By TACP Staff on July 27, 2021

A professional dancer has the enviable job of expressing art through the choreographed movement of their body. Dance is a type of performance art that typically takes years to master and requires high levels of coordination, rhythm, creativity, and strength to excel. Dance is also extremely broad, providing learning opportunities in styles such as hip hop, contemporary, classical, ballet, modern dance, ballroom, traditional jazz, and dozens more.

What Is Dance?

Dance, by definition, involves the rhythmic movement of the human body in a pattern of steps or choreographed sequences, typically accompanied by music. To be successful in dance, a person must cultivate their talent through years of training, practice, physical conditioning, and study the expressive nature of the performing arts. Dancers perform in featured and complementary roles in recitals, concerts, musical theater, music videos, television, and movies – any venue or format where entertainment in front of a live audience is provided. Like filmmakers who tell a story through carefully crafted imagery, dancers provide a narrative and communicate emotion through physical expression.

What Does a Professional Dancer Do?

In addition to practicing and learning the sequence of a choreographed performance, professional dancers spend a considerable amount of time conditioning, strength training, and preparing themselves for the physical rigors of the job. Dancers are not just artists but, in many ways, extreme athletes as well. Natural ability and innate talent will only get you so far. In this highly competitive field, dancers must hone their athleticism, stamina, mental acuity, and work ethic. Other common activities include:

  • 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

There are many different paths to pursue in the world of dance, and not all of them require a person to perform. Many individuals pursue careers in teaching, dance instruction, choreography, directing, exercise fitness, stage management, physical therapy, or operate a business by opening their own dance studio.

Dance Training & Education

For many, natural ability and a passion for dance are discovered at a young age, leading to years of practice and experimentation at home, with youth dance companies, in after-school dance programs, with friends in social settings, or in private dance or performing arts school. For those who decide to pursue dance as a career, there are several professional training and traditional postsecondary education options that can help you take your skills to the next level.

Students with previous formal training often pursue admission to intensive summer training programs with leading professional dance companies where they learn complex dance movements and rehearse several hours each day in preparation for performances in front of a live audience. Dancers receive critiques of their technique and are pushed to explore their creative abilities in a structured environment. Summer intensives offer students the opportunity to develop their audition skills with renowned instructors and acclaimed guest artists and are often viewed as a springboard to admission to a prestigious college, university or conservatory programs.

Dance conservatories typically offer year-round rigorous training in modern and classical dance, including in-depth instruction in areas such as classical ballet, choreographic composition, pointe, and improvisation. Students receive considerable studio time with accomplished choreographers and conclude each semester with a showcase performance that is open to the public. Acceptance into a conservatory program is based on an in-person audition and is highly competitive.

Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance (B.F.A)

Although a degree is not a requirement to become a professional dancer, earning a degree from a conservatory of dance, or a college or university fine arts program can help students develop skills, techniques, and knowledge that separates them from others in the industry. Artistic training and direction from expert instructors can open the eyes and minds of a dancer to all the choreographic possibilities they will encounter as a professional and broaden their academic prospects through a liberal arts curriculum.

A degree also offers students the opportunity to train together as peers, establish close personal and professional relationships, develop mentor relationships with professors, master their technique, and showcase their talent. Students will participate in performances and events that help them build their portfolio of performance art, and gain exposure with administrators and directors of respected companies worldwide.

Master’s of Fine Arts in Dance

Master’s of Fine Arts program with a concentration in dance offers students the opportunity to pursue advanced dance theory and independent performance under the guidance of teaching artists. Students are pushed to explore vital aspects of the art as performers, and study dance conceptually, creatively and technically. An MFA in Dance encourages students to broaden their definition of form and performance through a combination of reading, writing, choreographic inquiry, and research. Additionally, students will receive advanced instruction in areas such as stagecraft, music, experiential anatomy, and dance history.

Important Skills and Qualities

There are many important skills and qualities that a professional dancer needs to achieve long-term success in the industry. They must have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work collaboratively in a team environment. They must be in good health and have physical stamina. Dancers must have a strong feel for, and connection to music, along with a fully developed sense of creative direction. Because dancers typically perform for an audience, they must be able to focus, maintain composure, and respond well to pressure. They must also have high levels of coordination, agility, flexibility, and sense of rhythm.

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Dancer Salary & Job Outlook

Professional dancers work in a variety of industries and environments, including the stage, movie studios, cruise lines, dance companies, schools, musical theaters, theme parks, casinos, sporting events, videos on the Internet, music videos, and more. A dancer’s schedule varies depending on the job and nature of the work. When preparing for a show, dancers will work long hours and will spend most of their day in rehearsal. They will work closely with other dancers, choreographers, instructors, and creative directors to modify their routines and perfect their performance. They will also participate in promotional events, attend photography sessions, and meet with members of the media to discuss the production.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of dancers is expected to decrease one percent through the year 2028, which is near the average for most occupations. The growing interest in pop culture and the explosion of online media has increased enrollment in dance schools and the popularity of the field in general. More people are exploring careers in performance art, which should ultimately create more jobs for dancers and choreographers across many fields. Optimism about the job market for dancers should be tempered however, by the reality of intense competition within the field. Even with an increase in the number of available jobs, the number of applicants is still expected to exceed demand, making job prospects less attractive.

In May 2019, the BLS listed the median hourly wage for dancers as $18.68. Dancers working a standard workweek were estimated to earn $10.48 per hour if they fell into the category of the lowest ten percent. The same data published by the BLS states that dancers in the top ten percent of all professionals in the industry exceeded wages of $48.90. Factors impacting a dancer’s earning power include experience, location, industry, and dance style.

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