8 Lessons I Learned in my First Year as a Professional Dancer

As you may have already seen if you follow me on Instagram, I recently acknowledged my one-year anniversary of working full-time as a freelance professional dancer.

Despite the obvious challenges of starting your arts career in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, I’ve been exceptionally blessed, and I’ve really had some dreams come true this past year.

The highlight for me was being selected to undertake my own residency with Sadler’s Wells as one of my first professional jobs, and I really couldn’t have had a better start than that! I’ve also been involved in a very diverse range of other projects, including research and development workshops, a dance film, a six-month research project, teaching, training and performing. There’s so much more coming up for me and lots more I want to do, but in the meantime, here are 8 massive lessons I’ve learned on this journey so far!

An image taken in the studio at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, which features a black dance floor, mirrored walls and a wooden ballet barre. Dancers Jessica Carter and Carys Staton are dancing in the studio, and are captured side to camera. Jessica is in the foreground, a pale-skinned woman with braided red hair, and both dancers are leaning backwards, faces turned to the ceiling, one arm extended behind and the other to the side in a position of surrender.
Photo by Jake Owens. From the Sadler’s Wells Artist Residency.

1. Dance is a small world

This is something I often heard teachers say during vocational training: “don’t ever have a bad attitude, because dance is a very small world”.

I’m not sure how much a bad attitude can affect your career prospects- although I certainly recommend professionalism as much as possible anyway. I can, however, attest to the fact that dance often feels like SUCH a small world. It’s something at which I continue to marvel at least once a week.

A group of artists are standing together in the all-white studio at Studio Wayne McGregor, posing for a photograph at the conclusion of a day of working together. Five people stand in the back whilst three kneel in front. All are smiling.
Photo by Zbginiew Kotkiewicz. From Audio-Visual-Haptic Screendance by Jo Cork Dance & Digital.

Some real-life examples: I’ve been in a workshop and recognised people I’ve followed on Instagram for a couple of years. Then I’ve spotted them again at other workshops I’ve been on. I’ve been on a big research project with other artists- some of whom I’ve already watched perform and even written about on this blog- and then I’ve been to a residency open class hosted by one of these artists. At that class I met new people and I saw them again when attending classes with Akram Khan company, where I also saw my contemporary teacher, who also works with a choreographer whose piece I danced in during my third year of university. Last week I attended a Dancers Career Development workshop, got chatting to another performer over lunch, and met them again by chance the very next day because they were working in a theatre where I was attending a performance.

I find this interconnectedness very cool. Through people and projects you’re already familiar with, you’re constantly being introduced to new people, new work, and new ideas. It’s incredibly exciting and artistically fulfilling. That leads me on to the next big lesson…

2. Dance is not as cut-throat as it seems in films

Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I trained in classical ballet, but so far I’ve been working predominantly in contemporary dance… but I had a preconceived notion that dance was an extremely competitive industry, and everyone was out for themselves.

Admittedly, it is competitive in a literal sense. There are only a few spots for the big companies that everyone wants to work with, and the competition for those spots is out of this world. It’s so hard to even get an audition, especially in this post-pandemic world when those companies are focused on survival and recovery, and rarely auditioning to take on new dancers. Naturally, in an audition setting, there’s likely to be more of a feeling of competition.

In everyday work, however, I really haven’t experienced that dog-eat-dog attitude. In fact, my experience has been the polar opposite. Something I was surprised by as I started my career is how keen everyone is to make introductions for you. I have had many offers from people more established in the industry to put me in touch with others. If you know someone who has a contact with an artist whose work you love and you’d like the opportunity to be introduced and speak to them, I find that people are always really happy to do that, and in fact, they’re constantly offering. They want to get coffee with you and find out about how your work is going and what you’re up to. They want to offer you tickets to see performances and workshops they think you’d like. When they decline a project or job because they’re fully booked, they pass on the names of other dancers they know might like to work on that piece.

I see dance artists celebrating one another’s successes so genuinely, and it’s really heartwarming. I feel so supported within this industry, and just within this little web of contacts I’ve built in one year, I feel I’ve established some wonderful connections with people who genuinely care about what I’m doing and want to give me opportunities and help me to grow.

A group of dancers are captured in a moment from a dance piece, at the studio at the University of Roehampton, which features a grey dance floor and white wall behind. The dancers are laying on the floor on their sides, stacked on top of one another in a position of supported rest, the contours of their bodies fitting together. On the left of the image lies three dancers one on top of the other, and on the right side two dancers. All are wearing different coloured soft, comfortable looking dance clothes and have their eyes closed peacefully.
Still from rehearsal footage of piece in creation with Emily Robinson Dance at Roehampton University.

