Ballerinas Backstage: Naomi Stienstra’s transition from student to professional

In this interview, we hear from the lovely Naomi Stienstra, who was one of the first dancers I worked with through enpointe consulting. She is humble, honest and thoughtful, sharing her experience of persevering through multiple audition tours, injury and uncertainty.

Who is your biggest source of inspiration? 

I know that as young dancers we all have our current ballet idols that we look up to for inspiration like Marianela Nunez, or Maria koherva or Daniil Simkin. There are so many incredible dancers and I look up to so many, that there is no shortage of inspiration anywhere. But without meaning to sound cliche, I truly feel that I keep coming back to my teachers for inspiration. Leanne Rutherford, Karalyn Rutherford and Oleg Timursin especially, but also some of the teachers I had the pleasure to work with in the UK. These people are the ones who carry the the wisdom and are the foundation of inspiring love and passion for this art in their students. I have been the most inspired when I have been learning from them. 

Tell us about your transition from student to professional. How did this journey look for you? 

For me this was not especially smooth at all. It took me two  audition seasons to even get an offer. I had my sights on the Northern Ballet graduate program in England because at the end of my training in Melbourne I was still feeling a bit unsteady, having recently recovered from an injury and operation that shot my confidence and my strength quite a lot. So to me this program looked like a really great transition course from student to professional. 

Of course a lot of times getting a paid contract straight out of training seems like the ideal situation, but for me taking a baby step first was absolutely essential. 

It allowed me the time to really rebuild my confidence, settle into moving overseas, being on my own and having an incredible experience of what company life is like without the added pressure of holding up a paid contract. I could really focus on experiencing and learning in a company environment. I thought I would feel weak for taking an extra graduate year to transition, but for me, it was the best decision I made. 

What has been your number one challenge in the past year?

Every year has its different and unique challenges. I think the fact that ballet contracts can sometimes be short, perhaps a season or one year, and then you are faced with once again trying to find another place to go. I admire the dancers who get a contract and are able to build a career with that one company. But it’s not always the reality – especially for international dancers with the risk of visas and uncertainty. 

I have loved getting to experience these different companies and environments, and have grown so much from it. But I have found the ambiguity and unknowing for the future very bracing and confronting at times. Especially that feeling of not knowing where, or if there is another landing on the horizon. There are many times when I’ve just felt so lost and untethered, especially in the past year for me when I decided to change countries again and look for opportunities in America, it seemed so daunting and scary like a whole new kettle of fish. This is a challenge for me and I think it will continue to be to a certain extent.

What is the biggest difference between school and company life?

At school, and in training, we are striving and being pushed to get the most out of ourselves everyday. This is especially so where there is a goal or an outcome we are reaching for, whether it be auditions or self improvement. Whatever it may be, our teachers are there with us every step of the way. There’s encouragement, guidance and at many times tough love, but it’s very much a cushioned environment of support. While a company should provide the same growth environment, that growth is also very much in your own hands. 

As much as it is like moving from high school to university, you are now in complete control of your own development and motivation. If you have been comfortable in your training, you will now find yourself in an amplified environment, surrounded by people who are incredibly inspiring and faced with new challenges. It’s up to you to step up and meet them. 

Do you have any advice for an elite dancer embarking on their final year of training 

When you get to this point in your training it can feel very overwhelming, exciting and altogether terrifying.  I know it was for me. You are bordering on stepping into a field of unknown possibilities and somewhat of a crossroads. You’re facing auditions and the possibility of rejections. It seems like everything you’ve worked for all these years is funnelling down to the end of this year and will determine your next steps. That sounds mighty scary.

Remember to be kind to yourself. We spend so much time critiquing ourselves that it’s easy to forget why we love to dance in the first place. Be as prepared as you can. Perhaps enlist support and advice from places like ‘onPointe consulting’ (I did and it was truly a lifesaver), start getting your audition material and resume together as early as possible, talk to your teachers, research companies, look at visas and the financial side of things so you can be prepared. You’ve got your technique, you work hard and you will always be working to improve that. Directors and teachers know this. 

What you can’t be unauthentic about is your passion and your love of what you do. It’s is organic and unique to you. It’s totally normal and understandable to have anxieties during this time, but lean into whatever fear or uncertainty you might have and try to channel it into a positive force in your mind. You don’t have to be afraid of rejection or failure. It is just part of the journey and we gotta pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. Don’t give up on yourself before you’ve given yourself a fighting chance. 

What do you wish someone had told you when you were a student thinking about a career in ballet?

In many ways I actually am glad that I didn’t know too much about this career path when I was considering starting full time training (actually I honestly still don’t know much at all, and it’s very much a trial and error process!) But it allowed me the freedom to organically enjoy the process of training in the art form,  not worrying too early about the ‘what if’s’ and the ‘should or shouldn’t’ because I think you need to be in the moment. But I do wish I was prepared for the tough and sometimes ruthless nature of this career direction. 

Have a discussion with your family (I know not everyone has a supportive family) but if you can make sure you are all on the same page about the realities of this path, the possibility that you might have to move overseas at some point, and what that means for your family. Start thinking about finances and working to save your money early. Visas and financial hurdles are often some of the real issues you might face. If you want to complete a graduate year with a company affiliated school, perhaps consider at what stage in your training you want to do that.

Also, don’t be afraid to check in with yourself regularly it’s okay to have weak moments or times when you need to take a step back. Keep an honest check on your mental health. 

Dancers can very easily neglect this because we are so focused on our physical output that we forget that our mind is actually far more powerful than our body will ever be. Everyone’s journey is different. Everyone’s needs are different and you are not any less of a dancer if your path looks different or less ‘successful’ (if there is even such a thing) than someone else.

Sometimes you’ve got to take the back road to get to where you want to go and there’s no weakness or lost dignity in that. Maybe you will have to face injuries and knock backs and maybe things don’t work out the way you planned them. But that’s okay. Don’t be afraid of it, It will build your resilience and strength.

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