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Making the transition from student to professional – A commercial dance perspective

By Kym King of Dance Informa.

For recent graduates of full-time dance training, there are some key factors that can help navigate the transition to finding work in the commercial dance sector. To succeed, aside from having talent and a passion for what you do, you will need to be self-motivated, persistent, present yourself impeccably (both personally and in terms of your marketing materials) and take a professional approach in all situations.

Jackie Scott is the director and a dance teacher at Jason Coleman’s Ministry of Dance. She says that because competition is fierce in the industry, her priority is to prepare students to be as ready as possible for becoming a professional.

Scott says, “My best advice to graduates is to work hard, be the very best they possibly can and to be liked. It’s much easier to survive in this industry if you are well liked by your peers and professionals and have a reputation of working hard and making the most of every opportunity.”

Scott also believes that one of the biggest challenges that dancers face is keeping motivated and getting to class. She says, “It’s vital to stay connected when you have just graduated from full-time dance training. Work may not come along for a while, but it’s important to keep your face out there and remind teachers, agents and other dancers that you are there and committed.”

Dance teacher Jackie Sherren Scott

Jackie Scott

When performance opportunities don’t come quickly, this means dancers sometimes need to take on other forms of casual employment to pay the bills. For many, this means work in hospitality or teaching. But whatever you do, having the flexibility to get to classes and auditions is essential so that you can be as fit and ready for work as possible.

Finding an agent is a high priority for most graduates; in particular, because there are many jobs that only agents hear about and because they can negotiate payment and contract agreements. The best way to find out what agencies are out there and which might best suit you is to talk to dance teachers and dancers currently working in the industry. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has a list of useful questions to ask prospective agents (as well as a list of agents by state, although you will need to do a little research into which ones represent dancers.)

It’s important to have a good understanding of your strengths in terms of skills, talents and style so that you can find an agent who will be interested in what you have to offer. Research the range of work that is out there and what interests you, including musicals, cruise ship shows and corporate events. Some agents attract a variety of work and others specialise in one or two areas, so make sure they have a reputation for getting the type of work you’re interested in. Perhaps above all, it’s important to feel you can have a good relationship and trust any agent you sign up with. (For more information on finding an agent and what agents are looking for, see “Dance Agents –Do you need one? How can an agent help you?”)

Keep in mind that it is sometimes difficult to find an agent until you have some experience. If you don’t find an agent immediately there are still open calls for theme parks such as Disneyland, cruise ships such as Royal Caribbean, and shows such as Cirque Du Soleil. Each of these organisations have their own website with audition information. Dance Informa also lists cruise ship, theme park and variety show auditions and opportunities. Ensure that you are a member of the MEAA and have them look over your contract before signing.

Auditions are a big part of a dancer’s life so it’s vital to cultivate a positive attitude and develop a thick skin to cope with the fact that you won’t always get the job. But keep in mind that each audition you attend is an opportunity to show what you can do, whether or not you get the job. If you aren’t right for the job this time, make sure you impress someone enough for a job in the future.

Performer Stefanie De Castro

Stefanie De Castro

Stefanie De Castro

Performer Stefanie De Castro recently finished back-to-back Australian tours of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Grease. Her first professional dance contract was with P & O cruises and came as she was about to complete her full-time dance training with Robert Sturrock’s Industry Dance Studio in Melbourne.

She believes contracts, such as P & O, “are great to start out with for a first job in the industry.” She says, “They’re fun, usually involve some great travel, and you learn loads and loads about working professionally. At the same time, you gain experience to put on your resume.”

De Castro was also lucky that when she attended an open call for P & O Cruises the audition was run by an agency who consequently offered to represent her. She is currently represented by Emma Raciti Management.

De Castro says there are also more casual performing jobs, such as corporate gigs, which are great when you are just starting out because they ‘”keep you enthused and inspired to perform.” She shares, “For example, I used to do regular gigs as a backup dancer in a tribute show. There are also kids’ shows, which are a lot of fun and great experience. I sometimes perform in Nickelodeon’ s Dora The Explorer live stage shows.” 

In between contracts, De Castro has previously worked in hospitality and promotional modelling, and she currently teaches dance, is a personal trainer and a Zumba Fitness Instructor. “I find that not only do I enjoy these jobs, but they also keep me active, motivated and in good fitness, which is obviously a great benefit as a dancer,” she says.

De Castro’s advice to new graduates is to use each audition as a learning experience in terms of working out what works best for you. She says, “Always ask yourself what you can improve on from the experience that will help you get closer to getting the job next time.”

For the full interview with Stefanie De Castro, head to www.kymkingcareers.com.

Performer Samm Hagen

Samm Hagen

Samm Hagen

Samm Hagen trained at Brent Street in Sydney from the age of eight, later going on to join the full-time school for her secondary years. In year 12, she was offered her first dance contract in the cast of Rock of Ages and was subsequently offered a contract in the musical King Kong. She is currently represented by T & E Management.

Although she had a year in between contracts, Hagen spent most of it recovering from a knee injury. She now considers it essential to save money and her advice to graduates is: “As soon as you get a pay check, start saving some of it. You’re going to need some kind of financial support to keep furthering your dance career. If there’s no money there, what happens if you get injured? What happens if you want to go and work overseas? If the money’s not there to support you, you’re going to struggle.”

While she is one of the lucky ones who found work straight out of full-time training, Hagen advises graduates looking for work to not give up. She says, “After most students graduate, they expect to be getting work straight away and be working all the time. But most of the time, that isn’t the case. You’ve got to be really proactive about it. Call your agent; ask them to send you for anything. You never know who’s going to be at that audition. I’ve been hired for a job before because the choreographer saw me dance at an audition, and thought I’d be right for his next job.”

Sam Marks

Sam Marks trained full-time at Conroy Performing Arts in Brisbane and has recently returned from a tour of Dubai and Paris with Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs. His first break as a dancer came at the end of his full-time year when he was cast in the Asian tour of Cats at age 17.

Dancer Sam Marks

Sam Marks

While Marks hasn’t ever been out of work for long, he believes it’s essential that graduates should have a “Plan B” and even a “Plan C” for the times in between contracts when you still need to survive.

Marks says, “That’s not to say you shouldn’t give everything you have to your dance education and career, but there will most definitely be hard times, and if you can be as prepared as possible for those times, that will minimise the effect it has on your lifestyle, your motivation and ultimately, your passion for dance.”

Marks continues, “At one point in my career when I was between shows, I worked on the desk at stage door of The Capitol Theatre, as a bartender/DJ at a club and taught dancing all over Sydney – all at the same time, just to pay the bills.”

While he waits to tour Hong Kong and Singapore with Tap Dogs, he is currently fence building and is a direct sales agent for Seacret, a high-end skincare company.

Another piece of advice Marks offers graduates is to have respect for and learn as much as you can from more experienced dancers whom you might work with. It was an older, more experienced cast member of Cats that put him in touch with his first agent. He is currently represented by Grayboy the Agency.

Writer Kym KingKym King (Professional Member CDAA) Grad Cert. Career Development and Education (RMIT), Grad. Dip. Psychological Studies (Deakin), MA Contemporary Dance (London Contemporary Dance School). Kym is a career counsellor and former dancer. As a dancer, teacher, and arts administrator, Kym has worked in the U.S., the UK and Australia. As a career counsellor, she has her own business and specialises in working with dancers, physical performers and creative people of all types. Based in Melbourne, she also conducts individual career advice session by phone and Skype. She can be reached at kmki2167@gmail.com


Photo (top): Samm Hagen with Kong in the musical King Kong.

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