Training to be a professional dancer in New York is like training to be an Olympic athlete.
You’re in the studio every single day. You cross train. You sacrifice your social life, sleep, and sometimes your sanity. And at the end of the day, you might be crazy good.
But just like in the Olympics, where there are more talented athletes than there are spots on the Team, the NYC dance scene has more talented dancers than there are paying dance jobs.
Figuring out how to deal with constant rejection.
I went to an audition just last week. About 125 dancers showed up, and that’s a fairly average turnout. But NYC studios are small—imagine trying to extend your arms when there’s a person standing six inches away from you. It’s a feat just to be noticed by the choreographer.
Later on, I found myself in a callback with thirty-five women who were all similar: talented, short, and with great facility, musicality, and memory.
Now, with more space and closer scrutiny, the director looks for one thing:
I consider my default mode to be “Hufflepuff.” I’m affable, loyal, and most comfortable surrounded by people I know well. But every time I dance, I have to find my inner “Gryffindor.”
It takes a certain kind of courage (“Neville Longbottom” courage, if you will) to reveal your authentic self to another person. Dance is about sharing an experience with others. Directors search, above all, for dancers who can be vulnerable in front of complete strangers.
At my audition, the assistant threw out choreography like it was trash, one blistering sequence of movement after the next. In such cases, it’s important to be musical and spatially aware, to “stick” the turns and jumps, etc.
But mere skill won’t get you a job: storytelling will. You have to muster up your courage and be vulnerable.
I got cut after the second round.
In school, they taught me how to lift my leg to my ear, how to whip out pirouettes and jump so high that it feels like taking flight. But no one taught me about this part: sitting in the subway afterwards, physically and emotionally exhausted, and wondering why—when I had the courage to speak—no one wanted to hear my voice.
It’s easy to see rejection from a job as rejection aimed at You, The Person—especially when the application process requires so much personal investment. But as I sat on the subway afterwards, I knew that wasn’t the case.
There are a million reasons you can get cut from an audition. You might be too tall, or too short. Or maybe there’s someone just like you in the cast already.
In a world overflowing with talented dancers, directors are forced to make brutal decisions. It’s not personal.
That is the most important lesson to learn, and it’s one I learned a long time ago. Still, rejection stings. And it can do something else, too: it can make you doubt yourself.
Doubt sucks the joy out of dance. It makes dancing feel like a job instead of a lifelong passion. It makes the decision to be vulnerable seem ten times more intimidating than it did before. Very quickly, you can end up in a downward spiral.
I got off the subway and walked back to my apartment feeling disappointed, a little sore, and wondering what to do next. But I made a few promises to myself.
Tonight, I’ll make a new audition schedule. I’ll practice yoga in my living room. I’ll see a friend. I’ll eat a piece of chocolate.
Because being a dancer isn’t just about being a Gryffindor when you’re in the studio.
Elizabeth Shew is a Portland, OR native and a New York-based dancer, writer, and creator. She is a graduate of The Ailey School and Fordham University and holds BFAs in Dance and English/Creative Writing. She has danced for choreographers Cindy Salgado, Jae Man Joo, Brice Mousset, Christopher Huggins and Taryn Kaschock Russell, among others. Recently, she participated in Cherice and Charissa Barton’s summer program, Axis Connect, and performed alongside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their annual piece *Memoria. *She is a current apprentice with BodyStories: Teresa Fellion Dance.
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