Give YOURSELF a Break!: 3 Ways to Boost Your Dance Career with Grad School

Last night I watched the opening number from A Chorus Line to prepare for my Adult Tap class. In a very dramatic audition scene, loads of dancers pile onto a mid-size stage to learn a quick, sharp jazz routine from an over-eager rehearsal director.  I was quickly reminded of the pressing feeling that often grew in my chest just before post-college auditions. Philadanco!West Side Story, Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE. The list goes on.

In the song, “I Hope I Get It,” one woman cries, “I really need this job, please God I need this job, I’ve got to get this job!” Later, the ensemble sings, “Now I’ll never make it, I’ll never make it. He doesn’t like the way I look. He doesn’t like the way I dance…”

This scene from A Chorus Line perfectly sums up the passive way in which we, dancers, often maneuver through competitive environments. Most people are waiting for that big break, a moment to “get discovered.” Again, passive and powerless as if things are not in our control.

What if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way?

Many dancers are getting wise to the times, thanks to great resources and industry leaders who are determined to give dancers the tools they need to create and evolve the dance field in the best way possible. Some of these tools include professional development opportunities related to health and wellness, entrepreneurial know-how, and studies in teaching and research.

The third category interests me, but not for the reasons I expected. I entered grad school with the notion that I would learn many things, among them how to be a better teacher and dance researcher. What I did not expect, however, was to learn to use these skills in such diverse ways. Grad school offered me new ways of looking at the world, thus giving me several advantages when it came time to renew my dance career post-graduation round #2.

If you’re looking for a great way to take matters into your own hands, to give YOURSELF a break, and to launch (or relaunch) your professional career and personal life, then grad school might just be the next step for you.

Looking for a little more motivation to enroll or stay in it? Check out three of the most important things I learned during grad school and how you can use them to give your dance career an immediate boost.

1.  Level Up Your Skill Set

First, it didn’t take an M.F.A. program for me to recognize the importance of having a diverse skill set in marketing myself to the dance world. However, an M.F.A. program did allow me to combine the how’s of what I learned in my undergraduate journey with the why’s of theory and methodology.

Grad school taught me to take my skills to the next level by examining why I teach, choreograph, and perform the way I do. This allowed me to better describe and explain myself and my work when the time came.

Tip: Don’t limit yourself. This is another opportunity to try new things and broaden the skills you already have. Just like revenue streams, it helps to have a variety of skills to make use of.

2. Play to Your Strengths

Before grad school, I was bent on improving my every weakness. I focused intently on what I did not do well and stayed awake at night wondering how I would ever perfect every disadvantaged ability.

Grad school taught me to be aware of both my strengths and weaknesses. More so, I learned to reconsider my strengths and put more time and energy into those aspects of my artistic makeup. Ultimately, I have grown all the more in these areas and feel confident to shine with them instead of feeling all-around mediocre at best.

Tip: Get to know your advisors. Find great coaches and mentors. Let other people hold up a positive mirror and show you what they see. Of course, try not to take everything they say to heart.  You’ve got to keep the chicken, and throw out the bones.

3.  How to Develop Career Capital

Grad school taught me how to think critically, remain open to new ideas, and filter what information I choose to believe. I recently found myself grappling with one such new idea.

Cal Newport describes the principle of  “career capital” in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.  Although I had more often heard about the importance of pursuing “my passion”, especially related to dance, Newport encourages readers to build career capital by mastering skills that are equally rare and valuable.

What is it about your dance skill set that sets you apart from the rest? Are you a performer who designs her own costumes? Do you create dance choreography solely based on historical or environmental events? Are you a dance teacher that students flock to for a particular kind of training in parkour for bunheads?

Whatever it is, Newport suggests investing great amounts of time and energy for the kind of mastery that leads to competence (you’re good at it), autonomy (you have control over what you do), and a sense of relatedness (you connect to other people) in your working environment.

Tip: Read So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This last point contributed most to the current state of my career as a working dancer. Although I never really described myself as one who was very passionate about dance in the sense that it was my everything, I did spread the idea of following one’s passions and dreams like wildfire.

I still believe in the importance of loving what you do.

Now, however, I like to emphasize things like investment, commitment, and strategic planning. I didn’t choose dance on a whim, and I don’t have to hope I get it when it comes to the part I want to play in shaping the dance field. Let’s do a better job of giving ourselves that much deserved big break and of capitalizing on the skills grad school offers to build the dance careers of our dreams.

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About the Author

Passionate about research and connecting others with the resources they need, Lauren Ashlee Small, MFA continuously seeks opportunities to exercise these skills as a dancer, choreographer, and writer. She divides her time between performing as a member of the Marigny Opera Ballet, teaching dance, making dances, and maintaining a weekly blog series that interviews emerging and professional dance artists.

Lauren is a recipient of the Ailey School’s prestigious scholarship award and the John D. Henderson, Sr. Memorial Scholarship award from Belhaven University.  Recently, she began work to develop a new online resource for the graduate dance community. Find out more at, or visit to connect with her today!