Becoming a ballet dancer is a dream held by many youngsters. It’s a difficult career to get into and requires much dedication, hard work and raw talent to succeed. You’ll need to be determined and focussed, and have a genuine passion and enthusiasm for dance, particularly ballet. Physical fitness is extremely important in this role. You must be prepared to eat a healthy diet, stay in shape, and refrain from smoking.
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As a ballet dancer you will use your skills of rhythm and timing to interpret music, express feelings and emotions, and tell stories through the choreography of the dance. Working for a ballet company, you could perform in front of live audiences all around the world, in addition to working in television, films or music videos.
You won’t become a successful ballet dancer overnight. It’s a very demanding career choice and can take many years of training to achieve the levels of ability, strength and coordination that are required to perform at the top level. Competition for places at the most prestigious schools and Corps de Ballet (ballet companies) is fierce, but once you’re accepted you could enjoy a long and fulfilling career in the field of ballet performing, instructing students and perhaps moving on to work as a choreographer or director.
1. What do Ballet Dancers do?
As a professional ballet dancer your daily routine could include:
- performing choreographed roles either in front of a live audience or for TV productions, films etc.
- rehearsing for performances
- attending costume fittings
- attending fitness and ballet classes to maintain your strength, flexibility and mobility
- attending auditions
- looking for upcoming roles
All ballet dancers join a professional company as ‘dancers’. You will be referred to as a ‘ballet dancer’ once you become one of the top performers in your company. The very best female dancer is referred to as the ‘Prima Ballerina’. The best male ballet dancer is called the ‘Danseur’ or ‘Principal Dancer’. They are offered the most prestigious roles and attain virtual celebrity status within the industry.
2. Working Environment
Your hours as a professional ballet dancer would be irregular and long. You’ll be attending rehearsals, fitness and dance classes during the day, and performing in the evenings. Sometimes, you might be required to perform in a matinee session too. Your time would be divided between fitness suites or dance studios, theatres or TV studios.
As a member of a professional ballet company, you would spend much time travelling, both in your home country and overseas. When you are performing in a production that is taken on tour, you’ll spend long periods away from home, living in hotels or hostels.
Under the terms of their contracts, both male and female ballet dancers are usually held to a specific weight and body measurements to enable them to be able to perform the various lifts and other movements required.
Your income will depend upon which ballet company you are contracted to, and the terms of that contract. Some ballet dancers are paid weekly and only for the duration of a performance contract, whereas others are paid an annual retainer salary by the company they work for.
Average salary for ‘dancers’ $25,000 per annum
Average salary for ‘ballet dancers’ $45,000 per annum
Average salary for Prima Ballerina/Danseur $171,000 per annum
4. Entry Requirements
No formal academic qualifications are required to get into this role, but it will be expected that you’ve studied dance and in particular, ballet, from a relatively young age. Most young aspiring ballet dancers join clubs whilst at school or college, and take graded exams from recognised professional bodies like the British Ballet Organisation or the Royal Academy of Dance.
Professional ballet dancers usually move on to train intensively at a special vocational school. In order to do so you must pass an audition. It’s helpful if you have some sort of theatrical training too, such as a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts. Ballet dancers who show talent may qualify for funding.
You might want to study for a bachelor’s degree in ballet or dance. This will open up further career options for you when your performing career is over. A degree will enable you to work as a ballet teacher or as a choreographer in a dance studio. Degree programmes include subjects like; ballet techniques, dance history, choreography and teaching. Some degree programmes offer the opportunity of a dance internship with a Corps de Ballet. This is a great opportunity to make valuable contacts within the industry which will stand you in good stead when you come to look for a permanent place.
5. Important Skills and Abilities
As a professional ballet dancer you would need to demonstrate:
- natural talent and ability
- excellent senses of rhythm and timing
- the ability to concentrate and focus
- a good work ethic and determination to succeed
- the ability to learn and remember routines
- fitness and stamina
- the ability to stick to a healthy diet and maintain a pre-determined bodyweight
- the ability to work as a team
6. Career Progression and Development
Throughout your career as a professional ballet dancer, you’ll continually develop your skills, strength and fitness through continually training, rehearsing and performing. Unless you are contracted to a ballet company long-term, you’ll need to attend dance classes in your own time to keep yourself up to speed with modern ballet and to maintain your skills in more classical roles. It’s also worth taking acting classes to bolster your chances of landing a key role.
It’s important to remember that a ballet dancer’s career is a short one, and you should be able to build a second career for yourself when you are no longer able to perform. Popular options include:
- dance administration and management
- complementary therapies like Pilates, yoga, Alexander Technique and massage
- general fitness teaching
The Dancers’ Career Development (DCD) offer advice and funding for professional ballet dancers whose careers in performance are ending. It may also be possible to obtain funding for further professional development through the national Arts Council.
7. Job Opportunities
Competition for places within the most prestigious ballet companies is strong, and consequently they take only dancers of exceptional talent and ability. However, there are many other opportunities within smaller companies. Most ballet roles are short-term contracts, unless you are lucky enough to be contracted to a company on a long-term basis.
Getting selected for a vacancy within a professional ballet company will require an audition. Some companies will view a DVD of your dancing as a pre-audition, particularly if you are applying for an overseas post. They will however insist on seeing you perform live before they offer you a contract. You’ll usually be expected to attend a class with the company to demonstrate your skills at the barre in addition to performing floor work. Be prepared to perform at least two pieces at your audition. These should include one classical piece from a traditional ballet, and one more contemporary piece to demonstrate your accomplishment across a range of different media.
Vacancies for ballet dancers are advertised in specialist dance publications and on ballet company websites. You’ll also need to be actively networking and promoting yourself in order to find work.
The following publications are useful for job vacancies, notices of auditions and general information:
A career as a ballet dancer with a professional Corps de Ballet is undoubtedly a varied and exciting, jet-setting lifestyle. However, it’s a notoriously difficult profession to get into and you’ll need to be prepared for hard work and dedication if you are going to succeed.
Your performing career will be relatively short, so you’ll need to have a plan B in mind for when your days as a professional dancer are over. Fortunately, there are many opportunities in dance-related occupations for former professionals, so all your hard work and hours spent ‘en pointe’ will stand you in good stead for the future.