Dancing in the European Union

Many American dancers choose to join companies in Europe because of higher pay and better benefits, but there are also drawbacks, including dealing with red tape, homesickness and language barriers. DS tracked down dancers who crossed the Atlantic to work in Spain, Germany and Sweden, and asked them to share the pros and cons of working in the European Union—and how to avoid missteps along the way.


Higher pay and health insurance
“[When working] in Europe, you make enough [money] dancing to support yourself comfortably, whereas in the States, dancing for a living often means having side jobs, unless you work for a big company,” says Armando Braswell, who dances for Ballet Theatre Munich in Germany. Dancers working for state-supported theaters in Europe receive about six weeks of paid vacation and benefits similar to government workers. The theater where BTM performs contributes money to a retirement pension for each dancer, which can be cashed out when leaving the country or left to accrue interest until age 45. 

Personal growth
Being on your own in another country is a challenge that can instill confidence, independence and resourcefulness. “You grow as a person, which makes you more open to things you’ve never seen or done before,” says Loni Landon, also a BTM dancer.

Appreciative audiences
For Braswell, the biggest perk is more respect and gratitude from others compared to his experience in the U.S. “A dancer here [in Munich] is treated like a true artist. When I tell people where I work, they are impressed. They shake my hand; they want to come to the theater to see me dance,” he says. “In the States, I get the feeling that people think dance is a hobby.”


Many American dancers working abroad rate homesickness and loneliness as the biggest obstacles. Costly trans-Atlantic flights and visa restrictions can make taking trips home more difficult than if you work in the U.S. Tip: Purchase a GSM cell phone, which will allow you to make calls within Europe and to your friends and family back home.

Living in a non-English-speaking country can be intense and frustrating. “You can’t do ordinary things by yourself, which makes you more dependent on other people’s help,” says Landon. Isaac Spencer, an American who joined Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet in summer of 2006, attests to the importance of learning as much of the indigenous language as possible. “Don’t think just because most people speak English that you need not attempt to learn the language of the place you live,” he says. Learning the language will make your experience more rewarding, because you’ll be able to participate more fully in the culture. Tip: Take an accelerated language class before you go, and listen to a language tutorial on your flight; knowing the basics will provide a foundation to help you survive the first few weeks.

Braswell was hit hard by the lack of daily conveniences in Munich, compared with what was available to him in NYC. For example, when visiting government offices, he found that they often closed early without notice or were closed for long lunch hours. “Everything is closed on Sundays. [If] you didn’t food shop on Saturday, well, you’re hungry on Sunday,” he says. “Holidays come out of nowhere.” Tip: Buy a calendar detailing national holidays and consult it often.


Official documents
To apply for a visa to live and work in Europe, you’ll need, at minimum, a passport, birth certificate and a contract issued from your employer. Some countries require other documentation, including a record of physician’s exams or immunizations. Make two photocopies of all documents; leave one with your family or a friend in the U.S.; take the other set with you, along with the originals.

The U.S. Department of State recommends that you obtain the required visa from your future country of residence’s consulate in the U.S. before leaving the country, and to seek guidance from your employer in doing so. Surprisingly, not all dance companies—even established ones—take the steps needed to make sure you obtain the proper legal documents to work in their country. Some may have administrators to walk you through the process, while others may expect you to take care of all documentation on your own. Either way, ask a lot of questions.

“I called the company at least five times to ask what I needed and then I did my own research just to be sure,” says Braswell. “If you don’t understand, ask again. They may get a little frustrated, but the steps to work legally in another country are very complicated and official. You don’t want to mess anything up, because you were too shy or embarrassed to ask a question.”

It’s fairly common, especially for dancers hired for short-term projects, to be asked to travel overseas with a visitor’s visa (under the guise of vacationing), which allows you to stay for up to three months. But if you’re getting paid to dance in another country, then legally, you need a work visa. Depending on the country you’re in, if you’re caught without one, you could be deported, fined or even banned from applying for a visa to that country for a year or more.

When Loni Landon joined Ballet Theatre Munich in September 2005, the company advised her to travel as a tourist and apply for her work visa once in Europe. This turned out to be problematic: Because she’d bought a one-way plane ticket, the airline wouldn’t let her board until she had purchased a pricey return ticket, which she never used. Having a work visa would have prevented this expense.

