Applying to colleges is beyond exciting. But it can also be beyond stressful, especially once you and your family start looking at tuition and room-and-board costs.

Many factors affect how much you and your parents will ultimately contribute to your education—and what your financial aid packages might look like. To help you understand your options, Dance Spirit asked a couple of experts to weigh in.

(Photo by ZimmyTWS/Thinkstock; Michael Quirk/Thinkstock)

Pre-College Prep

Setting aside money for college should be a cumulative effort made over many years. Talk to your family about what they’re willing to contribute. When you begin high school, start saving for all the fees associated with college applications. “Travel, auditions, head shots, dance photos, school and financial aid applications themselves—those things add up,” says Heather McCowen, PhD, the post-secondary counselor at The Chicago High School for the Arts. Application fees vary by school. And McCowen notes that conservatories tend to charge higher fees than colleges and universities—often between $70 and $100.

Early in your junior year, start seeking private scholarships—merit- or need-based awards that are offered through businesses or nonprofit organizations. McCowen suggests looking in your hometown and into organizations related to the arts. Service clubs, like Rotary or Kiwanis, are great places to start. Investigate dance-related options, too, like the scholarships provided by the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation.

Figuring Out FAFSA

As your senior year approaches, make sure your parents have their tax returns in order, so they’re prepared to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The application becomes available January 1. Roberta Daskin, from the financial aid office at Sarah Lawrence College, advises high school students to fill out FAFSA as soon as

possible, since, for those who qualify, funds for college may be limited.

Colleges (especially liberal arts schools) might also ask you to fill out the College Scholarship Service CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. The PROFILE requires your parents to specify what type of tax return they file, along with information on whether the family receives certain forms of government assistance, their housing status and whether they’re self-employed. “The CSS PROFILE allows the college, rather than the federal government, to determine the student’s financial need,” McCowen says. “And schools are a lot more flexible than the government.”

Adding Up Your Aid

There are three major types of aid: grants, work-study jobs and loans.

Grants are basically free money—they’re gifts you don’t have to pay back. Some grants, like the need-based federal Pell Grant, are offered through the government and are determined by the FAFSA. Colleges and universities can also award other need-based and merit-based grants at their own discretion.

A work-study job means that you work a certain number of hours (about 10) and the school pays you a wage. “It’s a great way to get work experience while you’re in school,” Daskin says.

You are required to pay back loans, which can either be federal or private. There are two types of federal student loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans don’t start accruing interest until six months after you graduate and are based on financial need. Unsubsidized loans accumulate interest right away and aren’t based on need. The school and your FAFSA determine how much of each (or either) loan you’re offered. There are also federal loans your parents can take out, called PLUS Loans. For all loans, you and your parents only have to borrow the loan money you need, no matter how much is offered to you.

Private loans are another option, though McCowen strongly discourages taking them out. “Students rarely qualify without a co-signer, meaning your parent takes partial responsibility for paying back the loan,” she says. If your aid package is only a few thousand dollars short of letting you attend your dream school, a private loan should be your last option to make up the difference—but know that they come with high interest rates and no option to defer payment.

Make It Work for You

What if your aid package isn’t quite enough? Once you’ve reviewed it, don’t be afraid to ask your dream school(s) for more money. It might feel uncomfortable, but, McCowen says, the amount of money available for aid can change dramatically between March and May. She recommends asking for a hard number and making sure the school knows you need non-loan aid.

“If your aid package at a specific school isn’t enough, and the trade-off is that you’ll have to stop dancing to pay off a mountain of debt, it’s not worth it,” McCowen says. “You’ll find the right place.”

Photo of Murphy by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

You probably know Cillian Murphy as the villainous Scarecrow from Christopher Nolan's Batman films, or as the hero of the insanely scary zombie movie 28 Days Later. But it turns out he's dabbling in directing these days. In fact, he just finished up his first music video. And it involves...lots of ballet dancers.

Weird as that sounds right off the bat, it turns out it's even weirder: Murphy admits in this interview that he's never actually been to the ballet. But when he was asked to make a video for British band MONEY's song "Hold Me Forever," ballet dancers, for some reason, immediately came to mind. A Twitter callout resulted in a collaboration with some of the most beautiful members of the English National Ballet, who danced for Murphy's cameras in London's historic Old Vic Theatre.

You'd never guess, from the finished product, that Murphy isn't a longtime ballet fan: He films the dancers beautifully and reverently, seemingly awestruck by their elegance and physicality. We see them going through their daily paces at the barre, but the exercises that we think of as so ordinary are transformed by his outsider's eye into something extraordinary. Take a look!

