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Hopefuls can’t waltz into UA dance school

Auditions a must for top-rated program; just 35 of 400 get in Applicants face long odds to get in to one of nation’s top schools

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 also 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.”

But before dancers can realize their professional dreams, they need to audition, win over the UA 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.

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.

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

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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