An Absolutely, Whole-heartedly, Unbiased Top School List

What schools are best at getting students into top American ballet companies?

This ain’t your grandma’s top ballet school list. Here at Data Pointes, we use numbers to back our claims and today we take another look at schooling.

For the vast majority, ballet training does not lead to a sustained career as a professional ballet dancer. To have a shot at the top, you likely had to do at least one of these three things: 1. Go to multiple summer programs, 2. Attend a training program in a major metropolitan city, and 3. Leave/reduce regular school to train.

Any single one of these tasks is a huge commitment – both emotionally and physically. And naturally you want to increase your odds of a career by choosing the right program. So what metric would indicate a quality program to you?

Signs of Quality

In this post, we are examining the training of dancers who made it into the top 7 companies for the 2018-2019 season (top 7 – American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Joffrey Ballet). There were 467 total dancers with complete information for 446 of them. Here are the lists:

The first thing to point out is that some dancers attend multiple schools. For the first list looking at all dancers, 309 out of 467 (66%) dancers attended at least 1 of those 10 schools during their training (not counting summer intensives). To get a sense of how successful these 10 schools are, 388 unique schools from around the world trained a dancer in the top 7 during analysis.

Immediately, we notice that the top spots are dominated by “affiliate schools” – these are schools that have direct ties to the top 7 companies. Based on our past post looking at affiliate school hiring (https://datapointes.com/2019/06/15/a-brand-name-ballet-education/), we know that certain companies (especially New York City Ballet) heavily emphasize hiring graduates from its affiliate school. However, some of these affiliate schools appear to do well in placing students in top companies period – not necessarily the affiliated company. For example, only 87 of dancers trained at the School of American Ballet were in NYCB that season meaning the rest were in other companies. Similarly, 52 of the San Francisco Ballet School trained dancers were at SFB.

Then, we have the non-affiliated schools. We have recognizable names up there: the Rock School, Royal Ballet School, Harid Conservatory, and University of North Carolina School of the Arts (full disclosure: Harid is my alma mater). These schools have lower numbers but are still capable of competing with some of the other affiliate schools like Boston and Houston Ballet. Notably, Royal Ballet School is the only foreign school on this particular list. However, we know that dancers born in the UK are not particularly common in top American ballet companies (https://datapointes.com/2019/05/03/where-you-from/). Like many of the top American training schools, Royal Ballet School heavily recruits internationally born students, explaining this finding.

Comparing the Male and Female lists, we can notice discrepancies. For example the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School associated with American Ballet Theatre seems to do a much better job of training women than men (29 F to 10 M). Additionally, a second international school (Paris Opera Ballet School) appears in the top 10 schools for males. Past analysis found that male dancers in the top 7 companies were more likely to be born outside of the US than female dancers (https://datapointes.com/2019/05/03/where-you-from/) which we attributed to the quality of male training in the US. The main takeaway from these two lists are that the quality of male and female training at top schools may differ – something to keep in mind as you choose schools.

Finishing School

Training a student for one year before they move on to a company is different from training a student for several years. We don’t necessarily have the data to distinguish these two scenarios but we can compare our list above with a list of top “finisher schools”, the last school attended by a dancer before going to a main or second company.

We see some major changes to the list. It seems that many of the dancers who attend non-affiliated schools decide to switch schools before graduating. This feeds into the concept of a finishing school, dictated by affiliated companies. The last year of school is a critical period where the student has to translate their training into either a main company, second company, or professional division spot. Affiliated finishing schools have a major advantage in terms of pedigree and proximity, resulting in a greater chance to be noticed by higher ups in one of these top companies while still in school.

Wrap Up

None of this means that the quality of training at schools absent from these lists is inferior. These lists only state the most common pathways to top companies – something directly affected by the influence of major ballet organizations. There are a couple of things these lists don’t account for. One is class size. Class size is tricky – too big and the level of individual attention goes down but too small and your raw number of graduates finding jobs goes down. Two is being restricted to the top 7. If we were to extend analysis to the top 22 companies, the number of dancers would increase to 1169 dancers and I’m sure we would see some changes in the top 10 training schools. Three is the lack of training information on 21 of the dancers. This might have lowered Houston Ballet’s rank as many of the dancers with missing training information were dancing there.

Was the school you attended on one of these lists? Personally, I remember making the decision to attend Harid based on their reputation among other students at summer intensives and their partnership with a local high school at the time. Seeing the numbers now, it probably was the right choice for me since I was still on the fence about pursuing ballet professionally. While schools should make preparing their students for employment a priority, the right school is determined by many factors, some as simple as being a good environment for teenage dancers.

Check out The American Ballet Network (desktop: https://jasonyeung.shinyapps.io/datapointes/ , mobile: https://jasonyeung.shinyapps.io/datapointesmobile/) from a past post to explore the career paths of top American ballet dancers in more detail.

PS. We have a new Instagram account, follow us at https://www.instagram.com/datapointes/. – J

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