After completing the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in NYC, Janelle Jones was working as a server and doing freelance gigs. When she got a job as a dancer in a new show at Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, VA, she was initially hesitant. A Virginia native, she was worried that it might be a step backwards to take a job near home. She'd heard that some dancers looked down on these jobs and that the choreography might not make use of her high-level training. As it turns out, she couldn't have been more wrong.
“It was a great experience for a first professional job. After being there for six months, I had so much inspiration for my next job and confidence in myself." She's now performed in three shows at the park and has no regrets. “Each time, I meet more people and make more connections to take back to New York."
If you're a versatile dancer who loves kids, dancing at a theme park might be a great fit. We talked to current theme park dancers around the country to find out more about what life among the crowds, rides and characters is like.
Courtney Callaway performing in Disney's Boo to You Halloween Parade (photo by Austin Bigoney, courtesy Callaway)
Getting the Job
Normally, hundreds of dancers show up for theme park auditions. Instead of a long phrase, auditioners might give just a few counts to see who can do a clean double pirouette, and then make cuts. What they're looking for, says Walt Disney World dancer Courtney Callaway, is your ability to perform and connect with audiences. “You have to be ready to make an impression when it counts!" Be confident, pick up the choreography quickly and show off your clean technique. And of course, don't forget to smile!
At most parks, auditions will be fairly similar to those for musical theater or Broadway jobs. Disney parks work a bit differently, since they have separate auditions for stage shows (which are Equity) and parade performers or characters. They offer a “performer toolkit" on their website with advice and videos on what to expect and how to prepare. Bottom line: Do your research before heading to the audition.
Being comfortable with different dance styles is also a major plus in booking a theme park job. In her roles at Walt Disney World, Callaway jumps from hip hop to classical partnering to Rockettes-style precision dancing. Check the audition listing to see what styles a particular role or production requires.
Focus on Performing
While dancing professionally with the Virginia Ballet Theatre and Todd Rosenlieb Dance, Callaway often wished for less time spent in rehearsals and more time performing. That dream came true when she was hired as a Character and Parade Performer at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. “Even though it was a bit different from what I trained for, it has been a joy. We're with the kids, and you get to see the impact that you have every single day." She also loves the variety of productions she gets to perform in, including the classic Main Street Electrical Parade and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party on the stage of Cinderella's Castle.
While stage shows will have a format similar to any theatrical performance, for parades or events, you'll also need to learn how to interact directly with an audience. During one “street party" parade at the park, for example, Callaway and the other dancers teach the audience the steps so they can join in.
Almost all of Callaway's performances are outside—which creates a whole new set of challenges. Your body has to adjust to dancing on different surfaces (there's no marley in the streets!) and avoiding obstacles like trolley tracks. Dancers also have to deal with sometimes challenging weather conditions, like heat, humidity and storms. (If there's a substantial storm, though, they do a modified parade—in raincoats and boots!—to keep the performers safe.)
Many parks operate on a seasonal schedule, with shows for Halloween, the holiday season and during the summer. Even parks with year-round contracts may have busier schedules during these seasons. Depending on your contract, you might perform up to five or six days a week, or you might perform only on weekends. Shows are usually about 30 minutes long, and you can expect to perform three or four times a day.
Most productions have a short rehearsal period (longer if it's a new show) at the beginning
Lopez, second from left, performing at Six Flags (courtesy Lopez)
of a season. Once the season starts, you probably won't rehearse again unless new people join the cast. Jones says that the grueling schedule is the biggest challenge of the job. “It really teaches you a lot about being a healthy dancer," she says. Be smart about staying warmed up and take advantage of sports medicine resources the park may offer.
Beyond the Park
Britne Lopez, a dancer and dance captain at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, CA, finds that dancing at Six Flags allows her to keep up with other opportunities, like performing as a dance double on the TV show “Hit the Floor" and with the magic show Masters of Illusion Live. She signed with an agency soon after starting at Six Flags, and still has the flexibility to make it to important auditions.
At Busch Gardens, Jones has worked with choreographers and directors who work on Broadway, on national tours, and in the contemporary dance scene, like Chase Brock, whose credits also include Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. These can be great contacts when you're building your resumé. Some of Jones' fellow performers have also gone on to sign with agencies, dance on Broadway or tour with musical artists.
