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How to forge a successful career in dance

male dancer leaping into the are

Building a career in dance isn’t always easy. Jobs are competitive, funding can be limited and roles often aren’t full time. 

As a result, it’s important that as an aspiring dance professional you approach your career in the spirit of entrepreneurship in order to identify and pursue the most productive professional path for you.

In this article we explore the challenges you may face and the qualities you will need to forge a successful career in dance, adapted from Ali Duffy’s Careers in Dance.

Qualities for a successful dance career

Self-motivation

There is rarely a time in a dance career that does not demand your persistent drive toward the next goal or job or promotion. You must be prepared to keep pushing yourself throughout your career because dance requires you to be completely present—and completely you—every day.

Resilience and self-care

Since many jobs in dance are highly competitive, you will likely experience a lot of rejection in the field. As a result, many dance professionals highlight the necessity for resilience and strategies for self-care. It’s important to find a method of calming yourself and a method of retrieving your positivity. You will need these self-care strategies as you move through your career.

Bouncing back from rejection and negativity is key to preventing burnout and self-esteem issues, and each person may have a unique way to do this. Reward yourself for your courage and persistence even when you do not secure the job. Find a group of supportive friends to bolster your confidence and remind you of your amazing qualities during difficult periods and transitions in your career. Establishing a cross-training regimen for yourself and creating a list of important medical and therapy practitioners will be helpful too as you navigate your career in a physically and emotionally demanding field.

Professional demeanor

As preparation for the world of work, it’s advisable to present a professional demeanor now with your existing teachers and cohort of classmates. A professional demeanor does not mean you have to be inauthentic or overly formal. Rather, it means that people notice when you go the extra mile to say please and thank you, to anticipate the needs of others, and to be polite and friendly in potentially stressful situations. Further, knowing how to compose a professional email message, concisely articulate your talents and goals to others, and persuade others about the value of your ideas will be important as you move through any area of the field.

Networking and self-promotion

Your relationships with others can be a key determining factor of your success in the field. Successful dance professionals are confident networkers and self-promoters. For some, these are difficult skills to master because they require significant social interaction, presence, and confidence. If you are more of an introverted person, for example, you may have to work harder to take the risk of meeting new people. Further, publicly announcing your personal accomplishments and strengths to others may feel contrived or prideful. However, you must be willing to let others know who you are and what you can offer in order for them to be willing to hire you.

Challenges in dance

Above we have addressed some of qualities you’ll need to have a fruitful career in dance. But in order to be fully prepared for the professional dance world, it is also important to be aware of some of the challenges you may face throughout your career.

Roadblocks and rerouting

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As with anything in life, you are likely to encounter unexpected roadblocks, personal issues or creative ruts which may have impact on your career. Within these moments of potential despair it is important to regroup, recover and in some cases, even reroute your career. At some point, you may have to let go of parts of your career, or you may choose to let one part subsume the others, or you may feel lost about which direction to turn, which opportunity to take. Again, don’t worry, because this happens to many dance professionals at some point in their careers.

The unusual nature of a career in dance is that it does not always direct you in a straight line upward through a hierarchy of promotions and positions. Many dance professionals echo the idea that you should expect some sense of unknowingness as you figure out where you fit. You may try a few different jobs before finding the one that feels right and provides stability. You may have to piece together multiple jobs in order to make a livable wage. And you may find that what you thought you wanted does not align with what you have to offer. Nonetheless, you will discover, sometimes by struggling through difficulties, that you have a place in the dance world—you just have to find your niche and stay the course.

Plans B, C and D

You may have your career in dance all planned out – the company in which you will perform, the city in which you’ll live, and how you’ll continue to train. But as we’ve just seen, unexpected circumstances can arise which may throw your plan A out of the window, and create a need for a plan B, C, or even D. 