In the EU, visa procedures vary by country, with work visa turnarounds ranging from a few days to a few months. In Belgium, for instance, a company would file for a work visa on your behalf, and the burden is on the employer to prove that there is no other Belgian citizen who can fill the position. In Germany, dancers must apply themselves. In Italy, either the employer or the dancer can apply.

If you must obtain your visa once in Europe, bring along a native speaker to help navigate the red tape. “The people who work at the visa office [in Munich] don’t speak English,” Landon says. “A very nice member of my company came with me and helped with all the translations and the paperwork. Without him, I would have been totally lost.” 

A helpful list of contact information for foreign consulates is available at The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ website, travel.state.gov.

“If you have the money to do so, get the official translations of important documents,” says Braswell. (Most foreign consulates in the U.S. can provide a referral to certified translators.) “I’m now trying to find a translator in Munich to translate my marriage license, [and] this would have been much easier to do in the States.” Certified translations come with a special seal and follow country-specific legal guidelines.

Extra cash
Arrive with enough money to survive the first month, in case your pay is delayed or you face an unforeseen expense. “I thought I had enough saved, but there are so many expenses to take care of when you first arrive,” says Landon. “You should definitely have at least one credit card, but many places, like IKEA [furniture store], don’t take them. I found myself at the checkout line with all my furniture for my new apartment and had no way to pay for it. Luckily, my colleagues were generous enough to loan me money until I got paid.”

Loose ends
If you’re leaving the U.S. indefinitely, close your bank accounts and cancel any other services you won’t be using, such as a gym membership, insurance and cell phone. Inform your accountant that you’re leaving the country and won’t be filing your future income taxes in the U.S. “Have your mail forwarded to a relative or friend who would be willing to send it to you every two weeks or so,” says Braswell. “There’s always mail that comes for you once you’re gone.” Take advantage of online payment methods to attend to any financial obligations in the U.S. from Europe, suggests Spencer. “The internet helps bridge the distance when it comes to practical things like bank accounts, student loans [and] bills,” he says.

Braswell’s motto for moving to Europe: “Don’t bring so much stuff!” Pack the bare minimum and leave the rest of your belongings in storage. “No [American] appliances work in Europe; just buy everything once you get there,” says Braswell. “You’ll also see how little you really need—I don’t even care that my favorite coat isn’t here. My [former Juilliard] teacher Alphonse Poulin says, ‘It’s not how much you have, Armando, it’s how little you need.’ This is true in Europe.” Instead of checking tons of luggage, Braswell mailed items ahead of time via surface mail, which is roughly half the price of airmail and takes about four to six weeks.


Additional paperwork
Depending on the country you’ll be working in, you may be need to obtain a separate work permit and tax card (similar to the U.S.’s W2 tax form) in addition to your visa. You must have these documents in order to be paid, and they can take several weeks to process.

In the EU, there’s also value added tax (VAT), which is a tax of 7 to 25 percent on goods purchased there, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Trade Information Center. If you’re working in Europe for a short time and buy items that you’ll be bringing back to the U.S., save your receipts to show custom officials upon your departure for a VAT refund. Some countries have varying minimum amounts you must spend to receive a VAT refund.

Getting oriented
Memorize the locations of the local police department and American embassy in case your passport or ID are lost or stolen, recommends Michela Marino-Lerman, a tap dancer who has toured Spain with Rafael Amargo. “Two weeks before I was leaving [to return to the U.S.] . . . my purse was stolen and I lost my passport,” she says. “You have to know where to go. Report the crime to the police, and then take the police report to the embassy to prove that you lost your passport.” Establishing a few solid friendships with other company members means you’ll have someone to turn to in case of emergency, says Marino-Lerman; a friend who’s willing to accompany you to the police station, spot you some cash or assist with translation can be invaluable.

Handling money
In addition to having her purse stolen, Marino-Lerman’s apartment was burgled and her cash stolen, during her last dance gig in Spain. If you’re paid in cash for a project and don’t yet have a bank account in the EU, Marino-Lerman recommends either wiring large sums of money home or converting them to traveler’s cheques. This way, your money can be tracked if it gets stolen or lost. 

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Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.


You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)


As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.


Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).


Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.


We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.


You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.


Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.


You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?


You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.


You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.


Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.


Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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