How Long Do Dance Careers Last?

"I love to dance, and I'm thinking about doing it professionally. But it's really hard on my body, and I wonder how sustainable it is. How long can people dance professionally? What do dancers do if they get injured? How old is too old? And what do dancers do to take care of themselves?"

asked by Denise from Hartford, Connecticut

Dancing is a very physically challenging field. A professional dancer is part athlete, part performance artist, part poet, and part warrior. You must have a very solid foundation of health in your body to be able to last in this field. Dancers take care of their bodies by training consistently, with thorough warm-ups and cool downs.

They eat nourishing meals that supply a lot of protein for muscle strength and complex carbohydrates for endurance. They get plenty of sleep and, other than occasional opening-night celebrations, they usually go to bed early so they can get plenty of rest before their morning classes. They also need to balance the hard work with rest and recreation to let their bodies recover.

Many dancers also see physical or massage therapists to help their bodies relax and stay healthy. It is also a good idea to engage in a practice that gently stretches the body while calming and focusing the mind, like Yoga or Tai Chi, to maintain muscle elasticity and mental clarity.

Like other athletes, most dance careers last 15 to 20 years. People usually begin dancing professionally around age 19, and the average age to transition to a different career is 34. Some people continue dancing until their early 40s or later, and some people have to retire earlier than age 34 because of injury or an inability to find work. There are no guarantees with this business and very little job security. Getting hired is usually based on the audition process, so one may work every week of one’s career, or go weeks or months between gigs.

The way an injury affects a dancer’s career depends on the severity of the injury. Because of the risk involved, it is important to work for a company that has worker’s compensation insurance. It is also important to ask for hazard pay if you will be participating in activities with special risks such as rigged flying, pyrotechnics, animal stunts, or other potentially dangerous elements.

If the injury is mild enough, dancers will go back to work after rehabilitation. If the injury is too severe to allow the person to continue dancing professionally, then he or she must transition to another career. Whether because of age or injury, eventually everyone retires from dancing professionally. Many of these people go on to choreograph, teach dance, or manage dance companies. It is possible to have a fulfilling second career supporting others to dance. Quality dance teachers are always sought after to work with children and adults, and choreographers are the backbone that holds dance performances together.

Ultimately, dancers make it because they feel like they have to. The passion that fueled them to begin dancing in childhood is what gets them up early every morning and inspires them to train for hours a day nearly every day of the week. This kind of commitment creates a magical field where seemingly impossible feats of endurance, strength, resilience and acrobatics become almost second nature. If one truly has the calling and will to become a professional dancer, the way will appear.

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