How to Become a Dancer

Dancers, specifically those who are professional to some degree or another, display choreographed and rehearsed movements on stage, TV shows, movies, and recitals. Like a filmmaker tells his or her story through the moving image, a dancer does so by displaying emotion with their bodies. There are a myriad of styles of dance such as ballet, hip-hop, tap, jazz and modern to name a few.

An unavoidable aspect of a career as a dancer is the need to be prepared for the eventuality to pursue some other profession. Though it could, with hope, be dance-related, like teaching or choreography, the fact remains that after one becomes physically unable to perform due to injury or simply older age they must try something else. In other words, there is a time limit on this as a career. One’s dance career can simply evaporate for many reasons outside a dancer’s control. Perhaps your dance company folds or maybe a career-ending injury occurs;

When contemplating dance as a career, it is also important to keep in mind the omnipresence of fierce competition among professional dancers for a limited number of available jobs. Another unavoidable and unpleasant aspect of being a professional dancer, as already mentioned, is the always prevalent risk of injury, as it is very physically demanding, taxing and challenging. Working hours can also be highly irregular, which means long days of rehearsal followed by arduous shows in the evenings. This frequently also means seven-day work weeks. The flexibility to travel, sometimes over long distances, is also required by one who is aspiring to be a professional dancer. (Mind you, what can sometimes be tough can also be adventurous and fun!)

A dancing tour may last for months and, consequently, you’ll be away from home a lot and will need to be proficient in finding people to sublet and be able to handle paying your own rent (or mortgage) and bills while all the time being on the road.

It is important to make clear that no dancer ever became successful by their talents alone. Dancers are not just artists but extreme athletes as well. Natural ability and innate or learned talent will only get you so far. Like all who wish to make a living at what they love to do in a field crowded with those who have similar dreams, dancers must work hard, be focused and persevere. The pleasure of performing on stage professionally is a privilege for a select few possessing many extraordinary qualities.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Laurel Lawson

Full Radius Dance – Professional Dancer

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I’ve been an athlete and have studied theatre and music since I was five; I had originally planned to attend conservatory for piano and vocal performance. That all changed after acquiring RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury) in both hands, and instead I attended GA Tech (GA Institute of Technology), majoring in biochemistry with a focus in pharmaceutical research. Outside of the lab I lived in the theatre and acquired both advanced theatrical training and a grounding in most of the technical disciplines. After school, I realized I had no interest whatsoever in pursuing a research or academic career and took a dance class for fun and because it was a good warm-up for a physically demanding theatre/improv job I was working at the time. Dance brought together my love of art and athleticism, and “just for fun” turned into an invitation to audition for the company a few months later.

I did not come from a conventional dance background, because I have a disability and use a wheelchair (and have since I was five). Training simply was not available to me at the time; certainly not with the goal of dancing professionally. For someone not coming from traditional dance training, I jumped (or was thrown) right into the deep end. I learned another dancer’s roles for a performance less than two months later. I was in great shape and had fifteen years of elite athletic training, but my first few years were a whirlwind of an intensive learning and acculturation process. This was facilitated by Full Radius Dance’s teaching process and a style that is both strongly grounded in technique and athleticism.

Dancing, for me, is less about the performance and more about the work in the studio, from creation to polishing, even the discipline of repetition. The work our company does is highly collaborative and creatively energizing –We get to riff off each other in creating our performance pieces. In partnering, you often don’t know where you’re going until you try something, and then your partner’s body leads you somewhere your mind hadn’t conceived.

What is necessary for the operation of a company, but certainly something all artists encounter, is fundraising –I’ve had to work really hard to be able to ask people for money for the company and, though I don’t think I’ll ever like it, it’s part of being a professional dancer in a small company. On the other hand, it’s really great when you realize just how much people want to support your work, beyond just buying tickets and t-shirts.

