6.11.2014

Healthy Competition - From Student to Freelancer

An old photo of me around age 4
As a youth, I was quite competitive. I wouldn't necessarily say that I was one of those kids who was in your face, I will cut you, competitive. But I got a great sense of satisfaction from the competition that dance offered me. Taking a look through my training, competition years, and finishing school to my first few years in a company, becoming a seasoned professional, and finally to my life as a freelance dancer; it is interesting to see how my sense of competition has shifted and matured. Without any sense of competition, I don't think I could have achieved the level of dancing that I am at today. But at the same time, I can look back and see where competition helped me, as well as hurt me along my path.

When I started dancing, I was too young to really understand competition. I was 2 years old and would sit with my mom in the lobby of our local dance school where my sister was taking creative movement classes. With all of my youthful exuberance, I kept running into my sister's class and interrupting their growing into a flower and skipping down the street exercises. When the instructor could have viewed my interruption as a nuisance, she instead saw it as an opportunity. Instead of scolding my mother for my misbehaving, she offered me a chance to join my sibling and her sisterly skippers. This was contingent upon me staying in class and remaining focused. After a few years in class and a few years off from dance, I started taking lessons again.

I never had a competitive appetite at the age of 7. I only took one class a week. Perhaps, it was due to the fact that I only saw dance as a hobby. Or maybe it was because I was the only boy in class. I don't recollect trying to do better than any of my peers, as I was just having fun. My first memory of feeling competitive was after I attended my first dance competition at the age of 13. My studio had decided to enter a few numbers in the regional Starpower - National Talent Competition. At this point, I hadn't even worn my first pair of tights in performance (the director feared that I wouldn't stick around if she made me wear tights in public), let alone considered outside talent or other boys that dance. I remember sitting in awe; seeing kids my age and gender dancing circles around me. Most of that competition, I spent sitting in the audience thinking about how I didn't understand why they were better than me, but I knew that there was something different about their dancing. This is the first time that I recognized technical achievement and, perhaps, the first time I felt that I needed to compete with the dancers around me to reach my greatest potential. I had experienced competition in Tae Kwon Do and in other areas of my schooling and hobbies, but I never really looked at dance from a competitive place.

As my teenage years passed, I attended more competitions and added conventions, workshops, and master classes to the mix. I never felt that I was nasty in my competitive attitude towards other dancers, but I slowly became one of the most ambitious dancers around. If I was in a class, I was standing front and center. If there was a master class, I was always the last dancer to leave the room to ask the teacher about corrections or for advice to show how hungry I was. If I was competing, I wanted to win first place overall. I guess I could say that I went from zero to 100 in a short period of time. I never threw any of my peers under the bus or cut anybody off, but I was competitive in spirit and made sure that I was seen and that my presence was known.

An old audition photo (Photo: Rosemary O'Connor)
Once I started attending auditions for ballet summer intensives, my experience at conventions helped me out. Having learned combinations amongst hundreds of eager dancers in ridiculously close proximity on carpet, as well as my ambition to be discovered, helped me gain notice more than my technique. I knew how to step out of a crowd and be seen. My competitive spirit didn't allow for shyness or measure. While I had really started to excel in my jazz, tap, and contemporary technique, I was quite far behind in my ballet technique. Ironically, I had fallen in love with ballet at 15 after seeing several School of American Ballet students perform besides me in a small company's Nutcracker. While I didn't have the chops to back up my eagerness, my competitive edge pushed me to audition out of my comfort zone. I attended any and every audition that I could. I talked to the teachers afterwards. I followed up the auditions with written letters of interest. And, after a failed first year of summer auditions, the next year I received a handful of non-scholarship offers to a number of summer intensives (which, being male, is a great testament to how much technique I was lacking).

