What I Wish I Knew Before Pursuing a Dance Career in NYC
I always knew that dance was going to be a part of my life. There was no question in my mind. Growing up, my dance teachers didn’t necessarily encourage me to pursue a performance career. I don’t think they believed I could have success in that way, although they knew I was passionate about dance. Since I didn’t think performing was going to be a realistic goal for me, I gave up on what seemed like a “childish” dream of becoming a professional dancer, and decided it was my plan to open my own dance studio after going to college, something that seemed “stable” and “secure”. I loved teaching and choreographing, and the business side and inner workings of running a dance studio always interested me. From planning dance recital running orders, to picking out costumes, to designing the class schedule, I always thought “I can do this, I have a knack for this, and I want to be in charge someday.” The other main reason I didn’t want to actively chase a performance career was that I knew I wanted that stability. I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck.
Fast forward a couple of decades to today, and somehow I have been fortunate enough to have a career as a professional dancer, master teacher, choreographer, and adjudicator for over a decade. I still feel like I just blinked and suddenly ten years have flown by as I’ve been able to travel the country, the world, even the oceans, doing what I love.
Although I have somehow been able to “make it work” through my career thus far, there are so many things that I have learned along this journey that I wish I knew before pursuing a career in dance and also moving to New York City - one of the biggest dance and performance cities in the world!
When you are first starting out, say YES to every opportunity. Pre-production with a choreographer you love, TV/Film, independent short films, dance videos, music videos, cabarets, and concerts. Even if you don’t get paid the big bucks right away, saying yes to new experiences is a valuable way for you to grow, learn new things about the industry, keep your performance/rehearsal mind in shape, and NETWORK (another incredibly important component of life as a professional dancer). You truly never know who you work with in the beginning or throughout your career that will end up being on the “other side of the table” someday!
DON’T BURN BRIDGES
You will work with many people along your professional journey and it is important to always put your best foot forward and make a positive impression because you never know when someone will ask for a reference of you and your work ethic, skills, and professionalism. I have also found from experience that people who like working with you will hire you again and again - maintain and nurture those connections.
GET YOUR FACE OUT THERE
Going along with the above sentiment of saying “yes”, when you first move to the big apple, go to every audition you think you have any shot at being right for. I say this from experience for a few reasons:
1. The more you practice auditioning the easier it gets. It’s like stretching and strengthening a muscle you want to become more flexible or strong. Auditioning is also a muscle that you need to work on. It will help your nerves, your ability to pick up choreography quickly, and your ability to sing your 16 bar cut more confidently. You will put less pressure on the audition if it seems like less of a “big deal”, and then you will be more likely to do your best!
2. Casting directors and choreographers will begin to recognize you. I have booked jobs because casting directors have seen my improvement and growth. If they see you put the work in, it shows your strong work ethic, determination, and drive. People want to work with performers like that!
3. It is a FREE DANCE CLASS! I love taking classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, but at over $20 a class, I can’t always afford to take as much class as I would like. This leads me to my next point:
Treat every CLASS like an AUDITION, and treat every AUDITION like a CLASS!
This will not only help you grow in many ways as a performer and a dancer, but it will also prepare you and keep you always pushing yourself to be your best, AND save you money! (because in NYC, your rent and food will be a lot to budget for on its own).
NO’S LEAD TO YES’S
Rejection is part of the business. The important thing is to KEEP PERSISTING through it, learn from the experiences that led to the “no’s”, try your best not to take it personally (because truly, most of the time, it isn’t about YOU), and use it as motivation to lead you on to your eventual “yes”, because if you keep pushing past the rejection, the “yes” WILL come! You may get 20 “no’s” before your “yes” comes, and that’s normal. Keep showing up, putting in the work, getting your face out there, and letting casting directors and choreographers see you again.
SELF PROMOTION, BRANDING, REELS
You should work on creating your "brand" and how you want to come across. Develop your "look" and fuse that into all of your social media platforms, like Instagram. Build a website (I recommend easy-to-use ones like WIX or Square Space) that casting directors or anyone interested in you can easily navigate and find the basics: your resume, headshot, and dance reel. Yes, make a DANCE REELl! You can do it yourself on a program like iMovie or Final Cut Pro, or hire someone to do it. It is helpful for submissions and you can book jobs just off your dance reel sometimes if you can't attend an audition in person. Even sometimes, they will decide if you will be seen at an audition based on your dance reel. A two or three minute reel is the perfect length to show your essence and skills!
