Before getting into the questions, I’d like to lay the groundwork:
The professional ballet dancer begins training very early in life, commonly at 4 or 5 years of age.
The training for a ballet dancer is as rigorous as any professional sport athlete such as football- a top physical body must be achieved, requiring taking a rigorous ballet class daily, and most professional dancers cross train for strength adding other trainings such as contemporary dance class, jazz dance, gymnastics, aerial training Pilates, lifting weights, or yoga.
Pointe classes for girls begin around 11 or 12 years of age, when the soft bones of the foot begin to harden, and boys start partnering training with girls even earlier.
In addition to an extremely fit musculature, a professional dancer must have a very lean body in order to get hired by a ballet company. So, great attention to proper nutrition is important. There has been a lot of soul searching in recent years about the illnesses of anorexia and bulimia in ballet and it’s destructive outcome on the body. Nowadays healthful food and nutritious diets are easy to find and incorporate with thoughtful grocery shopping; and many restaurants and to-go places are now very health conscious.
The ballet dancer’s body is her/his temple, and must be treated with reverence and care.
What do I need to be a professional ballet dancer?
There are several critical things which allow one to become a ballet dancer:
5. Recognition of Luck!
Without talent, there is no professional dancer. Talent is evident- musicality, flexibility, imagination, magnetism, attractiveness; and the be-all end-all for ballet dancers: ability.
High strong long legs, balance, lift off in jumps, pirouettes. Be the one in the crowd who everyone sees! Talent becomes very evident quite young. There can be a roomful of students but the talented one always stands out for the above reasons.
You have to WANT it. It’s not enough to have talent. The professional ballet student needs to be highly motivated to be the best in order to succeed.
Get to class on time and prepared, be ready to do the work, to practice at home on things that need extra time, and in general, to want to succeed badly enough to always go the extra mile. At the top level of ballet is where the dancers are who arrive early, ready to work, and who work the hardest. They make it look easy because they have worked incessantly until it is; and they know it requires constant work to maintain the top level pf performance.
Not every town or city has a great ballet teacher or ballet school; and not every family has the financial resources to get their promising dancer into class regularly. The whole family or even community has to come together to help build a great dancer. But if you have a promising dancer, and that dancer is motivated, it will be worth the sacrifice of time, money, and energy to get them their training and help them on their way. School summer vacation is a time when instead of summer camp the promising dancer takes a multi-week ballet “intensive” session, which are given by professional ballet companies, and usually require sleeping away in a dorm somewhere. Scholarships are available for these, and once again, just as a community might need to help support an Olympian, all have to work together to get these ballet dancers into “intensives”. Many “intensives” are a direct line to apprenticeships or auditions into major ballet companies.
Ah, Lady luck! So many things have to come together! Opportunities do not look for the dancer, so it’s really important to stay on top of information streams; attention to ballet notice boards, social media, and ask around for opportunities. The dancer has to be able find a ballet audition, audition successfully, get the job!
Examine what the ballet company is looking for. They are not all the same- some ballet companies like tall dancers, some like ballet dancers who have a lot of contemporary technique, some companies accept a wide variety of “looks” (ethnicities, sizes, heights, hair color), some are very uniform and the auditioning dancer has to “fit in”.
5. Recognition of Luck!
This is actually the single most important factor. Everything can go well and sometimes a person will not recognize a legitimate opportunity. Learn to recognize and jump on any opportunity – and grab it!
What are my career paths in Ballet?
1. Professional ballet company:
To get there, one must be the best at the audition, have the right look/body type, and be able to relocate if necessary. Most dance companies have a 20-32 week year, some less, very few more. This means there will be a need for additional jobs to cover the gap. Some are contracted per show, some per season, some per year. Frequently, the “side job” is the only way to make this life sustainable financially.
Ballet teachers can teach in any town at any level. One can teach at a small local dance academy afternoons and evenings for local children and adults; in performing arts schools for talented teenagers; in professional ballet academies; and, at a university dance department, where a Masters in Dance is required.
3. Musical Theater/Broadway/Cirque du Soleil/Las Vegas/Touring
To get into these kinds of shows, additional skills are required, and vary from singing to acting to ballroom dance to acrobatics. These shows typically are 6 nights per week and many contracts require a minimum of one year, some a minimum of three years.
Many professional ballet dancers start in a company and after a few years begin to experiment working in other dance avenues.
Ballet is a very international profession, and it is not unusual at all to move around locations, companies, and styles, thus the term “gypsy”.
Having said that, once a “bunhead” always a “bunhead”!
Adding foreign languages, studying other related fields such as costumes, make up, set design, or lighting will allow a ballet dancer to really grasp the whole world of ballet, as well as open up post-career opportunities.
Some very creative ballet dancers will begin to create their own choreographies. To become a choreographer takes everything said above and then more- one must be able to teach the choreography to the other dancers. So, an ability to share ideas and movement.
5. Ballet Company Director
A few dancers/choreographers might choose to start their own companies. This will require business knowledge, so I recommend taking those college business classes! Many ballet dancers study college courses online, to fit it into their schedules.
A company director has a wide range of duties: selecting dancers, choreographers; filling a board of directors; raising funds; marketing and publicity and more.
Even at the highest level companies, the director may wear many hats; so, an open mind and a willingness to do whatever it takes is critical to success.
Luminario Ballet of Los Angeles, CA, is a contemporary ballet en pointe and aerial dance company, founded in 2009 by Judith FLEX Helle, artistic and managing director, and Charles Evans Jr (producer “The Aviator”).The company represents the vibrance, diversity, technical and artistic excellence of the Los Angeles dancers and aerialists, who come from all over the US, and the world.
Over the past 11 years, Luminario Ballet has presented new works about hard topics such as climate change and Black Lives Matter; travelled abroad to India courtesy of the US State Department with a reggae piece with music by Peter Tosh; performed a full length ballet about heartbreak to Schubert’s “Winterreise”, with dancers from the Kennedy Center, Washington DC; and mounted new dance theater pieces ranging from Debbie Brown (Cirque du Soleil head choreographer)’s travel piece “Brace Yourself”, seen at the World Choreographer’s Awards; to “The Last Supper”, about when Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene went to the Coachella Music Festival.Luminario Ballet has performed with symphonies such the LA Philharmonic; Music videos such as Coldplay’s “True Love”; and toured NY, Miami, Dallas, and of course, all over California.Next up is a dance film “L’Invalide”, a Gothic Alice in Wonderland tale about a beautiful young invalid who goes on a psychedelic trip while being medicated in the hospital; is menaced by sensual vampires; dies; and returns as a ghost! Luminario Ballet hopes to add “L’Invalide” to shows in October as a Halloween offering.
About Judith FLEX Helle: Judith, born in Boston Massachusetts, danced and trapezed in Berlin Germany; Las Vegas; and then Los Angeles, where she also choreographed for films. She is a judge for the World Choreography Awards since 2012, and the Reno Aerial Dance Festival since 2017. Her work is notable for creating a seamless connection between dancersà terre et en l’air– on the ground and in the ai