While my mom wanted me to attend the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, a full-scholarship program, I insisted on attending Houston Ballet's summer intensive; one of the only ballet programs that offered me a partial scholarship. I knew that I would be surrounded by more male dancers in Houston than I would have been at the Governor's School. During this summer, I became much more intensely competitive. For the first time ever, I wasn't one of the best in class. I was surrounded by dozens of talented guys that had been focused on their ballet training for much longer than I had been. I was light years behind them and well aware that I had to play catch up. While I was never outrightly competitive towards the other boys in the program, I think that my intense approach to catching up was off-putting to a handful of my classmates. I didn't understand the culture and I didn't care what others thought of me. Everybody has heard that they shouldn't be competing with anyone other than themselves, but I didn't agree with that. I had spent a majority of my training in competition with myself and a bunch of girls, and I felt that this approach had only gotten me so far. I needed to be front and center in order to be seen and receive corrections. I also spent a lot of time watching other guys who got more attention than me analyzing what they were doing better. At times, I didn't understand why other teachers were drawn to them. I was under the impression that I was just as good as these guys, but they seemed to be on track for an invitation into the year-round program.

By the end of the summer, I somehow left with an offer to join the academy for their year-round program, but with very few buddies that I had really bonded with during my six weeks in Texas. I didn't understand why I had connected with so many of the girls at the program, yet so few boys. It is all quite clear now. In order to push myself towards the central focus of the teachers and obtain my spot with the school for the year, I had inadvertently segregated myself from many of my peers. When my mom refused to let me attend HBA because she felt that I needed to finish out high school (which I did the next year as a junior), my loss of competition (and, in my mind, improvement) made for a miserable year. During that summer, I had learned that I improved the most when I had comparable or better competition surrounding me. Returning to a local school, where I felt that I had none, felt like a deadly blow to my future in dance.

Returning to my alma mater as an adult - The School of American Ballet
My junior year passed and I finished out my last year of high school ready to finally make my move to Houston. While I was offered to attend again, I ended up finishing my training at the Kirov Academy of Ballet and the School of American Ballet. During this time, my approach to competition became much more aggressive. The thing about this is that, at the time, I didn't see myself as being competitive. Dancers often tell themselves that they aren't competing. I had convinced myself that I wouldn't talk to any of my peers during class because I needed to focus on myself. I still felt that I had to make up for lost time since I started focusing on ballet so late. I also convinced myself that I very strategically chose barre spots and center spots because I learned best in the front and center. While I felt this was practical, it came off as cut-throat. When a friend did well, and I didn't understand why they were called out instead of me, I was genuinely happy for them, but genuinely disappointed for myself. Then, I would find myself watching those that were doing well, analyzing what they had done to beat me to the punch, and changing my behavior to hopefully surpass them on their successful path.

Some of my closest friends and closest competition while @ SAB '03 (Jermel Johnson - Principal PA Ballet, me, Arron Scott - ABT, Troy Schumacker - NYCB, Will Lin-Yee - Soloist PNB, Andrew Scordato - NYCB)

Throughout my training, I would constantly tell myself that my competition did better than me because they had a better body than I did. Their feet were more flexible, knees were hyperextended, and their extensions were sky-high. So, I focused on what I thought I was good at. Intelligence, work-ethic, and sheer hunger for success. In the end, these things worked for me. And at high-level schools like The Kirov and SAB, you learn that you can become good friends with your competition. As long as you understand and support one another in their successes, a strong bond can still be formed within your competitive circle. Also, you begin to understand that you are all working towards a similar goal, but each end point is never exactly the same. Through this, we were able to bond, even with the possibility that a friend could outdo you and take a spot in the company that you desperately wanted to dance.

By the time that I had made it out of school, I was reaching the peak of my competitive streak. I was hired into Houston Ballet with 5 other apprentices. Since the company's union contract only allowed dancers to spend one year as an Apprentice, I knew that I had to make an impression to get promoted into the Corps and make one fast. To make matters more stressful, 4 of the 6 Apprentices were male. I immediately began to stake my claim in the front of class and to bond with one of the other apprentices, who would eventually become one of my best friends in Houston. A few weeks into my first season as a pro, one of the Principal dancers pulled me aside and yelled at me for standing in front of him during company class. I didn't understand why he was so upset, as he had already proven himself to the director. I felt that I had to compete to prove my worth to my new boss. Later in the season, my best friend was hired into the company before I had heard if I would be offered a Corps contract. A combination of these two factors started the decline of my competitive fierceness with other dancers around me. I was given two abrupt lessons. First, once you become professional, being competitive can actually cause greater stress than it can success. Second, I realized that I could potentially hurt a great friendship if I chose to be competitive instead of supportive.

