Dancers use movement, gesture and body language to portray a character, story, situation or abstract concept to an audience, usually to the accompaniment of music. This usually involves interpreting the work of a choreographer, although it may sometimes require improvisation.

Dancers work in a variety of genres including classical ballet, modern stage dance, contemporary dance, street dance and African or Asian dance. They may perform to a live audience or take part in a recorded performance for television, film or music video.

Many dancers follow portfolio careers, combining performance with teaching, choreography or administrative work in a dance company.

Responsibilities

Tasks vary from dancer to dancer, depending on the contract, but usually include combinations of the following:

  • preparing for and attending auditions and casting sessions;
  • getting ready for performances, by rehearsing and exercising;
  • performing to live audiences and for television, film and music video productions;
  • studying and creating choreography;
  • discussing and interpreting choreography;
  • learning and using other skills such as singing and acting - many roles, for example in musical theatre, require a combination of performance skills;
  • looking after costumes and equipment;
  • taking care of the health and safety of others, which requires knowledge and observation of physiology and anatomy, as well as safe use of premises and equipment;
  • teaching dance, either privately or in the public sector;
  • working in dance development and promotion, encouraging and enabling people, especially children, to become involved in dance and to understand and appreciate it;
  • running workshops in the community, for example with groups of disabled people;
  • undertaking administrative, promotional or stage management work, particularly in a small company or if setting up your own company;
  • liaising with arts and dance organisations, theatres and other venues regarding funding and contracts.

Self-promotion is also a significant feature of the work. This can include sending out your CV or photographs and footage, delivering presentations, running workshops or attending auditions and meetings.

Salary

  • Equity, the trade union for the performing arts, has negotiated minimum weekly pay rates with the Independent Theatre Council (ITC)of £440. This rate is applicable to rehearsal and performance weeks and is mostly used by dance companies that have received Arts Council funding or funding from other major bodies. Pay varies according to the type and size of theatre and performers may earn significantly more for film and television work.
  • An experienced dancer may earn £450 plus per week on short-term contracts. However, many dancers earn less than this and low pay is a feature throughout many parts of the industry. Pay can rise to £650 per week for a West End show and some performers will earn more.

Subsistence and accommodation payments are included in Equity contracts and some contracts may include royalties for recorded work. Membership of Equity includes accident and public liability insurance, plus many other benefits.

Payment and conditions for non-Equity work can be lower and some employers try to contract dancers for no payment at all.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Hours can be long and unsocial. Training and rehearsals take place during the day with most performances taking place in the evening. Many shows run for six days each week.

Many dancers work on a freelance basis on short, fixed-term contracts. However, there are some opportunities for full-time work with dance companies.

What to expect

  • Many jobs are based in London but opportunities are also available with regional dance companies and organisations, as well as with touring companies.
  • Dancers are required to practise daily, even when not performing, and must be able to learn new steps and styles quickly.
  • A dancer's career can be short, rarely lasting beyond the age of 40. Injuries, especially to the feet, back and legs, can have an impact on the length of a performance career. Physical fitness and career planning are therefore crucial. Many dancers combine their dance role with teaching or administrative duties to make a living in dance.
  • Travel is usually associated with a dancer's career. This may involve touring the UK or overseas, or you may need to relocate to find work. If touring, you may spend long periods away from home.
  • There are a range of opportunities for employment abroad.

Qualifications

Training to become a dancer often starts from a very young age, particularly for classical ballet, but many other dancers start training in their teens or even when they are at university.

It is vital to have a high level of training and ability in at least one form of dance, for example:

  • classical ballet;
  • modern stage dance;
  • contemporary dance;
  • street dance;
  • African or Asian dance.

The national standards body of the dance industry, the Council for Dance Education & Training (CDET), provides information on dance colleges offering vocational training, some of which also offer degree and postgraduate-level courses.

Courses offered by CDET-accredited schools cover a range of disciplines including:

  • ballet;
  • musical theatre;
  • contemporary dance;
  • jazz;
  • commercial;
  • street.

Most courses last three years and vary widely in style, content and aims, so do your research before applying.

For those who have successfully completed their training, most CDET-accredited schools also offer the Trinity College London Professional Performing Arts Diploma in Professional Dance (or Professional Musical Theatre) at levels 5 and 6. It is also possible to convert the level 6 Diploma into a full BA Hons Professional Practice in Arts from Middlesex University. The conversion course lasts a year and allows you to continue your professional activities while completing a professional portfolio and practice-based project.

There are a number of universities that also offer dance courses or degrees with an element of dance. For details, see the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Check the content of courses before applying to make sure it meets your career needs.

A postgraduate or vocational course, while not essential, could be helpful in furthering your career once you have gained a few years' experience in the dance industry. See the CDET website for course details.

You must be willing to take direction and constructive criticism as well as contributing your own ideas and suggestions in collaboration with the director or choreographer.

