In 2008, Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers, asked us: “Are we human, or are we dancer?” Well Brandon, for some of us the answer is: “Both actually!”
Indeed, dancing is not necessarily something you only do when you’re drunk at a wedding; dancing is a bona fide career path. But what do they do? And how do they make a living?
Essentially, dancers are performers who use their bodies in a beautiful, artistic and expressive manner for the pleasure of an audience. However, it’s not simply a case of busting some moves to some upbeat music. Dancers use their bodies and their expert movements to tell stories and convey emotions.
Furthermore, dance can be used to accentuate and promote music. For instance, professional dancers play an essential role in many music videos, capturing the audience’s imagination and enhancing their audio-visual experience.
Dancers tend to specialise in a particular type of dance, such as ballet, contemporary dance, hip-hop or salsa. However, versatility is certainly an asset. After all, if you can turn your hand to different styles of dance, you will get more work. Generally though, it doesn’t matter what genre you focus on, your professional life and job responsibilities will be fairly similar.
Performing is only a small part of a dancer’s life. For the most part, dancing is all about practicing, rehearsing, exercising and learning choreographed dance moves.
However, don’t think that a dancer is simply a choreographer’s puppet; dancers are encouraged to bring their own ideas and improvised flourishes to the table. Indeed, a rehearsal is a creative process, which allows dancers and choreographers to discuss choreography and adapt dance moves where necessary.
Like actors, dancers must attend auditions to find work. Most people tend to work on a freelance basis. However, it’s often a good idea for dancers to join an established dance company. This way you will find it easier to get regular work. Some dance companies even tour the world. This can be a great way to network and build up a list of international contacts in the industry.
Many dancers supplement their performance work by teaching dance classes, working as a part-time choreographer or leading community workshops. Sometimes this extra work is essential, as a career in dance is not necessarily going to provide you with a steady stream of money.
Indeed, to make it as a dancer you will have to work incredibly hard, not only at practising and performing, but also at promoting yourself and finding as much work as possible.
Salary & benefits
Understandably, there is no standard salary range for dancers in the UK. You will usually be paid on a project-by-project basis and the amount that you receive will be entirely dependent on the type of dancing you’re doing.
Dancers are encouraged to join Equity, the trade union for performing arts, which sets a minimum weekly salary. Consequently, if you join Equity, you will be legally entitled to earn at least £400 a week. However, it’s important to bear in mind that dancers are never guaranteed work.
This is not a nine-to-five job, with a salary, holiday allowance and benefits package. Far from it! Sure you might earn £400 a week for two months, but after that you might not earn anything at all for ages. Dancers often go for long periods without finding work. Consequently, a dancer’s monthly income is typically inconsistent.
Experienced and well-established dancers, however, can earn between £500 and £600 a week, especially if they work on high-profile productions.
Working as a dancer can be quite demanding. As you can expect, dancing is not a typical nine-to-five job. Dancers work anytime, including early mornings, evenings, late nights, weekends and national holidays.
It’s an intense career path, which is also relatively short-lived. Indeed, as dancers get older, they may be side-lined for younger performers. Consequently, in order to stay on top of your game, you’ll need to be in peak physical shape at all times.
Dancers work in all kinds of locations. If you’re working in ballet or musical theatre, you’ll most likely be working on stage and in dance studios. However, if you’re working in television, music videos or film, you’ll find yourself in television studios, film studios and dancing on-set in random locations.
If you’re part of a touring dance company, you’ll also be required to travel on a frequent basis.
To work as a dancer, it’s not completely necessary to study dance at a high level. However, to be successful it’s advisable that you study dance at university, a conservatoire or a performing arts college. Studying dance at this level will give you both the practical and theoretical knowledge required to truly succeed.
Dancing is a disciplined art and it takes years of practice and training to reach a professional standard. If you’re untrained, it’s highly unlikely that you will rock up to a dance audition, pull some Napoleon Dynamite-esque moves and walk out with the job.
Studying dance at a senior level is also a fantastic way to develop a network of contacts within the industry, which can be incredibly important for your career progression.
Training & progression
In the dancing profession, training is a continuous process which lasts throughout your entire career. Indeed, I’m sure even Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Darcey Bussell, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly attended dance classes on a weekly basis.
Training can be done in many ways: by taking dance classes, working one-on-one with instructors, and by simply practising the art of dance. It all depends on the production that the dancer is working on and their own individual dedication.
There is no set career path for dancers. Some people simply focus on dancing, touring, earning more money and building their reputation, while others choose to branch out into choreography, dance administration, dance journalism, dance movement psychotherapy and teaching.