Minutes before her audition with Boston Ballet, 16-year-old Anna Barnes ran through her list of things to remember: Shoulders down, legs turned out, stretch.
Oh, and keep the nerves in check.
"It's really hard," she said. "You can just go crazy in your mind and that never helps."
Barnes was one of about 90 aspiring dancers who gathered at Westside Ballet in
Santa Monica in late January to try out for Boston Ballet's summer intensive program.
Summer intensives, which run for several weeks at ballet companies across the country, are seen as a critical stepping stone for young dancers wanting make it in the ultra competitive professional ballet world.
Boston Ballet is a prestigious destination and many of the dancers prepared by dancing 15-20 hours a week.
Inside the studio, the dancers, mostly girls, wore black leotards and pink tights. They each took a place at the barres set up in rows. Zippora Karz, a former New York City Ballet dancer, led them in a master class, instructing them in different exercises and choreography.
At a table at the front of the room, Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey sat tall, judging. She wants strong dancers, she said, students who are receptive to learning.
"We're looking for kids that would be interested in studying year round with us," she said. "Is there a relationship that we think we can build? Those are the kids we're looking for."
This was Tracey's first recruiting trip to Southern California.
"I don't see myself doing anything other than ballet during the summer," said Erin Power, 16, a student at Westside School of Ballet who was auditioning for Tracey. "I love it so much and it's how I express myself."
The waiting room
Parents are banned from observing the auditions. Many wait at the studio, scattered throughout its narrow hallways, some sitting in the reception area with laptops out.
"Parents can definitely make or break. I've seen it over the years," said Allegra Clegg, executive director and owner of Westside School of Ballet - which offers its own summer program for students. Clegg explained that parents of dancers need to be supportive, but not overbearing to help their kids reach their full potential.
"There's been some kids that I've seen over the years that were super talented but never made it," she said. "It's just tragic. It's sad."
Being the parent of a dancer at this level requires patience - a financial commitment. Pointe shoes have to be purchased every few weeks and dance school tuition can surpass $200 a month. Even the auditions add up. The Boston Ballet audition cost $30.
Then there's the time commitment.
"Ballet can consume your life if you allow it," said Leslie Castanuela Barnes, Anna Barnes' mother. "It's just a matter of balancing priorities."
Dance is also hard on the body. Broken toes and tendonitis are common.
"Injury can be a very big issue," said Junko Ogihara. "We have to be very careful."
Her 13- year-old daughter, Toscana Finke, has been dealing with a knee problem off and on that's required visits to a physical therapist. She dances six days a week, for a total of 14 hours.
"I would love to become a professional," she said. "But if that doesn't work out, I definitely want to go to college and minor in dance and maybe even become a ballet teacher."
Getting the job
Professional ballet jobs are getting harder and harder to come by, according to Pamela Levy, a lecturer with the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, one of the country's top dance programs.
"It's like getting a job as a professional, you know, football player. It's that hard," said Levy, who directs the university's extension division ballet program.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2012, 15,600 people were employed as dancers in the U.S. and those numbers are projected to grow less than 1 percent a year for the next 10 years, with far more applicants than jobs available.
Levy believes dancers like Toscana, who are interested in pursuing teaching, administration or other dance-related jobs, will have better luck. Dance students are on the rise, she said - in part due to the popularity of TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.
"There are more schools than there used to be," Levy said. "That area of the field has grown."
After the audition
After about an hour and half, the audition is over. Dancers stream out into the hallway to find their parents.
"I was really fun," said Keya Marathe-Bajaj, 12, still catching her breath. Keya trains at the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles. "I think I did a lot better this year, so I'm happy."
But she wouldn't know for sure right away. Companies don't decide on the spot.
Weeks after the January audition, Keya found out she was accepted by all three companies she applied for. She chose the American Ballet Theater's program in Austin.