COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Dancers and Choreographers

Nature of the Work

From ancient times to the present, dancers have expressed ideas, stories, rhythm, and sound with their bodies. Many perform in classical ballet, which includes the stylized, traditional repertory. They also may perform modern dance, which allows more free movement and self-expression. Others perform in dance adaptations for musical shows, in folk, ethnic, tap, and jazz dances, and in other popular kinds of dancing. In addition to being an art form for its own sake, dance also complements opera, musical comedy, television, movies, music videos, and commercials. Therefore, many dancers sing and act, as well as dance.

Dancers most often perform as a group, although a few top artists dance solo. Many dancers combine stage work with teaching or choreographing.

Choreographers create original dances. They may also create new interpretations to traditional dances like the Nutcracker since few dances are written down. Choreographers instruct performers at rehearsals to achieve the desired effect. They also audition performers.

Dancing is physically demanding and strenuous.

Working Conditions

Dancing is strenuous. Rehearsals require very long hours and usually take place daily, including weekends and holidays. For shows on the road, weekend travel often is required. Most performances take place in the evening, and dancers must become accustomed to working late hours.

Due to the physical demands, most dancers stop performing by their late thirties, but they sometimes continue to work in the dance field as choreographers, dance teachers and coaches, or as artistic directors. Some celebrated dancers, however, continue performing beyond the age of 50.


Professional dancers held an average of about 18,000 jobs at any one time in 1992. Many others were between engagements so that the total number of people employed as dancers over the course of the year was greater. In addition, there were many dance instructors in secondary schools, colleges and universities, dance schools, and private studios. Many teachers also performed from time to time.

New York City is the home of many of the major dance companies. Other cities with full-time professional dance companies include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Training and Other Qualifications

Training depends upon the type of dance. Early ballet training for women usually begins at 5 to 8 years of age and is often given by private teachers and independent ballet schools. Serious training traditionally begins between the ages of 10 and 12. Men often begin their training between the ages of 10 and 15. Students who demonstrate potential in the early teens receive more intensive and advanced professional training at regional ballet schools or schools conducted under the auspices of the major ballet companies. Leading dance school companies often have summer training programs from which they select candidates for admission to their regular full-time training program. Most dancers have their professional auditions by age 17 or 18; however, training and practice never end. For example, professional ballet dancers have 1 to 1 1/2 hours of lessons every day and spend many additional hours practicing and rehearsing.

Early and intensive training also is important for the modern dancer, but modern dance generally does not require as many years of training as ballet.

Because of the strenuous and time-consuming training required, a dancer's formal academic instruction may be minimal. However, a broad, general education including music, literature, history, and the visual arts is helpful in the interpretation of dramatic episodes, ideas, and feelings.

Many colleges and universities confer bachelor's or higher degrees in dance, generally through the departments of physical education, music, theater, or fine arts. Most programs concentrate on modern dance but also offer courses in ballet/classical techniques.

A college education is not essential to obtaining employment as a professional dancer. In fact, ballet dancers who postpone their first audition until graduation may compete at a disadvantage with younger dancers. On the other hand, a college degree can help the dancer who retires at an early age, as often happens, and wishes to enter another field of work.

A college education is also an advantage for college or university teaching. However, it is not necessary for teaching dance or choreographing professionally. Studio schools usually require teachers to have experience as performers; colleges and conservatories generally require graduate degrees, but performance experience often may be substituted.

The dancer's life is one of rigorous practice and self-discipline; therefore, patience, perseverance, and a devotion to dance are essential. Good health and physical stamina are necessary in order to practice and perform and to follow the rugged schedule often required. Good feet and normal arches also are required. Above all, one must have flexibility, agility, coordination, grace, a sense of rhythm, and a feeling for music, as well as a creative ability to express oneself through movement.

Dancers seldom perform unaccompanied, so they must be able to function as part of a team. Dancers also should be prepared to face the anxiety of intermittent employment and rejections when auditioning for work. For dancers, advancement takes the form of a growing reputation, more frequent work, bigger and better roles, and higher pay.

Job Outlook

Dancers face very keen competition for jobs. The number of applicants will continue to exceed the number of job openings, and only the most talented will find regular employment.

Employment of dancers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005 due to the public's continued interest in this form of artistic expression. Although jobs will arise each year due to increased demand, most job openings will occur as dancers leave the occupation and as dance companies search for and find outstanding talent.

The best job opportunities are expected to be with national dance companies because of the demand for performances outside of New York City. Opera companies will also provide some employment opportunities. Dance groups affiliated with colleges and universities and television and motion pictures will also offer some opportunities. Moreover, the growing popularity of dance in recent years has resulted in increased employment opportunities in teaching dance.


Earnings of many professional dancers are governed by union contracts. Dancers in the major opera ballet, classical ballet, and modern dance corps belong to the American Guild of Musical Artists, Inc., AFL-CIO; those on live or videotaped television belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; those who perform in films and on TV belong to the Screen Actors Guild or the Screen Extras Guild; and those in musical comedies are members of Actors' Equity Association. The unions and producers sign basic agreements specifying minimum salary rates, hours of work, benefits, and other conditions of employment. However, the separate contract each dancer signs with the producer of the show may be more favorable than the basic agreement.

For 1993-94, the minimum weekly salary for dancers in ballet and modern productions was $587. For new first year dancers being paid for single performances, the basic rate was $242 per performance and $71 per rehearsal hour. Dancers on tour received an additional allowance for room and board. The minimum performance rate for dancers in theatrical motion pictures was $99 per day of filming. The normal workweek is 30 hours including rehearsals and matinee and evening performances. Extra compensation is paid for additional hours worked.

Earnings of choreographers vary greatly. Earnings from fees and performance royalties range from about $970 a week in small professional theaters, to over $30,000 for a 8 to 10 week rehearsal period for a Broadway production. In high budget films, choreographers make $3,000 for a 5-day week; in television, $7,500 to $10,000 for up to 14 work days.

Earnings from dancing are generally low because dancers' employment is irregular. They often must supplement their income by taking temporary jobs unrelated to dancing.

Dancers covered by union contracts are entitled to some paid sick leave, paid vacations, and various health and pension benefits extended sick pay, child birth provisions provided by their unions. Employers contribute toward these benefits. Most other dancers do not receive any benefits.

Related Occupations

Other occupations require the dancer's knowledge of conveying ideas through physical motion. These include ice skaters, dance critics, dance instructors, dance notators, and dance therapists. Athletes in most sports also need the same strength, flexibility, agility, and body control.

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