Developpe' This: 5 Skills for Building a Successful Dance Career

Note: This article was first published in Dance! North Texas Issue 20.2

If you had to guess, how much do you think you (or your parents) have spent on your dance training?  Need a minute to try to figure that out, don’t ya?

Chances are it’s nearly impossible to calculate how much you’ve invested in your dance life.  So let’s just say that the collective response to that question is A LOT.

As dancers who take our craft seriously, we continue to invest in weekly classes, workshops, and intensives, regardless of how much experience we may already have.  

Even if we’re dance educators, we still put ourselves in a position to learn.  Through injuries, tons of sweat, and plenty of tears, we just keep coming back for more.  That dedication we have is part of our magic, and it means we’re always growing.

In fact, investing in personal and professional development is one of the wisest things you can do.  

As Albert Einstein said, “once you stop learning, you start dying,” and he isn’t the only person who thought this way either.  Successful artists, business owners, and thought leaders everywhere all agree on the importance of continued learning.   

While it’s wise to continue investing in your development as a dancer, it’s just as important to develop skills to help you sustain a career as one as well.  

There’s a whole side of career building that we aren’t taught in the studio.  How to build relationships with choreographers?  How to make a living if you don’t land a major company or touring contract?  How the heck to handle taxes as a freelancer?  And the list could go on and on.

Traditionally, dancers have just figured things out along the way. But instead of fumbling through your journey until you find something that works, you should approach your dance career like the business that it is from the very beginning.

Many dancers cringe at just the sound of the word “business”, but thinking like that will get you no where fast. So let me reiterate this once more, just to be clear…

As a professional dancer, you are an entrepreneur.  You are the owner of your own freelance business, and it’s up to YOU to make things happen accordingly.

Now that we’ve gotten that cold, hard fact out of the way, I’d like to share a few tips to help you approach your dance career like the business that it is.  Here are five things that every dancer should do when building their career…in my humble opinion, of course!

1. Get Your Head in the Game

The way you think about your career, and yourself for that matter, will determine the nature of  your journey.  Everything from fear, self-doubt, and low self-esteem can really make it tough for you to gain momentum in your career pursuit.  The truth is that we all face these downers at times, but it’s how you respond to them that makes the difference.

To endure the rejection and rough patches that come along with a professional dance life, you’ll need thick skin, an unwavering belief in yourself, and a plan of action.  Through all of the closed doors, you’ll need to have a deep rooted trust in your abilities as well as an unshakeable faith that your dreams will come true. It’s also incredibly helpful to set goals throughout your pursuit rather than to wander aimlessly with a trial and error approach.  This ‘success mindset’, as many call it, will help you stay happier and more focused for the road ahead.

2.  Develop High Quality Materials and a Great Work Ethic

The quality of your materials is important because your materials are your first impression.  Before you ever dance one step, you’re asked to submit professional materials, right?  Which means that your headshot, resume, reel, bio, website…whatever you use to represent yourself…can be the deciding factor on whether you get a foot in the door or a door closed altogether!  

Since the quality of your materials can literally cost you a job, be sure to hire a great photographer for your headshots, find peers or teachers to help you develop a great resume, and invest the time or money into developing a solid web presence as well.

Great materials can get you the job, and a great work ethic can help you keep it (and get others too).  When I’m looking to hire dancers I know, I always call first those who are punctual, quick to communicate conflicts or delays, well rehearsed, fully committed, and positive throughout the rehearsal and performance process.  Not only do I remember these types of dancers, but I also make sure to be one of those dancers when I’m hired for projects.  If you have great materials, a gracious attitude, AND an exceptional work ethic, you’re sure to go far in this business.

3.  Build Your Network

Networking is essential for every profession under the sun as you can’t get to where you want to go all by yourself.  You need your community to know who you are and what you can do.  With that, start building your network by setting goals and making a plan.

Since most of our networking takes place in class, get clear on the types of projects, companies, or choreographers you’d like to work with, and then get your bum into the classes where those folks are.  Go to class consistently, make yourself known, and most importantly, add value while you’re there.  You can add value by giving 200% in class, helping classmates when appropriate, and offering to assist during class or with special events.  Just continue to show up in the best way possible, and you’ll start making great connections and establishing yourself as an asset while you’re at it.

4.  Learn How to Manage Your Money Wisely

A problem that dancers are commonly faced with is how to keep dance in their lives while also making a decent living.  Because of this, many make the choice to seek a traditional 9 to 5 even though their heart isn’t in it.  How you manage your money as a professional dancer is that much more important because it’ll help you overcome the passion vs pocket book dilemma.

The best advice I can offer on this matter is to, first and foremost, know your worth.  I cannot stress this enough.  Don’t add to the already tricky task of sustaining a living by repeatedly working for free.  Of course there are exceptions to this rule as volunteering your expertise for a worthy cause or for the sake of networking is perfectly fine.  However, aside from those few exceptions, working for free only hurts you in the long run.  So know your worth, set your prices, and stick to that.  (Not sure how to set your prices?  Start with learning how to calculate your freelance hourly rate.)

In addition to knowing your worth, I’d also recommend budgeting and saving a portion of your income for slow seasons and taxes.  The great thing about this area of building a career is that you don't need to be an expert to get it right.  Just do what you can, and then seek help from others who know more.    

5.  Take Consistent Action and NEVER GIVE UP

Taking the first step IS the first step.  In fact, none of these tips matter if you don't step out on faith and take action.  You’ve got to start somewhere, and then after you start, you’ve got to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

When you choose a dance career, you get to flex your creative muscle and chart your own course.  However, with this privilege comes plenty of wrong turns and rejection.  You’ll get discouraged, tired, and even tempted to give up.  To help you keep going when the going gets tough, (1) make time for self-care, and (2) change your focus.  

Instead of grinding around the clock, factor in down time.  See a movie, enjoy family and friends, read a book…do whatever refuels your spirit.  Once you’ve taken care of yourself, find a way to change your focus.  Take your eyes off of all the rejection you’ve faced and your seeming lack of progress, and instead, focus on all the things that are working for you.  Learn to be grateful for your life just as it is, and it’ll help you enjoy the process and appreciate where you are on your journey.

**Use these tips to complement the ways you’re already investing in your craft.  Your talent coupled with a business know-how will set you apart and help you create the career of your dreams. So, get out there, and build your empire just like all the greats have…one brick at a time. 

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