3. Freelancers spend A LOT of time applying for work

I felt quite well-prepared for life as a freelancer, because I’ve been doing some freelance work here and there since before university, and my partner has been freelancing as a photographer for years. However when I went full-time, one thing that I simply was not expecting was just how much time you have to spend looking for and applying for work.

Application processes are a MAJOR source of unpaid labour for freelancers. It can feel like your main job is looking for jobs. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a long-term contract that can sustain you as your sole or primary work for that time (for example, being taken on as a freelancer by a company for the creation of a show and a performance tour), you need to find and get jobs. I love doing a lot of short-term or one-off projects because I crave variety in my work, but that means always being on the lookout for opportunities, and constantly putting your name forwards and applying for things. This can range from an email with your CV, photos and showreel link, to application forms that can be fairly brief or crazily in-depth and restrictive, cover letters and expressions of interest, Zoom interviews, self-tapes, reference letters… I’ve even seen jobs advertised that required applicants to learn choreography to send in as a video, alongside an improvisation video, as well as a letter of interest and the rest of the application requirements. This is all before you even get to audition. It’s possible to go through a very extensive application process and even travel to attend an audition and then ultimately not get selected, and even though the audition might prove to be good experience if you make it that far, you’ve already invested hours of unpaid labour, and very rarely receive feedback on unsuccessful applications.

One of the projects I worked on this year actually involved creating a research report on unpaid labour amongst freelance creatives in London (obviously this applies to freelancers everywhere but this report concerned the city) and I call emphatically on organisations to think about this when designing application processes. In the meantime, I think it’s just important for those embarking on a freelance career to understand that often the largest part of your work hours can be sitting at your desk filling in applications!

A picture of Jessica, a pale-skinned, red-haired woman, sitting at her desk at home. A Macbook is open in front of her in the foreground of the image. Behind her is visible par of a sloping ceiling a fan and another desk.
Photo of myself working from home.

4. A lot of work also finds you

Something that can offset the problem of perpetually having to apply for work in a competitive market is the fact that once you’re out there in the professional arena, a lot of work can come to you with little to no effort on your part. As I mentioned above, when you begin to grow your network, you may find that others are offered opportunities that they have to turn down, and might pass your name on for these opportunities. Other times, you may be re-hired by the same company or creative team when they embark on a new project. Getting your work out there also gives you a certain level of exposure, and you never know who might be looking for a dancer just like you!

For example, I worked on the project Creative Freelancers: Shaping London’s Recovery. This is the research project I’ve mentioned above, so I wasn’t actually dancing, but essentially working with a number of other freelancers and many arts organisations to consult to the Mayor of London’s office and Greater London Authority on how to make working conditions better for freelancers post-pandemic. I remember that this application process was a bit of a pain. The application form was long and asked tricky questions but allowed a really limited word count for the answers, and then the second round was a self-taped video, so I ended up spending loads of time on the application, and I was lucky that this time was rewarded. However, from this one project I also got other work. I got a one-off job creating and delivering a presentation at the AGM of STAMP (Supporting Theatre Artists and Makers of Performance). Then I got involved with Step Change Studios when the director saw my bio on the CF:SLR newsletter. She reached out to me on social media, then we spoke on the phone, and from there I was hired to dance in a professional dance film on the project Conversations with Carers. Through this company I have also been given the opportunity to judge a dance competition with the London Youth Games- that’s coming up later this month. I didn’t have to fill in additional applications for any of this work, so it all stemmed from that initial time investment in one application form almost a year ago now (as well as the original job which was 5 months of well-paid, interesting work, and massively expanding my network by working with multiple arts organisations and 49 other freelance creatives).

Looking back on my year, a lot of my most exciting and fulfilling work came to me without me having to seek it out and apply for it. Therefore in the year to come, I will be focusing my energy towards only applying for opportunities that I feel most aligned to and that genuinely really excite me, and to allow more to flow to me instead of chasing work quite so much.

A still from a dance film which shows Jessica, a pale-skinned red-haired woman, dancing in an apparently empty auditorium. The camera is behind her as she takes a jump in an arabesque position, arms outstretched in flight. Jessica wears an olive-green smock dress with black tights and bare feet, and the auditorium is dimly lit. Rows of empty red seats are visible, lit by a spotlight, and there are thin vertical bars of red and yellow lights on the wall to the left of the image.
Still from the dance film ‘Release’, part of the ‘Conversations With Carers’ project by Step Change Studios. Directed by Dan Lowenstein.

