What Is It Like to Be a Professional Dancer?

Career Information

A dancer in action
••• Liam Norris / Stone / Getty Images

A dancer is a performing artist who uses movement to convey stories and ideas. He or she usually has expertise in a particular type of dance including jazz, ballet, modern dance, ballroom or tap, but some excel in more than one of these areas. Dancers perform on stage, in movies, on television, in music videos, at theme parks, and on cruise ships.

Quick Facts About Dancers

  • They earned a median wage of $14.31 per hour in 2014.
  • 16,000 people worked as dancers in 2012.
  • Dance companies employed about 30% of them.
  • Employment is expected to grow as fast as the average for all occupations through 2024.

How to Get Your Start

  • If you've never taken a dance lesson, you may have come upon this article a little late. Many, but not all, professional dancers began their training when they were children.
  • Regardless of when you began training, you must spend a great deal of time taking classes and practicing.
  • You can look into summer or after school dance programs or pre-professional programs with dance companies.
  • A college degree isn't a must—only 14% of dancers have a bachelor's degree—but some people earn bachelor's degrees from theater or fine arts programs.
  • Since many dancers also sing and act, honing these skills can prove to be worthwhile.

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

  • Active Listening: You must be able to give your full attention to choreographers and directors.
  • Active Learning: You need the ability to easily pick up new dance routines.
  • Creativity: Artistic ability will allow you to convey ideas through your movements.
  • Interpersonal Skills: As a dancer, you will often have to work as part of a team including other dancers, choreographers, and other performers. You must be able to interact with them successfully.

The Downside of Being a Dancer

  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road if you are part of a dance company.
  • Brace yourself for rejections.
  • Get ready to work for many hours if you go on tour with a dance company. You will spend your days rehearsing and your nights performing.
  • Have a backup plan. Due to career-ending injuries, dancers often have to stop performing while still in their thirties. Many become choreographers or dance instructors. 

Common Misconceptions

  • You will get to have fun all the time: Dancers work very hard, and while they may enjoy what they do, this is a job, and it's about much more than having fun.
  • You will be discovered: It is unlikely that a famous producer will see you dancing in your studio (or on Youtube) and say "I want this young woman or man to be in my show." To get hired, you will have to go on a lot of auditions.
  • You will make a lot of money: The median wage for this career is relatively low.
  • You will become famous: Most dancers do not achieve fame. Many work in theme parks and on cruise ships.
  • All you need is talent: While it's true that dancers need talent to succeed, they also spend a great deal of time learning complicated routines and rehearsing.
  • You will do nothing but dance: Dancers who work in theme parks or on cruise ships sometimes do additional jobs off stage. You should not be surprised if you have to interact with guests, serve drinks or wait on tables.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

The following requirements come from actual job announcements:

  • Able to perform multiple high-energy shows each day
  • Practice regularly and prepare for auditions and weekly rehearsals
  • Works as part of a team to increase productivity while providing excellent guest service
  • Has to generate excitement and youthful energy
  • Can pick up choreography quickly

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Related Occupations

Title Description Median Hourly Wage (2014) Required Education/Training
Actor Portrays characters on stage, in movies, in commercials, and on television shows $19.82 Formal training from acting classes or completion of a dramatic arts program at a college
Choreographer Creates or interprets dances $21.28 Experience as a dancer with subsequent training in choreography
Singer Interprets music and words using his or her voice $24.16 No educational requirements for pop music singers but opera singers usually earn a bachelor's degree
Musician Plays an instrument for a live audience or in a studio $24.16 Pop musicians aren't typically required to get a college degree, but classical musicians often earn one.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 (visited October 7, 2015).
Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited October 7, 2015).