Choreographer Wynn Holmes (center) on set with Canadian band FOXTROTT, shooting the music video for "Shields" (photo by Gaelle Leroyer, courtesy Holmes)
Adagio. Marley. Rosin. Switch leap. You’re more than familiar with a lot of theatrical-dance terminology. But do you know what an industrial is? A session fee? If you’re looking to break into the world of commercial dance—think music videos, TV spots, promotional events—you’ll need to learn, and fast. We asked some industry heavy-hitters to clue us in on what you’ll need to know to book jobs and communicate like a pro on set.
Before the Job
You probably already know some of the terms you’ll hear when trying to book a commercial job (auditions, callbacks and headshots, for example). But some types of commercial jobs, such as trade shows, might be new to you. Also, most commercial work is booked through an agent, which involves a language of its own. We had Lakey Wolff, a former agent with CESD Talent Agency in NYC, break it down.
Agent: Submits you for jobs and negotiates the terms and conditions of a booking in return for a percentage of your fee.
Book/release: “Booking” means you got the gig. If you’ve “been released,” you didn’t.
Breakdown: The description of what a project is looking for. Includes the specifications
(also called “specs”) for things like age, gender, ethnicity, height and type of dancer needed.
Casting director: In charge of running casting sessions.
Industrial: Video for nonbroadcast use. Examples include corporate sales materials, instructional clips and product demonstrations.
Trade show: Corporate event where dancers are involved in presentations or demonstrations.
Being on set for the first time can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Wynn Holmes, a choreographer and dancer whose choreography credits include MTV, Nike and “So You Think You Can Dance” (Canada), filled us in on a few key terms you might hear.
Blocking: Running through a scene before filming to decide where the dance will happen, who will enter when, and where lighting and cameras will be placed.
Blocking on set takes a lot longer than blocking in rehearsal, Holmes warns, so be patient!
Call sheet: The list of who will be required on set for each shot, as well as when and where scenes are scheduled.
Holmes suggests always checking out the whole call sheet (not just looking for your name) to get a good idea of how the day on set will run.
Camera left/right: Similar to stage left/right: If you’re facing the camera, camera left is your right.
Cheat: To turn slightly toward the camera. Cheat-away means to turn slightly away from the camera.
Crew: The production staff on set behind the scenes, including the gaffer (in charge of lighting) and director of photography.
Frame: The area in the shot. If you’re “in the frame,” you’re being seen on camera.
Pickup shots: Extra shots that happen after the main shoot is finished. These might include detail or cutaway shots (to get a different view or angle).
Striking: Removing an object or prop from the set.
Talent: Dancers, actors, models—anyone who is appearing on camera.
Time Sheet: Officially known as the Performer’s Work Report, it lists the names of all of the talent who worked on set that day, and notes when they arrived, went to wardrobe/hair and makeup, started and ended their meal breaks, and wrapped their day. The sheet is used to calculate payments at the end of production.
After the Job
Contracts for commercial jobs can be complicated, but understanding them will ensure you’re treated fairly. Wolff always encourages dancers to read everything and consult with their agent before they sign. “It’s OK to ask questions!”
Conflict: Work for the same type of client. For example, if you shoot an ad for one department store, booking work with another department store would be a conflict. “Exclusivity” means the client won’t book you with a conflict
in a certain category.
Holding fee: Compensation for not appearing in work for a competitive product. Once the company stops paying a holding fee, you’re released from the conflict.
Release: A contract term which means you release your rights to the company hiring you. These can be specific to different “uses” (i.e., images, social media).
Make sure to check what is included in the release and how long the company holds those rights.
Reshoot: An additional shoot (of an entire scene) after the original shoot wraps.
Residuals: What you’re paid on top of the session fee if the show or commercial runs.
Session fee: What you’re paid for the day of filming.
Stills: Photos taken during a shoot. These can be helpful in building your portfolio if you get permission from the producer to use them.
Alvin Ailey's Sean Aaron Carman and Michael Jackson Jr. "This 'infinity' photo has always been one of my favorites," Ory says. "It's hard to see where one body stops and the other begins." (courtesy NYC Dance Project)
Every NYC Dance Project image feels like a glimpse into something greater: a dance that’s happening behind a curtain, in a private moment. Take, for example, one of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal dancer Céline Cassone’s photos, a commanding shot of her on pointe in passé, her fiery red hair flung upward over her face. Or, the image of Misty Copeland that perfectly portrays both her incredible strength and her ineffable grace. NYC Dance Project’s photographers have taken powerful photos of dozens of famous subjects. But what inspires their iconic images? And how do you capture such stunning shots?