Once I had competed my way into the professional world, I began to notice how cut-throat competition was not as much a part of the bigger picture of great success and I began to understand the idea of competing with oneself. In a company of 50 dancers, everybody wants to be on top. But the idea of what it means to be at the top is constantly changing. Did you dance opening night of a leading role? Were you featured on that poster that is being hung around town? Did Dance magazine feature you as a rising star? Were you called out with positive praise in the most recent review? There are many possibilities for dancers to rise to the top. The top is also fluid from program to program and often out of a dancer's control.

In green tights - PNB in Glass Pieces by Robbins (Photo: Angela Sterling)
After I joined PNB and started to really get a sense of what it was to be a true Corps member, I realized that I needed to start working towards something more cohesive with my fellow dancers. In order to improve, I had to start looking at what I needed to do and not where I was compared to everybody else. The idea of competing with myself became very true. I started to become off-put by dancers that acted exactly as I had when I was younger. And I realized that overtly competitive dancers often elicited the remark, "Who does he think he is?"

After a few years in the same workplace, you can get pigeon-holed into the type of dancer that the director thinks you are. When I was younger and casting would go up, my competitive nature might have made me feel like somebody took a role from me that I felt I deserved. In reality, it was not so much the idea that somebody took a role from me. Instead, it was the idea that I had to convince the director that I belonged in that role (whether through my dancing or verbally). And, of course, politics always comes into play. As I spent more time working besides the same colleagues who I had once felt the need to compete with, I began to feel that they weren't standing in my way to the top. Instead, my way to the top was in trying to convince the people casting ballets to believe in me and see in me what I, myself, and others saw.

Lucia Rogers & me as Romeo and Juliet w/ Fort Wayne Ballet

(Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
Working in the manner that I do as a freelancer, competition is nearly non-existent. Since I am not working with a company from program to program, I don't feel the need to compete for roles. I usually have a good idea of what I will be dancing before I show up for my first day of work. I have walked into companies and felt a strong sense of competition projected onto me from a few different dancers. One, in particular, was a dancer in his first year with a company where I had previously freelanced. This dancer felt so intensely competitive towards me that they became stand-offish and began walking up to me during rehearsals to give me corrections. After a firm discussion telling them that they needed to let the director do their job if they felt I needed fixing, they left me alone. Perhaps, it is the time that I have spent in the field. But, more likely, it is the fashion in which I currently conduct business. As a freelancer, I feel that I am not a threat to any dancer in any organization where I work. I am brought in to do my job and leave. I'm not going to take a dancer's job. I'm not going to take their future roles. I come in, I do what I was brought in to do, and I leave. It's essentially a non-competitive position.

Typical self-promotion - Did you see me in Dance Magazine?
I find that while I feel mostly uncompetitive, there is one place that I still feel a hint of competitive comparison. While I love social media and stay connected through these venues due to my travels, I find that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are more often used by professional dancers for self-promotion than as a way to stay in touch. I am one of the biggest offenders on these platforms. Whenever I sign into one of these sites, I am proud to see what successful friends I have. But I find that, at times, I have to keep myself in check when I feel the need to start comparing my successes with their self-promoted successes. In the end, we were all wildly competitive as kids, which connected us on similar paths and pushed us upward and onward towards great successes.

No matter how mature I grow within my competitive nature, there will always be a sense of comparison to others in my field. Competition was an exciting aspect of dance that not only grew my interest in the field, but helped me grow to the level of artistry and excellence I have achieved today. Dancers learn through healthy competition. It is important for us to keep in mind that the kindest, healthiest competition is one that supports others and supports oneself in the most positive, growth-forward way.

My friend Jermel & me waiting for a bus to go on tour w/ABT in the middle of a blizzard

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