“From Passion to Career”

A professional dancer’s perspective on pursuing a career in dance.

Last month, at The Turning Pointe, (a local dance supply store), Ballet Academy teamed up with Mary Ann Claud to promote her novel, “Alex Dances”, about a young girl who follows her dream of becoming a professional dancer.  In harmony with the book, a discussion entitled “From Passion to Career” was lead by Ms. Sarah Bowdoin, dancer with Palmetto City Ballet (formerly Ballet Evolution) and Ballet Academy instructor, on the topic of how to successfully pursue a career in dance. With some two decades as a student, pre-professional and professional dancer, Ms. Bowdoin used her own experience as a reference as she expounded the options available to aspiring, young dancers. 

Ms. Bowdoin commenced the discussion with a brief history of her own training and career. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Sarah attended Rowland’s School of Ballet with the pre-professional dance company, Kingwood Dance Theatre that brought in teachers from places such as Houston Ballet and Regional Dance America. After graduating high school, she attended Oklahoma University where she received a double major in Ballet Performance and Nonprofit Organizational Studies. Ms. Bowdoin then began her professional career with the Charlotte Ballet, dancing with them for one season, eventually making her way to Ballet Evolution in Charleston (now Palmetto City Ballet) and is now going on her 3rdseason with the company. In addition to this experience,Ms. Bowdoin has participated in hundreds of auditions, inlcuding over 50 professional auditions.

Ms. Bowdoin is also an accomplished teacher, having just begun her third year with Ballet Academy of Charleston where she instructs both the young children and teenagers as well as the adults. She also teaches yoga and is certified in Progressing Ballet Technique U.S.®. (See the article, “What is PBT?” )

“Do I want to audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree or gamble on my dream by putting off a career to go to school?”

Ms. Bowdoin then advised her listeners on what steps to take in their pursuit of a professional career as she enumerated the choices before these budding protétés. Below is a summary of the course Ms. Bowdoin recommended:

Phase 1- What To Do Now:

1. Find a local school that has teachers with professional experience.

2. Take summer intensives. Explore local intensives but also be willing to travel to other areas where more opportunities may exist. 

3. Embrace versatility. Learn different styles and techniques, and develop the ability to pick up choreography quickly.

Phase 2- Planning Your Future:

4. Work hard outside of the studio. Practice what you have learned in the studio and stay active during time off. Consider supplementing your dance training with similar activities such as yoga, Pilates®and PBT®. 

When you graduate from High School, decide which path you want to take:

Option 1:  Audition for trainee programs in professional dance companies to begin your dance career immediately. 

Option 2:  Attend a college or university and obtain BFA, BA, or both, then pursue a career afterward. 

In order to determine which path is best for you, ask yourself the following: 

Do I want to audition for ballet companies without the security of a college degree or gamble on my dream by putting off a career to go to school?

If you are still unsure, ask yourself if you are really ready to audition.

Not every 17 or 18 year old is emotionally or technically ready to handle the competitive environment of professional auditions and company life.

To help you determine whether you are ready, you can apply to college then take a few pre-pro auditions to see where you stand. Additionally, when auditioning for jobs, decide if you want to go for either the top tier or regional companies, knowing that top tier companies will most likely want you to go through their trainee program, school or 2ndcompany programs (occasionally regional, too), and that the competition in these companies will be greater.

You should carefully weigh the benefits versus the risks of each decision, perhaps making a pros & cons list. For instance, if you determine to enter a trainee program, you can attend college part-time or online to earn a degree while gaining experience with a professional company. Additionally, after some time, your experience as a trainee can act as a bridge to a second company that might pay. Such a course may be particularly demanding, however, since you will likely have to obtain additional work to support yourself. This may be the case regardless of whether you attend a college or university as it likely be the reality you face as a professional dancer since this career rarely pays well. 

Conversely, if you decide instead to first attend college or university, understand that you will be putting your career on hold for the time it takes you to complete school; Time, thought by some to correspond to important and formative years as a dancer. However, there are still opportunities to gain experience, especially if you choose a school that offers a dance program. And more and more, company directors are expecting to receive their trainees at a somewhat older age, as many are opting to attend school first. 

If you choose to attend college and want to obtain a double major, do your research. For example, a BFA program can offer a conservatory style without much room for other interests. However, it does provide a  “company feel” with lots of performance opportunities to help you gain the needed experience as a professional.

When considering ballet and dance majors, ask the following questions:

  1. Where do the graduates end up?
  2. How accessible are second majors and minors?
  3. What are their performance opportunities?
  4. Who are included in their faculty and guests?

Some top ballet programs (in not particular order):

  1. Indiana University
  2. University of Oklahoma
  3. University of Utah
  4. Butler University
  5. University of Arizona
  6. University of South Carolina

In conclusion, Ms. Bowdoin reminded her listeners that pursuing a career in dance won’t’ be easy, either emotionally, physically, financially.  Whichever avenue you choose to take will require a thick skin, persistence and great heart. However, if you are passionate and cannot imagine life without dance, all the struggles will be worth it because you will be “living your dream”.