Gianna Cirillo is hoping to dance her way into college.

The Hammonton High School senior has been dancing for 13 of her 17 years, and wants to make it a career. Last month, she came to Richard Stockton College with her mom, Angela, to audition for its dance program.

“They kept telling us to have fun, and it was,” she said after the audition, which was held in a classroom setting with other high school seniors and Stockton students.

While thousands of high school students are busy taking the SATs and writing essays for their college applications, students in the arts have an additional challenge. They must take their years of training and condense it into an audition that will impress college faculty.

That will take hours of training for weeks before the audition. Some colleges have a very strict set of performance requirements, others give students more leeway. Multiple auditions mean more hours of rehearsal.

Valerie Hamburg, 17, of Mays Landing, is still not sure what piece she will play for her February audition for Rowan University’s music education program. But the Oakcrest High School senior, who has been playing for 12 years, said she wants to make a good impression. She practices at home, where her father plays trumpet, and also at Oakcrest.

“The college made some suggestions, but said play what will best show your ability,” Hamburg said. “I will pick a challenging solo.”

But being a talented artist or dancer or musician will not alone guarantee admission.

“The main issue is getting accepted into college first,” Stockton dance professor Henry Van Kuiken told the students. “Then you can get placed in the dance program.”

At Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, it is not unusual for several seniors to be planning for auditions.

“It’s an exciting but also stressful experience,” said Phyllis London, Charter Tech office manager and wife of the school’s artistic director and musician Lew London. “First the college says, ‘OK, you got in.’ Then they say ‘Now you have to come back for an audition.’ But if students want to do this, it is the beginning of a stressful life full of auditions.”

Charter Tech students Terrence Alexander, 17, of Somerdale, and Sean Wyatt, 18, of Atlantic City, know the feeling. Alexander plays piano and wants to study jazz, recording and composition. Wyatt is a theater major and is working on both songs and monologues.

“That’s what I do every day now, for at least an hour,” Alexander said of the time he spends just preparing for auditions, ideally on the baby grand piano at the school or a full-size keyboard at home. He said his grades and SAT scores are very good, so he is hoping that will help him get admitted to one of four college music programs.

“I feel comfortable about the academics,” he said. “And I still have time to prepare for the auditions.”

Wyatt is also looking at several colleges, including University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He plans to attend an event for high school seniors where they learn about the theater program, and participate in some classes.

“I always have a song and a monologue prepared,” he said, citing “Pippin” and “Rent” as his two favorite plays. He said he’s focused on academics in school so far but hopes he can also impress with his talent.

“I have to put academics first,” he said. “But I sing, I dance, I love it all.”

The students know that the arts can be a tough field.

Cirillo currently dances with two studios, and would love to eventually work in New York. She’s applied to four colleges and has been accepted at Stockton.

Her mom said she did try to guide Gianna to other fields, but has agreed to let her try to live her dream.

“She’s just been so passionate about it,” Angela Cirillo said. “But she’s also an honor student, so I want her to have a backup plan.”

Stockton assistant professor of dance Rain Ross said some students do minor in dance, or just take courses because they love to dance. The college also offers programs in dance administration and dance therapy, and offers dance classes at different levels, so students have time to see how they develop before finalizing their major.

“We do the audition as a class so that students really get a feel for what our program is like and how they might fit in,” Ross said. “And it’s good for us to see them in the environment they will be in during class. You can really tell their training in their first steps. What we want to see here is how they progress.”

Cirillo said what she does is no different than an athlete who trains to play well.

“I dance every day and on weekends,” she said. “It’s competitive, and it’s challenging. It is a sport — it just looks better.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:


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