What does it take to “make it” in dance? It’s no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn’t enough to get you where you want to be. So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
Lesson 1: Ask yourself why you dance, and make sure the answer is, “Because I love it.”
“The stage is transparent. Some people go out onstage and they have so much life because they love what they do. Other people just do tricks. Someone might give great performances, and the audience might think, Oh, that’s very nice, but it doesn’t change them. They were just watching someone who wanted to be the center of attention, not an artist who was dying to dance.” -Paloma Herrera, artistic director of Teatro Colón’s ballet company
Lesson 2: Learn about the culture of every style you study.
“Have the same respect for the culture of locking, for instance, as you would for pointe work. Understanding the history will open up your storytelling abilities and make you look more natural because you’ll ‘get’ where it comes from, not just what it is.” – Luam, hip-hop choreographer, director and master teacher
Lesson 3: Don’t get hung up on talent.
“Statistically, less physically gifted dancers are more successful. A talented dancer gets everything easier, gets used to this and stops exerting. The greatest mistake dancers make is too much self-assurance.” -Yuri Fateyev, acting director of the Mariinsky Ballet
Lesson 4: Value all improvement.
“Don’t dismiss small improvements just because they don’t fulfill the image of your larger-scale goals. Improvement can be a change in quality, facility, adaptation or efficiency. A change can be tiny, incremental. Acknowledging an improvement makes the difference between leaving the studio that day with a success or with a failure—and this can set the tone by which we live our lives.” —Ami Shulman, rehearsal director for GöteborgsOperans Danskompani and certified Feldenkrais practitioner
Lesson 5: Don’t work hard, work smart.
“A lot of young artists practice by just repeating and repeating the same material, thinking it will get better. But sometimes you have to pause and think about why you’re doing the movement, or why it doesn’t work. Stick with it, but try a different way.”—PeiJu Chien-Pott, principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company
Lesson 6: Value your choices more than your body or ability
“How your body looks or how well you execute movements does not determine who you are. If your feelings about yourself rise and fall with your weight or how high you jump, then you will feel anxious and depressed. But if your self-esteem is based on your actions and behaviors, then you can consistently feel good about yourself.” —Nadine Kaslow, a clinical psychologist who works with Atlanta Ballet
Lesson 7: Share yourself, not just what you can do.
“What’s interesting is who you are, not how many turns you can do or how you can distort your body. Dancers today are challenged constantly by that very passing flashiness. Like a jewel dangling in front of you, sparkling. But stars glow, they do not sparkle. Sparkles can disappear.” —Judith Jamison, artistic director emerita at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Lesson 8: Don’t ignore directions just so you can show off.
“In the audition room when the choreographer is like, ‘Okay, give me a double pirouette—clean, please,’ we’ll get young hotshots giving us a triple or a quadruple. They want to sex it up a little bit, when in fact what’s being asked for is very clear, very succinct. If you show off, it can quite often work against your favor.” —Duncan Stewart, Broadway casting director at Stewart/Whitley
Lesson 9: Ask for advice—and the opportunities you want.
“No one in the dance world has ever said no when I’ve asked for advice. Pick up the phone or meet face-to-face and ask questions. If you want to dance in a certain company or project, ask. Sometimes luck just occurs, and sometimes luck is made because you are vigilant in your pleasant, kind assertiveness. Make yourself available for opportunities. And make your own opportunities.” —David Dorfman, artistic director, college professor, Broadway and postmodern choreographer
Lesson 10: Value the small roles.
“Dancers today too often want everything now. To that, I say, ‘Wait your turn, stick it out, gather the experience and commit to the company.’ Patience develops dancers.” —Barbara Bears, ballet master at Houston Ballet