Former dancer Deborah Ory and her husband, Ken Browar, know the secret. The couple started NYC Dance Project with the goal of creating unique portraits of members of the dance community. Their photographic collaboration has since gone viral, first as a blog and Instagram account, and now as a new book, The Art of Movement, out last month. But it’s Ory’s dance experience that sets apart their dynamic, dreamy photographs; every dancer wishes to be seen through her favorable eye. The project has spanned more than three years and its impressive roster of subjects includes more than 100 professional dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Royal Danish Ballet, The Royal Ballet and many more.
Rooted in Modern
Ory first started taking ballet classes as a child in Ann Arbor, MI, but didn’t intend to become a dancer—until she saw the Martha Graham Dance Company perform as a teenager. “Tears were streaming down my face,” she says. “I thought it was the most moving and beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” Former Martha Graham principal Peter Sparling was running the dance program at the University of Michigan at the time, and he allowed Ory to take classes with the dance majors while she was still in high school. She continued to study with him and eventually received her bachelor’s degree in dance at University of Michigan. During college, she spent a year at the London Contemporary Dance School and attended summer intensives with Twyla Tharp and at the Limón Dance Company.
A New Passion Is Born
While studying with Sparling in college, Ory sustained an injury before the spring semester of her freshman year. A few days before classes started, she noticed a brand-new
Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal dancer Céline Cassone (courtesy NYC Dance Project)
camera sitting on her parents’ kitchen table. “I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to take photos,” she says. “After enrolling in a photography class, I photographed all the rehearsals and performances that I was supposed to be in that semester while injured.” Sparling was supportive of Ory’s photography work, and was one of her very first subjects.
When the time came to audition for professional companies, Ory felt intimidated. “Friends would come back with stories of hundreds of dancers lined up for a few openings in a company,” she says. She admits that being opinionated about exactly what type of company she wanted to dance with may have also gotten in her way. “I now regret not having given it a try,” she says.
After college, Ory moved to NYC and took a one-year course at the International Center of Photography. “Learning photography is very different than dance—there’s no ‘correct’ way of making a photo like there’s ‘correct’ form in dance technique,” she says. She still had a lot to learn, though. At the time photography wasn’t digital, so she studied how to develop film and print photos, in addition to mastering the art of lighting.
As with dance, there were obstacles. Most photographers hone their craft as photo assistants. “That was difficult for me, as a small woman,” she says. “Assistants have to carry heavy lighting equipment, so most photographers prefer male assistants.” She ended up working at magazines like House & Garden and Mirabella as a photo editor, where she was able to see photography from a different perspective. “I learned other aspects of the business. Styling clothing, producing photo shoots, finding locations, casting, doing budgets and much more—all of this has been invaluable for me now with NYC Dance Project.”
A Business Blooms
Years after Ory and fashion photographer Browar got married, they decided they wanted to work on a photography project together. At the same time, their daughters had begun taking classes at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. “I would sit outside the classroom and hear the teachers giving the combinations and listen to the familiar music,” Ory says. “My muscles were twitching, and I realized how much I missed dancing. I wanted some way to have it back in my life.”
The critical moment came when Ory’s daughter, Sarah, wanted her bedroom redecorated for her 12th birthday. “She asked for ballet photographs of her favorite dancers, the current stars of ABT,” Ory remembers. But Ory was surprised that it was difficult to find
American Ballet Theatre's Gillian Murphy (courtesy NYC Dance Project)
many photos of these famous dancers. Her husband suggested that they simply try to shoot them themselves. The first dancer to agree was Daniil Simkin. He posted the images to his popular social media pages, and that led to work with other top dancers and choreographers in the industry.
Ory fully credits her dance background with making her a better dance photographer. “The sense of timing you have after having been a dancer is very helpful,” she says. “When I work, I feel like a choreographer, trying not to just get an impressive pose, but also to create movement in a still image.”
