Can I Make Dancing My Career?
Can I make a full-time career in dance?
If you're very talented and very lucky, yes, perhaps. But the vast majority of dancers have what we nowadays call a "blended career" - they don't rely 100% on dancing to pay the bills. That's why it's so important to develop alternative income sources while you're training.
You may be tired of hearing people say you need to train for something else, just in case you don't make it in dance. But the fact is, you're likely to need that other job, even if you do make it in dance. Like it or not, most dance companies can't afford to pay their dancers a full-time wage.
Every Dancer Needs a Plan B
Only the major ballet companies, famous cabarets like the Moulin Rouge, or shows like Cirque du Soleil can afford to hire dancers as permanent employees with a year-round salary. Outside those organizations, pay varies dramatically.
Musicals hire for the season - your job lasts as long as the show lasts! Many small dance companies pay by the performance, nothing more - the only other perk you get is free classes.
At the lowest end of the pay scale are the freelance dance troupes and dancers who work clubs and restaurants: they get paid by the performance, and have to pay for their own tuition and even their own costumes.
Many dancers supplement their income as waiters, checkout chicks and other unskilled jobs, because they didn't train for anything else. The trouble is, those jobs don't pay well, so dancers have to work long hours to make ends meet. They end up trying to juggle a full-time job with their dancing - and the dancing suffers.
If you can develop an alternative career while you're training, you'll find it much easier to cope with the lulls in your dancing work. Not only will you earn a higher hourly rate, but your skills are more likely to be in demand - so you'll find it easier to get part-time work when you need it.
Will I Make It?
No matter how much you don't want to believe it, there's a good chance you won't make it as a dancer.
To be brutal, unless you're the standout student in your class, there's very little chance that you'll be accepted by one of the big companies. The competition is fierce - not to say vicious - so they can afford to cherry-pick only the very best of the best.
That's not to say you can't have a career in dance. Many ballet students make the mistake of thinking a ballet company is the only option. Whereas I know many ballet students who went on to have wonderful careers in flamenco, belly dance, tango, salsa, ballroom and Latin dancing. With a ballet background, you can pick up any of these styles in your twenties or even thirties, and quickly be good enough to dance professionally.
But even if you have outstanding talent, or are attracted to alternative dance styles, there are so many things that can go wrong on the path to fame - a snapped achilles tendon or ruptured cruciate ligament can end your career in a split second. Attention to proper nutrition, stretching, and technique will all help protect you from injury, but you can't make yourself totally safe.
And finally, there's retirement. If you dance ballet, your career isn't going to last much beyond 35. What will you do then? You may not have enough money put aside to fund retraining - so it's better to train for something now, while you have the opportunity.
Don't assume you'll find work as a teacher: for one thing, teaching is a talent too, and you may not have the knack. For another, the pay is usually poor, and if you start your own school, you'll need some capital to get started (which you may not have), and it can take years to get big enough to actually make any profit.
What Are My Options?
If you can combine study for a serious profession with your dance training, you will be in the best possible position. When I was dancing flamenco professionally in clubs and restaurants, my pay was eaten up by the cost of classes, travel and costumes - but I didn't care, because thanks to my qualifications, I was able to work 20 hours a week as a manager and made more than enough to indulge my passion for performing.
However, there's no doubt it's tough to devote enough hours to qualify in two professions at once. In practice, you may have to choose something less lucrative but also less demanding. The following skills have good potential to get you casual, part-time or home-based work:
- beauty therapy / hairdressing
- natural therapies
- remedial massage
- any trade skills (plumbing, carpentry, electrical)
Of course, you can also supplement your income by using online options such as running your own blog or website. That can take a couple of years of very hard work to set up, but there is good potential if you're willing to put in the effort to learn.
With the right skills under your belt, you can follow your dream with confidence, knowing you always have something to fall back on. Go for it!