Ask Amy

February 24, 2011

It seems as if all dancers at major companies have gone to a year-round company school like SAB. Do I have a chance of a successful career without going away? —Hayley

Dancers take many different paths, so don’t get discouraged if leaving home isn’t an option. My parents wouldn’t let me move away when I was in high school, so I trained year-round at my local studio and only entered Milwaukee Ballet’s trainee program after graduating. And I’m doing just fine!

The advantage of going to a year-round conservatory or company school is that you can fully focus on your dance training. Company schools also give directors a chance to groom dancers in their particular style, so attending one can increase your chances of getting hired. “Artistic directors like when dancers have spent some time at their school because they get to know the dancers and see how they work with the company,” says Denise Bolstad, Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s administrative director.

Your career isn’t ruined if you can’t leave home at 15 or 16—it just might start a little later. Many companies offer preprofessional programs, like a trainee division or a second company, that last one to two years. Some dancers even go to college first (see “College Before Career?”, October/November 2010). “It’s okay if you’re 18 or 19. You’re not over the hill,” says Bolstad, who adds that several older students are enrolled in PNB School’s Professional Division. But do your research—some of the bigger companies only hire from within their schools. If you have your heart set on one of them, audition for the school’s summer course and inquire about age requirements for the year-round program.

The past three pairs of pointe shoes I’ve worn have given me bruised toenails. Is there something wrong with my technique? Or is there padding I can use to prevent this? —Sharon

It sounds like you need to investigate your shoes. If you’re constantly getting bruised toenails, you’re probably wearing the wrong size. Shoes that are too short or too narrow put added pressure on the toes. Or if your shoes are too wide, your toes will shift inside the box every time you relevé. I wore the wrong size shoe for a while, and the results were not pretty. I thought people were crazy when they suggested going narrower, but I haven’t had any major toenail problems since! Have a professional pointe shoe fitter take a look at your current shoes, and if they don’t fit, try different sizes and styles.

To help prevent further bruising, keep your nails trimmed on the shorter side, and experiment with different types of toe pads until you find a brand that protects your toes without adding too much pressure on the nails. Gel or foam toe caps, available in online dancewear stores, can help cushion bruised toenails. I’ve also applied an over-the-counter anesthetic (like Oragel or Anbesol) to the nail and surrounding skin for temporary pain relief. And keep your toenails clean to avoid infection; if redness and swelling develops, see your doctor.

My teachers are always telling me to use more épaulement, but I feel weird overdoing it. What if I accidentally do too much and look stupid? How do I know when it’s enough? —Aria

Trust me—if your teachers have to remind you regularly to use your épaulement, you’re not “overdoing” anything. Our épaulement, or upper-body expression, is just as important as our legs and feet—it’s the heart and soul of our dancing, our personal signature. It’s what gives Giselle her fragile lyricism and Kitri her feisty flair. Otherwise we’re just executing steps. By withholding your épaulement, you’re withholding your artistry and only dancing at half your capacity.

Try to break through your self-consciousness by practicing your épaulement in front of the mirror at home. Once you reach a position, go for more—grow taller, reach your arms further, stretch your neck and focus your eyes. Notice how much more confident and alive you look. In the studio, try not worry about what your classmates think; if anything, they’ll agree that your dancing has improved. And if you accidentally use too much épaulement, so what? You’ll find that it’s much easier to pull back than to dig deeper.