Ballet competitions are not a mandatory path at all. The regular path to a scholarship or a contract in a junior or senior company remains through auditions. If you are curious to know if a ballet competition is for you, head out to our article “Should I sign up to a ballet competition?”; If you already have plans to participate in a ballet competition, we offer you here 5 simple tips to be at your best when the day comes.
TIP 1: CHOOSE YOUR VARIATION WISELY
Your first important decision is to choose your variation. You need to choose a variation that suits you once you are stage ready, not a variation that suits you today. Maybe your teacher will choose the variation for you but if they don’t, here are some tips to choose a good variation.
LIST YOUR CURRENT STRENGTHS AND YOUR CURRENT WEAKNESSES
Don’t be shy on those strengths, you have potential, you have good things to show! It may no be perfect yet but it does not make it less of a strength. Get your teacher’s, parents’ and friends’ opinion to have a full picture. Sometimes others can see things that we don’t.
In parallel, make a shortlist of variations that you think are good for you. Watch them online, imagine yourself dancing them, get your teacher’s views on them.
Then compare the variation to your strengths and weaknesses. To get the most out of your preparation, you’ll want to be challenged to get out of your confort zone. I have met dancers who decided to prepare a variation with a lot of jumps because they were not good jumpers and it was a way to steadily work on it and get better at it. They did not become amazing jumpers but thanks to the work done, their jumps are not ‘bad’ anymore.
So, you’ll narrow down your shortlist to variation that allow you to both (1) make at least two of your current strength shine, and (2) make you work on a weakness that you’d like to improve on. Working on your weakness will make the work valuable independent of the competition results, and being able to shine will help you stay motivated.
TIP 2: UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT AND THE CHARACTER
In practice, this is done as the same time as your variation selection. Before settling on your final choice: do some research to understand the story of the full ballet from which the variation is extracted. Read the synopsis, watch the full ballet, watch our coaching sessions by Principals who were famous for that role, get familiar with the novel if it’s originally a book. Make sure you understand who your character is and what’s happening at the time of the variation. A common mistake noticed in competitions is to be out of character. Esmeralda is a gitana – not just a Spanish girl, Siegfried is a hunting Prince – not simply Prince Charming. It can be difficult for a teenager to dance a mature Manon or Solo. Take into account all this information to (1) choose wisely your variation, (2) include those elements in your interpretation.
Once you’ve chosen your variation, prepare how you’d like to interpret the role by using some actors’ tips. Consider thinking how your character behaves in some situation. How do they walk? How do they look at friends? How do they sit? How do they move their hands? Then spend some time moving around as if you were them. Approach this as a game if it seems awkward at first.
FINDING THE RIGHT COSTUME
Guys are luckier because they can easily get away with tights, a shirt and maybe a vest. Tutus can be pretty expensive. Let’s be clear, you don’t need an expensive costume to shine on stage. The jury really don’t care much about your costume: it is an accessory to bringing life to your character. Save yourself some money and try to keep it simple but aligned with your choice. Giselle is a peasant, she does not wear a tiara or strass on her gown. With the internet, you can find decent tutus for a more affordable price than before. If you are lucky enough to know a seamstress, get yourself one tailored. Don’t forget that you might be able to use it more than once or lend it to someone in the future.
TIP 3: PRACTICE CLEAN TECHNIQUE, DON’T RELY ON ‘TRICKS’
GET THE TECHNIQUE RIGHT AND DO NOT RELY ON ‘TRICKS’ TO WIN
Let’s get to the Core of your preparation: study your variation well! Make sure you understand what the steps are. Don’t be approximative. Is it a balloné or a rond de jambe en l’air? Be sure: ask your teacher, if you have access to company dancer then get their help. It is all the more important that the steps are the words of your variation. Each step tells a part of the story. Can you do a grand battement in the White Swan Variation instead of ‘rond de jambe en l’air-développé”? No, because the leg movement is meant to resemble a wing flap in that moment where Odette is transforming from swan to woman. No dancer needs to be able to do 10 pirouettes to do well in a competition, but you need a clean technique. Stay focused on what really matters: beautiful and clean technique that enables you to express something.
