How To Make the Most of Ballet Competitions

November 9, 2008

From Washington Ballet to COMPLEXIONS to Step Up, Adrienne Canterna knew exactly how to dance her way to the top. Her secret? Competitions. From age 5, Adrienne entered as many as possible, and, at 15, she won a gold medal in the junior division of the 1998 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, MS. “It really changed my life and my career,” she says.


Medal or no medal, competitions can turn you into a better performer and artist. They teach you how to deal with pressure and how to make technical steps show your personality. And you get to see your peers dancing their best (which will push you to work even harder).


Not sure where to start? No worries. We’ve got you covered!

Every Tendu You Take

News flash: You may not know it, but you’re already preparing to compete! Every plié, every pirouette, every performance preps you for competition—and for a professional career. In Adrienne’s words: “Every single ballet class is a preparation.”


It takes discipline to get to a competitive level; you have to be tough on yourself. ABT apprentice Christine Shevchenko rehearsed every day after her classes at The Rock School in Pennsylvania. Her biggest challenge? “Grand Pas Classique!” she says. “I’m not a person who gives up, so I had to work really hard.” The work paid off with a gold medal at the 2005 Moscow International Ballet Competition, followed by a bronze at Jackson’s USA IBC in 2006.


While competing doesn’t guarantee a job offer, it polishes your performance quality and gives you a chance to be seen. You never know who might be in the audience—company directors, school administrators, choreographers—as ABT II’s Isaac Hernandez discovered. He participated in more than a dozen competitions, earning a bronze medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition, first place at the Cuba International Competition and Youth America Grand Prix Junior division and a gold medal at Jackson in 2006. “Competitions are like an art gallery to expose your work,” Isaac says. “The bigger the competition, the bigger the exposure.”

Steps to Prep

The competition road is bumpy, so it takes a great teacher to guide you. While each dancer-coach relationship is unique, these steps will help put you on the right foot.


Increase your stamina. Jamey Leverett, director of the Draper Dance Center in Rochester, NY, and a winner of YAGP’s Outstanding Teacher award, has coached many students to the top. “I make sure the dancer can get through variations two to three times full-out each rehearsal,” she says, “so when they perform in the competition, it’s a breeze.”


Dive into your roles. “I ask students to research their variations and find facts they didn’t know about their characters,” says Peter Stark, director of Orlando Ballet School. The extra thought gives more meaning to the steps. Texas Ballet Theater Artistic Director Ben Stevenson says he looks for someone “who shows an interesting reading of her characters.”


Personality, personality, personality! Show a different style in your contemporary variation, says Christopher Fleming, assistant director of The Rock School, who worked with both Christine and Isaac. Knowing Isaac’s great sense of humor, he choreographed a piece to the “I Love Lucy” theme for the Cuba International Competition. “After he’d done four serious variations, the audience (and judges) loved it,” Fleming says. “The humor endeared him to them.”

Pick Your Shot

No two ballet competitions are alike, so you need to figure out which makes most sense for your age and level. Here’s a sampling.


Youth America Grand Prix offers great opportunities for beginners as well as advanced students, since the age range is 9-19. YAGP allows you to work your way up through regional, semi-final and international finals. You must prepare at least three variations for the finals, in case you make it to the third round. The exposure factor is huge, since dancers in the finals compete for scholarships to the top schools in the world and contracts with companies like ABT II.


New York International Ballet Competition showcases preprofessional or professional dancers ages 17-24, and dancers apply in couples through video auditions. Only 48 dancers (24 couples) are chosen every two years, so just making it is an achievement! Rather than coming with variations, couples spend the two weeks learning three pas de deux, which they perform during the third week. “Our competition is not for competition’s sake,” says director Ilona Copen. “We firmly believe it is a learning and mentoring process.” The challenge is extreme, but it might be the push you need to reach your next level.


USA International Ballet Competition is held every four years in Jackson, MS—the next one will be in June 2010. Unlike YAGP, this competition only has two divisions—junior (ages 15-18) and senior (ages 19-26)—and there are no regional levels. Dancers from around the world are selected through video applications and must prepare up to six classical and contemporary variations; they can compete as soloists or with a partner. USA IBC executive director Sue Lobrano recommends some research before applying. “If you come to Jackson, you are competing with some of the best dancers in the world,” she says.

The Big Day

After months of training, competition day has finally arrived! Keep these tips in mind to stay at the top of your game.

  1. Eat and sleep right. It may seem obvious, but many dancers don’t take care of themselves while traveling. This is not the time to stay up late eating hotel junk food! Bring plenty of healthy energy food—fruit, nuts, power bars—and stay hydrated.
  2. Plot out your day. Coaches and competition-savvy dancers suggest figuring out the schedule ahead of time. “Competition days go on for hours, and many kids constantly warm up,” Stark says. “I plot out the day for my students and tell them when to start warming up based on their number.”
  3. Focus on you. While some dancers get a competitive boost from watching others, some (you know who you are) get freaked out. Figure out what works best for you and stick to your plan.
  4. Perform for the right reasons. Isaac, Christine and Adrienne attribute their success to concentrating on constructive reasons for competing—not on winning a medal. “People focused only on winning don’t have fun,” says Adrienne. Christine encourages others to compete “for the experience—it teaches you how to deal with pressure and nerves.” Isaac noticed that dancers who go to prove that they are the best “come to show off, but come out the same dancer. I try to come out a better dancer by learning from others.”