5. I’ve really got no idea how much the dance landscape has changed

Relating to the above point about looking for work- I’ve found myself wondering a lot over the past year, are work opportunities so scarce because of the competitive nature of the industry, or because of the pandemic? I graduated in July 2020, so I really don’t have a clue what the professional dance industry was like before that time. I feel that over the past year that I’ve been working, very few company contracts have been available, and when they have become available, the number of applications has been absolutely insane. Most of the work I’ve seen advertised is for smaller one-off projects, pieces in the research and development stages, or sometimes (more recently) companies looking to replace just one dancer before taking a work on tour. Even more common are programmes being advertised as professional opportunities that actually you have to PAY to participate in and perform to ticket-paying audiences for free!

There are certainly plenty of jobs going out there that aren’t publicly advertised, so you only find out about these if you happen to know someone who knows about them, but generally, it feels to me that there haven’t been that many opportunities going for dance work. I’ve been lucky with how much I’ve worked for my first year out of university, but it has been mostly short-term or one-off projects, supplemented by research and consulting work and teaching. I imagine that there is less work out there because of the impact of the pandemic, and I hope that will continue to improve as the performance industry recovers, but I’m really unaware of how things were before. Maybe that’s a good thing, because this is the way that the industry is right now, and I’m managing to navigate my way through that.

Jessica, a pale-skinned red-haired woman, is stretching in a dance studio. The studio features white walls, a wooden barre, large windows and a cool natural light. Jessica is standing next to a window gazing out of it with one leg on the barre. She wears an orange-peach leotard, pink ballet tights, and pointe shoes.
Photo by Jake Owens.
A selfie taken by Jessica, a pale-skinned, red-haired woman, after a dance workshop in a temporary dance studio at Here East in London with bare grey breeze-block walls and a black dance floor. She is wearing thick socks, leggings, a black and white striped top and a mask. She is stretching in a 'frog' or 'butterfly' position whilst holding the camera.
Photo from the RESET programme with Company Wayne McGregor.

6. You need support to get started

And I don’t just mean emotional or practical support (although those things are important too)- I mean FINANCIAL support. It’s not easy to go straight from training into a freelance career and be able to support yourself immediately. I am lucky in two ways- firstly, in that I’ve worked and earned money every single month in the past year, which isn’t always necessarily the case if you’re just getting started, and secondly, I have a partner whose income can support us both. This is important because I’m not a young recent graduate living at home. I went to uni as a mature student, and started my career at 28, so we have a home, and a dog to feed, and a lifestyle to support. Many recent graduates live at home, so whilst their parents might expect them to contribute financially, they can at least be reassured that they won’t get kicked out or go hungry if they have a period where work is less forthcoming. For others, they might want to take on another job so they have the financial security of a guaranteed income while they build their work portfolio. I’m not saying you can’t go straight into it and be successful at supporting yourself from the off. You definitely can, especially if you’re creatively business-minded and/ or really talented and likely to get a lot of auditions and get offers of longer-term contracts. I just think that most people tend to do better if they don’t have the pressure of knowing that they could get evicted or go hungry if they don’t book enough work. Having another income has meant that this year I haven’t had to take on any work that I didn’t really want to do just for some money, I haven’t had to divide my energy between dance and another part-time job, and I have had the mental freedom to focus on doing what I need to do to grow as a dancer and an artist (I worked nights in bars throughout my days at ballet school and beyond, so I really understand the value of being free to just focus on dance now). Without that second household income, those months that I’ve had less work would have been more of a struggle, and I probably would have needed to supplement my dance work with some other work.

Choosing whether to go straight in to freelancing full-time or whether to supplement your income with other work outside of dance is a big decision and I think it’s very dependent on your own personal circumstances, as well as on what kind of work is potentially on offer for you, and also your own comfort level with not having a predictable income. Naturally there’s a whole conversation to be had here about how starting a freelance arts career is inaccessible for so many, and some practices (like expecting artists to work for free or for low pay to build up their portfolio) perpetuate existing inequalities in the arts- but that’s a whole other blog post! I just want to take space here to acknowledge that there is a big financial aspect to starting your freelance arts career, and for many people it’s a gradual process of building up enough work to freelance full-time in the arts.

A still from a dance film taken at the dance science lab at Trinity Laban. Jessica, a pale-skinned, red-haired woman, sits talking to two dance science students, surrounded by exercise equipment.
Still from the video POP Taster Screening by Trinity Laban Dance Science & One Dance UK.

7. But this career can also bring ultimate freedom

There are definite barriers to getting started in a career as a freelancer, but once you’ve established if this lifestyle is for you and got going with it, there is so much freedom to be had in working this way. You choose the type of work you do- which allows you to focus only on the one thing that you enjoy the most, for example performing, or you can combine your passions. For example you can have a career as a performer or choreographer and combine this with teaching, writing, dramaturgy, producing, fundraising, consulting, accessibility and inclusion work, charity work, working across different dance styles or different disciplines like music, theatre, etc. If you are creative enough, you can get as specific as you want with this, and find ways to combine dance with any other passion you have, like coding, or photography, or travel, or science, or horses (these are real examples by the way). You also choose where you work from, how much you want to charge for your work (or are willing to accept), and what days and hours you want to work. I revel in taking Mondays off!