Advice

Make breakfast mandatory
Make sure it consists of something with plenty of protein and fat. I like to take an hour or so to write, meditate, or sort out a to-do list. Then I’m heading to some combination of class, rehearsal (after company class or warm-up, depending), or the gym until early/mid-afternoon. After that, it all depends on what is happening in my life. At this time, I’m going straight into another rehearsal for an outside project, with bodywork on my lighter days. We may have workshops or classes, or I may go back to my desk and work until it’s time to make dinner. (In addition to dancing, I manage the company’s website and do some marketing as well.) If I have evening classes or musical gigs, I’ll try to get in a late lunch and power nap. “Weekend” days, which aren’t always on the calendar weekend, are where I try to go camping, do something fun around town, see other people’s work, attend jams, or cook or read. For performance days, whether at home or touring, I suggest working backwards from the call time to plan out your day. Don’t ever be rushed before a show!

Keep an open mind
If you’re coming from a traditional dance training background, try things outside of just dance. Nothing is ever wasted. The value of tangential skills, like acting and improv classes, voice coaching, or learning lighting design is pretty obvious, but also pursue other things that interest you. Try taking classes in math, economics, psychology, or programming. Having other marketable skills gives you a lot more flexibility in what positions you can apply for. Within dance, all those other things will also come out. As an artist, your interests and passions and experiences inform what you create in the studio and what you express on stage.

Explore all the different techniques, classes, teachers, choreographers available to you. When I travel I love to drop in on classes and improv jams to work with different people. Also, don’t forget to take care of your body and your mind. Especially as you get older, nutrition, recovery, and proper training are absolutely critical. A couple days of junk food or not enough sleep means a couple days of achiness in the studio. Learning a form of meditation is also really helpful.

Have a plan
If you know there’s a specific company or choreographer you want to work with, get their schedule and attend any open classes or workshops and learn their technique and style. If you don’t have a company in mind, pick a few that work in different ways and get to as many classes as you can. Ask, respectfully, if you could attend company classes or if there’s ever a need for additional or project dancers. Offer to understudy for free. Attend auditions and think of them as free classes and networking opportunities. Learn as much as you can about the companies and opportunities in your area. Search for companies that offer apprenticeships. Take classes at different studios and attend performances, salons, and other arts events. Work on free projects- There’s always unfunded work being made. Always be punctual and reliable for classes, events, and rehearsals.

Lily Loveland

Ballet Palm Beach – Professional Dancer

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  • Lily Loveland
  • Palm Beach Gardens, FL
  • 10+
  • Ballet Palm Beach – Dancer
  • BalletPalmBeach

I was trained right here in Palm Beach Gardens at The Esther Center, the official school of Ballet Palm Beach. Only back then, there was no Ballet Palm Beach. I went to junior high and high school at The Kings Academy. It was hard to juggle a regular high school schedule and such intense ballet training six days a week, but I have grown to greatly appreciate that time in my life. I can work a lot of hours per week now and still be ok because of that experience. I just had to learn to kick back a little later in life! Our company takes class at 9:30. Our ballet class lasts 1 hour and 45 minutes. This is where we get warm and work on our technique. We actually leave the a/c off many days, though it might be hot –It’s South Florida and you don’t stay dry for long! Then we rehearse whatever we are working on at the time from 11:15 until 3:30. We only have 10 company members, so we all dance pretty much the whole day. There are no official break times. Sometimes you don’t get one! After dancing I either go home or stay to teach in the school. My latest nights are Mondays when I don’t finish teaching until 8:15 pm. I only teach three days a week though. I call Tuesday and Wednesday my “weekend”. Finishing at 3:30 allows me to get a lot done on those days!

I like everything about my job as a dancer because it’s all part of a big picture that means so much to me. I love having the opportunity to tell stories through dance. I love that I get to feel the emotions of a character with my whole being, as opposed to saying something with words. I love the joint effort of brain and body to produce something that looks (should look) effortless. I love how it’s never perfect. There is always more to learn.

