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Getting Started in Dance

Professional dancers move to choreographed dance movements. They might appear in dance recitals, Broadway shows, on television or in the movies and theater. Like filmmakers who tell a story through moving images, dancers tell a story and evoke emotion through performances in ballet, modern dance, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and many other styles. 

If contemplating a career in dance, it’s important to keep in mind the reality of fierce competition among professional dancers for a limited number of available jobs. Another unavoidable aspect of being a professional dancer is the all too common risk of injury, as a career in dance can be very physically demanding and challenging. Hours can be highly irregular, which means long days of rehearsal followed by performances in the evenings, and  frequently seven-day work weeks. The flexibility to travel is also required, and although sometimes tiring, can also be fun and adventurous.

In any given day, a professional dancer will:

  • Work closely with choreographers and dance instructors to learn new routines or modify dance moves
  • Learn complex dance movements in an area or areas of expertise
  • Rehearse several hours or all day to prepare for a performance
  • Audition for a dance part in a show or a job with a dance/ballet company
  • Study new and perfect old techniques
  • Attend promotional events to promote a show

In addition, it’s important to understand 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 in a field crowded with those who have similar dreams, dancers must work hard, be focused, and persevere. Performing on stage professionally is a privilege for a select few possessing many extraordinary qualities, like athleticism, stamina, persistence, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and creativity.

There are a number of different paths to pursue in the world of dance.  You may see yourself as an independent modern dancer, a dancer in a ballet company, or as part of a theater production, just to name a few. You may wish to choreograph or teach, or own your own private dance studio teaching other aspiring dancers the art.  During a dancer’s career, they may decide to take an altogether different path and enter a career in dance therapy, stage management, or costume design. 

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Develop Your Skills & Conditioning

Professional Training Can Accelerate Your Career Growth

Most dancers begin training very young; often before adolescence and then go on to attend a private dance or performing arts school, or a university offering a dance program.  Starting out early is important because it takes years to develop technique and muscle strength, both vital ingredients to a dance career.  Formal training is available within conservatories and dance companies, or through degree programs at a college or university.

Although a degree isn’t necessary to become a professional dancer, classes will allow students the opportunity to explore a variety of dance genres or choose a concentration in a particular discipline.  A degree also offers students practical experience, and the opportunity to dance alongside peers and develop mentoring relationships with professors, who are also professional dancers with an understanding of the ins and outs of this career. Coursework at the bachelor’s degree level usually includes classes in choreography, movement analysis, jazz, ballet, contemporary dance, dance composition, rhythm and dynamics, and dance history.

Master’s of fine arts programs with a concentration in dance allow students to further study dance theory and independent performance under the guidance of faculty mentors. A master’s degree benefits individuals who wish to explore choreography or become dance teachers.  As a career in dance is hard on the body and may interfere with family obligations, dancers can benefit from earning an advanced degree to fall back on if (and when) it becomes necessary.

Professional dance schools teach students all aspects of dance. By studying research methods and theories, and the political, social, and physical aspects of dance, individuals also learn about the academic side of the dance industry. These schools typically also teach acting, choreography, and composition, as well as the importance of dance in other cultures. 

The dancer’s life requires a great deal of regular exercise and stamina. In fact, a professional dancer might spend up to eight hours a day or more practicing.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that dancers (believe it or not) account for some of the highest on-the-job injury reports. Additionally, dancers face strong competition (in all areas of dance) and only the most disciplined find steady work.

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Build Experience & Pursue Additional Training

According to the BLS, the median hourly wage for professional dancers in all areas of dance was $14.44 in May 2015.  Dancers just starting out might earn only $8.00 per hour, so many will also hold jobs performing on cruise ships or at theme parks.  The highest ten percent of dancers make just over $33.00 per hour, and often work full time in a dance company. 

Schedules for professional dancers vary depending on whether or not they are preparing for a show.  During these times, a dancer will rehearse most of the day for an evening performance. If a dancer is performing overseas, they may spend several hours traveling, then time rehearsing, all in the same day. 

That said, dancers don’t dance to become rich or because it’s easy.  They dance because they can’t imagine doing anything else.  No doubt, it is a career field that takes dedication and passion.  Dancers dance because they love to dance, but for a lot of different reasons. Some find it challenging; others love to dance because it is never boring and they can always improve. After all, there is never a perfectly executed dance move. There can always be a better plie, split leap, or grand jete. Some love to perform, and other’s dance because of the applause.

No matter the reason, like Paulo Coelho once said, “When you dance, you can enjoy the luxury of being you.” 

Get to Know Our Experts

Laurel Lawson

  • Title:
    Professional Dancer
  • Company:
    Full Radius Dance
  • Where:
    Atlanta, GA
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Professional Dancer
  • Company:
    Ballet Palm Beach
  • Where:
    Palm Beach Gardens, FL
  • Experience:
    10+ years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Yavanna Production House
  • Where:
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Dancer Infographic