Dance classes, voice lessons, acting classes, they all are so important to keep working on your craft and versatility, especially in NYC where the theatre scene is so strong. I wish to myself every day that I had taken more voice lessons and done more theatre/drama club/community theatre growing up. Have at least one or two 16 bar cuts of a song to sing that you feel really strong with, and then continue to build a book of repertoire with different kinds of music for different kinds of shows you’ll go in for. Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway, and Peridance are just a few studios that offer walk-in dance classes. Keep an eye out for other less expensive classes like Broadway Donation and Think Tank. When looking for a voice teacher, reach out to friends in NYC who can connect you, or keep an eye out for posting on Playbill.com. There are also audition workshops that are often a bit pricey but usually valuable to help you get in front of casting directors and specific choreographers or directors that are offered through The Growing Studio, Open Jar Studios, Save My Audition, Actor’s Connection, and more.
Speaking of auditions: WHERE DO YOU FIND AUDITIONS?
I always recommend Answers4Dancers for any dancer who is fresh to begin their dance career journey. It is a subscription-based website with weekly audition blasts and a constantly updated audition calendar that’s easy to read and navigate. It also has tons of resources about creating a dance reel, connecting with agents, a forum to connect with other auditioning dancers, and general advice that you may find helpful as you begin your dance career. I also recommend Playbill (free), Backstage (subscription), and Broadway World (free) for finding most auditions. Another great source is Actors Access (free) for self submissions for specific projects and even extra work for TV/Film or other music videos, workshops, or side gigs.
It's not 100% necessary to have an agent, but it can definitely be helpful to get you audition appointments and get you into auditions you were able to be seen at. Keep submitting and networking to help this happen. Research the agencies you're interested in, submit your materials, and find one you connect with. If you have friends who can refer you, that is helpful, or if you are in a show in the city they can come to see you in, invite them and give them tickets.
TRUST THE TIMING
Sometimes it isn’t your time and you won’t know why, but if you keep putting in the work and putting yourself out there, it will happen when the time is right for you! I know that’s an annoying thing to hear sometimes, but it is true. Many times you could give the best audition in the room, but the show only needs a 5’10’’ blonde to fit the costume and the wigs, and you’re a 5’3’’ brunette. It can, and often times does come down to things like that, not your talent or ability. Remember when I said most of the time it’s not YOU - I meant it!
KNOW YOUR TYPE AND EMBRACE IT.
Although “type-casting” is less strict nowadays, it is important for you to market and brand yourself in the way that will work best for you, and to go in for those auditions that you “fit”. I am personally “ethnically ambiguous”, so I’ve been fortunate to play a plethora of different ethnicities and “types”, but there are some cases when I haven’t been right for certain shows because of it and that’s okay. However, as soon as I started embracing what I naturally exude and auditioned for shows that I clearly “fit in” to in this world, I found more success. It’s not just your ethnicity, it’s your vibe and skills! Are you edgy or more conservative? Are you more of a ballerina or a hoofer? Get in touch with your vibe and your look and place yourself in the audition rooms for shows that you truly can visualize yourself in.
STORYTELLING STANDS OUT.
Sometimes you can get wrapped up in the steps, the technique, the audition outfit, the resumé, or the other people in the room with you, but what it really comes down to is how you are at telling the story the choreographer or director is asking you to tell. Classes and auditions are the time to work on your storytelling skills - that’s what stands out! And you don’t want to wait until you have the steps perfectly to do it. Start implementing it right away so it’s most organic and incorporated within your movement and performance, not a layer you throw on last minute.
Have a STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM
Family, friends, other auditioning dancer friends, people outside of the business. Have people who know what you are pursuing is not easy and have your back when you need them, will give you their shoulder to cry on, or their couch to sleep on when you have an unexpected callback. The emotional rollercoaster of a professional dancer is upside down, loops, sudden drops, crazy heights. You need people who will be there for you to encourage you and support the pursuit of your dreams, even when it’s hard. Fellow auditioners and friends in the city will be there to keep your spirits up in audition holding rooms, will hold your spot in line, will lend you their stapler and scissors to cut your resumé, will sign you up on the list at 6:00 am, and will even lend you their tap shoes when you forgot yours even if they got cut before you. Don’t treat everyone like your “competition”, treat them like your friends and how you would want to be treated. I promise you that goodness, positivity, and helpfulness will ALWAYS come back to you somehow.
