It's a question every serious dance student has to ask as she approaches high school graduation: What's next? College, or a company gig? A full-time dance career, or…something else? You can't take this big decision lightly. But how can you know if you're ready to go pro after high school? What about at age 22, with four years of college dance classes under your belt?
Dance Spirit turned to the experts to find out what helps a dancer hit the professional ground running. Start by asking yourself the following questions. Then, get inspired by stories from three dancers who took different paths. There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but with careful self-assessment you can make the best choice for you.
Do I have the skills?
How can you know if your technique and stage presence are up to par? Get honest feedback from the people who see you dance every day: your teachers. “It's our job to guide students toward next steps that are the best fit for their abilities," says Michael Owen, director of the dance program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, MA.
Take the comments you get—positive and negative—to heart. “If you understand your individual gifts and challenges, you can move forward with realistic confidence," says Mary Lisa Burns, dean of dance at Miami's New World School of the Arts.
It's far from the end of the world if you need more training after high school. In fact, Owen points out, “these days, it's very rare for a 17- or 18-year-old to walk right into a company." If you need additional time and seasoning, you're not alone.
Do I have a dance network?
You'll have an easier time entering the professional world if you've already started to make connections with choreographers and company directors. Where do those connections come from? If you've attended summer intensives, or if your school has brought in guest teachers or choreographers, you may have already had the chance to perform for people who could hire you or vouch for you in the future.
Kaitlynn Edgar, who moved to L.A. after high school and has worked steadily in the commercial dance industry ever since, sees competitions and conventions as strong springboards. “They get you in front of choreographers at a young age," she says. “My first gig in L.A. was with Tony Testa. I'd assisted him at New York City Dance Alliance, and he direct-booked me to dance at the American Music Awards!"
But if you're currently short on connections, that's OK. You can start building a network in college, as well. For instance, Goucher College graduate Amy Ruggiero's first professional job was with Ballet Austin II. “[Director] Stephen Mills set a piece at Goucher when I was a sophomore," she says. “Working with him piqued my interest in Ballet Austin and gave him the opportunity to see me in the studio before I auditioned for a job." In short: If you've shown the pros you're ready to work, they'll remember you down the line.
Am I mature enough?
Joining the workforce can mean growing up fast. Are you ready to live on your own? Do you feel comfortable taking care of yourself—physically, mentally, emotionally and financially? Do you know how to carry yourself in professional situations? If the answer to any of these questions is “no," you might benefit from the stepping-stone that college provides.
“Dancers need the ability to communicate in a professional way with directors, choreographers, managers and fellow dancers; an understanding of the body to protect and preserve it from injury; a rigorous work ethic; and a sense of humility and generosity of spirit," Burns says. “Talent is an important factor in success, but maturity is vital."
You also need a thick skin, and what Edgar calls a “strong soul." “I've known people who have let getting cut at audition after audition really get them down," she says. “You have to believe that your time will come. You have to keep networking, keep going to auditions, and, of course, keep taking class."
In addition to assessing yourself honestly and fully, do some homework out in the dance world. Investigate companies, choreographers and gigs that interest you. Visit colleges and conservatories. Go to a few professional auditions to see how you compare to your peers. All of that research will help you make an informed decision about your future.
Maybe you're ready to leap right into a company rehearsal studio. Maybe a college classroom is the best place for you. Or maybe you're suited for a dance-adjacent career—for instance, Owen has several former students who went into physical therapy after realizing they weren't cut out to be professional performers. The important thing to remember is that if you love dance and want to keep it in your life, you can find a way.
Moments of Truth: Three dancers talk candidly about the professional decisions they made after high school.
"I was ready."
When it came to college dance programs, Kaitlynn Edgar had her sights set on The Juilliard School—and she got in. But when she visited the school, it didn't feel right. “I wasn't interested in a company position, which is what Juilliard trains you for," she says. “I was interested in dance jobs that change all the time. And I realized I didn't want to wait four more years for that."
She didn't enter the professional world blind. In addition to her extensive competition and convention experience, Edgar had done some film work in her home state of Michigan. “My dad warned me that the real world can hit you pretty hard, and that college is a good in-between step," she says, “but I knew I wanted the professional path more than the college path." Since moving to L.A. in October 2011, she's toured with the Bad Boys of Dance and done numerous television and backup-dancing gigs.
"I knew I'd be ready soon."
Amy Ruggiero auditioned for a few ballet companies at the end of high school, “but I can't say I did it with my whole heart," she says. “Part of me knew I needed more schooling and life-living before I went into the real world." After visiting Goucher College in Baltimore, MD, to speak with the professors and take dance classes, Ruggiero knew she'd found her ideal next step.
“I came into college as a bunhead, but because the dance major required us to attain the same level in ballet and modern, I was pushed to be more," she says. “If I'd joined the professional dance workforce right out of high school, I would have missed out on so much of what this world has to offer." Ruggiero credits the open-mindedness and versatility she learned in college with changing the trajectory of her career—which has included dancing with ballet companies, in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, in the touring production of Broadway's Come Fly Away and, most recently, on the Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour.
"I wasn't ready."
Former dancer Brannigan Burstein majored in dance in college, and anticipated pursuing a career in modern, musical theater or tap after getting her degree. But as her time in school drew to a close, she came up against one obstacle after another. An injury that sidelined her during senior year was especially troubling. She worried that her body's natural limitations would make professional dance life stressful and difficult. “I had to be realistic," she explains. “I knew I'd always love dance, but I wasn't sure I could make it a career. Deciding not to go the professional route was so hard. But in the long run, it was better for me."
Burstein now works in education administration, but she keeps one foot in the dance world. She's a substitute teacher and the assistant rehearsal director at the New England School of Dance in Manchester, NH, and choreographs musicals at John Stark Regional High School in Weare, NH. “Dance is such a part of me," she says. “There was no question that I'd find a way to keep it a part of my life."