Many dancers, throughout the course of their careers, face acute or chronic injuries. Due to the intense physical nature of this profession and the likelihood of making technical errors, overtraining, or falling into unhealthy patterns, injuries may affect your career. Further, as you age, your body will change and you will need to continually recalibrate to make the most of your body’s abilities. It is well known that some dance professionals (ballet dancers, in particular) retire from performing careers at a relatively young age. Whereas dancers can expect short careers, choreographers, teachers, writers, and scholars can anticipate very long-term productivity. If you foresee that the beginning of your career will include intense physicality, you would be wise to include training in as many other complementary areas as possible, so you will have options in the future.

Certain gigs in dance don’t equate to a livable wage, so you’ll need to secure additional part-time or even full-time work to support your work in dance. This is not unusual and, depending on your areas of interest, you may find this situation is the rule and not the exception. Of the many opportunities in dance, few are year-round, full-time positions with benefits and the perks found in other disciplines. The constant pressure to secure the next gig can be frustrating for some and exhilarating for others, so make sure you know what kind of lifestyle you prefer before starting out in any one specialty.

If you are someone who enjoys the impermanence of changeable jobs and part-time work, assess the part-time work you are qualified to undertake and that would be flexible enough to support your dance work. For example, some dance company performers work only on weekends with these companies, temporary employees in theme parks work only during certain seasons, such as in the summer months and over the holidays, and dance educators work from September to May, so they have summers open. The amount and intensity of workload in many positions in the dance field ebb and flow. Securing part-time or temporary work may help fill the financial and creative gaps in your résumé.

As you begin working to secure positions in the field, you may find that, although you have trained for years, you are simply not hirable in certain areas. This is not a reflection of a failed dance career or education! This is a chance for you to recalibrate to focus more clearly on the particular niche you can fill. While still in school, obtain skills in as many areas of the dance field as possible. This will allow for more flexibility once you have graduated and are working and have other personal priorities.

A mindset of lifelong learning and change

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Those who sustain long careers in dance often do so due to two philosophies they possess: approaching their careers with a zeal for lifelong learning and accepting that a dance career will change over time. As your interests and abilities change, so will your contributions to dance. While it may be difficult to imagine a life in dance other than the one you’re currently living or working toward, make a point to envision many possibilities for the future, including possibilities that do not involve physically dancing, and possibilities outside of, but perhaps connected to, the dance field.

Embracing a mindset of continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning will support a long, evolving career. What once existed as a career option in dance may disappear as the field evolves and new options arise. Further, as you continue learning, you will uncover areas of exploration you never imagined in your early career days. Your ability to remain open-minded to new ideas will help ease any transitions you experience.

Dancers should recognize that bodily changes mixed with changes occurring in lifestyle preference, priorities, and emotional and mental states all affect a career in dance and may offer opportunities for change. Taking advantage of rather than resisting these landmark moments can lead to greater fulfillment and longevity. For example, Broadway performer Betsy Struxness, describes how her career goals shifted after she was struck by a car on her way to a rehearsal and was left with a knee injury: “It made me realize that I need to find other ways to earn a living besides using my body … someday my body won’t be able to keep up. Using dance as my starting point, I’ve recently been making freestyle dance videos with a heavy lean on fashion and women artists. Through dancing I’m finding out what I want to say and how I want to say it” (Struxness 2019).

While many dancers will not face the emergent changes involved in a sudden accident, they will face bodily changes that come with the aging process. Some of these transformations can be positive: Some dancers report being able to access greater qualitative variety, nuances, and performance presence in their dancing as they get older (Duffy 2020). However, they also report decreased flexibility and strength as they age. Considering now how you might manage the changes you’ll experience in the aging process is a smart approach to addressing career longevity.

Summary

Taking the time to really get to know your strengths, preferences, goals and challenges will be key in helping you design a purpose for your dance career. Further, understanding how different jobs in the dance field operate—the qualities best attributed to people in these positions, the training and experience you’ll need, the people working in these areas, and where these jobs are located—will support a smooth transition from school to the professional world. While you are in the process of developing your skills in different areas, prioritize time to discover the field and all that it can offer you in your career in addition to discovering all that you have to contribute to the field.

Featured image by Yogendra Singh from Pexels.

Careers in Dance book cover

Adapted from:

Careers in Dance

Ali Duffy

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