Using their bodies, ballet dancers express ideas, stories, feelings, rhythm
and movement. Ballet has a long history as a performing art. You probably
know the names of many classical ballets -- like Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet
and The Nutcracker.
"There is something different and exciting about every piece I do," says
Seth Belliston. He is a ballet dancer in Seattle.
"Some pieces are serious and dramatic while others have been more fun.
In Zirkus Weill, for example, I got to do backflips. I also enjoy the more
serious parts where I'm more restrained. Agon was a favorite of mine."
Long after they've completed their initial dance training, ballet dancers
continue to take classes. In class, they perform various stretching and warm-up
exercises, sustain positions and perform steps, jumps and turns. Not only
does class keep them in top physical shape, but it also allows ballet instructors
to supervise their growth as artists.
Professional ballet dancers spend most of their time in rehearsal. They
practice specific dance compositions before they show their work to the public.
The repetition of reviewing a piece over and over again can be tedious. But
ballet dancers stress that aspiring dancers shouldn't overlook the importance
of practice and discipline.
"Rehearsal is very important. With each new piece, you reach a higher level.
I look at each piece as an adventure and that makes it a bit easier," says
dancer Stephanie Hutchison.
At a performance, ballet dancers dress in full costume and perform the
rehearsed pieces for audiences. Dancers often travel with their company to
different parts of the world to perform.
Most work on contract with professional ballet companies, but there are
some ballet dancers who float between companies. Ballet dancers generally
work in dance studios, schools and onstage. Some dancers, however, work in
television production studios and amusement parks.
Not all dance companies are covered by union contracts, says John White.
He's a director of a ballet society.
"If they get into a union company, then the starting pay is pretty decent,"
White says of dancers turning professional. "There are non-union companies
that pay less. There are so many students out there competing for a few jobs
that quite a few are willing to take those lesser-pay jobs.
"The pay is almost less of an issue than getting that first break. Then
after they've got that first job, after a couple of years if they continue
progressing, they usually opt to try to find something better, more secure."
The life of a professional dancer isn't an easy one at first, he warns.
"It is a struggle. It's not only the pay issue, it's also the number of
weeks of work. They're not paid for 52 weeks. Quite far from it. A 40-week
contract would usually be considered pretty generous....But if you have a
passion for it and you love it, you just can't imagine doing anything else
Only the most talented dancers will find regular work because the number
of applicants far outweighs the number of job openings. For example, over
2,000 dancers audition each year for admission to the School of American Ballet's
Of the 2,000 applicants, only 350 students are admitted to the winter program,
which is 10 months long. A mere 30 students leave the school each year to
dance with professional companies.
"It's extremely hard," agrees Joysanne Sidimus. She is the executive director
of the Dancer Transition and Resource Center.
"It's competitive. But if by 17 [years of age] the student, the parents
and the school have put the time and effort into serious training for the
dancer, they'll probably make it. A good dancer can usually get a job."
Another hardship many dancers face is a relatively short career -- most
stop performing by their late 30s because of the physical demands of ballet.
They can, however, move into other areas of dance by becoming choreographers
Dancers must be in excellent physical condition. Flexibility as well as
physical strength are the minimum physical requirements. There is also great
risk for physical injury that could prematurely end a dancer's career. Strains,
pulls, foot, ankle and knee problems are common injuries.
"I've been very fortunate with injuries," says Hutchison. "But I have seen
dancers undergo serious injuries. One dancer had to take a year off because
of a foot operation."
Dancers rehearse for long hours every day. This may include weekends and
holidays when nearing a performance, and weekend travel when a show is on
the road. Most performances take place in the evening.
Musicality, grace and a sense of rhythm are also important for success
as a ballet dancer.
Dancers don't become dancers for the money or good job prospects. They
go into the field for the love of dance.
"If there's a talented young person out there, I would never want to discourage
them from pursuing a career in dance," says Hutchison.
"They must understand that [they] have to give 100 percent of themselves
to dance. The biggest thing is that you start to dance because you love to
dance. Through years of training, you can lose that love of dance, but the
joy of dance can take you a long way."