Pros and cons
Matthew Lawrence talks you through the highs and lows of life as a professional dancer.
CHRISTMAS time for graduating dancers in Australasia is ‘D-Day’ – did I get the job? It is a brutal reality check for most, and “OMG!” for the lucky few. What should you expect from the professional adventure? Here are my five exciting ‘pros’ and frustrating ‘cons’ - a concession for those who missed out - attached to a career in dance.
Pro #1: Getting paid for what you love
It is a much bandied about line around dancers: “You’re so lucky getting paid to dance!” (Often used as a negotiation line). There is no denying it. When compared to a regular 9 to 5 desk job we are privileged. Transitioning from a full-time dance school – where you pay for class, rehearsals, shows and shoes – to being paid for doing exactly that, seems weird. In fact, more than likely, within your first few years, you will be required to do less than at school. For my initial productions, I was a well-paid stage mannequin and prop mover.
Con #1: Instability of contracts
Hmmm, this is a tricky one. In Australia, contracts are typically either seasonal or yearly, with the hope that a year will turn to many. And depending on the company’s culture, its size and financial security, this can be the case; yet not always. For yearly full-time contracts, employers are only obliged to give you three months notice, and seasonal contracts, as the name suggests, come and go.
Apprenticeship programs, attached to dance companies, are potential bridges into a full-time position. Generally, a year's paid experience is offered. It equates to a fantastic opportunity, but not necessarily a lasting one. (Think of it as a very long audition).
Here are my rough ratings out of ten, for international contracts, taking into consideration pay and conditions (and subject to me being wrong): Asia – 5.5, America – 5, Australasia – 6, Europe – 6.5, Scandinavia – 8, United Kingdom – 7. (In Russia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, there are limited openings for foreigners).
Pro #2: Travel
Touring with a dance company is a great way to see the world. Not only are your airfares and accommodation paid for, but also a daily ‘per diem’ caters for food and transport. Destinations such as New York, London, Tokyo and Shanghai are common stops. However, often the obscure - “I would never have booked a holiday there!” - locations are most fun.
Con #2: Too much travel
You can overdo it. Most of my career was spent with companies who travelled a lot – commonly five months out of a year. It was fun, but exhausting. For a large proportion of my “gypsy” career, my suitcase was my wardrobe, cafes my kitchen, and hotels my bed.
Pro #3 The camaraderie
When you are bubbling on the stage pressure cooker, you tend to form close friendships. Combating the dramas and adrenalin of the stage is a little like going into battle (without the dying part). The jointly held pressures and nerves have a unifying effect. Also, the unpredictability of travel, lends opportunities for coming together.
Con #3: Stage nerves
Performance nerves - the stresses that keep us motivated - can be crippling. I have seen many fine dancers’ careers curtailed short from uncontrolled butterflies. From the front, you would never guess a performer might have been up all night, with a stomach feeling down all day. But it happens to us all.
Pro #4: Keeping fit while you work
As a dancer you do not appreciate this until you retire and have to discipline yourself to keep exercising. And depending on what you transition into, physical inactivity is the workplace norm.
Con #4: Injuries
As a consequence of too much exercise, and the unique strains accumulated through dance, injuries are a common blight. A
dancer’s first reaction to injury is often annoyance, with tears, followed by guilt (fuelled by alternate casts making you aware
of their added load). Then later in the process, there lies a frustrating, often protracted, rehabilitation process. Boring.
Pro #5: Performance high!
Few moments in life replace the show buzz. Dancers will never admit to the perfect show, but will certainly know when it has gone well. To add to your adrenalin high, fellow dancers may pat you on the back - “Good show mate” - followed by ballet staff - “Gorgeous show darling!” - then, if you are lucky, you might be asked to sign a few ego-boosting autographs at stage door.
Con #5: It is a short career
A dancer’s career can be paralleled with a butterfly’s life. Most of their existence is spent developing - from caterpillar, to chrysalis - into a butterfly. And after brief encounter with full development, they die. Likewise, in proportion to a dancer’s gestation period, the career span is short. Regularly, a professional dancer’s gestation (training) period spans at least ten years - with three or four in a full-time institution. From there - if you are one of the lucky few - an average career will last around seven to eight years.
But it is worth it!
- Matthew Lawrence
Matthew Lawrence has recently hung up his shoes after dancing with the Australian Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Queensland Ballet.
This article was first published in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Dance Australia. Want more like this? Buy Dance Australia at your favourite magazine retailer or subscribe here, or purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app.