Being a dancer is often seen as a glamorous profession, with dancers poised gracefully on stage, executing beautiful choreography. However, behind the scenes, being a professional dancer requires immense dedication, discipline, athleticism, artistry, and perseverance. Dancing is a physically and mentally demanding career that requires constant training, practice, and care of one’s body. Though rewarding, being a dancer also involves practical challenges like financial instability, intense competition, and short career spans.
What does being a dancer entail?
Dancers are performing artists who use movement and dance techniques to express stories, emotions, or ideas. There are many genres of dance like ballet, modern, jazz, tap, hip hop, ballroom, folk, and more. Dancers train extensively in studios to hone their technical skills, practice choreography, and build artistry. Core skills include flexibility, balance, strength, coordination, and body awareness. Dancers must have good proprioception, memorization capabilities, and musicality. Dance careers typically involve performing in productions, competing/auditioning, teaching classes, and choreographing.
Professional dancers work in various settings like dance companies, theatres, television, films, music videos, and commercial events. Their schedules are demanding as they rehearse for long hours daily, often starting class at 10 AM and finishing rehearsals at 6 PM. Most professional dancers start training intensively as children and the field is very competitive. Dancers must stay fit, prevent injury, and maintain technique through consistent practice. Being a dancer requires passion, work ethic, and mental stamina to persist despite challenges.
Dance is incredibly athletic and requires immense strength, flexibility, stamina, and coordination. Dancers are constantly moving through complex choreography, needing control over their whole body. Here are some key physical demands:
- Flexibility – Dancers require a high degree of flexibility to execute their movements fully. For example, ballet dancers must stretch their feet and legs to attain turned-out positions, splits, and kicks at high extensions.
- Strength and endurance – Dancers must have tremendous core, leg, and upper body strength to lift their own body weight, partner other dancers, and sustain technical skills through lengthy rehearsals and shows. Endurance is built through cardio and training.
- Coordination and body awareness – Mastering complex footwork, choreography, and partner-work requires exceptional coordination. Dancers must have body awareness and placement to move precisely.
- Good balance – Dancers need stabilization to maintain positions on one leg, during turns, and while moving. Core strength enables balance.
- Ankle and foot mobility – Clean footwork is imperative in styles like tap. Dancers develop flexibility through their feet and ankles.
Dancers must train these physical attributes consistently to avoid injury. Their bodies are their instruments and staying physically fit is crucial. The intensity varies between genres, like ballet being more meticulous and contemporary focused on expression. However, all forms require athleticism, discipline, and determination.
As dance is physically grueling, injuries are an occupational hazard. According to Research in Dance Education, 80% of professional dancers get injured annually. Common injuries include stress fractures, sprained ankles, strained muscles, tendinitis, and back injuries. Lack of nutrition, overtraining, improper technique, fatigue, and insufficient warm-up/cool-down make dancers prone to injury. Insufficient core strength and turnout can also cause problems.
Preventing injuries is vital for longevity. Measures like:
- Proper strength training to support joints
- Pilates and yoga for core strength and flexibility
- Stamina training and cardio
- Massage therapy and physio for muscle recovery
- Balanced nutrition and hydration
- Ensuring adequate rest and listening to fatigue signals from your body
- Technique practice to hone skills correctly
- Proper warm-up, cool-down, and stretching
- Supportive footwear and flooring
Dancers constantly push their bodies to the edge, so injury prevention and care is paramount. Dance organizations advise getting at least one full rest day per week. Self-care helps dancers endure their taxing schedules.
Mental and emotional demands
In addition to physical rigor, the mental and emotional demands of being a dancer are immense. Dancers must manage performance anxiety at auditions, competitions, and on stage. Handling rejection and critiques with resilience is vital. Dancers often base their self-worth on their perceived talents or success. But the field’s subjective nature and narrow opportunities cause instability. Dancers must thus cultivate mental discipline.
