A Key Ingredient to Being a Working Dancer

AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts dance programWant to be a professional dancer? Better get flexible.


“Versatility is essential for today’s working dancers,” explains Kai Hazelwood, the dance outreach coordinator at AMDA. “It’s not so much that you’re a master at every style, it’s that you get really good at being able to get new material into your body. That’s something you have to practice.”


To train dancers to become versatile, AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts has expanded its dance program to campuses in Broadway-centered New York (home of “The Great White Way” and live theatre) and L.A. (home of on-camera film and TV), each program flavored by the nuances of the city. “While both campuses offer every style, attend both to get a full experience of AMDA’s dance program,” Hazelwood advises. “That way you’re going to get the tap, theatre and jazz focus in New York and the contemporary, commercial and hip-hop focus here in L.A.”


Versatility, however, is just a piece of the puzzle: AMDA has spent the past few years honing its Dance Theatre Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree and Conservatory Program to better propel dancers into the industry after graduation. “We are a career launch school,” explains Hazelwood. “Our goal is to have all our students graduate with the practical knowledge and tangible materials they need to start booking work right away.”


AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing ArtsThose “tangible materials” have become something of envy among colleges: Dance Theatre BFA students leave AMDA L.A. with professional headshots, crafted résumés and, most importantly, a fully-polished video reel of their work to submit for agency representation. “To have that much professional-caliber footage is unheard of,” notes Hazelwood. “Unless you’re walked in, I don’t know a single agency that will see you without a video submission.”


Not that being “walked in” is out of the question: As a working choreographer and director, Hazelwood herself has hired nine AMDA alumni to work professionally. “We’ve had students who’ve literally been hand-walked into agencies by faculty as soon as they graduated, and that’s started their career.”


The connections offered by the faculty, in fact, are the cause for recent attention. The college has spent the past few years acquiring instructors from all over the professional world: Rather than out-of-touch teachers who haven’t worked in the industry for 30 years, AMDA faculty consists of still-performing actors, dancers and choreographers, 98% of whom currently work professionally while teaching at AMDA.


 “It’s a completely different model,” Hazelwood explains. “The faculty are in positions to hire you when you graduate.” Notable dance faculty at AMDA include Genevieve Carson (current artistic director of the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company); Chryssie Whitehead (former Radio City Rockette, Kathy in Company alongside Neal Patrick Harris, Broadway’s A Chorus Line); and Casey Colgan (director and choreographer of over 40 productions, Scarecrow in first national tour of Wizard of Oz, European tours for A Chorus Line and My Fair Lady).


AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts“We also bring in guest choreographers or guest directors for some of our larger shows, so you have that experience as well,” adds Hazelwood. In the most recent BFA Dance Concert, for example, students worked with the original choreographers and dancers from Chicago (Tara Nicole Hughes), Dirty Dancing (Doriana Sanchez), and Janet Jackson’s hit music video “If” (Tina Landon).


The faculty’s industry ties, therefore, have granted AMDA dancers access to their professional network. Among the 150+ performance opportunities offered by the college, BFA students participate in the Industry Event, wherein they perform before an audience of invited casting directors, agents and managers for possible representation. “We usually have every dance agency in Los Angeles represented at our Industry Events, so many of our students are already leaving school with representation to jump right into auditioning,” explains Marina Benedict, co-chair of the Dance Department at AMDA L.A.


The system clearly works. AMDA dancers can be seen all over the world performing in Broadway/Off-Broadway productions, dance companies, cruise ships, theme parks, world tours, commercials, movies, regional theatre and everywhere in between. 


AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts So what’s the catch? The dance program is rigorous. Students audition for performances the first week they step foot on campus, with rehearsals and courses filling their schedules until graduation. Dancers attend warm-up classes at 8 a.m., with many continuing classes until 6:50 p.m. with rehearsals afterwards.


“The people that come to us eat, breathe, sleep, cry this stuff. They love it that much. There’s a seriousness in the students who are interested in AMDA,” says Hazelwood.


The curriculum reflects that seriousness. “If you’re in the Conservatory Program, your whole day is arts. It’s technique, it’s audition preparation, it’s rehearsal, so you’re just focused on performing and technical training. If you’re in the BFA, you’ll also have what we call critical studies sprinkled throughout your semesters, but even those are geared towards performing artists: Instead of taking biology 101, you may take kinesiology for the dancer. Instead of a math requirement, it might be budgeting and taxes for the independent artist,” Hazelwood explains. 


“Because AMDA wants to expose dancers and prepare them for theatrical, commercial and concert dance, we always have a wide variety of disciplines,” notes Benedict.  Aside from the traditional core styles of ballet, contemporary, hip-hop and jazz, AMDA offers specialty workshops including ballroom dance, Broadway, Latin jazz, tumbling, heel technique, partnering, improvisation, West African, tap, Haitian and pointe.


As the course offerings and dance program continue to grow each year, however, AMDA upholds one last vital policy: intimate class sizes for one-on-one training. “They’re really building relationships,” concludes Hazelwood. “It’s not just their face in a sea of 600 people in a lecture hall. You’re really getting to know your faculty, and they really know you. It’s a really valuable, wonderful network.”


To learn more, head to amda.edu.


By David-Christopher Harris for Dance Informa.