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Tough auditions for UA dance school

Monet Thornburg, a senior in high school in Oak Park, Calif., auditions during a Modern Dance Class at the University of Arizona's School of Dance in Tucson. The program is one of the best in the country and extremely difficult to get into.

Monet Thornburg, a senior in high school in Oak Park, Calif., auditions during a Modern Dance Class at the University of Arizona's School of Dance in Tucson. The program is one of the best in the country and extremely difficult to get into.

Monet Thornburg stretches her legs and adjusts her pink tights.

Her mother sips coffee and tries to remain calm. Thornburg, who has danced since age 3, is getting ready for the second of three auditions.

Thornburg and her mother have traveled from Oak Park, Calif., in what is a long-shot quest for many high-school students: getting into the University of Arizona School of Dance. Among the 400 competing for admission in the fall, only 35 will be accepted. The school is tougher to get into than the UA College of Medicine.

Thornburg tries to ignore the numbers.

“You kind of have to get over the fact of how impossible it is and do your best,” said the dancer, who will find out soon whether she made the cut.

Over the past two decades, the UA School of Dance has built a reputation as one of the top dance programs in the nation for students who want to excel in all three major dance styles: ballet, modern and jazz.

This distinction often surprises people, given UA’s reputation as a left-brain university excelling in the sciences. The 10-member dance faculty doesn’t publish flashy research or pull in multimillion-dollar research contracts. But its work is an integral part of the university’s mission to offer top-notch programs that draw students and enhance the school’s reputation.

Graduates go on to work at some of the best dance companies in the country and perform on Broadway and in Las Vegas. That is no small feat, as the dance field is competitive. Frank Chaves, artistic director of Chicago’s jazz-oriented River North Dance Co., calls the school’s graduates well-rounded and stylistically perfect.

“What they do there is really top-notch,” he said. “The more well-rounded the dancer, the more possibilities they have of getting into the company they want,” he said.

But before dancers can realize their professional dreams, they need to audition, win over the judges and get the acceptance letter.

The audition

Dancers face an additional bar in the admission process that even the most competitive medical or law schools don’t have. They must demonstrate their physical skills.

High-school seniors fly in from around the country to audition several times a year. A recent audition in late February found them taking part in a ballet class, a jazz class and a modern-dance class, where professors watched them work out with students. The faculty looked for technique honed by years of training.

After each session, professors wrote their private comments about each dancer on a pink sheet.”Worked hard, but raw,” wrote one.

“Weak legs and arms,” said another.

To have a chance of getting in, a student must have studied two of the three dance styles for 10 years and a third style for four to five years, said Jory Hancock, the school’s director and a former dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

In rare cases, school officials will make exceptions when someone has loads of talent and an affinity for quick learning and comes with great recommendations.

The professors judge dancers on a host of factors, such as dance technique, demeanor, body language and facial expression. Dancers must radiate energy and confidence.

“I liken it to picking grapes off a vine,” said Melissa Lowe, a professor and former dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Everyone has to be a certain level of proficiency so they can hit the ground running.”

Appearance counts. School officials discourage baggy clothes because they want to see the dancers’ bodies, or “instruments.” Students must be in good physical condition, as much for safety as for appearance, Lowe said. Bodies that are too thin or heavy risk having ligaments strained during tough dance sequences.

Erik Ostrand, an 18-year-old high-school senior, has plenty to be nervous about during auditions.

It is his fifth one at a dance school in the past few months. He and his mother, Laurie, have traveled from their home near Denver to Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and now Tucson to visit dance schools.

On this day, he stands in the front line of a jazz dance class dressed in a black T-shirt and gray sweatpants. He is not yet a name but a number, with “6″ pinned to his shirt so the professor can evaluate him.

The professor, Michael Williams, demonstrates a dance move as Latin music booms over speakers. He turns and watches the 40 dancers in his class and the half-dozen teens auditioning.

“Some of you are not giving me a performance,” he warns.

Those auditioning hope he is not referring to them.

A life of dance

Ostrand has danced since he was 7, starting with jazz and adding ballet, modern, tap and hip hop.

His mother, who has a master’s degree in environmental science, wondered at first why her son wasn’t keen on a science career, but she grew to support his choice.

“He knows what he wants to do, and he’s passionate about his career,” she said. “We want him to be happy.”

Deciding to pursue a career in dance was simple.

“I wouldn’t know what do to with my life if I didn’t dance,” Ostrand said.

Like other dancers, he views movement as a form of expression and art, as well as entertainment. It allows dancers to connect emotionally with themselves and the audience.

The pull is so strong that young dancers devote their lives to the discipline, even though a performing career can be short-lived. By their 40s, dancers become more susceptible to repetitive-stress injuries from years of twisting and rotating. Knees, ankles, hips and lower backs take a beating. Men face additional stress in their wrists from hoisting partners high into the air.

Besides the physical stress, finding a job with top dance companies can be tough. Supply far exceeds demand.

Hancock, the school’s director, estimates that 35 percent of the school’s graduates land jobs in dance companies within two years of graduating. It’s common to find dancers who take on second jobs to pay the bills.

But as Hancock tells parents who have doubts, it’s important for young dancers to pursue their dreams. Otherwise, they may live to re- gret they never took the chance.

Ostrand, who wants to be a choreographer, is optimistic about his chances.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a job out there,” he said.

Heart of the school

Overseeing the auditions are Hancock and Lowe, the heart and soul of the dance school. The married couple are in their 21st year at the university.

They met at Indiana University, studied at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City and danced with Pittsburgh and Houston ballet companies before moving to Seattle in the late 1970s. There, they joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet and became principal dancers, the highest rank a dancer can achieve.

In the early 1980s, Lowe tore her hamstring while dancing yet pushed herself to perform for four months. Her doctor later gave her the bad news, telling her to stay out of the ballet studio for several months. The news was a crushing blow for Lowe, who had danced since age 3.

After nine months off, during which time she had a baby girl, she was well enough to return. But by then Hancock’s wrists had swollen and stiffened after years of lifting dance partners. The couple moved back to Indiana, where Hancock worked on his master’s degree, Lowe taught movement classes to young children and both taught at the university.

When positions opened at the UA School of Dance in 1987, they seized the chance for something new. At the time, the school had only 29 students and focused on ballet and modern styles. The school added jazz and began emphasizing all three styles.

Enrollment began growing, as did the school’s reputation. Although major publications such as U.S. News and World Report don’t rank dance schools, the school has become a major national draw and remains the only one in Arizona accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance.

In 1998, the university said the dance school could cap its enrollment at 120 undergraduates and about a dozen graduate students, allowing it to be more selective and focused on quality. To earn a bachelor’s degree, a student needs 125 credit hours, with about 35 percent of the courses in academics and 65 percent in dance.

Performing is a key part, with dancers doing as many as 30 shows a year, including fundraisers for charitable causes. Dancers, after all, can only rehearse so much, and they need the stress of the spotlight to test how they perform under pressure. Students perform in their own state-of-the-art theater and practice in a second-floor studio, which has sweeping views of the campus and Mount Lemmon.

Hancock and Lowe see their students as the next generation who will continue the art form.

“It’s a great and satisfying part of our job to have prepared them the very best we possibly can and know they are armed with a beautiful technique, an open heart and a good spirit,” Lowe said.

Waiting game

Any day now, students who auditioned in February will get letters from the dance school telling them whether they have been accepted.

Back at home in Denver, Ostrand’s mother called the school last week, and the office manager gave her good news: Her son got into the school.

Thornburg is still waiting and hasn’t called the school. “I’m definitely checking the mail every day,” she said.

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