As young and aspiring ballet dancers, most professionals begin their journey between the ages of 11 and 13 (with ballet classes since age 3). Many may ask how it’s possible for a child that young to know they want to pursue a carrier in ballet and the answer to that question is, you just know. It takes an incredible amount of passion to pursue ballet because of how great the physical and phycological effects are. Not to mention, the minimum wage salary… if that.
The journey begins with ballet summer intensive programs. Usually between 3-7 weeks long, these 8-10 hour programs allow for ballet dancers ages 9-18 to live and train the life of a ballet dancer. These ballet summer intensive programs are just another yearly norm and all professional ballet companies host them, following a selective audition process, of course. When young dancers pursue these programs, many will hate it or feel overworked. However, a select minority will love it!
Following this period of enlightenment, the amount of classes taken weekly will begin to increase to a total of about 8-10 classes. Training for long, consistent periods of time is what it takes to prepare young dancers for the rigor the “art form” demands. A common pathway for aspiring ballerinas is to attend a preprofessional ballet school. An advantage to these schools is that it allows for dancers to finish high school (usually online schooling) while dancing 6-10 hours a day. Another perk to these schools is that they provide dancers with prestige, depending on the school they attend, because certain preprofessional ballet schools are incredibly difficult to get into. As a result, dancers from all over the world leave their homes to go to ballet companies that have these preprofessional programs. Some of the best companies with these ballet schools include: San Francisco Ballet, School of American Ballet (SAB), American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and The Royal Ballet. Young dancers begin there careers as early as 16 years old, but usually find a job by the ages of 17, 18,19 because of how competitive and short-lived the field is.
Unfortunately, when it comes to ballet, rigorous training is only one portion of what it takes to get a job. Acquiring any job, especially one with a world renowned company, requires ballerinas to fit a certain physical criteria. Ladies MUST be very thin, have lean muscles, long legs, arched feet, hyperextension (ideally), a small waist, flat chest, and a small butt. Men MUST be thin, have lean muscles, strong arms and legs, long legs, arched feet, and have hyperextension (ideally). Even if a dancer has trained their whole life to become a professional dancer, if they do not meet all these qualifications or a large majority of them, they will never be hired by major ballet companies, and they will face TREMENDOUS barriers to find a job.
As I mentioned before, ballet dancers do not choose the profession for its salary, but because they are profoundly passionate about it. An average ballet dancer makes under 25k a year and ballet dancers at major ballet companies make between 45k and 50k annually. Many receive food stamps during the early stages of their career and some do not make it far enough to attain the higher paying roles. Even Misty Copeland, the first African American Principle Dancer at American Ballet Theatre and the most famous ballerina of our generation, only makes between 75k and 100k annually from ABT. The world of ballet is incredibly competitive and unforgiving. One false step, injury, or lack of professionalism can lead to a dancer loosing his or her job in an instant. Always remember, ballet dancers are easily replaceable.
The world of ballet, like any sport is incredibly selective, competitive, and short-lived. A major difference between the two, however, is salary. Top athletes are payed millions of dollars, while average players are payed more than 100k a year. Misty Copland, the LeBron James of the dance world, is only payed between 75-100k per year! How is it that two people whose professions are just as difficult, if not ballet being more difficult, have drastically different salaries? One reason is that the fan base being far greater for sports, not to mention the televised industry and social media platform; however, the fact that dance is not considered a sport is one of the greatest reasons why it remains a struggling and low paying field. Ballet has changed drastically in the past 40 years and a lot of people have not yet caught up to the difficulty that is ballet.