The Truth About Trainee Programs

November 28, 2001

When Kimberly Braylock saw San Francisco Ballet perform three years ago, she decided it was the company for her. She auditioned for the SFB summer intensive, then joined the school at age 17, with her eyes set on a place in the corps.

Although she didn’t get the company position she’d been hoping for at the end of the school year, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson offered her instead a spot in the SFB School Trainee program. Despite her disappointment, she accepted. “I realized how intense the trainee program is, and decided it would be a good way for me to improve as much as I could before getting into a company,” says Braylock.

Increasingly, company directors are looking not just for talented dancers, but also for professional behavior and experience. Similar to second companies and apprenticeships, a trainee program bridges the gap from classroom student to stage-ready artist, with one major catch: Trainees are unsalaried and pay yearly tuition, generally around $4,000 per year. But with professional performance opportunities and career guidance, traineeships can be helpful for dancers who feel they need an extra year before auditioning to join a company full time.

The Technical Trainee

At first, some students turn their noses up at a trainee offer, since tuition is expensive and many want to start auditioning. “I am ready to work!” or “I want to perform!” are common responses, thanks to an outdated perception that female ballerinas must start their careers by age 18. Yet a traineeship offers more than just an extra year as a student.

Although trainee programs vary slightly from company to company, all require a level of daily focus more intense than advanced school levels. “Trainees are held to a higher standard because they all desire to be professionals,” explains Kathleen Mitchell, Boston Ballet School faculty member.  

Directors invite students ages 16 to 20—although age limits vary—who are finished with high school or are completing it through correspondence. Trainee programs associated with companies like Boston Ballet, Ballet Austin, SFB and The Joffrey Ballet (a new program starting this fall) average 25 to 30 hours in five or six days per week. Students take daily ballet, pointe and pas de deux classes, as well as men’s technique, modern, jazz and character. Most programs offer body conditioning through Pilates, Gyrokinesis or strength training. Trainee classes are kept small, 15 to 20 students a year, to focus on individual attention and growth.

“I teach slightly faster and more detailed than at the school level,” explains Margaret Tracey, associate director of Boston Ballet School. “What really separates the program is the time we spend giving personal feedback.”

Dancing With Pros

Trainees are encouraged to observe rehearsal, and, in some programs, they get to take company class. “I was terrified I’d stand in a soloist’s spot, so I lingered until everyone settled,” says BB trainee Patrick Yocum. “I could see their work ethic, but I realized the company attitude is more relaxed—like a big family.” Seeing the profession inside-out allows trainees to peel away the mystery from their dream company. “Everyone starts with pliés and tendus in the morning, no matter what role they performed last night,” says Mitchell.

Traineeships often cover basic corps de ballet skills: picking up material quickly, observing other dancers’ style and timing, and staying true to formations. “I learned to adapt to many spots within the corps, so if someone gets injured I can jump into different counts and spacing,” says Braylock. Twenty-year-old Jaclyn Oakley, a second-year trainee with BB, discovered one of the most difficult aspects of the profession. “I never had to remember and rehearse several shows at the same time before,” she says. “You have to know your steps or else you will get run over!”

The most attractive feature of joining a company trainee program is performing in main stage productions. Nearly all trainees perform in The Nutcracker, sometimes as rats and soldiers, party parents or even filling corps spots in snow and flowers. At SFB, trainees performed in Swan Lake this year, while at BB they have danced in The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. The trainees don’t get a paycheck for performances, but, as Mitchell says, “The experience is the pay!”   

Although trainees may learn company roles, they are still students within an education process. Specific dress code is observed at all times, so trainees are visible to teachers and directors. “During rehearsals, I felt comfortable being able to ask questions about choreography, and a company member helped me with a tough part by showing me what she learned,” says Elisa Pekarek, a 20-year-old BA trainee. Trainees also have their own repertory performances, and dance in outreach programs throughout the year.

Beyond The Studio

Trainees are also taught basic life skills, so they are not overwhelmed when thrown into professional adulthood. “A lot of artistic potential is lost if you are distracted as a person,” says Michelle Martin, associate artistic director of Ballet Austin. Workshops on budgeting, filing taxes and becoming established in a new city help smooth the transition. An official peer mentoring program gives BA trainees a chance to ask burning questions, mostly about finding jobs and the right company for them.

Dance classes are often enhanced by behind-the-scenes workshops. SFB provides seminars on costumes, lighting, stage managing, teaching and choreography. Some programs urge dancers to find a part-time job or enroll in college courses. Pekarek is currently a swim instructor, getting certified in Pilates and a junior in college. “We encourage our dancers to feed their minds in other ways,” says Martin. “See where dance fits into their life, instead of dance becoming their whole life.”

A Career Investment

Whether a young dancer is having difficulty landing a professional job, doesn’t feel ready to go pro or wants a foot in the door of their favorite company, joining a trainee program can be a smart career move. Pekarek was invited to join Ballet Austin II during her second year as a trainee. “After high school I wasn’t sure if dancing was a reality for me. But I took a risk, and I know this is where I want to be.”

Other trainee alumni are showing up in major companies across the country. This year alone, two men and four women from SFB’s trainee class are joining the company. “I was invited to be an apprentice after our Swan Lake performances, and I cried!” exclaims Braylock. “It was my dream to join this company, and I still can’t believe I made it.”

Jen Peters is a writer in NYC who dances with Jennifer
Muller/The Works.