I remember it clearly: I was 8 years old, on the way to audition for Dance Theatre of Harlem’s two-week engagement of Doin’ It. While pulling on my tights in the back seat, to my complete horror, I discovered an inch-wide run on the upper thigh.
For 188 of the 200 children who tried out, the audition ended in heartbreak. Yet despite my holey tights, I made the cut. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous that morning. It may well have been one of the last times that pinning on a number didn’t fill me with anxiety.
As dancers, we train to dance, not to audition. You worry about the height of your leg, your weight and how many turns you do. But you seldom think about your “energy” or authenticity as a person. Yet years later, when I helped run auditions for Karole Armitage, I learned that these elements are what make you stand out in a sea of bodies.
Let me let you in on a dirty secret: So you think you can dance and that is what it’s about; well, it is, but that’s not all it’s about. While I wasn’t stunned by the politics behind the table, what surprised me was how many of the deciding factors had nothing to do with the dancing. You’d be shocked at what gets discussed in those hush-hush huddles. There is the girl who, despite the “general” comment to stop looking in the mirror, keeps peeking at herself. Then there’s the guy who thinks he has an “in” because he knows someone in the company, but forgot that the last time they worked together he got fired for partying too hard.
For me, I’ve always had a strong personality. It’s almost impossible to camouflage my feelings when I’m auditioning—especially if I get frustrated. I’ve had to learn to be neutral so that it doesn’t read in my body. (I’m still not good at it, but I’m aware, which reduces collateral damage.)
I ran into the most audition trouble when I started going out for Broadway, which I only did for the paychecks. It never occurred to me to prepare (picking up sheet music for “Big Spender” doesn’t qualify). I was like Dora the Explorer trying to find the note. I became afraid of making the cut, which started to affect the dance portion of my audition. Needless to say, I never booked a gig.
Yet even when a company is a perfect fit, there are several things that can get you cut. A bad attitude, unreliability, trouble retaining information or shady personal behavior can be your end. The dance world is so small that if you’ve done dirt, somebody knows and will tell!
In the audition, attention to detail is paramount. There is nothing more irksome than repeatedly telling dancers that it’s a tombé, not a chassé and then watching them continue to do the latter. It speaks volumes—as does such body language as hands on hips, eye-rolling and huffing and puffing. The way you interact with other dancers can also affect your chances. Even when you’re not dancing, you are being watched. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to veto dancers because of the look in their eyes upon seeing a step or getting a note, being needy or asking stupid questions just to get attention, or asking a question and then ignoring the answer.
Your body can also be a factor—but not in the way that you might think. Being overweight can work against you, but being too thin or injured could also get you cut. Someone with an obvious eating disorder makes us ask, “Do we want to deal with this?” Injured dancers should just save their time: If you can’t complete an audition, how are you going to do the work? I’ve witnessed situations where a choreographer was gracious enough to see the person, but had no intention of hiring them. Wait until you can present your best self.
Auditioning is a skill, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You might not get that job simply because you aren’t what they’re looking for, which may have nothing to do with your dancing. As you gather your things and give the obligatory “It was an honor just to be nominated” smile, don’t be angry that you got cut. Evaluate your performance, take notes and apply them in the next audition. The best revenge is success!
Be yourself: Choreographers hire people who dance. Your personality is the essence of your individuality.
It’s OK to have fun: Don’t be afraid to smile or laugh at jokes, or even at yourself (but not at others).
Be authentic: Directors can spot people putting on airs a mile away. Being overly nice, attentive or too eager raises the question, What is she hiding?
Do what it is: Don’t re-choreograph. Your interpretation of the step shouldn’t alter it—it’s already personalized because it’s coming out of your body.
Catch their clues: The people auditioning want you to succeed. Key elements of what they are looking for, be it quality, dynamics or technique, are usually repeated.
Do your research: Know what the choreographer likes. Research the company’s repertoire and dancers. Extra information can help you prepare mentally and physically.