Something that I really prize is variety, so I love being in the studio rehearsing one day, working from home from my laptop the next, teaching, taking class, attending workshops and performances, doing filming days or photoshoots- that’s ideal for me and I love that I’ve been able to do so many diverse things with my working time so far. Other people might hate reading and writing and Zoom meetings and only want to work in the studio or on stage as much as possible- you can design your work in that way also. Whatever you want to do, you can do. Freelance work comes with a certain amount of insecurity, and a lot of responsibility, but I think especially for creative people, the freedom is a huge payoff for all of that.

Two children of around four years old are dancing in a studio which has a dark dance floor, mirrored walls and a wooden ballet barre. The image is taken from behind and their faces in the mirror are obscured for privacy. The girls are wearing pink ballet attire and hold a scarf in each hand, and they are captured dancing freely.
Photo from the free movement section at the end of a ballet class taught by me for young children.

8. You don’t need permission, and you’re probably already ready

This is the number one biggest thing that I’ve learned. You don’t need to wait for someone to give you a job, to tell you you’re ready for your professional career, to decide if you “have it” or not, to give you a degree certificate or other qualification, or otherwise give you permission. You can literally just get out there and do it!

I mean, I graduated university and I thought “it’s time for me to start my professional career” and I just… started doing it. I just started doing dance as my job. And what I realised is, that I didn’t necessarily need to wait until I’d graduated to start doing a lot of what I was doing. Especially if you’re going into freelance work, and not looking for a salaried job or company contract. I could have started doing this while I was studying and training, and I didn’t need to go to university at all to be able to have this career. I still think that going to university was the best choice for me personally to grow as an artist, but it’s definitely not a requisite to having a professional career. Just apply for something that you have availability to do, or start working on your own project and think about putting in a funding application to bring it to life.

I do wish that I had realised this sooner. In dance in particular, we tie a lot of meaning to the label of “professional”. What we usually think is that “professional” refers to the highest possible skill level. Whilst this is true to an extent, the literal meaning of a professional dancer is that you dance as your job. It’s possible to be the most amazingly talented dancer in the world and not be a professional because you don’t want that to be your job- for some people, the pressure of having to dance for work might spoil their enjoyment of it. It’s also possible to be a professional at whatever standard you’re at now. Even if you don’t feel ready to work as a dancer or performer, there are so many other things that you can start doing right now, and that’s so much fun. Think of a project or idea you’d love to bring to life, and just take the first step to start working on it, and then watch it grow. I really encourage people to start getting out there with whatever skills, talents, resources and time they have available to them at this very moment, because the best thing you can do is just get started.

I waited so many years to have permission to start my professional career, only to realise that I could have been doing it all along. Although I love the way that things have unfolded for me and I really value how I’ve grown along the journey, I wish I’d known how easy it was to make a career out of dance. I was in the dark about all of this, so I’m telling you now so that you don’t have to be. I’m not saying that you should rush into professional work- by all means, fully embrace and enjoy every step of your training and dance journey. But I’m sure there are things that in an ideal world, you’d love to be out there doing and working on, so don’t wait, start following your joy and your creativity. There’s no telling where it could lead you!

A picture taken in the dance studio at Studio Wayne McGregor, which has an all-white wall and floor, but in this image is strongly lit with a pink light. Jessica is captured in motion improvising, with one arm curved overhead and the other bent at her side. Jo Cork is standing beside her filming with a camera on a Gimbal.
Photo by Zbginiew Kotkiewicz. From Audio-Visual-Haptic Screendance by Jo Cork Dance & Digital.
A still from a dance film in which Jessica, a pale-skinned, red-haired woman wearing a green smock dress, is sitting in an otherwise empty auditorium amongst rows of red seats. The scene is dark but lit in the centre by a spotlight. Jessica is looking upwards and stretching both arms away from her body, crossed at the wrist, fingers splayed with tension. In the background, thin vertical strips of red and yellow light adorn a black wall.
Still from the dance film ‘Release’, part of the ‘Conversations With Carers’ project by Step Change Studios. Directed by Dan Lowenstein.
An image taken in the studio at Sadler's Wells Theatre, which features a black dance floor, a mirrored wall and a very large window, and wooden ballet barres. Jessica, a pale-skinned, red-haired woman, is captured from the side partially lit, partially in shadow, from the waist upwards. Her hands are raised above her face with the fingers stretched gently, one hand resting against the other. She leans back slightly, her hair in a ponytail swinging behind.
Photo by Jake Owens. From the Sadler’s Wells Artist Residency.

That’s all for now,

Jessica x

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