Ory’s story has come full circle. The Martha Graham Dance Company brought her to tears with inspiration as a teenager, and now its dancers are some of her biggest supporters and most enthusiastic subjects. Recently, MGDC artistic director Janet Eilber pointed out to Ory how lucky she is to work with such incredible dancers from all over the world. “I agree with her,” Ory says. “It’s unlikely as a dancer that I would’ve had these experiences.”
Melany Centeno's commercial shot (photo by Lindsay Rosenberg)
L.A.-based dancer McKenzie Anderson recently booked a major industrial for Reebok. When she saw the photos of the other dancers they hired, she noticed one thing they all had in common: “Everybody who booked the job had a fitness headshot. There were no commercial headshots.”
“Open auditions barely happen anymore, so your headshot is often your first audition,” says Jennie LaCovey, an agent at Bloc. “If you don’t have a great picture with great hair and makeup, you’re not going to get called in.” So what can you do to make sure your headshot gets you in the door? Read on to find out.
What Makes a Great Picture?
When casting directors look at your headshot, they should be able to imagine you in a range of different roles. That means you need to avoid anything distracting and keep the focus on your face. In commercial headshots, LaCovey recommends skipping the jewelry, crazy poses and busy backgrounds. Carolyn McLeod, who cast the recent movie High Strung, says casting directors look for images that “convey personality and energy.” Even if you’re auditioning for a dance role, they won’t just be looking at your lines. “Don’t forget to engage the face and eyes,” McLeod says.
While it may be tempting to wear lots of makeup or ask for heavy photo editing, remember that you still need to look like yourself. “There’s nothing worse than someone coming in to a casting and looking nothing like their photograph,” McLeod says.
How Many Different Looks Do I Need?
For dancers hoping to book a wide range of jobs—from tours to movies to commercials—having a range of headshots is crucial. In addition to her fitness shot, Anderson has an “edgy” dance shot she submitted for a music video with pop artist Sofia Carson, and a clean-cut shot that helped her land a commercial for Amazon.
At minimum, LaCovey advises dancers to have two looks: a commercial shot and an edgier body shot. Commercial shots are generic and clean-cut—think light makeup, no jewelry and a bright T-shirt. Full-body (non-dance) shots are used for auditions for tours and music videos. Wear formfitting clothing, but make sure you’re comfortable (if you’re not, it’ll show in your pictures).
Nicole Niestemski's fitness shot (photo by Lindsay Rosenberg)
Most dancers opt to do one or two additional looks, depending on their budget and the types of auditions they’re hoping to land. Dancers with a younger look often do a shot geared toward the kind of teen-focused roles you might see on the Disney or Nickelodeon channels. For these, you can take on more of a character—think layers or a mix of bright colors. A trendy or fashion-forward shot works well for dancers who often go on hip-hop auditions or to castings that ask you to “show your personal style.” If you’re interested in fitness modeling gigs, be sure to include a shot that shows your athleticism, highlighting muscle tone and flexibility.
What Should I Wear?
Picking your outfits can be the hardest part of the process. If you have an agency, make sure to run your outfits by them first. You don’t want to spend money on photos only to find out afterward that your agency doesn’t want to use them. “What looks good in person sometimes isn’t what looks great on camera,” Anderson says. Photographer Lindsay Rosenberg recommends steering clear of highly visible brand logos in your fitness shots. “Not wearing a huge logo is usually better so that you’re not appealing to just one company.”
How Should I Wear My Hair and Makeup?
While dancers spend a lot of time worrying about what to wear for headshots, hair and makeup are just as important. LaCovey says that one of the biggest problems she sees is when dancers don’t vary their hairstyle or makeup between looks. “They don’t change their commercial makeup into more intense makeup for an edgier shot, or they don’t change their hairstyle, so when the pictures come back everything looks the same.”
Consider enlisting professional help. While dancers are used to doing their makeup for the stage, professional makeup artists know what looks good on camera. They’ll also have higher-quality makeup and be there to touch you up throughout the day. Check with your photographer for hair or makeup recommendations—most will have a list of people they work well with.
Rosenberg loves when dancers come in with a clear sense of what their goals are. “If you know yourself and you know what you want out of your dance career, it’s a lot easier for us to work as a team to get you exactly the shots you need to get hired.”
