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How to choose the best training for a contemporary dance career

Students at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Photo: Justin Slee

Potential dance students have many study options to choose from, each of which provide different styles of training and career prospects. Anna Winter speaks to course leaders and ex-students about selecting what’s right for you

Contemporary dance training in the UK comprises the conservatoire route and the university route. The former is geared towards prospective performers, especially those hoping to nab a job in major companies, but they also draw out choreographic and teaching skills. University degrees, meanwhile, place more emphasis on theoretical study and offer pathways into academia, education and community work.

Pre-vocational dance training

For talented youngsters aged 10 to 18, there are National Centres for Advanced Training in Dance (also known as CAT schemes) throughout the country. The schemes offer a specialist pre-vocational training in contemporary dance for exceptional students while they continue to live at home. According to Jeanne Yasko, artistic director of London Contemporary Dance School’s postgraduate company Edge: “CATs are amazing programmes that train young people to a high standard and offer a great foundation in contemporary dance.”

The Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance offers a year-long pre-vocational course, while Trinity Laban now offers a foundation year, which leads on to an undergraduate degree.

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Full-time vocational dance training

The main conservatoires in the UK are London Contemporary Dance School (also known as the Place), Trinity Laban in Greenwich and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. The Rambert School has a stronger classical heritage, in keeping with its namesake company’s origins, but it also trains contemporary dancers for the stage.

Admission to contemporary dance school isn’t just for those who have studied dance since infancy. Northern School of Contemporary Dance head of performance Francesca McCarthy says that at undergraduate auditions she’s “looking at movement potential and the students’ capacity to take on instructions, to be curious. We recognise some people have done ballet from age three, some started last week and some have a street dance background”.

At a conservatoire, students train extensively in contemporary and ballet technique. The former includes release-based techniques, Graham and Cunningham techniques, contact improvisation as well as choreographic classes. Complementary and holistic practices such as yoga, reiki and Pilates are also included.

Dance artist Cecilia Watts, who graduated from Laban in 2015, notes the importance of keeping an open mind during study. “I had a strict idea of what dance was and what I wanted to do when I started,” she says. “I was still wearing my ballet shoes. I remember watching a video during a lecture of two people crying into a microphone and thinking: ‘I don’t understand.’ But Laban opened my eyes to what art and dance can be.”

McCarthy agrees: “Students have often been dancing as a hobby. It’s fun and it’s their mode of communication, expression and a release from the everyday struggles of life. When you shift into training and it’s going to become your career, it’s a very different thing that might feel less fun. One piece of advice is to stay curious. Students will encounter things that are different to what they’ve encountered before, and might struggle to see the value of something, but it’s important to go with it, to trust the process. We live in a generation where people want everything now but it doesn’t work like that. You have to train the body with patience, perseverance and attention to detail, knowing when to take a break and let go.”

Full-time training is “mentally and emotionally draining”, says Watts. “Sometimes I’d lie down and cry in the school’s bean bag area, not because of unhappiness, but through exhaustion,” she adds. As such, it’s important “never to neglect energy and stamina and particularly hydration. I used to hate drinking water, but it becomes your best friend”.

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Postgraduate dance companies

Each of the three conservatoires have their own graduate companies: Edge at LCDS, Transitions at Laban and Verve at NSCD [3].

These year-long programmes aim to bridge the gap between student and professional life with touring experience and the chance to work with a range of choreographers. There’s also an academic element leading to a master’s degree.

Edge’s Yasko says the company prepares its performers “to meet things that are wonderfully inspiring but also uncomfortable”.

She adds: “I always try to pick a choreographer who might be difficult. Not to make life hell, but to confront them with an experience that goes beyond their comfort zone.”

Sometimes members of the cohort won’t get cast for a piece. The Edge framework aims to support students through difficult times that “mirror the professional situation”.

Studying dance at university

While Roehampton is known as a leading research centre for dance, there are a range of universities offering dance degrees including Surrey, Coventry, Chichester, De Montfort, Middlesex, Kingston and Sunderland. Other institutions combine drama with dance.

Antje Hildebrandt, a senior lecturer in dance at Coventry, says a university degree can introduce students to a range of possible dance work, beyond the stage. “Here we advocate for the portfolio career. That might include a bit of choreography or performing, or supplementary practices such as yoga or Pilates. We have quite a few graduates who start their own companies for small-scale touring, or who go into hospitals or old people’s homes. A lot of students go into teaching in primary and secondary education and complete PGCEs.”

The Coventry course ratio of practical to theoretical work is about 75:25. “There’s a real push to get a lot of practice and dance technique in for the students. That’s what the market demands and what the students want.”

Still, students tend not to be unrealistically starry-eyed about their prospects, she adds. “When you meet the students, they often have a clear sense of where they want to go, even in the first year. They do understand they’re not in the conservatoire, they understand their own abilities and what they can and can’t achieve.”

Visit thestage.co.uk/advice [4] for more information about training

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