Think you can dance for a career? Think again

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So you think you can dance? To make it as a professional, you’re going to need talent, dedication, training and versatility, not to mention a solid plan B for stayin’ alive after you hang up your dancing shoes.

Forget fame. Definitely forget fortune. Neither is likely to be within your grasp unless you’re a genetic match for Rudolph Nureyev or the sibling of a single-monikered pop star.

“The vast majority of dancers cannot make a living off of dancing alone as a performer,” says John Munger, director of research and information for Dance/USA, an American dance service organization. “I believe less than 3,000 actually do in the entire nation.”

By Munger’s estimate, there are roughly 2,000 to 2,500 legitimate dance companies in the United States. Of those, just 150 to 200 have budgets of $100,000 or more, and only 20 have budgets exceeding $1 million.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 38,000 people worked as dancers or choreographers in 2004. While even the BLS won’t estimate average annual incomes due to the wide variation in hours worked and length of employment (from a day to a year), the median hourly earnings for a dancer was $8.54; the lowest 10 percent averaged $5.87, the upper 10 percent averaged $21.59.

Choreographers and dance instructors don’t waltz off with big bucks either, earning an average $33,670 and $34,090 respectively.

“It’s not a profession where you say, ‘I want to make $70,000 a year, so I’ll be a dancer,” says Deborah Allton, eastern counsel for the American Guild of Musical Artists, the dance affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Larry Rhodes, director of dance at The Juilliard School, agrees.

“In my experience, people in dance are never working because they are looking for financial reward. They choose this profession because they love it, they want and need to do it,” he says. “Dance is simply a part of their lives and to do without it would be a great loss to them.”

The good news is, the future for dancers is on the up-kick in America; the BLS expects dance-related jobs to increase by 9 percent to 17 percent through 2014. The bad news is, only the most talented will make a living at it in this intensely competitive field.

So you think you can dance? You’ll have to stay on your toes to tango your way through this unconventional profession.

Old dance, new steps

Munger says the ancient art of dance is actually a relative newborn as a popular art form in America; the Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera was formed in 1895, Martha Graham established the first American dance company in 1926, and the ballets of San Francisco and Atlanta followed in 1930. Of 405 dance companies he surveyed, less than one-fifth (72) were founded before 1970.

America’s current dance fever, fueled by the summer TV hit “So You Think You Can Dance?” and the fall return of “Dancing with the Stars,” grew from a clever concept: combine professional dance (dancer partners and choreographers from ballet, modern, contemporary and hip-hop) with participatory dance (amateur dancing we all can do, however clumsily) in an atmosphere of friendly competition.

Both shows actually teach a solid fundamental about the dance field today that professional aspirants would be wise to heed: If you want to win, be versatile.

Here’s a look at the minimum weekly pay scale at The Joffrey Ballet, which is typical of top-tier guild companies:

  • First year apprentice: $390
  • Second year apprentice: $440
  • New dancer: $615
  • First year dancer: $700
  • Fifth year dancer: $940

“Certainly with the (AGMA) dance companies, dancers are paid well and they make a living,” says Allton. “They’re able to have families, buy properties. They can carve out a life.”

Munger gives his own advice. “You have to specialize in a certain form of dance, but don’t specialize too much,” he says. “At this point, almost all modern dancers are taking ballet classes and almost all ballet dancers are taking modern classes. Plan on doing both, and work with a variety of choreographers. The most employable dancers are the ones that are versatile, the switch-hitters.”

Unlike 30 years ago when a college dance degree made you suspect among dancers, your chances improve today if you have a sheepskin from a respected collegiate dance program, especially one that exposes you to a variety of choreographers. Remember: Expand your range, expand your job prospects.

Rhodes says his program at Juilliard costs about $35,000 per year in tuition. “However, like all major schools that seek to recognize talent, there is good opportunity to get scholarship monies if you can prove need,” he says.