Don’t be afraid to speak up on the day of the shoot. Your photographer and your hair and makeup artists will likely check in to see if you like how you look or how the shots are turning out. “If you’re not happy about something, say it!” says Rosenberg. “Don’t say yes to please anybody. This is your shoot, your day. Don’t worry about offending us.”
How to Find a Photographer
- Get recommendations: If you have an agent, they’ll have a list of recommended photographers. If you’re unrepresented, talk to working dancers and see who they’ve had good experiences with.
- Do your research: Look at the photographer’s work online. Think about what your style is, and whether you fit in with the other dancers the photographer has shot. Anderson suggests looking at dancers who are booking the kind of jobs you want—who shot their photos?
- Think about budget: Headshots can be a big investment. Consider which photographers fit into your price range. Prices vary depending on things like how many looks you do, so see what different packages they offer.
- Talk to the photographers: Chat on the phone or in person to see if they’re a good fit. If you’re not comfortable, your pictures won’t come out well.
Picture this: You just landed your dream role in a Broadway show. But instead of jumping right into rehearsals, you’re first asked to fill out an application for something called the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).
Uh, hold up. What’s AEA?
It’s a union that covers dancers. Depending on your goals, you’ll likely encounter either AEA or one of its sister unions—the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG–AFTRA)—at some point during your career. Each one is a group of dancers and other performers who’ve banded together to improve the conditions of their employment.
Commercial dancer Galen Hooks was a board member for SAG-AFTRA. (Photo by Joe Toreno)
Union membership isn’t free (dues are usually a percentage of the money the member makes each year), but it comes with solid benefits. “Unions allow for collective bargaining, and are able to enforce workplace protection,” says Galen Hooks, an L.A.–based performer who’s a former board member for SAG–AFTRA. “They also provide health care plans and pension contributions, and set standards for your salary or rate.”
Erik Johnson, the AGMA representative for Milwaukee Ballet, notes that companies aren’t necessarily trying to withhold services and protection from dancers. Unions just provide extra security. “Without a union contract, a company isn’t obligated to provide certain things,” he says.
The three unions are part of an umbrella union, Associated Actors and Artistes of America. They cover similar ground and respect each other’s efforts. “Generally, AEA covers dancers on Broadway and in operas, while ballet companies are represented by AGMA,” says Dale Daley of the performers’ advocacy group The Actors Fund. Commercial dancers usually become members of SAG–AFTRA.
Each union has its own set of requirements and restrictions, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you have an opportunity to join. “Most dancers say, ‘I know it’s a good thing, but what does it mean for me?’ ” Johnson says. Some companies and jobs require union membership—but sometimes, choosing whether or not to join is a personal decision. Use the chart below to help decode what membership might mean for you.
Breaking it Down
Union: American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)
Eligibility: If you’re hired into a company that’s covered by AGMA, you’ll most likely be expected to join, or “buy in.” But you can also join independently by filling out a form on the union website.
Benefits: AGMA members benefit from salary guarantees, worker protection, health insurance options and retirement pensions, among other things. Being an AGMA member allows you to attend AGMA-only auditions. Membership can also act as a gateway to the other unions. Notably, AGMA members are allowed to take nonunion work.
Restrictions: AGMA members who book SAG–AFTRA or AEA jobs aren’t guaranteed a union contract.
Union: Actors’ Equity Association (AEA)
Eligibility: Performers may apply after they’ve been hired for certain AEA jobs. In some situations, you can also join the union if you have prior membership in SAG–AFTRA or AGMA.
Benefits: AEA offers many of the same benefits as AGMA, along with frequent major auditions that prioritize AEA members.
Restrictions: AEA members are prohibited from taking nonunion work and must abide by AEA regulations covering everything from guest appearances to benefit performances.
Union: Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG–AFTRA)
Eligibility: As with AEA, you’ll usually have to get a SAG–AFTRA job to be eligible to join the union, or you can earn your eligibility through membership in a sister union.
Benefits: SAG–AFTRA provides specific protections for music video performers, including safe working conditions, guaranteed breaks and shelter from the elements. It also offers perks like industry workshops and a members-only casting directory.
Restrictions: SAG–AFTRA members are prohibited from doing nonunion work, and in the fast-paced commercial scene, that might be frustrating.
Move to your dream city, sign with a company, live happily ever after: That’s the fairy tale for many aspiring professional dancers. But reality is often more complicated—and an increasing number of dancers are finding artistic fulfillment through freelance careers.
