What’s it like to be a professional Ballerina?

Cousin Kaleb with his 8 year old daughter, Emilee

My cousin called me yesterday as I was doing my grocery shopping. His daughter needed to interview someone about their job, and she wanted to speak to a ballerina. Surprise, surprise. What 7 year old girl doesn’t want to BE a ballerina? And luckily for my cousin, he knew just the person to call!

And I love to talk about ballet! With 21 nieces, I get the chance to talk about ballet A LOT. I can direct my fewer-in-number but just-as-amazing nephews to speak with their cousin, Kai, who himself is aspiring to be a professional ballet dancer.

For those who may not have anyone in their circle who danced professionally, but who DO have a little (or big!) dancer who wants to know more, this blog is for you! This post will answer most of the questions on a second grade assignment, but check back in for MORE posts on the entire journey – the day to day nitty-gritty, along with pro tips for making YOUR dancer journey as smooth and successful as possible!

And thank you to Emilee for asking the following:

Question 1: What is the education needed to do the job?

Answer 1: Unlike many jobs, dancers do not need a piece of paper saying that they have completed any course of study. When you want to get a job working for a professional ballet company, you need to audition. That is like taking a ballet class and the boss comes to watch you to see if he or she likes your dancing. If the boss likes you, he will offer you a contract! So a dancer’s education is taking lots of ballet classes – for 3-5 hours/day, 6 days/week. Dancers should also learn confidence on stage by performing as much as possible.

Question 2: What are the skills required to do the job?

Answer 2: Even though there isn’t a piece of paper that certifies you are ready to be a professional dancer, there are a whole host of things you need to know how to do. Beyond just dancing steps well, you need to be able to learn whole dances quickly. This includes learning the musical counts, your place on the stage, and even little details like the angle of your head! You need to work well with others – dancers work very hard to stay in straight lines and to follow the person in front of them exactly. You need to be tough too! You will hear a whole lot of information about what you are doing wrong because your bosses want to make your dance and you as a dancer look better. So you can’t get your feelings hurt easily, but you also need to remember everything you are told and fix everything you didn’t get perfectly right. And you need to be really brave. Performing can be scary, but even before you get on to stage, it takes guts to dance well in an audition, or to stand out in front of other dancers so you can be noticed and get the part. Dancers also sew their own shoes. And they take care of the rest of their “instrument” – their bodies. So knowing how to eat for strength and energy, and knowing how to take care of your body after putting it through a lot of grueling work is important too.

Question 3: What type of dress or uniform is required?

Answer 3: When we think of ballerinas, we usually picture them in a tutu – that stiff skirt that sticks straight out from their hips like a plate. But dancers never wear tutus in class – the part of their day when they are getting their bodies ready to work – and male dancers never wear tutus at all (unless they are dancing girls roles to be interesting or funny). Although a ballet student uniform is tights for boys and girls, and leotard for girls and tight fitting shirt for boys, professional dancers wear all sorts of crazy things over that in class. Sweatshirts, pants, workout gear, leg warmers, baggie onesies, shawls, jackets, and plastic shorts or pants that keep in heat and moisture are all worn (and slowly removed as the dancers get warm). However, it’s uncommon for dancers to keep all that “junk” on in rehearsal. During rehearsals dancers practice roles they will perform on stage, so it is important for them to know how their bodies are looking as they dance. AND all the extra stuff makes it hard for men and women to dance with each other because the extra layers slip or get in the way. But what dancers wear on stage is the MOST fun! In full length ballets dancers play the parts of fairies, or princes, or peasants, or court jesters at a party, or witches, and even animals like birds or mice. These costumes are very expensive – much MUCH nicer than anything you could find at a Halloween store – and they are owned by the ballet company so the dancers do not get to keep them after the show is done.

Question 4: What does the daily routine look like?

Answer 4: Dancers are paid to rehearse and perform, so their day changes, depending on what the company is doing. There is a dance class dancers attend every day they rehearse OR perform. Though they are not paid to go to this part of their day, it prepares their bodies to look their best when they are doing the job of dancing. If the company is not performing, dancers are usually contracted to dance up to 6 hours in rehearsal per day, 5 days a week. They may not work that much depending on what parts they are doing in the ballet – usually the closer to the show you get, the longer your days go. Once the ballet is ready to put on the stage, class moves from around 10am to around 11am or 12pm. That is because a dancer who has performed the night before may be on stage still at 10:30 at night! On performance days, there is also less time spent in rehearsal so dancers can give all their energy to the audience. Before a show, dancers arrive anywhere from 1.5 hours to 2 hours early to get ready. They re-do class to get their bodies warm, do their make-up, do their hair, or maybe even have special make-up or wigs applied by professionals, and finally put on their costumes. Before the curtain rises, they like to take a few moments on stage to go over their dance, or do a few final practice steps with their partners. Some companies give their dancers a week off after the close of a long run of shows so the dancers can recover. Then it’s back to work! Dancers don’t like to have too much time off because it is hard to keep their bodies in dancing shape without dancing every day!

Question 5: Who is the person the dancer reports to? Who is their boss?

Answer 5: A dancer’s boss is the artistic director. He or she is the person that offered the dancer his or her contract. The artistic director chooses what ballets are performed, who dances what parts on which nights, and sometimes helps the dancers work on their parts so they look their very best. Rehearsals are also run by other members of the artistic staff. These include guest teachers and choreographers, and the company’s own “ballet masters.” The knowledge of ballet is passed directly from person to person – it’s almost impossible to learn a ballet just by watching a video – so it is wonderful to learn from people who have danced the ballet themselves!

Question 6: What are the biggest challenges of this work?

Answer 6: This differs a lot from dancer to dancer. Injuries are hard for everyone. Not only does getting hurt HURT, but people who love to dance can often start to feel down in the dumps when they can’t dance for a while. Another big challenge may be to learn a lot of different parts in a ballet. Almost never does any one dancer only do one part in one ballet. For ballets with a longer run like Nutcracker, dancers may learn up to 8 or 9 different parts, and keeping all of that straight in your head can be a challenge, especially because you may only rehearse 3 or 4 of your parts really well, and the rest, you may have to dance after only getting to run it on stage or with your group once or twice. Also ballet can be pretty competitive. It is hard to get a job, but even after a company hires you, dancers want better and better parts, or to dance a certain part ON opening night, and you are competing for all of this with the people you work with who are also your friends. All of this can lead to a lot of stress, and dancers can get discouraged. So when I said dancers need to be tough and brave, I meant it!

Finally, this question was not asked, but I’ll add it as a conclusion.

Question 7: What is the best part about being a professional dancer?

Answer 7: This is another question that will vary a lot from dancer to dancer. And for me, it varied from time to time too! When we were performing full length ballets, I loved that I got paid to put on a beautiful costume and go on stage and pretend with a bunch of other adults who were ALSO pretending in beautiful costumes. Always, it was fun to work with creative, imaginative, passionate people. When we were performing ballets that didn’t have a story, my favorite part was all the beautiful music I got to hear perform, live, and all the wonderful things I could do with my body as I moved to that music. I learned to like being scared and doing something really hard, but succeeding and hearing the applause when I was done. And I LOVED sharing a magical moment with the audience: bringing something so beautiful into their lives, even for a few hours.

Have another question, or want to share your experience dancing professionally? Leave a comment below!