What Does a Dancer Do?

Said to be "the athletes of God," dancers are performers who use their bodies—along with choreographed sequences of movement—as instruments of expression. Dance training typically begins in childhood or adolescence and concentrates on improving dancers' flexibility, coordination, athleticism, rhythm, and musicality. Dancers are often initially instructed in a particular style or genre of dance, like ballet, modern, jazz, tap, or hip-hop. Later on, as professionals, they might choose one or two of these styles to specialize in—a decision that can have a great impact on their career. Although there are many things that bind all dancers together regardless of genre, dancers can have very particular training routines, repertoires, and career paths based on their specialization. Ballet, for example, is a lifelong study and career in and of itself.

Some dancers work as concert dancers, and perform on stage as the main attraction. Others find a place in the theater world, performing rigorous dance parts in musical theater or opera productions. Many West Coast dancers are employed by the film and television industries, where they appear in movies, TV shows, and music videos. Still others perform in the live music and event industries, supporting popular musicians in tours or participating in staged variety events. At some point in their careers, most dancers also work in some capacity as choreographers or teachers.

Dancer at a Glance

Career Path

Dancers begin their training at a very young age. Many study dance for their undergraduate degree, and some (especially those interested in teaching) pursue an M.F.A. as well. After becoming professionals, many dancers find in-house positions with concert dance companies and schools. A smaller number become freelancers, working in film, television, live music, and theatrical productions.

Dancers who work in-house typically aim to advance within their organization, becoming senior dancers, section leaders, choreographers, or even artistic directors. Freelance dancers seek to form professional relationships with organizations and groups that lead to steady work and advancement opportunities. 

Finding Work

Most dancers find work as performers, teachers, or a mix of both. Most teaching positions are with dance schools, colleges, or afterschool programs. For freelance dancers, making a living can require some hustle, especially at the beginning. This could mean cold-emailing or cold-calling local dance groups to see if they need someone to fill in, auditioning for longer projects like national tours, or cobbling together small gigs and collaborations (student films, local events, etc.) to see what sticks. Dancers can also apply for artistic grants to fund new projects. The field of dance is competitive, but getting noticed by a single choreographer, dance director, casting director, or sponsor could mean a wealth of new opportunities.

Professional Skills
  • Dance
  • Musical/rhythmic training
  • Theater
  • Physical fitness
  • Choreography
  • Anatomy
Interpersonal Skills

Regardless of how they're employed, dancers today need far more than just physical ability. They need a good memory for choreography; an ability to collaborate and communicate with choreographers; and an entrepreneurial spirit to seek out and make the most of opportunities. Versatility is a huge strength in this profession, and the best dancers continue developing throughout their career, diversifying their skill set by picking up new styles and techniques.

Work Life

To dancers, their bodies are their livelihood. To ensure peak performance and lower the chance of injury, dancers should maintain a high level of physical fitness, engage in daily dance training, practice healthy eating, maintain a regular sleep schedule, and monitor their mental and emotional health. Some dancers have daily performance schedules, while others perform more intermittently. Auditions may require travel, and touring with a dance company or musical act can mean weeks or months away from home.