Going freelance can be appealing to those who don’t have their hearts set on one particular company or choreographer. Freelance dancers are independent. While many build long-standing professional relationships with one or two choreographers, they also have the freedom to work on multiple projects. But with that flexibility comes a degree of uncertainty. Most freelancers have to take on side jobs to ensure financial security. “Only about 5 percent of our dancers book jobs with enough consistency to support themselves through dance alone,” says Laney Filuk, a dance agent with Bloc Agency in L.A.
How do they make it all work? DS spoke to three freelancers—a commercial dancer, a modern dancer and a ballerina—to find out what independent life is really like.
(Clayton Jenkins, courtesy Mason Cutler)
Mason Cutler, commercial dancer
Making the move: “I signed with Clear Talent Group right before graduating high school, after an agent scouted me at a dance competition. One month later, I made the big jump to L.A.”
Breaking into the scene: “My first gig was working with Brian Friedman and Tessandra Chavez on ‘America’s Got Talent.’ The producers also had me dance with one of the contestants—a male pole dancer. We wore corsets, Black Swan–esque eye makeup and George Washington wigs!”
Forming connections: “One time, I went to a huge open call for an industrial for Audi. There were hundreds of guys there for just five spots. Lucky for me, my friend Melanie Moore was assisting the choreographer, and I got the gig.”
Balancing projects: “It’s important to be transparent about your commitments—both with your agent and your choreographers. Sometimes I’ve had to turn down smaller jobs for big opportunities, like when I toured with Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato.”
Staying in shape: “I’m big into surfing and hiking, which helps. I also take class at Millennium Dance Complex, EDGE Performing Arts Center, Debbie Reynolds Dance Studios and Movement Lifestyle.”
On the side: “I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to support myself through dance alone.”
Mason’s advice: “Trust your talent. It’s what makes you shine when things are good—and what gets you through the dry spells.”
Robson performing with Kendra Portier's BAND|portier (Spencer Lum, courtesy Christina Robson)
Christina Robson, modern dancer
Making the move: “Seán Curran guest-taught at Roger Williams University during my junior and senior years there. I thought I would go home to Boston after graduation, but Seán convinced me to give NYC a shot by offering me an apprenticeship with his company.”
Breaking into the scene: “My first project with Seán only lasted three weeks. After that, I had a ‘Now what?’ moment. I began auditioning and forming a patchwork quilt of small dance jobs.”
Forming connections: “The summer after my first year freelancing, I worked as a counselor at Bates Dance Festival. The counselors had to do a skit mocking the faculty. I had to make fun of Monica Bill Barnes—and I really went for it. Later that year, Monica was looking for dancers. When a director at Bates mentioned my name, Monica remembered me from the skit, and I got the job!”
Balancing projects: “You have to establish a hierarchy among your commitments, but it can be tough. I signed a contract with Monica, so she was my priority. But I have an emotional attachment to Seán. I’ve had to miss out on some opportunities.”
Staying in shape: “Some weeks, going from one rehearsal to the next is plenty! But I always try to take classes at Gibney Dance or the Peridance Capezio Center.”
On the side: “Nanny, clerk, barista, pet sitter, house sitter, personal assistant—I’ve pretty much done it all. But teaching really changed things for me. I’m currently on faculty at Gibney and Peridance, and I sub at New York University.”
Christina’s advice: “Follow through with any kind of connection you have, and be open to every opportunity. No job is too small to get the ball rolling.”
Ground yourself in the ritual of taking class. It will keep your fire for dance burning, Even when performance opportunites aren’t popping up. —Christina Robson
Atkins in rehearsal (photo by Kokyat, courtesy Sarah Atkins)
Sarah Atkins, ballet dancer
Making the move: “I moved to NYC from Dallas, TX, after graduating college. My rough plan was to audition for a company that would take me out of the city. Eight years later, I’m still calling NYC home.”
Breaking into the scene: “My breakthrough project was with Morphoses, which I got through an audition.”
Forming connections: “I met Miro Magloire, the artistic director of New Chamber Ballet, in Wilhelm Burmann’s ballet class at Steps on Broadway. When one of Miro’s dancers got food poisoning, I jumped in at the last minute. I’ve been dancing with the company ever since.”