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC
Being musical is the second thing the jury will pay attention to. Ballet is choreography on music so you must respect the intended rhythmic of the variation. Don’t study from only one video you can find on Internet because the dancer can always be wrong on the timing and musicality. If you cannot rehearse with someone who danced it in a company with a professional Ballet Master then make sure to check out multiple videos. Learn your variation musical phrase by musical phrase. Test yourself and sing the steps to the tune of the variation: “step, steeeep, glissade, piqué-ramassé”. That said, don’t limit yourself to the legs: your arms and head coordination brings life to your dance.
TIP 4: DEVELOP A SYSTEM TO GUIDE YOUR PROGRESS
There is a lot you can do to be at your best for a competition aside from practicing your variation. And it can be overwhelming, so we advise that you focus on only one topic each week but you give it all your attention. We suggest the following system, but you can explore and make up your own.
On the last day of the weekend, before going to bed, decide on the topic you want to focus on.
On the first day of the week, before going to the studio, remind yourself of the topic you have chosen.
Throughout your day, apply the lessons you’ve learned, adjust your behavior.
At the end of the day, reflect on your day and
observe if /where you’ve done well. Take note (mentally or grab a pen) of it, and spend a little bit of time thinking about what you could do different tomorrow.
Make sure not to focus only on the negative, it is demoralizing and will hamper your progress. When you acknowledge what you are already doing right, you reinforce it and you are more likely to continue. If you don’t, you might overlook the importance of your behavior and change for the worse.
Have a clear idea of what you want to do tomorrow before going to bed.
On the second day, remind yourself of your area of focus for the day and repeat the process.
TIP 5: PRACTICE TO LOOK PROFESSIONAL ON STAGE
PRACTICE THE LITTLE THINGS
Whenever you can, make sure to practice your walk and the way you hold yourself. The way you hold yourself and walk on stage is the first thing everyone will see of yourself. The first impression is extremely important. And you might be much more nervous then than now so you need to practice until it feels completely natural to walk like a ‘real dancer’. Here are a few things to consider:
Keep your head up and focus on a spot in the audience. Look at the stop like your life depends on it. Give that spot a friendly face if you need. You’ll use that spot in your entrance, throughout the variation and for the bows.
Pointe your feet fully. Don’t be shy to exaggerate the foot articulation when you walk. All the more if you wear pointe shoes! From far, small movements look… SMALL!
Show your best turnout. It is not about having the best turnout of the world, the point is to actively and continuously use it. And the entrance is the best moment to show the audience that you’re a ballet dancer and you use your turnout.
Stand up proud on your legs and use the floor as you walk. Make sure your weight is shifted from one supporting leg to the other one. Again, don’t be shy and practice until it feels comfortable.
CONTROL YOUR APPEARANCE
We have already mentioned the eye contact. Your gaze must be determined when you’re on stage. Look where you are going, maintain eye contact with the audience at given times, make eye contact with the jury, pretend you have the corps de ballet with you on stage. Practice it in the studio until it’s natural.
A common mistake seen in competitions is to make a face when something goes wrong. Very often the public and the jury do not see if you’ve lost balance or did one turn less than planned, but if you make a face then they will surely realise that something is off.
First think about the little habits you may have, if you’re unsure then ask someone to tell you if you bite your lips or do something that can betray you when you dance. We are not always aware of these little things. Then practice not making a face when you work on your variation. It takes time to change a habit so be patient with yourself. Use the positive coaching approach: (1) ask yourself first if you think you made a face, and only after that self-check you can (2) ask someone to confirm your perception. By not relying on someone else you’ll soon notice that it’s easier for you to control that habit of yours and not long after that you’ll manage not to do it anymore.
These are just simple tips applicable to all to prepare for your competition. If you want a more personalised support to help you choose your variation, manage your emotions and get the best out of yourself, don’t hesitate to enrol the services of a coach. You can always contact a Core de Ballet coach for advice or a full coaching program.
Preparing for a competition is a hard, yet rewarding, endeavour. Whether you win or not, you’ll love the fact that you’ve progressed so much to present your variation. The stage experience will bring you invaluable lessons to progress your craft. You’ll meet amazing dancers and teachers and maybe friends for life. Don’t give up and keep yourself surrounded by positive people.