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Learn what it takes to become a professional dancer, including training and skills.

Many dancers go on to become choreographers or teachers once their performing days are over. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Many dancers go on to become choreographers or teachers once their performing days are over.

A career in dance is highly competitive; only dancers with the most talent find regular work. Employment is often sporadic, with some jobs lasting a short period of time -- perhaps a day, a week or several months. Job opportunities are available in contemporary or ballet-focused dance companies, musical and dinner theaters, television, movies, music videos, commercials, cruise ships and theme parks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for dancers is expected to grow by 9 percent from 2006 to 2016.

Required Training for Dancers

Many dance instructors believe ballet training is essential to establishing good dance technique. Girls should start ballet training between 5 and 8 years old, with serious training commencing between ages 10 through 12.

Boys begin a little later, typically starting between 10 and 15 years old. Dancers who display talent by their early teens may intensify their training and continue to focus exclusively on ballet. Or, they may concentrate on jazz, tap, lyrical or a culturally-specific dance form, such as folk dance.

If dancers are serious and talented enough for a dance career, they are encouraged to join a professional dance company or enroll in a college dance program for further training. It is common for serious dancers to have their first professional audition before reaching adulthood. Summer training programs with principal dance companies also provide students with an opportunity to be selected for full-time training.

Many dancers pursue a bachelor's or even a master's degree in dance. College and university dance programs often focus on modern dance, but also incorporate jazz, ballet or classical technique into their curriculum. Classroom studies focus on the composition of dance, history, criticism and movement analysis. Some dancers choose to obtain degrees unrelated to dance so that they have the flexibility to choose another line of work once their dance careers are over.

Dancer Skills

For dancers who go on to professional careers, dance training is rigorous. Daily rehearsal hours are long and often followed by performances in the evening. To endure, dancers must possess self-discipline, patience, fortitude and a strong commitment to dance. They must also have good health and incredible bodily stamina. The ability to express themselves creatively through movement is paramount, as are physical flexibility, dexterity, poise and a strong feeling for rhythm and music.

Because dance is usually performed as an ensemble, dancers must be comfortable working as a team with other dancers, directors, musicians and choreographers. They must also be able to withstand irregular employment and the rejection that is inevitable in the audition process.

Dancing Jobs

Advancement in dance often occurs as a result of the dancer's growing reputation as a hard-working, talented performer who has had success in previous dance jobs. This may result in more regular work, better roles and elevated pay.

Dancers should take the following into consideration when searching for dancing jobs:

  • Musical theater does not have choreography that is technically challenging, but dancers are expected to sing.
  • Movies, videos and commercials pay well, are short-term and generally film in Los Angeles.
  • Professional dance companies require proper technique, but the pay is low.
  • Musical revue shows on cruise ships, theme parks and cities like Las Vegas and Branson, Mo., seek out dancers with personality.
  • Teaching can be full-time or a way to earn money between gigs.

Because they can't keep up with the physical demands on their bodies, most dancers stop performing by the time they are in their late 30s. However, their experience allows them to remain employed as choreographers, dance teachers or artistic directors.

Other Job Opportunities for Dancers

Dancers with college degrees have many options. Critical thinking, creative problem-solving, listening, concentration and the ability to work under pressure are all skills that are developed through the study of dance. Presentation skills, the confidence to perform in public and control over one's body are also developed. These provide the foundation for numerous career paths beyond dance, including: college professor, event planner, public relations manager, arts administrator, lawyer in relation to the arts, design and production, fundraiser, journalist, screenwriter, arts therapist, physical therapist and dance medicine.

Dancer Earnings

Though the pay can be lucrative in some areas of dance, dancers are generally not high-income earners. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median hourly earnings for dancers in May 2006 were $9.55. The highest 10 percent earned an hourly rate of more than $25.75, and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $6.62 per hour.

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