Find a SAFE SPACE and carve out time to do what makes you happy.
Creating, choreographing, getting rush tickets or seeing shows for inspiration and research, going to free museums, walking with friends through Central Park. Do something that doesn’t have to do with auditioning or hustling. That’s part of BALANCE! (something I still strive for within my crazy, hectic life in NYC.. Take a moment to slow down every once in a while, it helps reevaluate where you are in your journey and what you have to do to stay on your path toward your goals. It even helps you decide if its time to change your path or take an alternate route to where you want to end up.
ENJOY YOUR SIDE HUSTLE
There are many ways to make ends meet (although you will usually need to have a few side hustles to do that) like babysitting, catering, coat check, hosting or waiting at a restaurant. And although those things are valid, you should strive to find something that will not only help you pay the bills but also bring you happiness and/or fulfillment. This could be teaching dance (people often take a short commute to teach at studios in the tri-state area), teach at a fitness studio, after school dance programs, or even event photography/videography.
Some other things I want to mention but won’t go as in-depth:
BE PREPARED: always bring your shoes, your audition song book, your headshot and resumé (cut 8x10 and stapled back-to-back), your audition clothes, sometimes a change of clothes for a singing callback, a stapler, scissors, a phone charger, a protein bar/snack.
RESEARCH: The choreographer, the director, the show you’re going in for, the parts or ensembles you feel you are right fo. Know what kind of movement they will want from you (ballet, tap, hip-hop, traditional jazz, contemporary), YouTube and Google everything you can about a show before the audition. The more prepared you are, the better.
Get enough SLEEP.
ROOMMATES: live with friends who’s lifestyles and schedules vibe with yours.
Don’t take too much “stuff” when you first move to the city: you may be moving from sublet to sublet for the first year or two (or more, if you keep booking jobs like a tour or a cruise ship that take you out of the city for a while)
AUDITION WEAR: take note of current audition clothing trends, but in the end, wear what makes you feel most confident, comfortable, and is flattering and appropriate for the show or job you are auditioning for. And don't forget - always bring ALL your shoes (heels, flats, taps, sneakers).
RENT IS EXPENSIVE: Come to the city with at least three months worth of rent so you can find a side job to help you pay for everything else (food, dance classes, subway card, headshots, voice lessons, etc.)
HEADSHOTS/DANCE SHOTS: Invest in a good headshot that captures your essence and personality. There are many resources, and a listing of expensive headshot photographers on Reproductions website, but I would actually recommend researching and finding the style of photographer you like via Instagram or friends who have headshots you see and love! Dance shots are helpful for social media content, website building, and submissions.
RESUME: Always cut 8x10 stapled to your headshot. Keep it clean and organized, and have a mentor or professional proof it for you.
USE YOUR NETWORK and ask smart questions.
PATIENCE. Your time will come if you put in the work.
It is HARD. It is WORTH IT.
YOU’RE NOT IN THIS ALONE. Not at all, not ever.
Rachel Perlman is a professional dancer, master teacher, choreographer, adjudicator, and fitness instructor based in NYC. She's toured nationally and internationally with "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat", "The Aluminum Show", and "Grease" (as Cha Cha) on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. She performed in the regional premiers of "The Prince of Egypt", "Cinderella", and "Matilda" at Tuacahn Amphitheater, and has performed at top regional theatres across the country in over 20 musicals including "West Side Story", "Mary Poppins", "Chicago", "Oklahoma", and "42nd Street". She traveled to all 7 continents while performing and serving as Dance Captain on Holland America Cruise Line. Her choreography for competition teams has won "outstanding choreography" awards, top honors, and overall high scores. She is a choreographer and master teacher for conventions and theatre programs around the country and loves sharing her passion for dance and helping aspiring young performers work toward their dreams.
Photo credit: EJC Media and RMHunt Photography