Every high school dancer faces life-changing decisions as graduation approaches: Do I want to keep dancing? Should I audition for companies right away, or get a degree in dance, or major in something else and join my school’s dance team? Should I try to go to school while pursuing professional dance opportunities? What if I make the “wrong” decision and miss out on something great?
If you think the options seem overwhelming, you’re in good company. Aspiring professional dancers feel pressure to begin their careers as early as possible—but they’re also often told to have a normal college experience and get a degree, “just in case.” Here’s the truth: There are a million different routes to a rewarding dance career. Read on to hear from five dancers about the decisions they made after high school—and how those choices got them to where they are today.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet company member
Studied environmental science at the University of Washington while training
at Pacific Northwest Ballet
In high school, I knew I wanted to dance professionally. I grew up thinking every professional dancer gets a job right after graduating high school. But that’s not true anymore.
I went to a couple auditions my senior year of high school, but since I didn’t get any job offers, I entered the professional training program at Pacific Northwest Ballet. My parents said the only way they would support me going to PNB was if I went to college at the same time. So I enrolled in one class every quarter at the University of Washington.
At first I was super-resistant. I was the only dancer in the PNB program waking up for an 8:30 am college class before dancing all day. But it turned out I liked having a connection to “normal” life, and I ended up really enjoying the classes I took.
After two years at PNB, I decided to go to school full-time to finish my degree—and to keep dancing. The modern teacher at PNB had her own company, so I performed in two shows a year with her. By then, I was less sure of what I wanted. I loved dancing, but I was also considering pursuing a job in wind power, which was what I was studying. When I was about to finish school, Donald Byrd came to Seattle and took over Spectrum Dance Theater. It felt right, so I auditioned, and I’ve been dancing in a company ever since.
I haven’t had as many years to perform as some other people my age. But I wouldn’t take it back. As an artist, the broader your experience is in the world, the more you can bring to your work. I had experiences through the university that I wouldn’t have had if I’d gone straight from high school to wearing pink tights all day every day.
Moved to L.A. straight out of high school
I’ve always known I wanted to dance professionally, so I decided I needed to dive in and move to L.A. to give it a try. I told myself school would always be there if I wanted to go back, but this was something I needed to do while I could.
My mom and I decided I would take online classes my senior year while I focused on my dance training and added singing and acting lessons to my schedule. At the end of the year, I auditioned for an ABC Family movie called Lovestruck: The Musical, and I booked it. After that, I signed with an agency in L.A. I work as a waitress at night so I can support myself, and I go to auditions during the day.
Moving to L.A. at 18 was scary, but I’ve always been independent, and 95 percent of the people here are doing the same thing I am. I’ve never been more stressed and confused than I am now, but I’ve also never been happier.
You have to pay your dues in L.A. by showing your face at a lot of auditions and classes. So I feel like I have a head start. I’ve been here two years now, and although it took a couple months to book my first job, I worked my way up to dancing with Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, and I recently booked the TV show “Hit The Floor.”
Boston Ballet corps de ballet member
Majored in dance at University of California, Irvine
When I was in high school, not going to college wasn’t an option for me—that’s the way I was raised. I knew I wanted to be in a ballet company one day, so my major concern was how I would keep dancing in college. I chose to major in dance at UC Irvine, and the connections I made there helped me get the job I have now at Boston Ballet.
For a ballet dancer, college is a hard route to go. You start your career four years later than many people, and dancers already have such a short shelf life. But looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. College rounded out my dance education as well as my academic education. It exposed me to different ways of thinking and different kinds of people. Now, a few years into my dance career, I have to start thinking about what I’m going to do after dance—and while some of my colleagues are working on their bachelor’s degrees, I’m working on my master’s in nonprofit management.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company member
Became an apprentice with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s second company soon after graduating high school
I was always interested in joining a company right out of high school, but all of my friends were doing the college thing—so I joined them and auditioned for The Juilliard School, The Boston Conservatory, Purchase College, SUNY and California Institute of the Arts. The Boston Conservatory offered me a scholarship, and I accepted.
I was worried I might be making a mistake by going to college. I went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in Michigan, so I had done the “dorm life” thing, and having a degree in dance wasn’t something that interested me. I was ready to get out there and learn what it was like to be a professional dancer.
That summer, I attended Hubbard Street’s summer intensive program on scholarship, and after the summer, I was offered an apprenticeship with the second company. I took the job instead of starting my freshman year at The Boston Conservatory.
Since I got my foot in the door early, I have many dancing years ahead of me. Jumping into professional life isn’t easy: You have to figure out things like insurance and taxes and how to take care of yourself. I also felt like an outsider to my peer group—I missed the college experience. But I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Having a group of older and more mature dancers around me has improved my dancing, and being in the company has taught me the business side of dance.
NYC-based freelance artist
Deferred a college enrollment to focus on her dance career
When I graduated high school, I felt a little behind as a ballet dancer because I hadn’t started training seriously until I was 14. I’d received a scholarship to Bard College to study international relations, but as I talked with some of the mentors in my life, I realized college was something I could come back to, while dancing was something I needed to do now. Bard let me defer a year so I could focus on my dancing.
I moved to NYC to train at Ellison Ballet and to intern at Pointe magazine, since one of my passions is writing. At the end of that year, I got an offer to join Tulsa Ballet’s second company, and Bard let me defer another year. At the end of that year, I had the opportunity to join the Gelsey Kirkland Studio Company in NYC. This time, Bard said I needed to choose between the scholarship and the dance company. I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to dance with Gelsey Kirkland.
Since then, I’ve been freelancing as a dancer and actor. I’m also directing a preservation program for monarch butterflies. My goal is to create art and tell stories that have a healing or empowering effect on human beings, especially children.
I do think it will be important for me to get a degree in the future. I’ve noticed that in some circles, there’s a stigma associated with not having a college degree—it’s equated with a certain level of intelligence. People will say to me, “You’re so well-spoken for someone who didn’t go to college!” But I can always go to college, and I’m going to make it a priority before I have a family of my own.
Because I came to NYC at 17, I feel like I could go anywhere in the world now and be OK. I’ve been empowered by the understanding that my decisions are my own. If you look at the kind of people who are living the life you want to lead, and backtrack to see how they got there, it’s surprising to see that there are many unique, winding roads.