Jobs at restaurants and coffee shops usually offer flexible hours and don’t require much experience. (iStock)

You’ve just earned your first professional dance job with a great, albeit small, ballet company. You’re overjoyed—until you realize your contract is only 32 weeks long. Suddenly your dreams of glorious onstage moments are replaced by nightmares about grocery bills and unpaid rent. With no income for a solid 20 weeks of the year, how are you going to make ends meet?

If you’re lucky enough to find work as a dancer, chances are it’s a seasonal contract or a part-time gig. Most ballet companies lay off dancers over the summer, commercial shoots might only last a day and Broadway shows can close within weeks. But don’t despair: There are plenty of ways to make money between gigs. Check out these common side jobs and see why dancers like what they have to offer.

Fitness Instruction

Being a fitness instructor pays anywhere from $8 to $35 an hour, frequently comes with a free or discounted gym membership and often allows you to make your own schedule. Teaching Pilates, Gyrotonic or yoga will also give you a chance to work your body in a different way, which can enhance your dancing. But there’s a downside: Getting certified to teach can be time-consuming and costly.

There are many levels and styles of each method of fitness instruction, and some take less time to complete than others. A basic Pilates mat certificate, for example, can be earned over a single weekend and costs $300 to $550. Comprehensive certification (which includes working with Pilates equipment) requires several months to a year of training, including classes in anatomy and physiology, and will set you back about $4,000. Some dancers start the training process while they’re still employed so that they’ll be qualified and ready to look for a new job when the time comes.

Studio Work

Dance classes are one of the biggest expenses in a dancer’s life—especially for an un- or underemployed dancer—but working at a studio can help you ease that burden. Some studios will let you work the front desk and then take classes for free or at a discounted rate.

Heading back home for a summer layoff? Teaching at your hometown studio is another great option for dancers who like to stay connected—and stay in shape. “The tough thing about being in between seasons at a ballet company is that you have to keep up the physicality,” says Daniel Powers, a member of Cincinnati Ballet’s second company. “I teach at my old local school and they ‘pay’ me by letting me take classes.” Teaching also helps Powers with his dancing: He gives corrections to younger kids and then applies those corrections to himself. “It’s nice having those notes in my memory bank when I go back to Cincinnati,” he says.

Katrina Yaukey at her bartending job

Service Industry

Lots of dancers wait tables or work as coffee shop baristas because these jobs have flexible hours and don’t require much experience, if any. Waitresses rely mostly on tips, and how much they make depends on the kind of restaurant they work in (you’ll earn more at a fancy place than a corner diner, for example). Coffee houses offer an average of $8 to $10 an hour, and baristas can also gain some from their tip jars. For these kinds of jobs, it helps to be outgoing and more of a people person. The more customers like you, the more generous they’ll be when it comes time to pay.

Retail is also a popular choice for dancers, especially when employers offer a customizable schedule. Jo+Jax, a dancewear company based in NYC, uses dancers to work its convention booths across the country. “It’s a win-win for us,” says co-founder Jacki Ford. “We give them the cities and dates available and they pick where and when they want to go.” These trips don’t conflict with most classes or auditions because they happen on weekends. Travel is paid, and dancers earn a set salary for each job. Ford is flexible at her office in NYC, too. “We’ll have some girls who are always looking for a few hours of work,” she says. “It keeps us from having to stay late.” Most dancewear companies, including Jo+Jax, also offer discounts on clothing (think audition outfits!).

Working Outside the Box

Some of the best side jobs are the ones you make for yourself—using skills that are already in your toolbox. Broadway dancer Katrina Yaukey tries to make her own work by shopping performance ideas to venues. She and some friends target clubs in the entertainment business and offer to do one show for free. If it works out, the venue will often then book—and pay—them for more performances. Some of Yaukey’s tapper friends also apply for permits and perform in the subways. Or, if you’re a singer as well as a dancer, booking gigs at local coffee shops or nightclubs can be lucrative.

And don’t underestimate the value of your network. “People tend to hire who they know,” says Ford. Talk to your family and friends—someone might know of a job opening and be able to recommend you. Or go back to places you enjoyed as a child and see if they’d be willing to hire you. Powers spent two summers working as a camp counselor, earning a $150 stipend each summer. “I went to the camp when I was younger and they knew me,” he says.

Above all, be proactive—and open-minded. “You might have to get creative,” says Yaukey. “Say yes to everything that comes your way. You just don’t know what the next thing might be or where it might lead you.”

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