Other challenges include:
- Managing perfectionism and being self-critical
- Coping with high stress and anxiety
- Facing rejection, criticism, and failure with resilience
- Having self-motivation and persistence
- Dealing with pressure from directors and choreographers
- Maintaining confidence despite challenges
- Withstanding long, tiring rehearsals
- Thriving despite competitive environments
- Adapting to versatility and unpredictability
Cultivating mental strength, discipline, artistry, and stage presence is imperative. Having a growth mindset, supportive community, and intention can help dancers handle challenges. Passion for dance fuels dancers through difficult times.
Career instability and financial insecurity
Pursuing dance professionally entails career instability and financial insecurity. Dancers typically have short careers, low compensation, and unpredictability. According to Dance/USA’s research, dancers retire professionally on average around age 35. Median salaries are around $20,000 to $40,000 annually. Only top soloists at elite companies earn higher wages. Factors causing career and financial instability include:
- Very few full-time, permanent jobs – Most dancers work as freelancers or temporary company contracts ranging 6 months to a year.
- Ageism – Most dancers retire in their 30s as technique fades, risking age discrimination.
- Narrow opportunities at top tiers – Extremely competitive for spots in prestigious companies with good compensation.
- Seasonal layoffs – Common in ballet companies.
- Pay inequity issues – Male dancers can outearn females by around $12,000.
- Lack of benefits – Many freelance/contract dancers do not get health insurance, paid leave, retirement plans.
- Physical longevity uncertainty – Injuries can disrupt or end careers.
Dancers combat financial challenges via side-gigs, careful budgeting, finding scholarships, teaching, and more. Saving is difficult with inconsistent income and high costs for training, healthcare, travel etc. Many dancers teach, act, model, blog, or find arts admin roles when transitioning out of performing. Versatility helps, like training in multiple genres.
Typical career paths
Here are some common career paths for professional dancers:
- Ballet companies – Corps, soloist, principal dancer contracts. Very competitive.
- Modern/contemporary companies – Smaller troupes and experimental projects.
- Commercial dance – Music videos, television, concerts, commercials.
- Indie dance projects – Choreographing and producing one’s own work.
- Dance education – Teaching at studios, schools, colleges.
- Arts administration – Managing dance companies, studios, events.
- Choreography – Freelance work or within a company.
Many have portfolio careers, like dancing part-time while teaching and choreographing. Exploring related arts fields can build financial sustainability. But dancers often sacrifice higher earning potential to pursue their passion.
Intense training from a young age
Most professional dancers begin intensive training at a very young age, usually under 12 years old. This early start is vital to hone proper technique as the body develops. For example, ballet dancers begin pointe work around ages 11-13 to mold feet strength.
Intensive training is necessary to build skills like:
- Flexibility – Best established early before muscles shorten.
- Coordination and motor control – Developed efficiently in childhood.
- Muscle strength – Built safely over years of gradual conditioning.
- Work ethic and concentration – Essential skills instilled through early rigor.
- Injury resistance – Bones and connective tissue strengthen.
- Artistry – Nuanced musicality and expression cultivated.
While starting young has advantages, the intensity comes with challenges. Young dancers must balance training with normal childhood activities. The pressure to succeed can negatively impact self-esteem if not managed carefully. Gradually increasing demands is recommended over excessive training. Supportive teachers help dancers develop a healthy relationship with dance.
Daily technique and fitness classes
Intensive dance schools have rigorous daily class schedules to develop skills. A typical day may include:
- Ballet technique – 1 to 2 hours daily
- Pointe work – 30 to 90 minutes of specialized ballet technique en pointe shoes.
- Variations – Learning solo classical repertoire.
- Modern, jazz, contemporary – Classes in additional genres and styles.
- Rehearsals – For performances and shows.
- Improvisation and freestyle sessions.
- Dance history and anatomy.
- Fitness training – Strength, cardio, pilates, yoga.
- Injury prevention – Stretching, massage, physical therapy.
