6 minute read

Dancer Job Description, Career as a Dancer, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Dancers express feelings and act out stories through the movement of their bodies. Some dancers specialize in classical ballet or modern dance, while others perform in musical shows or do tap, folk, ethnic, modern jazz, or ballroom dancing. Dance is also used in opera, musical comedy, and television performances. Classical ballet requires very structured movements with little room for interpretation. Ballet dancers follow movements based on classical "positions" taught to them at the beginning of their careers. In contrast, modern dancers do a freer and less structured kind of dancing.

Jazz dancers are most commonly used on Broadway and in television, movies, and nightclubs. Broadway and nightclub dancers are usually skilled in tap and have training in singing and acting.

Not all dancers perform before audiences. Many teach in schools and colleges or at places specializing in social and ballroom dance instruction. Other dancers become choreographers and create new ballets and modern dances. Choreographers guide dancers in learning the movements of a particular piece. They also create and supervise the dances used in musicals and on television.

Professional dancers spend much of their time in classes, auditions, and rehearsals. Most take classes on a regular basis to keep in shape and to discipline their minds and bodies. They audition for new parts frequently, since many dance productions last for only a short time.

Education and Training Requirements

Classical ballet dancers normally begin serious training by the age of twelve, with early training by the age of seven or eight. Modern dancers also need early, intensive training, but they usually do not need as many years of training as classical ballet dancers.

Classical ballet dancers often begin their training at the age of seven. If they become professional dancers, they must continue to practice and train throughout their careers. (© Kurov Alexander/ITAR-TASS/Corbis.)

Proper training from the beginning is essential. A child's body is very pliable. Bones are not fully grown and can be damaged by excessive exercise. Before enrolling in a dance program, students and their parents should consider the dance instructor's philosophy, experience, and qualifications.

High school students who have exceptional ability in ballet may receive advanced training in regional ballet schools or in schools affiliated with major ballet companies. Some dance school companies select their students from summer training programs. In these schools dance training predominates, but courses in music, literature, history, and the visual arts are also included. Dance students should take courses in math, science, and English as well.

Most dancers have professional auditions by the age of seventeen or eighteen, but they continue to practice and train throughout their careers. Professional ballet dancers, for example, take from ten to twelve lessons each week for eleven or twelve months of the year and spend many additional hours practicing and rehearsing.

Students may receive additional training in dance at one of the sixty accredited dance programs approved by the National Association of Schools of Dance. In fact, there are more than 240 programs at schools around the United States that offer bachelor's or higher degrees in dance. A college education is not mandatory for a professional dancer; however, higher education is an advantage for those wishing to teach in colleges and universities. In fact, colleges and conservatories usually require graduate degrees, but experience is sometimes an acceptable substitute.

Physical stamina, good health, appropriate height and build, and good feet with normal arches are essential for a person interested in pursuing a career in dance. Equally important is the self-discipline required for hours of rigorous practice.

Some dancers enter the related and growing field of dance therapy. Dance therapists must have dance training, a bachelor's degree in dance or psychology, a master's degree, and an internship with a qualified dance therapist. Some other related occupations that require dance training or knowledge of dance forms include acrobatics, ice skating, dance criticism, and dance notation. Dance notators write down the movements, music, costumes, background, and other details of a dance performance.

Getting the Job

Dancers generally obtain jobs through auditions. These opportunities are publicized through union notices, newspapers, trade journals, booking agencies, and call boards at dance schools. A dancer usually has to attend several auditions before getting a part. During an audition, dancers are required to perform brief routines suggested by the choreographer. Sometimes dancers must bring their resumes and photographs. Most dancers are eliminated during an audition. Only a small number are chosen to return for a second audition.

Some dancers pay for the services of entertainment booking agencies that help them find jobs. Dancers who wish to teach generally apply directly to the schools of their choice.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Beginning dancers often spend several years working in dance choruses. Advancement depends on both talent and luck, and performers who are exceptional eventually do solo numbers or work with only a few other dancers. Professional dancers usually retire when they are in their thirties, but certain celebrated dancers continue performing beyond the age of fifty. Older dancers often become choreographers or dance instructors after retiring from the stage. Some dancers form their own dance companies, and, in the case of ballet, a few advance to the training position of ballet master or mistress.

Competition for employment as a dancer is expected to remain very keen through the year 2014. The number of dancers who seek professional careers will continue to exceed the number of job openings. Only the most talented dancers will find regular employment. Dance teachers and choreographers usually have more job security than performers. The increased popularity of dance in recent years has resulted in a greater demand for dance teachers. Some new employment opportunities may arise with the growth of new professional dance companies. Some of these groups will be affiliated with colleges and universities.

Working Conditions

Dancing is very difficult, strenuous work, and the hours of rehearsal can be tedious and exhausting. Most dancers remain in the field only because they love to dance and would not be happy in any other occupation. Dancers often work nights and weekends, which is when performances are generally scheduled. They also travel frequently because large dance companies usually take their shows on tour.

Many professional dancers are members of one of several unions, depending on the type of dancing they do and in what medium they perform. Generally dancers work thirty hours per week, including rehearsals, matinees, and evening performances; however, individual dancers often negotiate separate contracts with producers in order to receive higher salaries or shorter working hours.

Earnings and Benefits

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly income for dancers is $8.54. Because dancers often hold short-term jobs that range in length from one day to three months, employment can be characterized as irregular at best. Salary varies widely. Dancers who work with performing arts companies earn a median income of $14.82 per hour. Dancers on tour receive an additional allowance for room and board. Salaries for teachers in dance schools vary according to location of the school and the experience of the individual teacher.

Where to Go for More Information

American Dance Guild
P.O. Box 2006, Lenox Hill Station
New York, NY 10021
(212) 932-2789

National Dance Association of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance
1900 Association Dr.
Reston, VA 20191-1598
(703) 476-3400

Approximately 20 percent of dancers are self-employed, meaning they receive no benefits. Unionized dancers receive some paid sick leave and vacations, as well as health insurance benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts