Dancers and Choreographers

Significant Points

  • Although most dancers stop performing by their late thirties, some remain in the field as choreographers, dance teachers, or artistic directors.
  • Most dancers begin their formal training between the ages of 5 to 15 and have their professional auditions by age 17 or 18.
  • Dancers and choreographers face intense competition for jobs; only the most talented find regular employment.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

From ancient times to the present, dancers have expressed ideas, stories, rhythm, and sound with their bodies. They do this by using a variety of dance forms, including classical ballet and modern dance styles that allow free movement and self-expression. Many dancers combine stage work with teaching or choreography.

Dancers perform in a variety of settings, such as musical productions, and in folk, ethnic, tap, jazz, and other popular kinds of dancing. They also perform in opera, musical comedy, television, movies, music videos, and commercials, in which they may sing and act as well. Dancers most often perform as part of a group, although a few top artists perform solo.

Many dancers take their cues from choreographers, who create original dances and develop new interpretations of traditional dances. Because few dance routines are written down, choreographers instruct performers at rehearsals to achieve the desired effect. In addition, choreographers are also involved in auditioning performers.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

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

Daily rehearsals require very long hours and for shows on the road, weekend travel often is required. Most performances are in the evening, while rehearsals and practice usually are scheduled during the day. As a result, dancers must often work late hours. The work environment ranges from modern, temperature-controlled facilities to older, uncomfortable surroundings.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Professional dancers and choreographers held an average of about 29,000 jobs at any one time in 1998. Many others were between engagements so that the total number of people employed as dancers over the course of the year was greater. Dancers and choreographers work in a variety of settings, including eating and drinking establishments, theatrical and television productions, dance studios and schools, dance companies and bands, concert halls, and amusement parks. Dancers who give lessons worked in secondary schools, colleges and universities, and private studios.

New York City is home to many 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, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Training characteristics 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 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. Early and intensive training also is important for modern dancers, but modern dance usually does not require as many years of training as ballet.

Most dancers have their professional auditions by age 17 or 18. Training beyond this age is an important component of the careers of professional dancers, who normally have 1 to 1 1/2 hours of lessons every day and spend many additional hours practicing and rehearsing.

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. Dancers sometimes conduct research to learn more about the part they are playing.

Many colleges and universities confer bachelor’s or higher degrees in dance, usually through the departments of music, theater, or fine arts. Most programs concentrate on modern dance, but many also offer courses in ballet and classical techniques, dance composition, dance history, dance criticism, and movement analysis.

A college education is not essential to obtain employment as a professional dancer. In fact, ballet dancers who postpone their first audition until graduation may have a disadvantage when competing with younger dancers. However, a college degree can help dancers who retire at an early age to enter another field of work.

Completion of a college program in dance and education is essential to qualify for employment as a college, elementary school, or high school dance teacher. Colleges, as well as conservatories, usually require graduate degrees, but performance experience often may be substituted. A college background is not necessary, however, for teaching dance or choreography in local recreational programs. Studio schools usually require teachers to have experience as performers.

Because of the rigorous practice schedules of most dancers, self-discipline, patience, perseverance, and a devotion to dance are essential to succeed in the field. Good health and physical stamina also are necessary attributes. Above all, dancers must have flexibility, agility, coordination, grace, a sense of rhythm, a feeling for music, and a creative ability to express oneself through movement.

Dancers seldom perform unaccompanied, so they must be able to function as part of a team. They should also be highly motivated and 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.

Choreographers typically are older dancers with years of experience in the theater. Through their performance as dancers, they develop reputations as skilled artists. Their reputation often leads to opportunities to choreograph productions.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Dancers and choreographers face intense 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 and choreographers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2008, reflecting the public’s continued interest in this form of artistic expression. However, cuts in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and related organizations could adversely affect employment in this field. In addition to job openings that will arise each year due to increased demand, openings will occur as dancers and choreographers retire or leave the occupation for other reasons.

National dance companies should continue to provide most jobs in this field. Opera companies and 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. Additionally, music video channels will provide some opportunities for both dancers and choreographers.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of dancers and choreographers were $21,430 in 1998. Those working with producers, orchestras, or entertainers earned $25,000 in 1997. Dancers on tour received an additional allowance for room and board and extra compensation for overtime. Earnings from dancing are usually low because dancers’ employment is irregular. They often must supplement their income by teaching dance or taking temporary jobs unrelated to the field.

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; and those in musical comedies are members of the 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 contract each dancer signs with the producer of the show may be more favorable than the basic agreement.

Dancers covered by union contracts are entitled to some paid sick leave, paid vacations, and various health and pension benefits, including extended sick pay and family leave provisions provided by their unions. Employers contribute toward these benefits. Dancers not covered by union contracts usually do not enjoy such benefits.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other workers who convey ideas through physical motion include ice skaters, dance critics, dance instructors, and dance therapists. Athletes in most sports also need the same strength, flexibility, agility, and body control as dancers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Directories of dance study and degree programs may be purchased from:

  • National Association of Schools of Dance, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 20190.
  • The National Dance Association, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191.

An industry employing dancers and choreographers that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Amusement and recreation services

O*NET Codes: 34053A and 34053B About the O*NET codes

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