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Competitions 101: What You Need to Know Before Signing Up For Your First Ballet Competition

You've watched First Position, the 2011 documentary about dancers at Youth America Grand Prix. You've studied videos of past ballet competition winners online. Now, you're interested in joining those elite ranks by entering a competition yourself. But what if your school doesn't have a program set up to guide you through the process? Pointe asked four experts to break down what ballet competition newbies need to know.

Pick the Right Event

Brady Farrar, age 12, is a student at Stars Dance Studio. Here he performs at the 2018 ADC IBC Grand Prix. Photo by SMaCK Arts, Courtesy ADC IBC.

Not all competitions are ideal for first-timers. What's right for you will depend on several factors, starting with your age and experience level. For instance, YAGP is open to pre- professional dancers ages 9 to 19, whereas the USA International Ballet Competition, held every four years in Jackson, Mississippi, welcomes competitors up to age 28—including seasoned pros. Before you sign up for an event, assess who else will be there. While you can certainly be challenged and inspired by watching older, more experienced dancers, competitions are also useful for seeing how you measure up against your peers.

Next, take a look at the performance requirements. "I would not advise those new to competing to do major events like USA IBC, the Moscow International Ballet Competition or the Varna International Ballet Competition, simply because of the number of variations required," says Edward Ellison, artistic director of Ellison Ballet in New York City. His students have secured top prizes at a variety of interna- tional competitions. "Six solos, or three pas de deux, could be more than a first-timer is ready to chew." An event that asks you to present one classical and one contemporary piece may feel more manageable.

In general, Ellison advises getting your feet wet at a local competition before traveling long distances. Perhaps the most accessible in that regard is YAGP, with regional semifinals across the U.S. and around the globe. Meanwhile, some events are held over a single weekend, while others, like the IBCs in Jackson and overseas, can last two weeks or longer. Testing your mettle at a shorter event first can prepare you for a more rigorous competition in the future.

Lastly, consider your goals. Do you have your sights set on earning a slot at a prestigious academy, an apprenticeship or even a company contract? Selecting an event where you'll be seen and judged by the right people is a must. Account for all of the opportunities available to competitors, from stage time to master classes and auditions, as you make your decision.

Weigh the Costs

Competing can get pricey. Expect registration fees, broken down by how many categories (solo, pas de deux, ensemble) you plan to enter. You'll also need coaching, which happens outside of regular class time. "Some schools charge a flat competition fee for the number of weeks you'll be trained," says Mariaelena Ruiz, who directs Cary Ballet Conservatory's Professional Training Program in Cary, North Carolina. She has coached medalists at YAGP, Prix de Lausanne and others. "Other dancers hire a coach independently, often for an hourly rate." Either way, you could spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on private coaching. If your coach will attend the competition with you, you may also have to cover their travel expenses—on top of your own transportation and lodging. Need to perform a contemporary number? Unless you have a teacher who can create an original piece for you in-house, you'll have to hire a choreographer.

Then there are the costumes. "Quality classical tutus can range anywhere from $600 to $2,000," Ellison says. Ruiz notes that you can save money by renting a tutu, or by buying a plain base. "You can layer accessories and use it for different variations," she explains. And don't forget your contemporary costume, extra pointe shoes or slippers, and any conditioning and physi- cal therapy you'll need to keep yourself healthy. It adds up—but if cost is an issue, scholarship funds may be available, either through your school or through the event you're interested in attending. Be ready to do your research.

Prep Like a Pro

Ashley Baszto is now a dancer with Orlando Ballet. Photo by Michael Cairns, Courtesy Baszto.

In your coaching sessions, you're doing more than learning choreography and nitpicking technical details. "You have to work on musicality and artistry," says Orlando Ballet company member Ashley Baszto, who has competed at YAGP, USA IBC and Florida's American Dance Competition | International Ballet Competition. "You also have to understand and express the intention of your performance. All of that takes time."

The amount of advance preparation recommended varies from studio to studio. Ellison begins the coaching process several months before a competition. Ruiz starts working with her students in September for a February or March event; for young competitors, she might even introduce variation elements during the summer. "I don't want to put anyone onstage who isn't ready," Ruiz says. "Miracles come after work."

When you've got your eyes on the prize, it can be tempting to shift your focus entirely toward rehearsals. However, you never want to sacrifice your regular training. "The competition should be the result of everything the student knows, which is not only one variation," says Claudio Muñoz, a teacher at Houston Ballet Academy and a frequent coach who has also juried for competitions, including YAGP, ADC | IBC and Japan Grand Prix. "At Houston, we only begin work on the variation about a month before the event. We think of it like a performance—if you were preparing Sleeping Beauty, you wouldn't work on it for three years!" Of course, it can't hurt to slot in extra rehearsals if you're feeling anxious, but class always comes first.

Make the Most of It

International Ballet Academy student Parker Garrison takes a bow at the ADC IBC. Photo by SMaCK Arts, Courtesy ADC IBC.

When your time in the spotlight arrives, Ellison recommends treating it like any other performance. "Focus on what you're giving of yourself to the audience," he says. "Be generous, expressive and really live onstage. You're far more likely to dance well if you approach it that way."

Keep in mind that your few minutes onstage represent only a fraction of the competition experience. "Every moment you're there is an opportunity," Baszto says. Many events include auditions, master classes, networking forums and more.

And don't hesitate to introduce yourself to other dancers and their coaches, to master teachers and even to the jury, if appropriate. "You're going to meet so many people at a competition, and that in itself is wonderful," Muñoz says. "If you focus only on the stage, you're isolated. That's not productive."

Above all, remember that medals aren't everything. "Everyone wants to place first," Baszto says. "But even if you don't win, you've already improved so much from all of the work you've done. Appreciate your growth." Focus on the journey rather than the outcome, and you'll head home happy and fulfilled.

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