What makes a professional dancer?

10 Jul

I get asked on a fairly regular basis if I am a professional dancer, and I’m never sure how to respond. A few months ago, I posted something on Facebook asking for people’s opinion about what makes a professional dancer. The input was interesting and has been percolating as a blog post for while.

What level of training is required to be considered a professional?

A good friend of mine who is a professional musician argued that your professional status (in any field) is determined by the level of education obtained. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who doesn’t have a degree but just has been “practicing a lot.” In the dance world, however, it’s not as cut-and-dried. You don’t necessarily need a degree or certification in dance to be a professional dancer.

Your training speaks for itself when you’re dancing— however I do think that professional dancer should have a solid resume of several years of taking classes at studios or schools and some amount of performing experience. But there’s no magic or across-the-board formula—it’s not “Ten years of ballet here, four years of jazz here, five years of hip-hop here, three years of performing here” and POOF, you qualify as a pro. Again, training speaks for itself and you can always spot a well-trained dancer in any style of dance.

Should dance be your primary source of income if you are calling yourself a professional dancer?

No matter what your field is, it seems like the way of the world is such now that very few people have one primary source of income, and the dance world is no different. It’s not uncommon for people to work multiple jobs to make ends meet or have a few side hustles. The dance world is hard to be fully financially supported in. Many companies don’t have a large enough budget to pay their performers full-time salaries. I know plenty of dancers and dance teachers who spend every day driving from one studio to another teaching classes to piece together an income.

One of my best friends lives in San Francisco and said she’s had to adapt her definition of a professional dancer given the cost of living in the Bay Area. She said she knows incredible dancers who perform with first-class choreographers and companies, but still have to supplement their income with other jobs.

As someone who auditioned for professional ballet companies and was met only with the prospect of unpaid apprenticeships that might one day turn into a contract, I can’t imagine trying to be in a company full-time and trying to work enough to pay my bills. Would you consider unpaid apprentices in a professional company ‘professional dancers’?

A rose by any other name

At the end of the day, does it really matter what label you put on yourself? I think about one of my friends Betto at Mambo Dinamico—he’s a great teacher, choreographer, and performer—definitely a consummate professional, but he has a day job as well. His primary source of income is not dancing but he’s still a pro.

I struggle to define myself as a dancer—I have more than sixteen years of ballet training and performing, as well as experience training and performing in contemporary, modern, ballroom, and of course Salsa. I’ve taught dance for five years in various incarnations and spend a LOT of time every week dancing. I’ve been paid to dance and paid to teach and yet I don’t consider myself a professional because it’s not a full-time thing. I think if I had decided to not go to college and dance straight out of high school, I could have been a professional ballerina, but that wasn’t the life that I wanted. I often think that if I lived in a bigger city with more access to instructors, studios, and performance teams, I could “go pro” with Salsa, but the life that I want (at least for now) is in Charleston, and I had to make a choice.

I know several people who are the same way—could have gone to the top as dancers, but decided that school, having a family, or living in a certain area was more important to their ultimate life goal. Being a professional dancer is not an easy life by any means—I’m proud and excited for friends and colleagues I know who are “making it,” but I also know how much work, dedication, and sacrifice it took to get there.

No matter how you define yourself, make sure to always act professional (Thanks Megrez Mosher, professional aerialist, for that tip!). Whether you’re freelancing or just taking classes, act right. Show up early or on time, dress appropriately, and respect whoever is running the show.

I’d love to hear your thoughts—leave a comment and let’s continue this conversation!

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4 Responses to “What makes a professional dancer?”

  1. Tyler Lahti July 10, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    You’re right. It’s easy to classify someone that has certain certifications, such as M.D. or C.P.A., as a professional. Or a ball player that makes millions.

    I judge people with artistic talents, like painters, musicians, dancers, to a certain extent by whether or not they are paid. To a greater extent I judge them, as “professionals” or not, by the heart they show for what they do. It’s difficult, often unrealistic, to invest in one of these skills full-time.

    Then again, I guess that’s why some people are indisputable professionals. Some people take the risk. Is that part of it? Must you risk everything, and succeed, to earn the right to be called a professional? You’ve got me thinking. I admit I know nothing about the world of dancing.

    • gschrubbe July 14, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

      Thanks for the response! “Must you risk everything, and succeed, to earn the right to be called a professional?”
      GOOD QUESTION! From a business standpoint, if there’s not cash flow, it’s not your profession, it’s a hobby, but is it feasible in today’s world to make full time living as an artist? So hard to say!

  2. Angel Salazar July 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Great blog, I really enjoyed reading it. It provided very interesting points and answered a couple questions I had about a professional dancers life. I understand it can get tough, but I’m willing to sacrifice a lot for my passion of dance and hope to become a great professional bachata dancer like Daniel and Desiree, and Jorge and Tanya.

    • gschrubbe July 14, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

      Thanks for the comment! If it were easy, it’d be (American) football. Being a dancer is an awesome lifestyle, but it’s hard work. But so are all things worth having!

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