in processed foods doesn’t fill you up and curb cravings as effectively as natural fiber does. Skip the packaged stuff and grab a crunchy piece of fruit, a handful of veggies or a bowl of oatmeal.

Flying High
Just because you weren’t born a jumper doesn’t mean you can’t become one. Improve your sautés by using a vibration platform, a new tool that’s been showing up in gyms lately.

A recent study found that dancers who used one for five minutes twice a week for six weeks significantly increased the height of their jumps. When your body is lightly shaken while doing an exercise such as pliés, additional muscle fibers are activated, making your muscles more efficient and improving your explosive power.

Nutcracker Hair Care
This year, don’t let the Waltz of the Flowers cause an Attack of the Frizzies. Even when you’re slicking your hair back into a performance-worthy bun night after night, you can keep your locks strong and healthy. All it takes is a little extra TLC. Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, a trichologist (hair and scalp expert) who works with several dancers in New York City, offers her top tips.
1. Start from the inside out: Eat protein regularly, particularly at breakfast and lunch, and be sure your iron levels are optimal, so that you grow strong strands.
2. Give yourself a scalp massage once a week to increase circulation. “That helps bring nutrients to the follicles,” says Phillips. “Just like with your muscles, massaging the scalp helps it stay fit.”
3. Forget what you heard about only shampooing every other day. Wash after each performance to remove product residue. But avoid “deep cleansing” shampoos—they will dry out your hair. Using a regular-strength shampoo twice in a row in the shower will do the trick.
4. Once a week, apply a deep conditioner with an elasticizing agent to keep your hair hydrated.
5. Before coating your strands with hair spray, apply a heat protector or conditioning/hydrating base. “Not only will it shield your hair from dryness,” says Phillips, “but you won’t have as many flyaways, so you’ll end up needing less spray.”

The Workout: April Daly
Onstage, The Joffrey Ballet’s April Daly dances with fluid control. But that doesn’t just come from taking company class. Every day before barre, she does Pilates abdominal work and practices Thera-Band exercises she learned in body alignment classes at the New School University’s Joffrey Ballet School BFA program.
Her Thera-Band workout: Daly starts by wrapping the band around her back to do “Hug a Tree” (moving from second position port de bras to first position). Then she grabs the band (still around her back) under the armpits and pushes it forward. She also sits on the floor with her legs straight out, wraps the band around her flexed feet and pulls the band toward her chest. “I like my upper body to look defined. And the strength helps with everything from jumping to crazy Forsythe partnering.”
Off-season additions: Once or twice a week, she’ll take Pilates classes, hop on the elliptical machine for a cardio workout or spend 20 to 30 minutes swimming laps. “I also work on stretching in the pool because the water relaxes my muscles.”
How she stays healthy during Nutcracker: “I’m constantly eating snacks—yogurt with granola, nut mixes. And coffee! I also get a 10-minute massage at the theater every day, and schedule an hour-long sports massage whenever I can to flush out any tight muscles.”
Her top energy tip: ”No matter how tired you are, don’t throw away the class before a show. If you get your body and focus going right from pliés, you’ll be able to push through.”
New Year’s fitness resolution: “To keep improving my stretching and extension and adagio. I’m a pretty strong, athletic dancer, so flexibility is something I always need to work on.”