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Classical ballet is one of the most demanding and prestigious forms of dance. A ballet dancer’s career begins early and ends early. A typical dancer goes through years of preparatory training, auditions for job placement, hours of ongoing classes and rehearsals, and harsh physical demands, while experiencing the joys of artistic work and performing on stage. Although the career is brief, when it ends there are new career paths to which it can lead.
Ballet dancers are artists and athletes who must work extraordinarily hard throughout their careers, as the art form is about creating 'perfection' at every level. From a very young age, it requires intense sacrifice, dedication, and discipline. It takes approximately eight to ten years of training to become a professional ballet dancer. Training ideally begins when a student is between the ages of seven and ten. By the time a student is fourteen or fifteen, he will be taking ten to fifteen classes per week. Classes at this stage usually also include partnering and supplemental training in character, modern and other dance forms. Once professional, dancers still take classes almost daily to refine and maintain their technique and stay in top physical form.
By the age of 17 or 18, a typical dancer will have his first audition, either to join or apprentice with a company. Competition is fierce, as there are more dancers than coveted positions available. The hope of a career with one of the world's top ballet companies is limited to very few. The typical ballet dancer joins a less renowned national company or a regional company. Once the dancer’s contract has ended, if not renewed, the dancer needs to audition for another company. This continues throughout a dancer’s career. Employment is often unpredictable, leading many dancers to supplement their incomes with other jobs.
Most dancers begin their professional careers in a company’s corps de ballet. If the dancer is especially talented and skilled, he may be promoted to soloist, and then to principal dancer. If the dancer is extraordinary, he may reach the level that select few reach: prima ballerina, or premier danseur. With far more competition in the more celebrated companies, a dancer often chooses a less prestigious company in order to attain soloist or principal status and to perform the most desirable roles.
A dancer’s life is full of daily classes and rehearsals. A typical work day can start with up to four hours of classes, followed by four to six hours of rehearsal, often concluding with a two-hour evening performance. The ritual starts again the next day. Although dancers usually get a weekend day off from classes, rehearsals and performances run throughout the weekend. Dancers have little time for a social life outside the ballet world.
The rigors of dance take a major toll on the body, giving dancers one of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries. Due to the physical demands, most dancers retire in their thirties. Injuries can halt careers even earlier. Most retired dancers transition to become teachers, choreographers, or ballet administrators, while some advance to become artistic directors or producers.
Kimberly Staemer is the published author of two scholarly books and has been editing and writing on technology, art and culture, and careers since 2000. She holds a Master of Arts in contemporary art and critical theory from UCLA and has taken computer science courses at Columbia University.