Dear Nichelle, (okay, they rarely start that way in this age of email)
I am a 31-year old late beginner. I am an office clerk with a degree in sociology. I am 24 years old and currently studying rocket science at XYZ University.
I danced for 10 years, quit, and only recently started again. I’m on the dance team and love to choreograph. I take class as often as I can fit it in my schedule. I took dance for 14 years and I regret giving it up when I went to college.
I enjoy rocket science but what I really want to do is dance. How do I break into the business? Can you give me tips on where to start? What are my next steps if I want to be a dancer?
Now, I am absolutely paraphrasing and it’s not my intent to make fun of these requests but there is a saying… If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. A similarly cheeky answer to the above might be, ‘If you have to ask, you’ve already missed your opportunity’. Wanting to give a heartfelt question a heartening response, however, I try to address the question straightforwardly.
So, how do I answer?
It usually goes something like this:
Professional dancers spend an extraordinary amount of time focusing on their chosen profession. Though they do have lives outside of dance, the day to day life of someone working toward a professional dance career revolves around dancing. If you want to dance at a professional level, you need to pursue it at a professional level.
What does it mean to pursue dance at a professional level?
It can mean a lot of things but this covers it in a general way:
- Rigorous, daily practice and attention dedicated to your art form.
- Continual training and sometimes cross-training to keep you in top physical form.
- Constant assessment of where you are in relationship to where you want to be.
- Focused seeking of experiences that will extend and improve what you have to offer as a dancer.
- Regular quenching of the thirst to see and understand the field and how others approach their art form.
If you are a professional, by the way, I welcome your additions to this list in the comments!
Afraid of commitment?
What’s interesting is that in writing to me, emailers don’t often say, “I want to be a professional dancer” or “I want a career in dance.” Those that ask, *ahem* dance around it. My guess is that putting the intention into serious sounding words makes it more real and more scary.
One of my most commented on articles at Dance Advantage is about late beginners in dance. In addition to commenters that say thanks for the reminder to forget comparisons and set goals, one of the frequent questions that appears is, of course “Is there hope for me?”
Again, everyone has a slightly different story, and I’m not one to say never (particularly since many dancers have started at 15 to 25 years old – considered late in dance) but still my answer is always the same - see above, if you’ve forgotten.
Whether via email or in the comments, inevitably there are those who respond with a “thanks, but…”
“…when I said pro, I didn’t mean that I’d actually earn a living,” “…I wasn’t talking about a career, I’d like to do a few jobs here and there.” or “…I just want to audition and see where things take me.”
A dose of reality
I am a firm believer that people DO have the power to achieve what they set their mind to.
Setting the mind to something is more than just thinking on it, though! And in dance, more than the mind is involved. The body plays a pretty big role and requires frequent tending to remain equipped for high-level dancing. I believe in dreaming big but your dreams will stay dreams without real action propelling them.
It’s not unusual for a professional dancer (one who IS dedicating their full attention to dance) to pursue secondary interests or take on other work in order to earn enough for living expenses. However, when you’re talking about auditioning, or breaking in, getting gigs, or dance being the thing you want to do, don’t dance around it, you’re talking about a professional career.
Semi-professional opportunities for dancers are available but it’s unlikely you’ll be paid anything like a professional would be. The truth is, even professional dancers with companies aren’t guaranteed a salary that will pay the bills. The bulk of hours you put in as a semi-pro will probably be unpaid and it’s rare that work like this will lead directly to bigger and better opportunities.
If you are an amateur wanting to get paid like a professional for something, you must compete with professionals who also want to get paid. Whether it is just a few jobs, a TV spot, or a music video, you will still be competing with dancers who are pursuing dance with all of their energy. If you are not throwing your body and mind into dance with concentrated effort, what are your chances against the people who are? The field of dance is highly competitive.
It does not matter what kind of dance you are pursuing, either. Ballet may hold some of the more stringent expectations of dancers but in every situation (from hip-hop to Broadway) those hiring are looking for people at the top of their game. They want versatility, superior training and skills, and experience. Most importantly, they want people fully committed to dance!
So, what you really want to do is dance…
Does this mean you should drop out of XYZ University and forget your career in rocket science?
Sorry, but no one can answer that but you. We all make choices in life and successful people often make choices that others have deemed too risky or downright stupid.
On the other hand, risky or stupid decisions are sometimes just that.
I cannot possibly advise if you’ll “make it” as a professional dancer. Even your teachers may not be able to advise you (in fact, naysayers are a frequent catalyst and have launched many a career in dance).
Only YOU can make the decision and YOU are the only person that can be held accountable for the outcome.
I can’t become a doctor just by dreaming of it, or by taking a few biology classes, or because I played doctor as a child. It doesn’t matter how good I might be at it or how much “natural” talent I have. I can’t expect to walk into a hospital, operate every once in a while and hope they’ll be so impressed they’ll offer me a permanent position. It just doesn’t work that way.
No matter how often your television tries to fool you into believing that part-time effort can pay off with instantaneous triumph, those that enjoy even just two minutes of fame or success have spent a great deal of time and energy positioning themselves to be “suddenly discovered”.
Like it or not, your dreams won’t happen without getting serious and setting some serious goals.
There are no exceptions to this rule, no way around it, no shortcuts.
There are most definitely people who can take on rocket science and dance at the same time. These high-level achievers wouldn’t bother to ask if it’s possible, they’d already be eating and breathing it because they are compelled to.
If what you really wanted to do is dance, you’d already be doing it.
Is this supposed to be encouragement?
Every teacher knows that sometimes tough love is required to motivate and educate. The skinny on becoming a professional dancer has been covered in feel-good, but no less accurate articles on this site… here and here and here, for example.
This article may be your kick in the pants.
On the other hand, it may be what you need to hear to realize that rocket science really is your thing and that you are happy to enjoy dancing for the love of it… and for the rest of your life if possible.
How are you spending your time?
So here it comes, what I MOST want you to get out of this article if you’ve EVER contemplated dance as a professional pursuit. And, it comes from a source completely unrelated to dance. The concept has been stated by others but I just like how neatly this ties it up.
“‘Just do it’ can be excellent advice. If you wonder whether you could write a book or run a marathon, don’t waste a minute calculating your chances. Instead, spend an hour a day on your dream. It’s how I suddenly found myself on a bridge in London, cameras rolling, wondering what took me so long.”
And there it is.
Every moment you waste calculating your chances, asking, or even wondering if it’s possible to have a career or live your dance dream is a moment not spent on making it happen. If what you really want to do is dance…
Just Do It!