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By Kathryn Holmes
Even if you don't take home a medal, you might take home a job offer.
Teddy Forance working with Travis Wall (kneeling) of Shaping Sound for the reality show All the Right Moves. Oxygen Media/Trae Patton.
Contemporary dancer Teddy Forance is a fixture in the L.A. dance scene. Among other gigs, he’s a co-director of Shaping Sound, Travis Wall’s new dance company, which was the subject of a reality TV show this past summer. But back in 2005, he was just one of many talented studio dancers on the competition and convention circuit. All of that changed at New York City Dance Alliance’s Nationals that year, where Forance was named Senior Outstanding Dancer and choreographer Mia Michaels was on the judging panel.
“Mia came up to me and said, ‘I might be calling you soon about auditioning for a project.’ It was surreal!” Forance says. A few weeks later, Forance was Michaels’ newest dancer—at only 17 years old. He went on to assist her on Cirque du Soleil’s Delirium, Celine Dion’s Taking Chances tour, and So You Think You Can Dance. “I had an amazing journey learning from Mia,” he says. “Plus, working with her helped me get more opportunities later on.” And in 2011 he was a “25 to Watch.”
Forance’s story isn’t as rare as you might imagine. Every year, more industry professionals look to competitions and conventions for up-and-coming dancers. Ballet company artistic directors flock to events like Youth America Grand Prix and the USA International Ballet Competition. Commercial, contemporary, and musical theater heavyweights judge and teach for NYCDA, The Pulse, and dozens of other events. Dancers, in turn, are taking competitions more seriously than ever. If they represent themselves well, they might win something that’s more valuable than any trophy: a professional job.
Ballet Company Contracts
Ballet competitions are designed to showcase the most promising ballet dancers in the world, so it’s no surprise that the events draw artistic directors scouting for the next generation of talent. In addition to competing for medals, young performers can win scholarships to prestigious ballet academies, while dancers who are already professionals or are on the verge of going pro may be offered company contracts.
Tulsa Ballet corps member Chelsea Keefer launched her professional career in 2011 thanks to YAGP. “I’d done YAGP before, mostly to gain experience, but last year I took it very seriously as a job opportunity,” Keefer says. “I worked on cleaning my class technique in addition to my competition variations.” After a YAGP-hosted audition class in New York City where artistic directors lined the walls, she was offered a contract for Tulsa Ballet’s second company.
Before the competition was over, Keefer was also offered an apprenticeship with Grand Rapids Ballet Company in Michigan. “Even though I didn’t make it to the final round of competition, I was so happy to be offered those positions,” she says. In her year with TBII, Keefer performed in every TB production, understudied Juliet in Edwaard Liang’s new Romeo and Juliet, and performed Sylvie Guillem’s role in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated at an invited-audience dress rehearsal—opportunities she would not have had without YAGP’s audition workshop.
Like Keefer, Ballet San Jose principal Ramón Moreno saw ballet competitions as a springboard to professional work. A Cuban native, Moreno competed at the USA IBC in Jackson twice. The first time, at age 19, he won a bronze medal; four years later, he didn’t place, but was offered a contract at BSJ. “When I first came to compete, one of my goals was to get a contract for a company outside of Cuba,” he says. “So, for me, this was a better prize than the actual prize.”
Commercial and Musical Theater Work
Dancers at jazz and contemporary competitions and conventions may dream of a full-time concert company slot, a Broadway role, or commercial gigs. They can gain access to those dreams thanks to the array of working choreographers and directors who teach at conventions and judge competitions.
“I was taught from a young age to always make your best impression, because you’re in front of professionals who hire people,” says Jaimie Goodwin, a member of Shaping Sound and a SYTYCD alum. “For me, that mindset paid off!” When Goodwin was a senior in high school, she took choreographer Tyce Diorio’s class at the touring convention Co. Dance. A week later, Diorio called Goodwin’s teacher, Denise Wall, to ask if Goodwin was available for a McDonald’s commercial he was choreographing. “He told Denise that based on what he saw in class, he thought I was perfect!” Goodwin says. She flew to New York, auditioned for the producers, and ended up booking her first professional job.
Mallauri Esquibel, who most recently went from the national tour of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away to a gig dancing and assisting choreographer Marguerite Derricks on ABC Family’s Bunheads, also got her professional start from competition exposure. After years of attending events like Hollywood Connection and NYCDA, she started getting offers of agency representation. “I knew that I wanted to move to either New York or L.A., and having people tell me ‘We want to help you make it’ was really exciting,” she says.
Esquibel’s first real foot in the door came thanks to jazz choreographer Tina D’Amato. They met at the convention L.A. Dance Magic, which Esquibel attended for years. When Esquibel was a high school senior, she was hired by D’Amato as a paid assistant. Once she moved to L.A., she worked for D’Amato for another two years while also making a web of professional contacts, including Mark Meismer, Doug Caldwell, and current employer Marguerite Derricks. “It’s so hard to start out as a dancer in L.A., and having a strong relationship with Tina helped me get more work in the industry,” Esquibel says.
Many dance conventions help young dancers begin building professional relationships by letting them assist faculty members. For instance, The Pulse has the Pulse Protégé program, in which top dancers compete at Nationals for the opportunity to tour with The Pulse the following season as an Elite Protégé. Elite Protégés demonstrate combinations alongside faculty members in each class.
During her tenure as an Elite Protégé in 2010/2011, contemporary and hip-hop dancer Pauline Mata was able to assist Diorio and Glee choreographer Brooke Lipton. Diorio brought Mata along to assist him with SYTYCD choreography, while Lipton suggested that Mata audition to dance on Glee, and used her in several episodes.
A Changing Audition Scene
Why are competitions and conventions proving to be such fertile ground for job opportunities? On the ballet side, it’s partly because competitions change up the standard audition experience. “Directors like to hire from ballet competitions because they get to see you actually dance,” Moreno says. “At an audition, often you take class and that’s it, but at competition they can see you in class and onstage.”
“Competition gives you the opportunity to show everything you have to offer,” adds Keefer. “On top of being clean technically and having a good movement quality, you have to show stage presence.”
In terms of conventions, taking class year after year with the same faculty can show growth and dedication in a way that a single audition can’t. Conventions can also put dancers in front of commercial choreographers who rarely hold open auditions. Meanwhile, many events have added auditions to their annual schedule. For instance, NYCDA’s 2012 Nationals included audition workshops for the Broadway show Newsies, the TV show SMASH, Cirque du Soleil, and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
So should dancers approach every competition and convention as an audition? Yes and no. After all, there’s a lot to be gained from these events beyond job offers. “Work ethic is a huge part of being a working dancer, and competitions and conventions can help you build that,” Esquibel says. “If you’ll be doing the same routine for months, focus on something different each time. Push yourself to take new classes. Learn to imitate the teacher without losing your own personality.” Mata adds that taking convention classes helps you teach your brain to quickly pick up new and unusual choreography.
For Forance, who’s now on faculty at JUMP, the key is being open to opportunity while not over-stressing about your performance. “Everything’s about timing—being in the right place doing the right thing when the right person is watching,” he says. “But you don’t have to be all about ‘Look at me!’ If you do your best, are humble and confident, and show that you love what you do, people will take notice.”
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.