I grew up hearing that the top rank of dancers were professionals. When my first ballet teacher talked about professional dancers she meant dancers who could be quiet back stage, who knew their parts, who didn’t bounce around the audience in their costumes, who didn’t cry for mom while they waited in the dressing room, all the things kids tend to do that make dance education a challenge. Later I learned that professional meant making money at something.
But I also learned that a professional doesn’t need someone else to tell them what to do.
So let’s look at those last two things. Making money (or not) and knowing what you want to do and need to do to make your professional life happen.
A professional dancer does not need to be told to go to class, to do his cross training, to be on time, to respect the costumes, to make neat lines in rehearsal or to stay on the music. Of course we are all working on improving our craft, but at a certain level you know all the answers, its just a matter of learning to execute.
If you are at or getting close to that point, you can begin to claim success as a dancer, even if you have never had a check with your name and “dancer” in the subject line handed to you.
Because you are not in it for the money. If money were your true interest, you would be pursuing it everyday with a method and passion that you currently apply to dance. And because you are reading this, I’m assuming you already train as a dancer, which means you have more grit and passion than a lot of people who only care about money.
So let’s talk about the role money plays in your identity as a dancer.
I recently read this article from Dance Magazine. It really opened my eyes. I didn’t realize that as much as 90% of people who dance and perform regularly cannot survive on just their dance income. Unless you are hired by a very financially healthy company, or one that receives a lot of government support, you will most likely have to supplement your income from your dancing with anything from teaching yoga to yard work, especially if you have an unpaid off season.
A dear friend of mine was recently hired by the Ririe-Woodbury Dance company, the premier modern dance company for the state of Utah. They are paid in part by a government grant. But guess what? These high level performing dancers, who tour and create new works constantly, also must do educational outreach in public schools, AND they wait tables, teach, and work at desks during the summer and sometimes even into the performing season. These are state supported, elite level, full time artists. And the wait tables.
We could veer off here on how governments should be doing more (or less) to fund the arts, but that is another post all together. The point is, if Ririe-Woodbury dancers have to supplement their income, you should not feel like less of a dancer if you do too, or if you rely on family for financial support.
I am still working on this. My husband pays my mortgage and my grocery bill (and because I’m a dancer I eat a lot!). I have received money for my dancing, I’ve done a few small time musicals, I danced with the Utah Opera, and I’ve done a handful of small projects where I both danced and choreographed. But I make most of my money as a dance accompanist and ballet teacher.
Can I still call myself a dancer?
Can I still put myself in the category of professional dancer with all the prestige that means? That I have “made it”?
Dance is one of those areas where it is hard to tell if you are successful. It can be defined in so many ways. For some success is being able to take a beginning pointe class after starting ballet in their 30s. For the longest time I went to open adult classes and told myself I’d be successful when I danced as well as a certain other dancer. Well, 7 years later because of our life circumstances, I now easily out dance her. But our goals have changed. She is focusing more on family and her business. I finished school and poured energy into dancing.
I’m still working on feeling good about this success. I have achieved something.
But success always brings with it the desire for more. Yes, I’ve had a few professional gigs. I want more. Yes, I’ve been part of companies that form for a season the run of a show, then break up. In between I pine for the next season and worry about the audition or placement process.
Another thing to think about is how different companies can be. Some are part time and finish rehearsal by 2 pm so everyone can squeeze in a few hours of work. Some only form for two months, put on a week of shows, then disband for 6 months. These may or may not pay.
I think for me success means always having a show coming down the pipe. I know there are a few community spring shows every year, and there are always a few Nutcrackers to choose from. Its up to me to stay in good enough shape to be cast. Many of the community shows I do don’t require an audition or they have a policy of placing everyone. In that case successes would mean getting a larger part. But even that doesn’t always depend just on my dancing and fitness. There are always politics, whether or not there are paychecks. And since I’m older and don’t have a home ballet studio, it can be hard for me to get into those inner circles where I have personal support from a teacher or director. No matter, I just have to show up, dance my best, then make the experience what I want it to be. Some of my best shows have been where I was in a large group number, but we all became good friends. This can be as rewarding as getting a big solo, though that is always the goal simply because of the challenge and growth that entails.
For me, this needs more thought and exploration. But I do think that as dancers, we need to be proud of every moment we spend training and rehearsing and performing, no matter what it takes for us to get into class or on stage. Getting a paycheck is not always in your control, so don’t hing your right to success on that. Having a title like professional, soloist, or principal isn’t always up to you either. Being a dancer is something you go claim.
I made a video about this that you can watch here.