How to Become a Dancer

By TACP Staff on June 28, 2019

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You’ve seen the Swan Lake ballet a dozen times. You watch in fascination as Jennifer Lopez seamlessly dances across the stage at the Grammys. You have the “So You Think You Can Dance” television show set on auto record, and replicating Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk still makes you the life of every party. If all you want to do is dance for the rest of your life, then a career in this fascinating field may be for you.

1. 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 workweeks. The flexibility to travel is also required, and although sometimes tiring, it 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.

2. 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.

3. Build Experience & Pursue Additional Training

According to the BLS, the median hourly wage for professional dancers in all areas of dance was $18.68 in May 2019.  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.”

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Dancers

Additional Guides