A career as a professional dancer is notoriously fraught. You hear stories of very short careers, often due to burnout, injury or emotional breakdown. Many young dancers go off to pursue a professional career only to return home despondent, giving up on their dream after one too many audition rejections. The good news is that there are some teachers and organisations working with aspiring professional dancers who recognise the importance of the long game, and who aim to produce resilient dancers who can enjoy a long career in the field. Teachers Xanthe Geeves and Leslie Abraham from Sydney College of Dance (SCD) are two such teachers.
SCD was founded by Geeves and Gregor Thieler and offers advanced pre-professional training for full time and transition students who want to pursue a professional career in dance.
“We started with a part time program and now also offer a full time program,” Geeves explains. “When our students started with us, they were still balancing academic school life. We had a stepping stone approach, rather than going straight in to full time. So that was a nice way to build up to doing a full time program rather than incurring too much stress on their growing bodies.”
She continues, “Whether a student goes into the full time or transition program depends on their age and readiness. If they are young, they start with one day and increase incrementally over a certain period. The transition program supports them if they are still at school and studying academically. It gives them the chance to explore the industry prior to taking on full time dance when the timing is better for them.”
The focus on the individual and their wellbeing makes SCD special.
The individualised and incremental approach reflects SCD’s focus on the individual and wellbeing. The college doesn’t aim to churn out competition dancers but instead wants to nurture individual artists who can determine their own career path, make their own decisions and work in a variety of contexts.
“We are very aware that a dancer needs to be able to stand out as an individual artist,” says Geeves. “You’re not just a body in a company, especially when trying to break into the industry. We teach our students to develop their artistic excellence and the ability to collaborate with choreographers. Drawing out the individual strengths of the dancer and working one-on-one with them is important. I know I wouldn’t have make it in my career if I hadn’t had the mentors I had. They guided me and gave me the inside knowledge dancers need to succeed in the current dance world, as well as appreciating the traditional side of dance.”
“Our students need to know that their individual creativity is nurtured,” Abraham adds. “If they are passionate about what it is they want to do in the dance industry, they’ll find their corner in the world. They’ll find their moment and time if they have the right tools in their pocket and the confidence and creativity to go with it.”
What a dancer needs…
Geeves and Abraham speak passionately about the emphasis the College places on aspiring dancers being both well-rounded and patient.
“Students get input from different teachers from different areas of the industry, imparting their knowledge and experience so the student can absorb and know that they are getting the food they need to grow on their own,” Geeves says about the College’s approach to training. “With our experienced faculty, we want to help the next generation of aspiring young artists have success. We want to give them a deeper understanding and knowledge of what current classical and contemporary companies need.”
Abraham notes that many young dancers are keen to go overseas as soon as possible to pursue a professional career, but she cautions against them doing so too soon.
“I think children and young people need to be patient, to have the confidence to know they don’t have to do it all today,” Abraham notes. “To know that their time will come once they are older and ready to go overseas, and have been nurtured and mentored and reached their full potential. Then they won’t burn out. They’ll be mature and ready to go because they’ve been patient here.”
“Sometimes students aren’t ready, and they get into a renowned school and it’s an institution and they are just a number,” adds Geeves. “That’s why you shouldn’t compare and you should go when you are ready. Directors and companies want to employ dancers who are ready and can handle the work.”
The best part about teaching dance is the students.
In talking about why they love teaching dance, both revealed how much they loved making a difference to their students. The amount of care they take in their work was evident.
“I love the relationship with my students, and the successes they have is my biggest motivation and reward,” explains Geeves. “I get to begin with them on a journey and see them mature as individuals, take on challenges and become independent.”
“I love when a student didn’t know they could be something, or do something, or create something that we’ve helped them discover,” Abraham adds. “It’s fulfilling in so many ways when you see that success. From technique to creative thinking and creativity in performance.”
Creating an engaging, dynamic and nurturing learning environment.
The College is described on its website as an engaging, dynamic and nurturing learning environment. One of the ways Geeves and Abraham provide this kind of environment is through goal setting.
“We start with a goal setting interview with each student,” explains Geeves. “We want to understand where they see themselves in the short- and long-term, and how we can help them reach their goals. We want to support them to reach goals where they have the most potential, but not limit them, because you never know how they will develop. “
Geeves continues, “We have subsequent meetings throughout the year to see how they are tracking, and how they are coping physically. They have access to our onsite physiotherapists. All our teachers understand that each individual has their own pathway. We also want to educate the students on safe dance so they can have a long career, endurance and can reach their peak condition in the dance world. It’s not just about training but also mental wellbeing. Understanding how to build yourself up mentally before a performance, how to cope with a good recovery. Every day is in a supportive and safe environment, and students understand they need to be supportive of one another. It’s not a competition.”
“We believe each individual student has a place in the dance world if they are well equipped,” Abraham points out. “And what we offer them here is entry into the world of dance if that is what they want. It’s an individual journey when they are ready.”
Qualities a teacher needs to prepare professional dancers.
The teachers at SCD all have had impressive professional careers, so they are well able to offer sound technical training, and to prepare the students for the realities of the professional dance world. But Geeves and Abraham also point out the importance of other qualities.
“We need a sense of humour, the ability to laugh at ourselves and realise that none of us are perfect,” notes Abraham. “The way we journey forward is by learning and making mistakes and having challenges that we override and succeed with. The teacher’s guidance and support can help the student learn that, and to understand it’s all a journey. It doesn’t all have to be done yesterday.”
She continues, “The things I think are most important is caring for students, and making sure they know you care. That you believe in where they are going, and that it’s not just about technique but also about artistry. A teacher needs to be able to draw out the student’s personality, and their confidence about being in a role. Once you get to know a student, you can tap into their interests, to see what inspires them and to draw on talent they might not even know they have.”
Geeves and Abraham both speak about how important it is for a teacher to help their students develop mental fortitude, as well as good technique and artistry, so they can enjoy a long career.
“Health and mental wellbeing are vital,” Abraham stresses. “We hope these students go out into the world and can dance until they are 40 or 50. If they are patient now, they’ll be equipped with a diverse range of knowledge, which prepares them for longevity in their career.”
Geeves wants to make sure her students know they are dancing for themselves, not anyone else.
“Personal happiness and success is important,” she notes. “If they can have that, they’ll have a long career. They build up their confidence here at the College, and when they go out, they’ll be confident about their technique and about putting themselves out there. I tell my students to be genuine and warm, not to put up a mask, and to be supportive of others.”
Both Geeves and Abraham had the good fortune of having teachers and mentors who guided them and supported them, and they aim to pass that on to their students. Their vision is to help the next generation of dancers have a fulfilling, long-lasting career as a professional artist in national and international ballet and contemporary companies.
More information about the impressive careers of Xanthe Geeves and Leslie Abraham, as well as the entire faculty of the Sydney College of Dance, can be found at sydneycollegeofdance.com.
By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.