Dancer and Choreographer Careers

Significant Points

  • Many dancers stop performing by their late thirties, but some remain in the field as choreographers, dance teachers, or artistic directors.
  • Most dancers begin formal training at an early age-between 5 and 15-and many have their first professional audition by age 17 or 18; becoming a choreographer usually requires years of experience.
  • Dancers and choreographers face intense competition; only the most talented find regular work.
  • Earnings from dancing are usually low because employment is irregular; dancers often supplement their income.

Nature of the Work

Complex movements and dances on stage and screen do not happen without a lot of hard work. Dancers spend years learning dances and honing skills, as do most choreographers. Together, they then translate those skills into movement that expresses ideas and stories.

Dancers perform in a variety of settings, including opera, musical theater, and other musical productions, and may present folk, ethnic, tap, jazz, or other popular kinds of dance. They also perform in television, movies, music videos, and commercials, in which they may sing and act. Dancers most often perform as part of a group, although a few top artists perform solo.

Choreographers create original dances and develop new interpretations of existing dances. They work in theaters, dance schools, dance and movie studios, and at fashion shows, and are involved in auditioning performers for dance parts. Because few dance routines are written down, choreographers instruct performers at rehearsals to achieve the desired effect, often by demonstrating the exact technique. Choreographers also work with performers other than dancers. For example, the complex martial arts scenes in movies are arranged by choreographers who specialize in the martial arts. Choreographers also may help coordinate costume design and lighting, as well as choose the music and sound effects that convey the intended message.

Work environment. Dance is strenuous. In fact, dancers have one of the highest rates of nonfatal on-the-job injury. Many dancers, as a result, stop performing by their late thirties because of the physical demands on the body. Nonetheless, some continue to work in the field as choreographers, artistic directors, and dance teachers and coaches, while a small number may move into administrative positions, such as company managers. A few celebrated dancers, however, continue performing most of their lives.

Many dance companies tour for part of the year to supplement a limited performance schedule at home. Dancers who perform in musical productions and other family entertainment spend much of their time on the road; others work in nightclubs or on cruise ships. Most dance performances are in the evening, whereas rehearsals and practice usually take place during the day. As a result, dancers often work very long and late hours. Generally, dancers and choreographers work in modern and temperature-controlled facilities; however, some studios may be older and less comfortable.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Dancers generally need long-term on-the-job training to be successful. Most dancers begin formal training at an early age-between 5 and 15-and many have their first professional audition by age 17 or 18. Some earn a bachelor's degree or attend dance school, although neither is required. Becoming a choreographer usually requires years of experience.

Education and training. Training varies with the type of dance and is a continuous part of all dancers' careers. Many believe that dancers should start with a good foundation in classical technique before selecting a particular style. Ballet training for girls usually begins between the ages of 5 to 8 with a private teacher or through an independent ballet school, with more serious training beginning between the ages of 10 and 12. Boys often begin their ballet training between the ages of 10 and 15. Students who demonstrate potential in their early teens may seek out more intensive and advanced professional training. At about this time, students should begin to focus their training on a particular style and decide whether to pursue additional training through a dance company's school or a college dance program. Leading dance school companies often have summer training programs from which they select candidates for admission to their regular full-time training programs. Formal training for modern and culturally specific dances often begins later than training in ballet; however, many folk dance forms are taught to very young children. As a result, a good number of dancers have their first professional auditions by age 17 or 18.

Training is an important component of professional dancers' careers. Dancers normally spend 8 hours a day in class and rehearsal, keeping their bodies in shape and preparing for performances. Their daily training period usually includes time to warm up and cool down before and after classes and rehearsals.

Because of the strenuous and time-consuming training required, some dancers view formal education as secondary. However, a broad, general education including music, literature, history, and the visual arts is helpful in the interpretation of dramatic episodes, ideas, and feelings. Dancers sometimes conduct research to learn more about the part they are playing.

Many colleges and universities award bachelor's or master's degrees in dance, typically through departments of dance, theater, or fine arts. The National Association of Schools of Dance is made up of 74 accredited dance programs. Many programs concentrate on modern dance, but some also offer courses in jazz, culturally specific dance, ballet, or classical techniques. Courses in dance composition, history and criticism, and movement analysis are also available.

A college education is not essential for employment as a professional dancer; however, many dancers obtain degrees in unrelated fields to prepare themselves for careers after dance. The completion of a college program in dance and education is usually essential to qualify to teach dance in college, high school, or elementary school. Colleges and conservatories sometimes require graduate degrees but may accept performance experience. A college background is not necessary for teaching dance or choreography in local recreational programs. Studio schools prefer teachers to have experience as performers.

Choreographers should have a thorough understanding of the dance style that they arrange. This often is gained through years of performing and practicing. Some dance conservatories offer choreography courses.

Other qualifications. Because of the rigorous practice schedules of most dancers and choreographers, self-discipline, patience, perseverance, and a devotion to dance are essential for success in the field. Dancers and choreographers also must possess good problem-solving skills and an ability to work with people. Dancers, above all, must have good health and physical stamina, along with flexibility, agility, coordination, and grace, a sense of rhythm, a feeling for music, and a creative ability to express themselves through movement. Choreographers should possess many of the same attributes while also being able to plan and coordinate activities.

Because dancers and choreographers are typically members of an ensemble made up of other dancers, musicians, and directors or choreographers, they must be able to function as part of a team. They also should be highly motivated and prepared to face the anxiety of intermittent employment and rejections when looking for work.

Advancement. For dancers, advancement takes the form of a growing reputation, more frequent work, bigger and better roles, and higher pay. Some dancers may take on added responsibilities, such as by becoming a dance captain in musical theater or ballet master/ballet mistress in concert dance companies, by leading rehearsals, or by working with less experienced dancers in the absence of a choreographer.

Choreographers typically are experienced dancers with years of practice working in the theater. Through their performance as dancers, they develop reputations that often lead to opportunities to choreograph productions.

Job Outlook

Employment is expected to grow more slowly than the average. Dancers and choreographers face keen competition for jobs. Only the most talented find regular employment.

Employment change. Employment of dancers and choreographers is expected to grow 6 percent during the 2008-18 decade, more slowly than the average for all occupations. The public's interest in dance will sustain large and mid-size dance companies, but limited funding from public and private organizations is not expected to allow for additional dance companies. For many small organizations, the result will be fewer performances and more limited employment opportunities.

Job prospects. Because many people enjoy dance and would like to make their careers in dance, dancers and choreographers face intense competition for jobs. Only the most talented find regular employment.

Although job openings will arise each year because dancers and choreographers retire or leave the occupation for other reasons, the number of applicants will continue to vastly exceed the number of job openings.

National dance companies likely will continue to provide jobs in this field. Opera companies and dance groups affiliated with television and motion pictures also will offer some opportunities. Moreover, the growing popularity of dance for recreational and fitness purposes has resulted in increased opportunities to teach dance, especially for older dancers who may be transitioning to another field. Musicians will provide a small number of openings for both dancers and choreographers, and candidates are expected to face keen competition. Amusement parks and cruise ships should also provide some opportunities for dancers and choreographers.