September 17, 2013 by Nicole
Photo: (L to R) Mark Rizo, Saleem Johnson. Courtesy of Pink Afterglow Photography.
Every year, thousands of dancers across the country attend summer intensive programs, either at their home or local studios or with national/internationally-recognized facilities and companies. Two students from the Center for Contemporary Dance (CCD) attended a couple of those internationally recognized programs – one at the Joffrey Ballet School and the other at The Ailey School, the official school of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Mark Rizo is a 17-year old student at CCD. Mark has only been dancing for one year, but has shown natural ability, dedication and a drive that outmatch his training time. He started at CCD doing modern classes, which he enjoyed, but realized that he needed more ballet technique to really improve his dancing. He began considering the Joffrey program for that reason. Mark told me he “wanted to focus on ballet technique because I realized how important it was. People [his teachers] kept suggesting it would help.” So, that’s what he did, spending 4 weeks in the ballet program and an additional week completing the Jazz/Contemporary program.
Saleem Johnson turned 12 over the summer. He’s been dancing since he was 7 years old, concentrating on modern, his favorite style of dance. I asked him why he wanted to go to Ailey and he told me that “it’s always been my dream.” As I marveled over the fact that this young man is already able to turn his dreams into reality, he explained to me that he’d went to visit with his family last September and got really excited when he found out there was a junior division for their program. He auditioned and got in. Saleem spent 5 weeks in New York, studying at Ailey.
As I talked with Mark and Saleem about their experiences over the summer, I was really struck by the courageous choices these students made. I was much older than 11 when I auditioned for my first summer program and had most definitely been dancing for longer than a year. But I remember being nervous and intimidated by the experience. I found their stories to be really inspiring and I was proud of their effort and achievements. They had a lot of great advice to share with their fellow dancers & here are some common themes that came up in our conversations.
The Audition May Feel Big & Scary
It’s highly likely you’ll have to audition for a summer program, particularly if you’re considering one with a large or well-known company or one that has a residency component (ie, not a day camp). The audition process can feel big and intimidating. Saleem told me there were 200 students trying out that day for the junior division. At 11, I would have been overwhelmed, but Saleem got through the audition and made it into the program. In other words, the only way to definitely not get in is to not audition.
You Could Get Surprised…
Mark’s audition included working with Sonya Tayeh, now best known for her work on So You Think You Can Dance. You don’t always know who’s going to be in the room – Mark was not expecting to see an Emmy-nominated choreographer in his – but it can offer a fun and exciting opportunity. (Mark says Sonya is really tough and really pushes you, but it was a cool experience!)
…You Might Get Something Extra Out of It…
In our conversation, Mark mentioned that it was really inspiring for him to see all the other students, particularly other male students, who really wanted to do ballet. Especially if you come from a small studio, the audition is an opportunity to be motivated by the other dancers in the room and to remind yourself that there are others out there like you.
…So You Should Just Do It!
I asked Mark & Saleem what they would tell other students who were considering auditioning for a summer program. They took a similar tone. Mark said to “just be confident and really focus on yourself and your technique. Show them what you’re good at.” Saleem put it this way: “Just do it!” My friend has a point – if you never try, you’ll never know.
The Program Itself Can Surprise You
Mark said the program was pretty much what he expected, but was surprised by the level he was put in. Most programs will separate students into levels and age isn’t always taken into consideration. Mark was surprised to be included in a level with older dancers, some of whom were professionals back home. Saleem told me that he knew the program was going to be hard, but it was even more challenging than he expected. By definition, summer intensive programs are just that: intense. You could be dancing 8-10 hours a day, taking classes with different teachers, plus rehearsals. Saleem also told me that his program included a lot of West African dance, so sometimes even the program makeup can be surprising. In other words, you should go in knowing that you signed up to expand your capabilities, but expect to be pushed in unexpected ways.
But You’ll Learn Things About Yourself
Mark told me he was surprised by his own ability to be less closed-minded. He felt the program gave him an opportunity to “really open up and perform.” He told me that “Before, I’d be like I don’t want to try that – I’ll look weird! [At Joffrey] I realized it was ok to be [feel] weird.”
And It’ll Show!
Whitney Shulman, ballet instructor at CCD, noticed the difference their first class back: “Both boys matured as people and dancers over the summer. [They] got out of their comfort zone with new classes in a new city, and with new peers and teachers. [It was an] eye-opener for both, I believe, seeing competitive talent. Both seem to have renewed dedication to their training, taking class with ‘new eyes’ and awareness.”
Bottom Line: What Would They Tell Other Students About Summer Programs?
Again, they had similar messages for the fellow dancers. Mark acknowledged that “if it’s your first time leaving [being away from your family], it’ll be hard, but you’ll make friends and it’s a really good experience. Don’t be scared – just do your thing!” Saleem made a great point about how we sometimes talk ourselves out of things because we build it up in our head as something that’s too much for us. He told me that “people probably think it would be harder but [it’s really not]…just try it. It’s better than you think!”
Mark and Saleem were great models for me about putting yourself out there, being open to the opportunities that come your way and making the most out of them – I now have 2 great reminders of that in class with me. Congratulations to both Mark & Saleem for pursuing their dreams & passion for dance & thank you so much for sharing your stories with me!
What did you take away from Mark & Saleem’s stories? What’s your best summer program advice? Share your story with us!