"What I Learned from My First Pro Dance Job"

As a dancer with Ailey II, Kyle Martin figured out how to get his body through a heavy performance schedule. (Photo by Nan Melville)

Landing your first professional dance gig is a dream come true—and a huge learning opportunity. We talked to four young dancers about what they've learned from their first jobs, and how those lessons have strengthened their careers.

Booking a Gig Isn't the End of the Story

Kessie Brawner (photo by Vince Trupsin)

Shortly before graduating from The University of the Arts, Kessie Brawner signed with MSA Talent Agency, and soon found herself getting in formation with Beyoncé at the 2016 VMAs. Sounds like a fairy tale, right? But Brawner quickly learned not to let success go to her head. "It's important to keep everything professional the entire length of a job," Brawner says. "Just because you've booked it doesn't mean you can't get fired mid-way through rehearsals. I've seen it happen! I've learned to think of a job as an audition all the way up to the video shoot or performance." That said, if you work hard and are still let go (or aren't hired in the first place), don't get discouraged. Ultimately, those decisions are rarely personal. "Not every opportunity is for you," Brawner says. "Sometimes you book a lot and sometimes you don't. At the end of the day, hard work never goes to waste."

Your Workload Will Be Dramatically Different Than it Was During Your Student Days

Kyle Martin performing with Ailey II (photo by Nan Melville)

Kyle Martin recently went from student to professional company member, joining Ailey II during his last year in The Ailey School's Certificate Program. He ended up having only 8 weeks to learn 14 ballets in preparation for Ailey II's international tour. "As a student, the maximum number of pieces I had to learn at any one time was two—but suddenly I had to learn two or three works a day," he says. "I had to change my way of thinking about and retaining choreography." Martin also had to learn how to survive the tour's heavy performance schedule. "When you're doing several shows a week, your body starts to feel like it's breaking down," he says. "I had to be responsible about taking extremely good care of myself."

Yes, Being an Apprentice Is a Real Job

Erin Brothers (photo by Nicole Marie Escamilla)

Forget the old myth that apprentices never perform: In her first season as an apprentice with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, 17-year-old Erin Brothers frequently graced the stage with the company, dancing her own roles in much of the group's repertoire as well as covering for other dancers. "There were a number of times when company members injured themselves or fell ill, and it was my responsibility to fill in the gaps and perform each moment as precisely as the original cast would have," Brothers says. "When I'm asked to go onstage with only a few eight counts to spare, that's my time to prove that I can help my company in a high-pressure situation. It's something I take immense pride in."

As a Pro, You'll Learn How to Be Your Own Cheerleader

Aurelia Michael (photo by Kenichi Kasamatsu)

Students get lots of praise and encouragement from teachers, but professional dancers have to be more reliant on their own sense of self-worth. Musical theater dancer Aurelia Michael went through 42 auditions and 40 cuts before earning a spot in the Broadway cast of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, where she's a swing and assistant dance captain. "While difficult to swallow, 'no' is necessary because it makes the 'yes' so much sweeter," she says. "Rejection was humbling, but it made me put in the work to get to the next door." Once she booked the swing job—which requires her to memorize multiple tracks, and be ready jump on for any of them at a moment's notice—she learned how to celebrate her worth and cheerlead for herself. "I recognize the value of the swing and the moments of being able to maintain confidence, knowing that I'm not necessarily going to get notes or validation," she says.

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