Dance as a Career: Professional Dancers at RHS

At this time of year, most seniors are spending their time hunched over their computer screens, cramming in the last few college applications before the deadlines hit. For these students, college is their future. However, some seniors, like Hennessy Sheehan, Erin Woods, and Stephanie Buesser have a different future in mind. They’re applying to professional dance programs and companies, specifically Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway Conservatory, and various ballet companies, respectively.

There are a couple different routes that high school students can take if they want to pursue dance as a career. “If you want to dance professionally, you would most likely audition for a company. Another option is to audition for a training program, which I did. This enables you to continue your training before fully entering the professional world. A different route to go would be to go to college and get a degree in dance and then either dance professionally or teach,” says Erin Woods. High school is often the time when dancers decide which path they want to take after graduation, and decide whether or not they really want to continue in the field.

For some, the decision is easy. “I pretty much knew since I started dancing when I was young that I wanted to be professional,” says Stephanie Buesser. But for others, the realization comes later. Erin Woods says, “I didn’t realize I wanted to dance professionally until about halfway through sophomore year. I really didn’t start finding my true passion for the art form until then.”

These students have had very different senior year experiences from their peers. Dance programs often require a written application, a dance resume, and supplemental essays. After, there is an intensely competitive audition process. “College is not my primary goal, so even though I am applying to schools, I don’t really want to go to them. Also, I have to really focus on ballet because I want to have a career in it next year, so it is difficult to find a good balance between school and ballet,” Stephanie explains.

The pressure of auditions can become overwhelming, especially since dance is such an extremely competitive field as a career. Auditions are often taken as classes, taught by someone in the company or program. The decision is based on how well the dancer does in the class, and if he or she stands out from the rest. “The teachers try to treat you like one of their students, giving corrections when they see something wrong. The teachers aren’t there to tear you down, they are there to help you. They don’t want to see you fail.” Erin explains. Stephanie describes the audition process as “very stressful. They’re known as cattle calls because you and about 100 other dancers are all put into one studio, given a class, and judged. You have to make yourself stand out as much as possible because it is your future.”

Many high school seniors applying to college find it hard to restrain from comparing themselves to the other students. It is easy to feel the need to compare one’s own SAT scores, GPAs, and extracurriculars with others applying to the same schools. In that way, the dance audition process is actually very similar. Erin agrees that “The hardest part of the audition process  is trying not to compare yourself to the other people auditioning. It is very hard when you see somebody who has amazing turn out or amazing flexibility to not think, ‘They are better than me. They would get in over me.’ But you have to believe in yourself and know that the energy and effort that you put in showed off your skills and that the teacher saw potential in you.”

Once accepted, though, these dancers can continue their training into the professional world. Next year, Hennessy plans to head to Broadway Dance Center, and Erin to Steps on Broadway Dance Conservatory. When asked what a typical day will look like for them, Erin replies, “A typical day would most likely consist of two to three classes a day, chosen from a list of mandatory and elective classes, plus rehearsals or workshops and classes designs specifically for the program.” The day looks similar for Hennessy, who says that she will “be taking classes every day and doing a performance at the end of each semester. After that I’ll just be taking classes and auditioning.” Next year I will have company class every morning then rehearsals for the rest of the day. Companies usually have about 35 week contracts and do about ten runs of shows.

Obviously, a career in dance poses many challenges. So why do it? For these students, dance is a passion that they want to follow. “My favorite thing about dance is that it makes me forget about all of my responsibilities. When I’m in class, I’m only thinking about the steps that are right in front of me. There is nothing to over think. I also love that everybody can make their own interpretation of a piece while staying confined in the steps. It shows such grace and beauty while also showing strength and control,” Erin says. Stephanie adds, “My favorite thing about ballet is the amount of work that I have to put into it. Dancers always seek perfection and that really draws me to the art.”

As for next year, the dancers are looking forward to tackling new challenges and experiencing the professional dance world. “I think just the whole idea of performing on stage with a company is the most exciting of all of this. Getting to do what I love everyday is more than I could ever ask. I never really liked being at school but being up and active at dance makes me so happy. So being paid to do what I love is amazing. Many people don’t get that opportunity,” Erin says. As for Stephanie, she is excited to “be able to perform and do what I love for as long as I can. My dream role is probably Odile/Odette from Swan Lake.” Lastly, Hennessy says that she is looking forward to the many different paths that are available. “I’m just excited at the variety of options there are for dancers. There are musicals, music videos, television, movies, companies, and so much more. I just want to experience as much as possible!”

After getting through the audition process, the dancers at Ridgewood High School can relax and know that all of their hard work and dedication to training and performing in the last couple years has paid off.

Olivia Szymanski
arts & culture editor

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