Proper warm-up, cool-down, stretch breaks, and rest days balance the activity. Young dancers must also find time for schoolwork, meals, socializing, and downtime. It is a demanding schedule requiring discipline, organization, passion, and support.
Highly competitive environment
The dance world is extremely competitive, right from youth training through professional careers. Dancers must work hard to stand out and book jobs. Key factors making dance so competitive include:
- More dancers than available jobs – According to Dance/USA, only around 50% of graduates get work.
- Auditioning against many candidates for each spot – Rejection is commonplace.
- Elite schools and companies have selective admission – Spots highly coveted.
- Subjective nature – Roles depend on directors’ preferences.
- Freelance nature – Dancers constantly hustle for next opportunities.
- Ageism – Declining chances as dancers age.
- Gender bias – More roles traditionally for females.
Talent alone is insufficient to succeed. Self-promotion, networking, perseverance, technique versatility, and luck enable advancement. Handling rejection and persisting despite disappointment are critical. Mentorship, training diversity, and a supportive community help dancers thrive professionally despite challenges.
Tips for succeeding in auditions
Auditioning is central to a dancer’s career. To maximize chances of success:
- Research expectations and tailor preparation.
- Arrive early, neat, with proper dancewear and grooming.
- Warm up thoroughly.
- Introduce yourself confidently.
- Listen carefully, pick up choreography and cues quickly.
- Execute techniques cleanly, precisely, and with performance quality.
- Show professionalism, positivity, and maturity when interacting.
- Have resumes ready and discuss experience when possible.
- Write thank-you notes to directors afterwards.
- View auditions as learning experiences and do not get discouraged.
maximizing physical and mental preparation boosts success rates. Directors look for technique excellence, performance potential, and the right personality fit.
Short dancing career lifespan
Most dancers retire by their late 30s due to the physical and mental toll. Ballet careers peak around ages 19-22 for females and 23-26 for males as technique and expressiveness heighten. But maintaining skills gets more challenging with age as injuries accumulate, stamina and flexibility decrease, and younger dancers get competitive advantages.
Reasons for short professional careers include:
- Injury accumulation – Wears down bodies.
- Technical decline – Agility, stamina, and flexibility fade.
- Strength and endurance loss – Harder to meet demands.
- Ageism – Discrimination from directors.
- Motivation dip – Fatigue from high demands.
- Priority changes – Wanting family, stability.
- Competition from younger dancers.
- Limited job options.
- Insufficient retirement savings.
Elite principal dancers may perform into their 40s due to high skill preservation. But most transition to teaching, choreography, or arts administration. Retirement planning is crucial with shortened careers. Continuing fitness and discovering new passions help with transition.
Second career options
When their performing days end, dancers can pursue related fields like:
- Teaching – At studios, intensives, camps, schools, colleges.
- Choreography – For studios, companies, television, music videos, competitions.
- Dance criticism and writing – Reviews, blogs, vlogs, books.
- Youth coaching – Private lessons for young dancers.
- Therapy – Dance/movement therapy, physiology, massage.
- Judging – For competitions and auditions.
- Arts administration – At companies, schools, government arts boards.
Some transition to areas like fitness, arts marketing, event planning, and more. Continuing dance in a recreational, teaching, or administrative capacity allows lifelong engagement.
Pursuing dance professionally requires immense dedication, discipline, athleticism, mental strength, and sacrifice. The physical demands are intense with constant conditioning needed to avoid injury. Performing under pressure and coping with criticism, rejection, and instability require resilience. Dancers start intensive training very early and face grueling, competitive environments with instability and short careers.
However, the passion for artistic expression through movement drives dancers to endure challenges. The joy of performing, communing with music, and mastering technique provide meaning. Exceptional fitness, artistry, coordination, and versatility develop. Dance hones mental acuity, focus, confidence, and determination transferable to any field. For those who love moving as escape, communication and community, a dance career is profoundly rewarding despite obstacles.