Balancing projects: “New Chamber Ballet’s schedule gives me an underlying structure, but it’s also super-flexible, so I can take on projects with other companies and artists, like Ballet Next, Joshua Beamish, Emery LeCrone and CONTINUUM Contemporary/Ballet. When it comes to scheduling conflicts, I prioritize whichever choreographer I committed to first.”
Staying in shape: “I take Burmann’s ballet class regularly.”
On the side: “I wait tables, babysit and occasionally teach ballet. Side jobs give me the financial freedom to be more selective when it comes to artistic projects.”
Sarah’s advice: “The freelance life is for someone who really wants to create her own path—for someone who doesn’t fear instability.”
How to Book That First Job
Breaking into the freelance industry can feel like a daunting task—especially since many choreographers prefer to work with dancers they already know. “Auditions are growing fewer and farther between these days,” says Laney Filuk, dance agent with Bloc Agency in L.A. “It’s all about networking, which makes it tough for kids who are new to the scene.”
If you’re having trouble getting started, Filuk suggests turning to social media. “In many ways, putting your headshot online is the new first audition,” she says. Online networks are a great way to find out when choreographers will be teaching master classes or holding open rehearsals, too.
In addition, Filuk recommends following not just choreographers, but also choreographers’ assistants on Twitter and Instagram. “Assistants tend to teach more, so they can be a lot more accessible,” she says. Being a regular at an assistant’s class can be the extra push you need to get that first gig.
“I remember declaring at age 13 that if I didn’t get into Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet or New York City Ballet, I just wasn’t going to dance,” says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson. “I thought any other company was subpar.” A student at Seattle’s PNB School since Level I, Erickson was bred for “big ballet.” While in the school’s pre-professional division, she frequently performed corps roles with PNB, and toured with the group to Scotland, England, Alaska and Hong Kong. But when company contracts were distributed her last year in the school, Erickson didn’t get one—and she was confronted with her own ultimatum.
Ballet students tend to dream big, and that’s not a bad thing. But don’t limit your professional potential with a “go big or go home” attitude. Your career goals shouldn’t revolve around an impressive resumé alone, and many dancers have discovered that it’s actually easier to find artistic fulfillment in a regional company. DS talked to ballet professionals about the big benefits of joining a smaller group.
A Different Perspective
The technique-oriented perfectionism of ballet training can give dancers tunnel vision. But there’s so much more to ballet than technique—and the diverse dancers of a smaller company can provide a healthy sense of perspective. Erickson made that discovery at her first job, an apprenticeship at what is now Texas Ballet Theater. “The apprenticeship broadened my horizons,” she remembers. “There were a lot of really good dancers who didn’t have ‘perfect’ bodies. I saw that you didn’t have to have crazy facility to be excellent.” The experience helped Erickson think about shining artistically as well as technically.
Julia Erickson as Odette in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake (photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy PBT)
A Healthier Atmosphere
Even dancers who get contracts with big companies sometimes find that smaller ones are better fits. While some artists flourish in the intensely competitive environment of a top troupe, where dozens of dancers vie for limited parts, for others, that pressure can be difficult to handle.
Ommi Pipit-Suksun was high on the dream when she was offered a soloist position at San Francisco Ballet straight out of London’s Royal Ballet School. But she found that entering SFB at a high rank made finding friends a challenge. She also felt like she constantly had to prove herself—which made her push her body beyond its limits. A knee injury in 2007 brought sharp perspective. “A ballet career is very short, and I realized I had to take better care of myself,” she says. Pipit-Suksun joined California’s Ballet San Jose as a soloist in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2013. There, the support of both the dancers and the artistic staff have helped her thrive.
Erickson has also benefited from the less-competitive regional company environment, first in Texas and now at PBT. She likens PBT’s culture of support to teammates cheering from the bench during a basketball game—they’re a small, intimate group rather than a large, anonymous one. During the second act of every performance of The Nutcracker, for example, the entire company gathers to watch the dancers onstage from the wings. (Sometimes, the stage managers have to scold them for cheering too loudly!)
A Place to Grow
A small company can be the perfect environment for young dancers who are still learning and evolving as artists. Rather than getting lost in a line of swans, they get real attention from directors and choreographers.
