When Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown offered Hope Boykin her ;rst
professional contract, she made the young dancer wait six months before performing onstage. “I don’t thrust new dancers immediately into the performing
aspect of professional life,” says Brown. “I give them time to grow in the company ;rst.” While some dancers might ;nd this frustrating, Boykin pressed
on with patience and humility. She grew as an artist and a professional, and
eventually became a senior dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Even if you’ve trained at an exceptional pre-professional school, the ;rst
year in a company can be a shocking transition. It’s also a high-stakes one that
lays the groundwork for your career in the company. “Everyone’s looking at
you to see what you can do, but also to see the kind of person you’re going to
be,” says Brown. Mastering the ;rst stages of professional life is about much
more than technique. It’s about ;nding your place in a world where you’re
suddenly the least experienced person in the room.
DEVELOP A PROFESSIONAL MINDSET
Establish a professional reputation from day one: Arrive early, dress appro-
priately, show up with a good attitude even when you don’t feel like it. The
expectations might not be spelled out as clearly as they were at school, but
they’re just as important, if not more so.
The biggest shifts, however, are mental. Life might be less structured than
in school, which can be a dif;cult adjustment. It’s up to you to prioritize your
time, taking class daily and working overtime on your weaknesses. “When you
are in school, you pay and we are here to teach you—you are our client,” says
Marcello Angelini, artistic director of Tulsa Ballet. “In a company, we pay you,
so the expectations are different, higher.” In company class, this means processing the fact that you’re not dancing to please a teacher anymore. “You got
your ‘A,’;” says Brown. “Now’s your time to become an artist.” For example,
rather than showing off how high you can get your leg, focus more on how
you lift your leg.
The stakes are also higher. Mistakes—like showing up late or unprepared—
tend to be easier to overcome in an educational environment, because learning
from them is part of the experience. “You are getting paid now—someone
has to raise that money, and there’s never enough money,” says Randy James,
artistic director of 10 Hairy Legs. “If you’re not doing your job, no matter
how good of a dancer you are, you’re costing the company money.” One small
misstep won’t ruin your career, but it might be harder to bounce back from it.
ADAPT TO COMPANY CULTURE
Part of your job is to adapt to the unique culture and the unspoken “rules” of
Especially during the ;rst few weeks, accept social invitations from other
the company. Brown, for instance, prefers dancers to wear traditional attire like
leotards and tights rather than booty shorts and crop tops. For James, this means
details like always being early (“ ‘On time’ for me is like half an hour ahead of
time”) and “not dropping your junk where the director drops his junk.”
Pay close attention to the veteran dancers in the company. How do they
interact with each other, and the director? How do they dress? What do they
do during rehearsal downtime?
company members, or ask a friendly dancer to coffee. Don’t isolate yourself.
“Your personality and how you act and interact in a company is extremely
important the ;rst year,” says James. Integrating into company culture outside
the studio can help you understand how to be successful inside of it. “Every
company has an accumulated history—a shared knowledge or understanding,”
says James. “You join and sometimes you don’t know that you’re doing something wrong. Check in with the dancers and ask how you’re doing.”
“If I Only Knew…”
Three company veterans weigh in
with some advice.
AS TOLD TO CANDICE THOMPSON
Take on New Challenges
“It’s easy to get complacent. But
you have to be willing to receive
tough love. One major reason I
took a break from Pacific Northwest Ballet and danced with
Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo for
seven years was because I didn’t
have the tools to keep evolving.
Moving to a different company
was the best thing for me: I got
broken down again and came
back stronger.” —Noelani
Pantastico, Pacific Northwest
“There is so much anxiety
around the job search,
which is followed by the
‘I got the job!’ moment.
Be sure to celebrate, but
once you climb that initial
mountain, the deeper
work can start. It can take
awhile to get opportunities. Stay open and observant like a sponge. Watch
the people who get the
work.” —Sam Black,
Mark Morris Dance
Let Yourself Enjoy
“Stop constantly criticizing
yourself. You may think you are
working hard by being hard on
yourself, but there is a healthy
balance that includes integrity,
enjoyment and artistic growth.
We get to do what we love. Why
not enjoy it?” —Katherine
Bolaños, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
With Seth Orza