Thinking About College Ballet Programs? Here's a Comprehensive Guide to the Application Process
Gone are the days when you had to skip college in order to have a successful ballet career. College ballet programs are better than ever before, providing students with the training, professional connections and performance experience they need to thrive in companies postgraduation. But given the number of elements involved in the application process, choosing the right program can feel daunting. We’ve broken the college application timeline down step by step to help you best approach each stage along the way.
Fall of Sophomore Year: Start Your Research
It’s never too early to get to know your options, but sophomore year of high school is a great time to start. Talk to your high school’s college counselor. They may not be familiar with ballet programs, but they will be familiar with the college application process and timeline. Then, begin your hunt by reading up about different programs on their websites. Don’t know where to start? Get recommendations from your dance teachers and read the company bios of dancers that you admire to see where they trained.
Grand Rapids Ballet member Claudia Rhett, who graduated with a BSOF (a BS in music with a ballet emphasis and an outside field in business) from Indiana University in 2020, found the Dance Magazine College Guide invaluable to her search. The guide, which is published by Dance Media, contains information on more than 600 programs. Once you’ve come up with a list of schools you’re interested in, reach out to their dance departments for more information. “We love talking to prospective students and their families,” says Whitney Herr-Buchholz, director of operations and advancement at University of Arizona’s dance department. “We encourage students to reach out. We want to help guide their search.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for direct contacts for professors and current students. “Word of mouth is the best form of research,” says Stefanee Montesantos, a 2020 Butler University graduate who earned a BFA in dance performance and a minor in English and creative writing, now a Colorado Ballet apprentice. “It’s an authentic source because the person is telling you about their actual experience.”
Fall of Junior Year: Visit Schools (Virtually)
As you head into your junior year of high school, figure out how you will get a sense of campus life and the layout of each school. Nothing will give you a sense of day-to-day life quite like walking around the school’s grounds. However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, many universities have stopped allowing in-person visits from prospective students, opting instead for virtual tours. Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, assistant professor of dance and recruitment director for the ballet program at University of Utah. says that their virtual tour not only takes viewers through the department’s spacious studios, it showcases the theater, costume shop and physical therapy studio.
Even if you can’t visit a campus, Rhett recommends reaching out to the department to see if there are opportunities to talk to current dancers or watch a Zoom class. University of Arizona now holds virtual Q&A sessions with prospective students and their parents. Current dance majors participate so that they can share their first-hand experience.
As you tour schools, either virtually or even just by driving through campus, consider the variables. Rhett says that when she visited colleges, she considered community involvement and volunteer opportunities, as well as how she’d get around via public transit. Think about if you would prefer attending college in the country or a city. Rhett suggests that having an idea of whether you want to attend a big school or small school can help guide your search. Do you want to live on campus in a dorm? If not, what are the off-campus residential options? Be sure to get a sense of what student life is like. Are there clubs or extracurricular activities you might like to join? Are you interested in Greek life? If so, see if you can talk to members of sororities and fraternities. Be sure to get a sense of how the dance department is integrated into the university at large, who your professors would be and what they’ve done professionally. If possible, get familiar with the area you’re visiting, and see if there are nearby ballet companies you’d have access to.
Spring of Junior Year: Prepare Your Application Materials
Getting and staying organized is key when it comes to college applications. With so many components to juggle, you’ll want a clear system in place. “Create a calendar from day one,” says Alloways-Ramsey. Look at each school’s website, find their deadlines and put them in your calendar.” Your high school guidance counselor may have some useful suggestions for how to stay on top of these dates.
Make a list of all the required application materials and be mindful that there will be separate components for both the universities and the dance programs themselves. When Rhett applied for IU, she had to submit photos, a resumé and an essay to the dance department on top of her regular application materials to the university, such as SAT scores, letters of recommendation and transcripts. If possible, see if you can complete those components before audition season starts.
If a program requires a video submission, make sure you know exactly what they’re looking for. Some departments want specific classwork alongside a variation or two, whereas others may be more open to choreographic submissions in other styles, like jazz, modern or tap. “You can choreograph your own piece, but be sure to say that it’s self-choreographed,” says Montesantos, noting that admissions committees like the innovation and creativity.
Summer Before Senior Year: Plan Out Your Auditions
Have a firm list of the schools you want to apply for before your senior year starts, and then see how they are holding auditions. The process will look different this year since most schools have transitioned to audition videos only. “We will not hold in-person auditions,” says Herr-Buchholz. “We feel this is the most accessible and safe way to proceed in light of COVID.”
Every school will have their own requirements for what you need to demonstrate on your video, so read the instructions (which can be found on the department website) very carefully. For instance, at IU, prospective students are required to pass a pre-screening audition first. Most schools want barre work and a center combination or two, but some may want to see other styles of dance as well. “We have a set list of the things we want to see. It’s very detailed, contains a variety of different elements and comes out to about 20 minutes long,” says Alloways-Ramsey.
If you can, film yourself at a local studio. However, know that department heads recognize that not everyone has access to studio space, and you will not be discounted for filming yourself at home. “Production value is not what we’re looking at. We’re really just looking at technique,” says Herr-Buchholz. “We are making additional accommodations as dancers are not able to execute certain movements in certain spaces.”
This year, many schools have adjusted their deadlines to accommodate the increase in video submissions. Be sure to stay on top of your deadlines and allow for the time to create audition videos that are specified to each school’s requirements. It’s time-consuming, but worth the effort.
And when there isn’t a global pandemic to contend with? Normally, an in-person audition is your best bet. If colleges hold them next year, keep in mind the time and money you’ll spend traveling to attend them and decide how many you can realistically go to. “I applied to three or four programs,” says Montesantos. “It’s difficult to have an intense audition season when you’re a senior. It can be really taxing on the body to do six, seven or eight auditions.” Some schools, like the University of Utah, usually hold auditions in multiple locations. Spring of senior year tends to be the heaviest audition season for colleges, but find out if any schools offer fall auditions. A few programs, like University of Arizona, not only have fall auditions, but they allow prospective students to audition twice. “We’re happy to give feedback. If a dancer receives a non-accept and would like to audition again, we encourage them to give us a call,” says Herr-Buchholz.
Spring of Senior Year: Make a Decision
After you’ve gotten your acceptance letters, making the final decision on where you’ll go can feel immense. Just take a deep breath, consider everything you’ve learned throughout the application process alongside your financial aid options, and go with your gut. “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” says Montesantos, who notes that transferring is an option if you get to college and find that a program is not a good fit. “If you feel a place is good for you, go for it. If you get there and decide it’s not for you, really embrace that change.” Go into the process with an open mind, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your professors, advisors and peers want to see you succeed. Trust your intuition, and remember that college is just one step on your dance journey.