Ask Amy: Can Late Starters Succeed?

May 21, 2012

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I’m almost 15, and am just about to start taking pointe classes. I’m worried that after high school, companies won’t accept me because I won’t have been dancing on pointe long enough. Is it too late? I’m starting to think I should just give up. —Kara

Breaking into the professional ballet world is difficult for someone who has trained her whole life, let alone a late starter. That’s not to say it hasn’t been done. American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland and The Joffrey Ballet’s Valerie Robin both started dancing as teenagers. But to be successful, you need a large dose of raw talent, advantageous physical attributes (such as natural turnout and flexibility), excellent training and, above all, an insatiable determination to catch up with your peers.

Since you haven’t started pointe yet, you still have a ways to go—and with a ballet career, time is of the essence. Talk to your teachers about your ambitions and ask for their honest opinion of your professional potential. See if one of them would be willing to mentor you with private instruction to help speed things along. Also, consider taking another year after graduation to focus intensely on your training before auditioning for companies, colleges or conservatories—they’ll expect you to have an advanced level of pointework.

I’ve gone to the same summer intensive for the past three years, and they seem to like me. This summer I’m hoping to join the second company. How can I increase my chances? Should I talk to one of my teachers? —Justina

Absolutely! I had a similar experience. I attended Milwaukee Ballet’s summer program three times, and during my last year I had an opportunity to speak with the school director. He asked if I was interested in their trainee program, and when I said yes, he told me that the summer would serve as an audition process. I worked my tail off to make a good impression, and during the last week of the intensive they offered me a spot.

Approach the faculty early in the program to let them know you’d like to be considered for the second company. Then, after telling them you’re interested, show you’re interested through your behavior in and out of classes. Stand where the teachers can see you and give them your undivided attention. Absorb any stylistic details they stress to prove that you’d fit in with their company. They’ll be looking for team players, so show respect for your fellow classmates and project a positive attitude. In addition, follow all dormitory rules and avoid any foolish behavior (like excessive partying or underage drinking) that might tarnish your reputation. Since they already know you, you have an advantage. Make the most of it!

I have a serious problem with musicality. When I’m dancing, I get so caught up in making everything technically correct that I end up behind the beat. Help! —Ayako

It’s great that you’re a stickler for technique, but you’re missing out on the fun part—dancing to music! And you’re not doing yourself any favors by slowing down to perfect a position. Not only are you weakening the artistic integrity of your performance, but you’re training yourself to fear failure rather than take risks.

Listen closely to music in your spare time to learn to connect with all of its different facets: upbeats, downbeats, syncopations, specific instruments. Try taking a tap class or piano lessons to help improve your rhythm. And when you’re dancing, don’t analyze every step so much. Listening to the musical rhythm can actually help your technique if you let it. For example, my turns improved dramatically when I started spotting with the rhythm instead of fretting over my form. Even when the turn doesn’t work out, I’m musically in the right place to keep going.

You’d be surprised—when you make musicality a top priority, you have no choice but to trust your training and just go for that double pirouette or entrechat six. Sure, you may not always look perfect…but you’ll be much more interesting to watch.