Tips for Fitting Into a Company Setting When You’re in the Junior Ranks

August 12, 2020

Landing a spot as a second company member or trainee is thrilling—your dream is starting to come true! While you’ll still be training intensely, you’ll also have opportunities to perform in company productions and take company class. But the newness of professional life can also be nerve-racking. To learn the ropes quickly, you’ll need to know what will be expected of you, both in the studio and in your interactions with other dancers and staff. A few simple tips can keep you from making common missteps.

No Time to Relax

Peter Stark, associate director of Boston Ballet II, gathers new second company members at the beginning of each season to explain the importance of this transitional stage of their careers. His advice? “This is not a time to relax,” he says. “The biggest mistake I see is dancers not being hungry enough.” Stark reminds them that while a junior company contract is validating, their potential for future advancement is constantly being evaluated. “A lot of assessment is made very early—by the end of Nutcracker, decisions are being made as to who’s staying and who’s not.”

Nineh Irving, now an apprentice at Texas Ballet Theater, realized this herself when she first joined as a trainee in 2018. “I was going to have to prove myself even more now that I had my foot in the door,” she recalls. “You think they know you as a dancer when you get an opportunity to be a trainee, but in fact that’s where it all begins.”

Two dancers sitting on a studio floor, wearing practice clothes. Figueredo has his arm around Irving's waist.
Nineh Irving with fellow TBT dancer Eric Figueredo. Courtesy Irving

Taking Company Class

As a trainee or second company member, you’ll likely have opportunities to take class with the main company. While your own program’s training regimen will still be quite demanding, company class may seem more relaxed. Artistic staff focus less on making corrections, and company dancers often push themselves as hard as they feel they need to. Even so, you’ll need to show that you’re self-motivated to improve.

You’ll also need to be respectful of the seniority structure without getting lost in the crowd. “There’s no guidebook to tell you what to do, so you have to have spatial awareness and be considerate,” says Charlotte Ballet dancer Nadine Barton. Established dancers will have favorite barre spots and areas of the studio they gravitate towards, and inadvertently infringing on that is the classic newbie faux pas. “Don’t stand in front of anyone who’s been there longer than you or get in their space,” says Barton. Hang back until others have taken their places or ask, “Is anyone standing here?” before taking an empty spot.

In center, being deferential doesn’t mean hiding in the corner—in fact, showing self-confidence is a plus. Stark says doing combinations multiple times will get you noticed even if you’re not in the front line. “Sometimes repetition is a way to get yourself seen without getting in anyone’s way,” he says.

Take Your Cue

Learning how to conduct yourself in a professional setting hinges on keen observation. But you also have to be discerning about who and what cues you follow, says Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, who works closely with OBT2 and pre-professional-division students as they integrate into company classes and rehearsal. “Some of the older dancers may be marking things, not taking class every day or not doing center,” says Kipp. “But realize that your schedule is likely not as rigorous as theirs, and that their behavior is earned and reflective of their workload.”

That applies to appearance, too, especially if your program doesn’t have a dress code. Stark says that until you’ve learned what’s typical attire for company rehearsals, “you can’t be too formal in terms of dress and demeanor. Eventually, if you see that things are more relaxed, you can follow that lead.” Barton agrees, adding that she often gravitated towards an older dancer for guidance. “It’s okay to ask, ‘Hey, it’s my first year here, is it okay to wear black tights?’ ” Company climates vary, but every dancer knows what it’s like to be new, and no one is likely to be upset about a respectful inquiry.

Headshot of Barton with her hair down leaning against an industrial style wallCharlotte Ballet dancer Nadine Barton. Courtesy Barton

Exceed Expectations

Even though you’re young and new, you’re still expected to act professionally. Always be on time and ready for work, says Kipp. “Constantly check the bulletin board, take a photo of your schedule if you need to. If rehearsal starts at 3, be warm and ready to go—don’t come blazing in five minutes before it starts.”

Also, company rehearsals move fast. There may not be as much, if any, time for reviewing material, so take it upon yourself to go over choreography at home, ask friends for help or review videos. (Kipp notes that most ballet masters will happily spend a few extra minutes clarifying something if asked.)

This especially applies to understudying, which is a large component of a new dancer’s life. “Once you’ve learned your part, learn the other side,” says Stark. “If you can jump in, it will be noticed by the artistic staff. And that marks you as a good employee and valuable member of the company.”

Early in her traineeship with TBT, Irving raised her hand during rehearsal when a sudden replacement was needed for a corps spot in Henry VIII. “I just happened to be looking at that girl, along with others I’d been learning originally. I got to go in, and it was a great opportunity.”

There may also be times when your rehearsal schedule is sparse, in which case Stark strongly recommends taking any available school classes to show your motivation—and avoid getting out of shape. “It’ll be noticed,” he says. “Teachers and company staff all talk, so word goes around.”

Working with a company for the first time can be intimidating, but remember that it’s your moment to establish what kind of dancer you are. “It’s no time to let your hair down,” reminds Kipp. “Show up, work hard on your shortcomings, be observant, and don’t be afraid to show your eagerness to succeed.”

Use Your Summer to Prepare

To make your entrance into company life as seamless as possible, start prepping well before your official start date.

  • Being in top physical shape from day one is a given. Taking several classes a day will replicate the hours of rehearsal you’ll soon have.
  • Boston Ballet II associate director Peter Stark recommends attending the affiliated school’s summer program to ease into what he calls the “corporate culture.” “Every organization has its quirks,” he says. “Getting an early start gives you a tremendous advantage of knowing the key people, the physical space, even unspoken things, like which dressing room to use.”
  • One of the biggest adjustments to a professional setting is being in pointe shoes for up to eight hours a day. Wearing your pointe shoes around the house, as odd as that seems, will help your feet get used to standing for extended periods of time.
  • Give yourself a mental and physical reset before the season starts. A short break early in the summer will rest your mind and body so you’re refreshed and ready to go with energy and enthusiasm.