Most successful dancers will have had their start in training before adolescence and will have begun to audition for full-time work usually by the time they reach the age of 18. Even after finding employment, a dancer’s training never stops and will also continue for the rest of his or her entire career and beyond. Many students will have gotten their start in pink tutus when they were three and, if the fun grows into an obsession and becomes a life goal, eventually they will be attending dance training programs, usually by the time they are in their teens. A good dance or performing arts school and many colleges and universities can provide high quality instruction and the opportunity to perform at professional-like levels, thus gaining the experience necessary to join a professional dance company. Note that to be accepted into any advanced dance school, students are often asked to first participate in a summer workshop, which serves as a sort of audition for the full-time training program.
Although a college education is not necessary for a dancing career, undergraduate programs in theater arts with dance as the focus can give students the opportunity to fully explore the many various dance genres and to also singularly become proficient in a certain favored discipline. Most importantly, performance opportunities abound that provide students valuable practical experience. In school a dancer is exposed to areas of interest that ordinarily he or she would be unfamiliar, such as a curriculum for a bachelor’s degree that includes study in choreography, contemporary dance trends, movement analysis, dance history, even physical therapy techniques, to name just a few. An education can perhaps lead you to your true calling, something which was not originally envisioned nor expected. Another benefit of college is the relationships experienced and the friends made who share similar interests and aspirations.
Speaking of which, you would be well served by pondering the idea of a master’s degree if you someday might wish to become a choreographer or teach dance at the college level yourself. There are MFA programs (Masters of Fine Art) offered in dance that lead students to areas of study that will aid and abet their efforts in finding the career path that will suit them best.
Now, as is the case in so many art-related careers, all the schooling and training in the world will matter for little if you cannot dance magnificently well. Ultimately, it is the quality of your art that will prevail over any credentials, people you know and enthusiasm you may express.
As our interviewee’s all tend to agree, an education in dance is a necessary and ongoing part of any professional’s life, but ultimately what you show on the dance floor will be far more important than any educational background. Dancers have gotten to where they are through very hard work, arduous and strenuous physical challenges, long hours, and, well, dancing. Again, they have their moves to speak for them. A natural ability is paramount, but dancing can be (and must be) learned. There are several excellent schools and below are a few of the most notable.
WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN PROFESSIONAL DANCE?
- Juilliard Dance
One of the premiere art schools in the world, Juilliard’s New York City based dance program focuses on training contemporary dancers who are equally proficient in both modern dance and classical ballet. Top choreographers and artists guest-teach in conjunction with the Juilliard faculty. Students in the dance department participate in roughly 15 public performances annually. The program usually accepts around 24 students per year and applicants must submit a one to two-page essay on a topic of Juilliard’s choosing. Additionally, they must submit a pre-screening video with their online application that includes an introductory, technique, and performance section. Those deemed qualified are then invited to audition.
- Skidmore College
Skidmore College’s renowned dance department emphasizes technical training in both ballet and modern dance. At Skidmore, the field of dance is also explored through compositional studies and historical research. With around 500 students in the program, dancer-students tend to be double majors and may also have a focus in other areas such as business and political science. Gaining Entry: There is no audition requirement for the dance program. Skidmore uses the common application, which includes a personal essay on a topic given by the school.
- Oberlin College & Conservatory
Oberlin’s dance program is designed to produce well-rounded dancers with a focus on creation and performance, critical inquiry, physical techniques, and somatic studies. As students evolve, they begin to personalize their course of study and are given the option of combining studies in theater and dance for an interdisciplinary performance major. Gaining Entry: Oberlin mandates a common application, supplemental questions, and an essay.
- University of California, Berkeley
The program at U.C. Berkeley emphasizes the practice and the scholarship of dance. Students are guided in seeing the field as not just a means of creative expression, but also as a mode of critical inquiry and a vehicle for public engagement. Gaining Entry: U.C. Berkeley requires the submission of an online application, which includes a personal essay.
- Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University
Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts dance department heavily focuses on dance performance and academic exploration. Students receive instruction in dance techniques, somatic studies, performance, choreography, pedagogy, and theoretical studies. Gaining Entry: Aspiring Mason Gross students are asked to submit their applications and fees through Rutgers University. A portfolio, audition, and interview to demonstrate their artistic talents are all required.
GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR
Create your own YouTube account. To a surprising extent, YouTube has changed the dance industry in a big way. It is not uncommon for dancers to get work (and good jobs at that) on commercials, a tour, or music videos straight from their YouTube content. Getting on YouTube is one of the easiest and smartest ways to self-promote and market yourself and, from there, creating a following is a huge plus as employers consider whether to hire you at your audition. Having an online following will give you a leg up on the competition as your “brand” becomes visible.
Put aside money for a contingency fund. If you live in a region of the US where there are fewer opportunities for the professional dancer, you will need to be prepared to make, often at a moment’s notice, the big trip to Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago (to name a few) to attend auditions, to have meetings with talent agencies and the like. Start now building up a savings account for such journeys. In addition to travel, you will need to build up a financial cushion for lodging and food while you’re away. It is not unheard of to pay well over a thousand dollars a month for a tiny apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood in many of these major metro areas. Note that it can take many months, sometimes up to year, before you will land your first job in a bigger city and this, of course, is assuming that you have all skills and confidence necessary.
If you relocate to, say, Los Angeles in order to pursue your dream, be sure to prepare yourself for the eventuality of needing to land a part-time job that is flexible. If you can find work that allows you the flexibility to change shifts in order to be fully available for auditions and booked gigs, then take it! Obviously, there are not many corporate jobs that would allow such flexibility, so prepare yourself for the likelihood of working retail or in a restaurant. Keep focused on your goals and remain faithful and positive and you will have a shot at reaching your goal of becoming a professional dancer.
What time and again seems to be a common theme in our research and interviews with dance professionals is the following: Great training, consistent and constant practice, physical endurance, mental perseverance, performance experience, a great attitude, a singular devotion and an exemplary work ethic are all that enable a dancer to become successful. A great love and enthusiasm to pursue this career is a given. Dance must be that which drives and inspires you.
One of the first possible steps is to take a local dance class and seek out performance opportunities. Should your desire to be a dancer only increase after this, then a school such as those listed in this article is the next step. You will have a limited time in which to practice as a professional dancer, so commitment and focus without a moment being wasted is an absolute necessity.