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The Top Ten Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming A Professional Dancer

becoming a professional dancer
By Jill Wolins

As a young and fully committed aspiring professional dancer, I thrived on hard work, taking initiative, and being fully dedicated to my art. I put in extra hours outside of class at the gym and stretched nightly. 

I learned as much as I could about conditioning and nutrition, in spite of my Upstate New York meat and potato with extra butter upbringing. I knew I always wanted to teach and stayed in an array of classes for years and years beyond my university dance training.

I had, and still have “Dance Values.” I valued hard work and discipline. I valued working one’s way up in class and companies. I valued the dancers around me. I valued the process of learning and growing as a dancer and an artist. I always knew the love I had in my heart for my art form would trump all. This love of dance is what would get me through audition rejections, bad days, and even other personal life setbacks.

What I didn’t know was that hardly any of these values and attributes prepared me for the business side of the professional dance world.

The professional world. Not just the dance world. Not the kind of world where people call themselves “dancers” because they take a class every day. (They are, of course, dancers, but they are not making a living as a dancer). I knew I wanted to make a living solely as a dancer and thought I was fully equipped with my iron will, drive and dedication.

There were quite a few things no one ever told me. Well, if/when they did, I didn’t listen very well, because my experience would have been different with my values and discipline and love of my art, right? Umm… WRONG! Save yourself hours of grief-stricken phone calls with your Mom and thousands of dollars of therapy, and listen up.

1. Know Your “Type”

Your “type” refers to your natural looks and gifts. Your “type” is dictated by how others see you. Your “type” is not about how you could possibly see yourself in a couple years after a few more classes and your 7-day juice cleanse. You are who you are. I had no idea how others saw me as a young dancer. I knew I loved companies like Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones. I followed them and others, but never really gained any ground in auditions. I wanted to be androgynous, exotic, and an athletic artist. Did I mention that I am 5’9”, blonde and busty? I ended up having much better success in the commercial dance realm. I knew what I loved, but not who I was, and how others saw me.

Know where you fit in. We have the ability to change much of our appearance, and that can be fun experimenting with things like hair cuts and colors! Accept your God-given gifts, and work with them accordingly.

2. Get Real About Money- Know How Much You Will Make

Get crystal clear about income, and if you will be able to earn a living while working specific jobs as a dancer. There are resources available like danceusa.org for dance companies, and my books that reference potential job listings and earnings. If you can not earn a living dancing in that venue, understand and accept that you must supplement your income, and get creative in ways to do that, without being miserable. It can be done.

I was performing concert dance I loved in NYC, for a small audience of people who mostly knew people in the show. It was closest to my heart, but I could not make a living. Back to the Musical Theater I went.

3. Define the Dance Closest to your Heart. Hold It As A Treasure

We all have choreographers and teachers who have touched our lives. We wish we could dance with them forever. In some cases, we can, but if we cannot make a living doing so, it’s important to cherish the moments when we get with them. Understand the difference between dance you love and the dance that can potentially earn you money. No dollar sign will ever be able to measure the value of dance, and what it means to us. Dance is sacred. Accept that it may or may not earn you a living. If it can in the future, as if you are an apprentice in a company, understand the process and time frame it may take to get there. Sometimes, when we are fortunate, the two can merge. We can earn good money for doing exactly what we truly love. However, some people feel they do not want to sacrifice their art for the dance in the entertainment world.

4. Educate Yourself On Union Jobs Vs. Non-Union Jobs  

Understand that some jobs like Broadway, television, and film, are union jobs. Some larger dance companies are union dance companies. Usually, to be eligible to even audition for a union job, a dancer needs a union card. Some examples would include Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) covering Broadway shows, American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) covering NYC Ballet, American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) covering Rockettes, and Screen Actor’s Guild/ American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA) covering dancers appearing on the silver screen. Dancers in music videos are working to turn their Dancers’ Alliance into a union. Some dancers prefer to stay non-union, as they can find more available jobs. Some dancers demand union jobs to have health benefits and pension plans.

5. Booking Jobs – More Than Meets The Eye

It is not always about talent. There will be numerous auditions when you will be more talented than the person booking the gig. Many other factors influence casting. Casting directors may be looking for a specific type not indicated in the audition listing. There may be a specific costume size that needs to be cast. Sometimes a person auditioning may just remind directors of someone they do not like. It’s that simple! In a case like that, it has absolutely nothing to do with the person auditioning! It happens!

Don’t bother comparing yourself to others. It is a waste. Aim for a personal best with each audition, and remind yourself of what you do and do not have control over.

6. Be Prepared & Don’t Waste Time

Know exactly what you are auditioning for and be prepared. Research the job description, and know what will be expected of you. If an audition notice says bring knee pads for floor work, and you are recovering from knee surgery, this may not be a gig for you right now.

Wear the same thing, or at least the same color, to call backs. Look the same as you did in your original audition.

Present the exact package you believe they are looking for. If you must sing, bring the appropriate sheet music in the correct key. Casting directors are not paid to use their imagination. They need to cast exactly who can do the job that day. Don’t make them imagine what you look like when you dance in heels or when you finally get your left split.

7. Be Respectful and Know Who Has Power

Working with others is just as much part of being a professional dancer as the dance itself.

There will inevitably be people you work with that may not be your favorite. Being professional means conducting yourself in a respectful manner, regardless of how others act. Also, don’t get sucked into any vortex of negativity. Remember your dance captain and rehearsal directors are considered “superior.” Do not give them any reason to report you. Finally, do not assume that just because a person is in a position of power means they are a smarter, kinder, and a more evolved person than you. They are all people just like you. Sometimes choreographers are insecure and nervous, as it may be their first job of its kind as well!

8. Don’t Snob Out When It Comes To Resumé Building

Everyone has to start somewhere, although there are a few that make it big with the first audition, the other 99% of us have to work our way up. Sometimes we can be an apprentice and have a specific path. If you don’t, be open minded about professional jobs like cruise ships and theme parks. They are an excellent way to see the world, stay in great dance shape, and meet people while getting paid. That paycheck can afford you to live in a major city and audition again, or even pay student loans. I received my first union card (AEA) at a Disney theme park. A 6 or 9-month contract seems so long while you are a young dancer, but it goes by quickly, probably because they are fun gigs.

9. No “Should Have, Could Have, Would Have”

Commit to the life of a dancer. What does that mean? Stay on top of auditions and actually go. If taking a daily class is too expensive, get yourself a great workout regimen and hit that mat in your apartment. Treat your body like you are an Olympic athlete, and don’t derail or lose sight of your goals. Make a vision board, know exactly what you want, and do whatever it takes. Most people do not understand the life of a professional dancer, and how it is a full-time job keeping yourself ready for any potential job. Don’t look back and say you wish you just would have done more to be successful.

10. Have Fun

No really, I am serious. Not being corny. Especially when you find your good friends, these will be amongst the best years of your life. Auditioning may be stressful at times, but being young, chasing dreams, and dancing for one’s life is the best. You have worked most of your life for this, right? If you don’t truly love dance, and the process it takes to be a professional, make a change. If you do not handle rejection well, this world is not for you. You will hear “No” often. That’s show biz, kid! Just a friendly reminder that the right path is not always necessarily the professional route. One can touch many lives as a teacher and choreographer. We all have those people who have influenced our lives. But if professional dance is your goal, fully commit to making it happen. You won’t regret it. I promise.

Also by Jill Wolins:

Learning From Shameless Opportunists: 7 Ways To Ensure Success

Freelance Artist Gig Life: Do Something

 

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