Advice

Have fun
I wish I would have known that it should be fun, above all. This is not life or death. It’s ballet. It’s important to me, but the beautiful thing is, if I mess up, I can try again. I misplaced my respect for the art form when I was young, and it turned into stress and perfectionism. We are all perfectionists, but that can be harmful if we aren’t careful. You have to use it for good.

Get good training
Don’t go to a certain school because your friends are there or because it’s close to your house, etc. Do your research and really ask yourself, “Where can I make every class count?” Every plié, every tendu makes you better or worse, unfortunately. Class today is what will make you who you are as a dancer.

I am a certified teacher of RPM, a ballet training method which I firmly believe in. The letters stand for Revolutionary Principles of Movement. The method comes from an understanding of physics and kinesiology. Using movement patterns initially discovered through the study of naturally exceptional dancers (think Baryshnikov) taped in slow motion. This highly evolved training method produces ballet technique which is beyond compare. Many training methods do not give you the dynamics behind the steps. RPM does. Dancers emerge with an understanding of ballet that they can grow with. It does not just give you a fish so you can eat for a day… It teaches you to fish! Well, dance, actually.

Be friendly and confident
Go to as many auditions and master classes as you can. You don’t have to be nervous about your flaws; we all have them. If you are a positive person who cheerfully takes correction and who presents what you have to offer with enthusiasm, directors and choreographers will enjoy working with you. And they want to have fun too. So let them! Don’t waste anyone’s time with your personal drama. Leave it at the door.

Lola “The Vamp” Montgomery

Yavanna Production House – Owner

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  • Lola “The Vamp” Montgomery
  • Melbourne, Australia
  • 12
  • Yavanna Production House
  • @lolathevamp

I have degrees in fine arts, critical theory and theatre, and a PhD in burlesque. My submission was the first to incorporate the dance form of burlesque into a PhD. As a child I did jazz, ballet and tap, as well as acting. I was only interested in tap though and didn’t pay much real attention to ballet until much later. I also played a few instruments. I studied belly dancing later on as well. It gave me a good foundation to move into burlesque. My average work day varies between two general structures, a workday is either a Studio Day or an Admin Day. A Studio Day means rehearsals, training, yoga, costuming and creative research. I’ll spend all day in my personal studio (located in the Queensland rainforest) working on the creative side of a production. Other performers, such as dancers and musicians will drop by and work on areas of the show we are staging.

“Admin Day” is spent on my laptop, doing venue negotiations, marketing and pr, casting performers, arranging rehearsals, updating the books, promoting an event via social media, as well as applying for festivals and putting out feelers for future bookings.

The thing I love most is that I am able to devote my working life to realizing the things that are in my mind to do. I’m doubly-lucky –I’m not only working as a dancer, but as a dancer who is able to dictate my creative direction. I have complete creative and aesthetic control.

Advice

Don’t worry
I wish I knew that it would work out! I was very anxious that nobody would ever book me as a performer! I wish I understood how nerve-wracking the lack of stability can be. I wish I knew that every dancer’s path is different. I wish I knew how easy and how hard it was.

That all being said, if you have the aptitude and the drive then there’s not much to lose in giving it a go while you are young. Through injury or life circumstances, you may not be able to dance forever, so dance like the devil while you can, and don’t feel badly if you have to move on to something else, for whatever reason.

Train well
Train in your field, know it well, and cross train in as many elements of the arts as take your fancy. It will all inform your art and make it richer. Any degree program will teach you the self-direction that will assist you. Train in self-devised theatre so you can create your own work. That has been invaluable to me, although it was last on my list of priorities.

Put on your own show
Starting out, I’d suggest you put on your own show. Starting small is fine, but it’s more important to do it than to talk about doing it. You will succeed, fail, make money, lose money, and build networks and burn bridges. Each new show will get a little easier in some way. As one of my theatre lecturers used to say, ‘don’t tell me, show me’. Don’t wait to be cast, create your own momentum and others will want you.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Professional Dancer?


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.