Dance Careers: Dancers and Choreographers

Dance Careers: Dancers and Choreographers

Significant Points

  • Many dancers stop performing by their late thirties; however, some remain in the field as choreographers, dance teachers, or artistic directors.
  • Most dancers begin formal training at an early age--between 5 and 15--and many have their first professional audition by age 17 or 18.
  • Dancers and choreographers face intense competition--only the most talented find regular work.

Nature of the Work

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

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

Many dancers work with choreographers, who create original dances and develop new interpretations of existing dances. Because few dance routines are written down, choreographers instruct performers at rehearsals to achieve the desired effect. In addition, choreographers often are involved in auditioning performers.

Working Conditions

Dance is strenuous. Many dancers stop performing by their late thirties because of the physical demands on the body. However, some continue to work in the field as choreographers, dance teachers and coaches, or artistic directors. Others move into administrative positions, such as company manager. Some celebrated dancers, however, continue performing beyond the age of 50.

Daily rehearsals require very long hours. Many dance companies tour for part of the year to supplement a limited performance schedule at home. Dancers who perform in musical productions and other family entertainment spend much of their time on the road; others work in nightclubs or on cruise ships. Most dance performances are in the evening, while rehearsals and practice take place during the day. As a result, dancers often work very long and late hours. Generally, dancers and choreographers work in modern and temperature-controlled facilities; however, some studios may be older and less comfortable.


Professional dancers and choreographers held about 26,000 jobs at any one time in 2000. Many others were between engagements, so that the total number of people available for work as dancers over the course of the year was greater. Dancers and choreographers worked 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 theme 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; however, full time professional dance companies operate in most major cities.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Training varies depending upon the type of dance and is a continuous part of all dancers' careers. Many dancers and dance instructors believe dancers should start with a good foundation in classical dance before selecting a particular dance style. Ballet training for women usually begins at 5 to 8 years of age with a private teacher or through an independent ballet school. Serious training traditionally begins between the ages of 10 and 12. Men often begin their ballet training between the ages of 10 and 15. Students who demonstrate potential in their early teens receive more intensive and advanced professional training. At about this time, students should begin to focus their training on a particular style and decide whether to pursue additional training through a dance company's school or a college dance program. Leading dance school companies often have summer training programs from which they select candidates for admission to their regular full-time training program. Formal training for modern and culturally specific dancers often begins later than training in ballet; however, many folk dance forms are taught to very young children.

Many dancers have their first professional auditions by age 17 or 18. Training is an important component of professional dancers' careers. Dancers normally spend 8 hours a day in class and rehearsal, keeping their bodies in shape and preparing for performances. Their daily training period includes time to warm up and cool down before and after classes and rehearsals.

Because of the strenuous and time-consuming dance training required, some dancers view formal education as secondary. 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 master's degrees in dance, typically through departments of music, theater, or fine arts. Many programs concentrate on modern dance, but some also offer courses in jazz, culturally specific, ballet, or classical techniques; dance composition, history, and criticism; and movement analysis.

A college education is not essential to obtain employment as a professional dancer; however, many dancers obtain degrees in unrelated fields to prepare themselves for careers after dance. Completion of a college program in dance and education is essential in order to qualify to teach dance in college, high school, or elementary school. Colleges and conservatories sometimes require graduate degrees, but may accept performance experience. 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 for success in the field. Dancers also must possess good problem-solving skills and an ability to work with people. 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 themselves 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 that often lead to opportunities to choreograph productions.

Job Outlook

Dancers and choreographers face intense competition for jobs. Only the most talented find regular employment. Employment of dancers and choreographers is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010, reflecting the public's continued interest in this form of artistic expression. However, funding from public and private organizations is not expected to keep pace with rising production costs, resulting in slower employment growth. Although job openings will arise each year because dancers and choreographers retire or leave the occupation for other reasons, the number of applicants will continue to vastly exceed the number of job openings.

National dance companies should continue to provide most jobs in this field. Opera companies and dance groups affiliated with colleges and universities and with television and motion pictures also will offer some opportunities. Moreover, the growing popularity of dance in recent years has resulted in increased opportunities to teach dance. Additionally, music video channels will provide some opportunities for both dancers and choreographers.


Median annual earnings of dancers were $22,470 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $14,260 and $34,600. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12,520, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $55,220. Median annual earnings were $29,980 in the producers, orchestras, and entertainers industry and $16,290 in eating and drinking places.

Median annual earnings of choreographers were $27,010 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $17,970 and $42,080. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,370, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $55,800. Median annual earnings were $25,860 in dance studios, schools, and halls.

Dancers on tour received an additional allowance for room and board, and extra compensation for overtime. Earnings from dancing are usually low because employment is part year and irregular. Dancers often supplement their income by working as guest artists with other dance companies, teaching dance, or taking 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 who appear on live or videotaped television programs belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; those who perform in films and on television belong to the Screen Actors Guild; and those in musical theater are members of 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 and choreographers 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. Those not covered by union contracts usually do not enjoy such benefits.

Related Occupations

People who work in other performing arts occupations include actors, producers, and directors; and musicians, singers, and related workers. Those directly involved in the production of dance programs include set and exhibit designers; fashion designers; sound engineering technicians; and hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists. Like dancers, athletes, coaches, umpires, and related workers in most sports need strength, flexibility, and agility.

Sources of Additional Information

Disclaimer: Links to non-BLS Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For general information about dance and a list of accredited college-level programs, contact: National Association of Schools of Dance, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 20190.

Dance/USA, 1156 15th St. NW., Suite 820, Washington, DC 20005.

Editor's Note:

This article was republished with permission from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hundreds of other occupations are reviewed in similar fashion in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-2001 Edition.

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