Not only will that college degree come in handy when your dancing days are over, some collegiate programs are affiliated with major dance companies, a great way to leap into the majors, albeit in a minor role to start. Many dancers begin as apprentices while still in high school, move up to new dancer status after a year or so, and if they’re lucky, become a corps dancer after completing their collegiate training.

Company job or gypsy life

You may think you can dance, but can you pay the rent? The answer is a definite maybe, especially if you’re willing to wear more than one set of shoes.

Every dancer’s dream job, to perform with a top-tier ballet or contemporary company like Alvin Ailey or Merce Cunningham, is only realistic for the best of the best, and little wonder. Not only do their contracts include seniority raises and many other benefits you’d expect from any corporate job, but the dance season, which ranges from 32 to 45 weeks a year, means guaranteed income, at least by dancing standards.

It’s important to note that AGMA’s scale is minimum; many dancers from corps to soloists can and do negotiate contracts that far exceed scale. Dancers with these companies also supplement their company wages during summer hiatus by working as guest performers at summer festivals or teaching dance workshops.

It is far more likely, however, that you will piece together dance work with other jobs in order to pay the bills. Munger says most dancers also work as teachers, choreographers, arts administrators, even set or costume designers, to make ends meet.

“A lot of people are realizing that the best money in teaching is to be found in college dance departments,” he says. “It’s quite competitive and you pretty much need an MFA now to do it, and a lot of people go back and get one to get into the college dance field.”

Is it practical to dream of being a Britney Spears backup dancer, live or in videos?

“It’s realistic if you’re prepared to be very tenacious, very persistent, to work very hard and to understand that nothing is fair,” Munger says.

He suggests a better avenue lies in commercial work (think Gap commercials), where you’re only hired for a day or a week, but at a handsome wage.

“I have a dancer in my company who is a backup dancer for Michael Bolton. She takes off for a week every three months or so and comes back with several thousand dollars and lives off it until the next time she goes off,” he says.

If you want to dance and only dance, be prepared to travel and hustle for gigs.

“Most of them combine teaching jobs with as many ‘Nutcrackers’ as they can find, and maybe a summer festival,” says Allton. “It’s completely a gypsy life, not knowing where the money is going to come from.”

Plan for plan B

Allton says some of the most difficult moves a dancer must master happen offstage.

“When all your friends are having a great time, you put everything on hold and you dedicate yourself to dance,” she says. “Your dance career absolutely determines the rest of your life: where you live, how you spend your day, what you eat, who your friends are, what you do in your off time, when you have kids and how much money you make. Everything.”

Allton, who danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet for 20 years (and once paired with Munger in a ‘Nutcracker’ production), admits that, as a self-described “plan B person,” she felt the constant undertow of reality beneath her dancing feet.

“It’s such a myopic pursuit that it’s really difficult to commit yourself to the level that is necessary to succeed and also try to think about what you’re going to do when it’s over, because it will be over,” she says.

Like other professional athletes, dancers know that every performance could be their last. Allton started planning for that day in her late 20s. At 43, she enrolled in law school and graduated at 47. Today, she helps AGMA dancers get the most money and benefits possible by negotiating contracts with the upper 1 percent of dance companies (known as destination companies) that include New York City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

“I made sure I was not going to be left without a way to make a living if a director came in and said, ‘Ew, I don’t like you’ and fired me. I wasn’t going to be a victim to that,” she says.

Today, dancers in AGMA companies enjoy not only secure salaries but numerous provisions regarding working conditions that protect them on and off the job. There’s even a form of severance pay based on their current weekly compensation and number of years with the company that can help ease the transition from dancing to their next career.

Two organizations — Career Transition for Dancers and The Actors’ Fund of America — provide counseling, grants and career placement to help dancers make a graceful exit from the stage. Some companies even train their former dancers to fill other nondance positions or help find positions for them with corporate sponsors.

Munger’s best advice for aspiring dancers? Bring it on — in person.

“Network, network, network,” he says. “The entire dance field operates more on networking and living people interacting with living people than by any other means. When presenters make choices (about casting), the thing that works is when they see your live performance, then ask for a video or DVD.”