Ballet Dancer  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotUsing their bodies, ballet dancers express ideas, stories, feelings, rhythm and movement. Ballet has a long history as a performing art. You probably know the names of many classical ballets -- like Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker.

"There is something different and exciting about every piece I do," says Seth Belliston. He is a ballet dancer in Seattle.

"Some pieces are serious and dramatic while others have been more fun. In Zirkus Weill, for example, I got to do backflips. I also enjoy the more serious parts where I'm more restrained. Agon was a favorite of mine."

dotLong after they've completed their initial dance training, ballet dancers continue to take classes. In class, they perform various stretching and warm-up exercises, sustain positions and perform steps, jumps and turns. Not only does class keep them in top physical shape, but it also allows ballet instructors to supervise their growth as artists.

dotProfessional ballet dancers spend most of their time in rehearsal. They practice specific dance compositions before they show their work to the public. The repetition of reviewing a piece over and over again can be tedious. But ballet dancers stress that aspiring dancers shouldn't overlook the importance of practice and discipline.

"Rehearsal is very important. With each new piece, you reach a higher level. I look at each piece as an adventure and that makes it a bit easier," says dancer Stephanie Hutchison.

dotAt a performance, ballet dancers dress in full costume and perform the rehearsed pieces for audiences. Dancers often travel with their company to different parts of the world to perform.

dotMost work on contract with professional ballet companies, but there are some ballet dancers who float between companies. Ballet dancers generally work in dance studios, schools and onstage. Some dancers, however, work in television production studios and amusement parks.

dotNot all dance companies are covered by union contracts, says John White. He's a director of a ballet society.

"If they get into a union company, then the starting pay is pretty decent," White says of dancers turning professional. "There are non-union companies that pay less. There are so many students out there competing for a few jobs that quite a few are willing to take those lesser-pay jobs.

"The pay is almost less of an issue than getting that first break. Then after they've got that first job, after a couple of years if they continue progressing, they usually opt to try to find something better, more secure."

The life of a professional dancer isn't an easy one at first, he warns.

"It is a struggle. It's not only the pay issue, it's also the number of weeks of work. They're not paid for 52 weeks. Quite far from it. A 40-week contract would usually be considered pretty generous....But if you have a passion for it and you love it, you just can't imagine doing anything else but it."

dotOnly the most talented dancers will find regular work because the number of applicants far outweighs the number of job openings. For example, over 2,000 dancers audition each year for admission to the School of American Ballet's dance program.

Of the 2,000 applicants, only 350 students are admitted to the winter program, which is 10 months long. A mere 30 students leave the school each year to dance with professional companies.

"It's extremely hard," agrees Joysanne Sidimus. She is the executive director of the Dancer Transition and Resource Center.

"It's competitive. But if by 17 [years of age] the student, the parents and the school have put the time and effort into serious training for the dancer, they'll probably make it. A good dancer can usually get a job."

dotAnother hardship many dancers face is a relatively short career -- most stop performing by their late 30s because of the physical demands of ballet. They can, however, move into other areas of dance by becoming choreographers or teachers.

dotDancers must be in excellent physical condition. Flexibility as well as physical strength are the minimum physical requirements. There is also great risk for physical injury that could prematurely end a dancer's career. Strains, pulls, foot, ankle and knee problems are common injuries.

"I've been very fortunate with injuries," says Hutchison. "But I have seen dancers undergo serious injuries. One dancer had to take a year off because of a foot operation."

dotDancers rehearse for long hours every day. This may include weekends and holidays when nearing a performance, and weekend travel when a show is on the road. Most performances take place in the evening.

dotMusicality, grace and a sense of rhythm are also important for success as a ballet dancer.

dotDancers don't become dancers for the money or good job prospects. They go into the field for the love of dance.

"If there's a talented young person out there, I would never want to discourage them from pursuing a career in dance," says Hutchison.

"They must understand that [they] have to give 100 percent of themselves to dance. The biggest thing is that you start to dance because you love to dance. Through years of training, you can lose that love of dance, but the joy of dance can take you a long way."

At a Glance

Express stories and feelings through dance

  • Be prepared to practice, practice, practice
  • Watch out for injuries -- they can end a dancing career early
  • Grace and a sense of rhythm are important