This is an excerpt from Careers in Dance by Ali Duffy.
Broadway performer (Hamilton, Matilda, Leap of Faith, Memphis, Wicked)
What have been your most significant experiences as a working professional in dance?
Hamilton. For good and hard reasons. The good is that I could never have imagined being involved in and helping create such an amazing piece of art, let alone in a commercial setting where original and different and diverse aren't necessarily the things that sell tickets. The bad is that the business side of that show [removed] any shine I [still perceived] about the industry. Dancing on the Tony Awards four years in a row wasn't too shabby, though. It was tiring, but amazing. My current freestyle videos feel like a highlight. They are the first time I am taking control—of my own body, my “voice,” and my vision. They are helping me through some of the body issues that I have accrued going through life as a woman and as a dancer, and I am allowing myself the freedom to have dance in my life on my terms.
What is your best advice to those hoping to pursue a career in dance?
Keep your passion. Dance is hard on your body, and the business is hard on your mind and your emotions. Don't let anyone diminish your passion for it and, if you're miserable, bail. Go find a way to engage with dance that makes your heart full of joy, even if it's a different kind of path than you've found yourself on before.
Describe some of the greatest lessons you've learned in your dance career.
Be 100 percent yourself at all times. You can never guess what someone wants, so always be you and then you'll never be lost. When you stop asking for attention, you'll finally get it. Desperation can be smelled and felt, and it's a complete turnoff to potential employers, creatives, and teachers. Trust yourself. When you're not happy and you're not being treated respectfully, you know it. Trust that and fix it as soon as possible. In this business, happiness and self-care are paramount. Have a side hustle that is creative. There will come a time in your career where there might be a break in consistent work. If you've been developing your own creative voice along the way, it will help you survive when you can't seem to find someone to hire you to execute their vision. Write, photograph, film, sing, take improv comedy lessons, decorate, be a stylist, start your own company. “There were months where I was auditioning for everything I could and getting callbacks, but mainly getting cut from everything. It was grueling, draining, and sometimes demeaning, but, as one learns, if you keep going, it'll pass. And it did. Hamilton is the most artistically fulfilling work I have ever had the privilege of making, and it spoiled me. There it was, the dream. Commercial success combined with collaboration and high art.”
Looking back, what were the best decisions you made during your career?
Getting a dog. Having a pet made a more serene and loving home life in the midst of a chaotic and harsh career. With the perils and pitfalls of this path, my experiences with my dog have been such a good way to make me enjoy life. Always take vacation. And I mean vacation, not going home to wherever your folks live for a family visit. Travel. Immerse yourself in different cultures, push outside your comfort zone, and explore.
An Entrepreneurial Approach to Dance Careers
Approaching your dance career in the spirit of entrepreneurship may help you identify and direct your energy toward pursuing the most productive professional path. Whereas the term entrepreneurship originates from the traditions of business, it applies to careers in dance as well. In general, an entrepreneur identifies a need and then starts a business to fill that gap. While you may indeed start a business during your dance career, it is developing the qualities of an entrepreneur you should focus on. Using these qualities will help you more efficiently and effectively establish a dance career.
Successful entrepreneurs, as described by experts in business, exhibit many of the same characteristics that assist them in building their companies and furthering their careers. Successful entrepreneurs are most often described as creative, self-confident, knowledge-seeking, purpose-driven, risk-taking, resilient, and adaptable (Vecco 2019; Duchek 2018; Cardone 2017; Clifton and Badal 2014). Several studies have revealed other top characteristics needed to excel, specifically in the creative economy. These people are tenacious and open. They persevere and possess strong skills in networking, problem-solving, collaboration, and time management and are able to deal with uncertainty (Brandenburg, Roosen, and Veenstra 2016). Many dancers are advantaged at the outset of their careers because they already possess passion for their art form, a strong work ethic, and motivation to succeed. Depending on your specific strengths and challenges related to your degree of introversion or extroversion and overall temperament, you could benefit from approaching your career with special attention to strengthening or enhancing some of these qualities to give yourself a leg up on the competition in the field. While not every dance professional will become a leader or start a business, cultivating the characteristics described as entrepreneurial will surely bolster your position as you negotiate whatever corners of the dance job market you pursue.
Aligning Strengths With Career Goals
Conducting an analysis of your strengths and experiences will help align your abilities and knowledge with career paths that will lead you to success and satisfaction. This chapter includes reflection questions to consider in your strengths assessment. Throughout this book, you will find descriptions that point to the connections between your strengths and job requirements. Pay close attention to what you like about dance and what you have to offer the field before pursuing a particular area. This important stage of your education will help you market your identity and brand.
Creating a career mission statement is a good place to start narrowing your potential areas of professional pursuit and will help you identify your best qualities and aptitudes. As you continue in a career, your mission statement will shift and evolve to accommodate changes you experience. While it is unlikely that your preferences will change drastically right away, sometimes the more you learn about the field, the more drawn you will be to certain positions in it. At the end of this chapter, you will find reflection prompts to help you craft your own mission statement.
Qualities of a Successful Dance Professional
While some areas of the field require very particular attributes and interests, many jobs in dance require similar traits. For example, many career opportunities in dance require you to have done your homework, so to speak, before setting foot in an audition or interview or in starting an application process. Preparation is key in this field because, often, the person who is best prepared is the person hired. Being prepared involves researching the opportunity for which you want to aim, knowing whether you are an ideal fit for it, and knowing how to apply or audition. It also involves continuous learning and networking within that particular area of the field so that others will know who you are and what you have to offer.
The ability to self-motivate cannot be overstated. A career in dance takes diligence and hard work, and there is rarely a time in a dance career that does not demand your persistent drive toward the next goal or job or promotion. You must be prepared to keep pushing yourself throughout your career because dance requires you to be completely present—and completely you—every day.
Resilience and Self-Care
Most working dance professionals will describe the necessity for resilience and strategies for self-care during their careers because there is a lot of rejection in dance. The jobs are in high demand and the competition is intense. Find a method of calming yourself and a method of retrieving your positivity. You will need these self-care strategies as you move through your career. Bouncing back from rejection and negativity is key to preventing burnout and self-esteem issues, and each person may have a unique way to do this. Reward yourself for your courage and persistence even when you do not secure the job. Find a group of supportive friends to bolster your confidence and remind you of your amazing qualities during difficult periods and transitions in your career. Establishing a cross-training regimen for yourself and creating a list of important medical and therapy practitioners will be helpful too as you navigate your career in a physically and emotionally demanding field.
It is a good idea to present a professional demeanor now with your teachers and your cohort of classmates. This does not mean you have to be inauthentic or overly formal. Rather, it means that people notice when you go the extra mile to say please and thank you, to anticipate the needs of others, and to be polite and friendly in potentially stressful situations. Further, knowing how to compose a professional email message, concisely articulate your talents and goals to others, and persuade others about the value of your ideas will be important as you move through any area of the field.
Networking and Self-Promotion
Your relationships with others in the field will determine a great deal of your success in it. Therefore, thriving dance professionals know how to network and self-promote. For some, these are difficult skills to master because they require significant social interaction, presence, and confidence. If you are more of an introverted person, for example, you may have to work harder to take the risk of meeting new people. Further, publicly announcing your personal accomplishments and strengths to others may feel contrived or prideful. However, you must be willing to let others know who you are and what you can offer in order for them to be willing to hire you.
Not all of the qualities of a successful dance professional are outlined here. Many depend on the area of the field in which you work. In these first two chapters, the most common qualities are highlighted, but also know that additional best practices and traits may be required of you in your career.