Iain Webb, artistic director of The Sarasota Ballet, has seen this firsthand. At The Royal Ballet, where he used to dance, casting was largely determined by rank. But in Sarasota, “when a choreographer comes in, I don’t turn around and say, ‘These are the principal dancers you need to use,’ ” Webb says. “Everybody has a chance.”
This season, The Sarasota Ballet will perform pieces by George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Paul Taylor and Michel Fokine—a huge range of styles. To sustain that kind of diversity, Webb mines dancers from all ranks of the company, casting according to their individual strengths, which means corps members frequently end up dancing principal parts.
A Wealth of Opportunities
Fewer dancers also means there are simply more roles for the taking, especially when a big story ballet comes along. In PBT’s most recent production of The Sleeping Beauty, for example, Erickson danced Aurora, the Lilac Fairy and the evil Carabosse. The last is an opportunity that would be unlikely at a major company, where a theatrical role like Carabosse would typically be assigned to a character dancer. As a soloist at SFB, Pipit-Suksun found she was dancing less than the girls in the corps, but at BSJ, “I dance all the time, which means I’m in better shape than ever,” she says. “I don’t have to wait in line to do the roles that I love.”
Think about it this way: Every professional ballet dancer, no matter what company she dances for, is living the dream. If you’re serious about a ballet career, don’t be afraid to go small.
Like most dancers, Alexandra Badgett spent the majority of her high school nights and weekends in the studio. And though she knew how to craft a resumé for dance auditions, putting one together for college applications was another story. “It was hard to express the commitment and dedication it takes to be a dancer, especially since I knew the admissions officers reading my resumé wouldn’t be in the dance industry,” she says.
Whether you’re applying for college, an internship or a part-time job, the non-dancers evaluating you won’t be interested in the Nutcracker roles you’ve performed or all the summer intensives you’ve attended. (Save those for your artistic resumé.) But as Badgett learned, there are several ways to spin your time inside the studio to help you get hired outside of it. Today, Badgett’s a freshman at the University of South Carolina, and she’s used her dance-infused resumé to apply for positions on the Freshman Council and as a university ambassador.
Looking to beef up your professional resumé? Read on for tips to make it as impressive as possible.
An example of a dance resumé
Translate Your Achievements
If you already have a dance resumé, you don’t necessarily have to start at square one. Instead, says Chris Chesley, director of education programs and student academic support at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, translate some of what you’ve already highlighted into terms people who aren’t familiar with dance can understand.
While a dance resumé might list the names of the choreographers you’ve worked with or the workshops you’ve attended, a non-dance resumé should emphasize what you’ve gotten out of those experiences. “Don’t get into technique specifics or how your turns improved this year,” Chesley says. “Instead, look at those same ideas from a different angle.” Are you a choreographer? That can translate to being a leader and a problem solver. Do you perform a wide range of styles? You’re probably attentive to detail. And don’t forget to mention how your sense of artistry affects your school work and your ability to collaborate with others.
It may seem like all you’ve done at your studio is take class and rehearse, but chances are you’ve actually done a lot more. When Badgett first started working on her college resumé, she made a list of everything she’d been involved with—like assistant teaching and helping out backstage at recitals. Have you sat at the front desk answering phones or checking in people for class? That’s customer service experience. Did you perform at senior centers or hospitals on weekends? That’s volunteering for community outreach. Those are the kinds of experiences employers love to see on resumés.
An example of a non-dance resumé
Next, think about ways to present those experiences that will best show them off. Badgett organized her resumé using three categories: “Scholastic Honors” for in-school achievements, “Leadership Roles” for work in the studio and “Accomplishments” for competition titles and other awards. Depending on which qualifications you want to highlight or the type of job you’re applying for, you can vary the order of these categories. For example, if you’re looking for a part-time position in an office, you’ll want to list your experience at the front desk first. On the other hand, if the resumé is for a scholarship, you’ll want to lead with your education.
Confidence Is Key
Above all, don’t underestimate the real-life skills you’ve gained as a dancer. “You have the ability to work with others for long, grueling periods of time,” says Amanda Hankes, a former New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet corps member. “Dancers also understand the benefits of a good presentation, being organized and being prepared.”
Today, Hankes is a real estate agent in NYC, and though she remembers struggling with her first non-dance resumé, she learned to appreciate what dance
offers. “I realized I’d done a lot—and my time had been well spent.”