More information on training to become a dancer, including possible sources of funding, is available in the Guide to Careers in Dance, produced by Youth Dance England.

Skills

You will need to demonstrate the following:

  • a thorough knowledge of dance and its related issues;
  • physical fitness, stamina and perseverance;
  • motivation and discipline;
  • communication and interpersonal skills;
  • creativity;
  • resilience;
  • confidence and self-belief;
  • the ability to adapt to the different disciplines of TV, film and theatre;
  • teamworking skills;
  • ability to make contacts and promote current work.

Work experience

Joining a local dance company or dance school can help build your experience of performing. Work shadowing a dance teacher can also be useful. Seek out local opportunities in your area or holiday programmes. You may also want to consider setting up your own company.

Employers

The dance economy employs around 30,000 people in the UK, with 2,500 working directly in performance. Typical employers include:

  • performing dance companies, including ballet, contemporary, street, Asian and African companies;
  • clubs, cabarets and cruise ships, either in the UK or abroad;
  • musical theatre, either in London's West End or on tour;
  • community dance organisations.

Many dancers work on a freelance basis on short, fixed-term contracts. However, there are some opportunities for full-time work with dance companies.

Dancers will often combine performance with a range of other roles within the dance industry. Typical employers in the broader industry include:

  • private dance schools, who employ qualified dance teachers to teach a range of dance techniques at various levels, for social and recreational as well as vocational purposes;
  • schools, further education colleges and higher education institutions (for those with relevant teaching qualifications);
  • local authorities, who sometimes employ people to promote dance throughout the authority - dancers will usually work on a peripatetic basis in schools across the area;
  • the four Arts Councils and national and regional dance development bodies, who may employ dance officers.

Dancers sometimes set up their own companies, perhaps obtaining funding from one of the four Arts Councils:

Look for job vacancies at:

You will need to take a creative and proactive approach to job seeking by networking and establishing contacts, as well as fostering links made through previous work, and attending classes and courses.

You may also need an agent to promote you and your work. Do your research and make sure you target agents that meet your career aspirations. Use networking opportunities to speak to agents or send a targeted email submission, invitation to showcases, show reels, etc.

Competition for jobs is fierce. It is important to get involved and to be persistent in seeking opportunities, auditioning for as many suitable roles as possible. The more styles of dance you have to offer (for example, tap, jazz, ballet, modern, ballroom, Spanish), the more likely you are to find work.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Training continues throughout a dancer's career, with even the most experienced dancers attending daily classes. Out-of-work dancers still need to continue to attend open classes in order to maintain and develop skills.

In order to increase your employability, you may also wish to gain further training and qualifications, particularly in other types of dance. Details of courses are available from CDET.

Information on training and networking opportunities in the independent sector are available from Dance UK. Taking singing or acting classes may also be useful in developing your range of skills and opening up new opportunities.

Dancers need to maintain a healthy body in order to keep fit and stay in work. The Healthier Dancer Programme (HDP) run by Dance UK provides advice, events and conferences on health, fitness and injury prevention.

Some dancers choose to train in areas related to dance in order to help boost their income and to develop a portfolio or second career. Popular areas include:

  • dance teaching;
  • choreography;
  • notation;
  • community theatre work;
  • dance administration.

Some dancers undertake further training to work in complementary therapies or to lead fitness classes such as yoga, pilates and the Alexander Technique. Another option is to become a personal trainer.

Short courses in IT and project management may be useful when seeking temporary work or work in dance administration and development.

For more information on training and career development opportunities, including possible sources of funding, see the Guide to Careers in Dance.

Career prospects

There is no clearly defined career path for a dancer. Most dancers will start their careers as dancers, or combine another aspect of dance with performance, and then move out of performance into a related area.

Many dancers progress into teaching, either in the private or the public sector. The Council for Dance Education & Training (CDET)provides details of the range of dance teaching qualifications available. Many qualified dance teachers run their own courses and some large chains of health and fitness clubs offer franchises to run classes. Contracts are sometimes available to teach in leisure facilities, hotels or on cruise ships. Another option is to open a dance school or buy an existing one.

Some dancers go on to be dance captains and may then move into choreography (as an assistant choreographer and then choreographer) or work as dance notators. Others become dance administrators or work for dance development organisations such as Dance UK and People Dancing: the foundation for community dance.

Another way to use your dance knowledge and experience is to write articles or review performances in the press. This is normally part-time, freelance work and tends to be part of a portfolio career alongside teaching or choreography. Short courses in dance writing are offered at festivals, or you could consider an MA in a related subject such as journalism.

Some dancers go on to become dance movement psychotherapists, which requires a relevant MA. This therapeutic process helps people address their problems or develop personally through dance and movement.

Some dancers move away into a totally unrelated profession. Career support and retraining services to dancers looking to make the transition from professional dancing to a new career are provided by Dancers' Career Development (DCD).