Dance Advice

Planting the Seeds of your Career: 15 tips for tertiary dance students and new graduates

So you have been accepted into a tertiary dance program, or you’re about to graduate. Maybe you’ve even just graduated. Perhaps you think this means you’re on the inevitable path to becoming a dancer. Or maybe you’re not thinking that far ahead at all, and you are just excited about the prospect of dancing every day.

The grim reality for dancers is that of those who graduate from a tertiary dance course, only a small number end up in gainful employment that is related to dance, and even fewer end up being employed full time as a dancer in a company. 

No matter where you are on the journey from commencing to completing a tertiary dance course, there are quite a few things you can do to increase your chances of a fulfilling career post-graduation.

Know where you are going

1. Be clear about what you want to do when you graduate.

It is only when you know where you want to go that you can map out a path to get there. There are all sorts of careers that dancers end up in after they have completed their training. Do you want to be a performer, part of a large company, a small company, a freelance/independent artist? Do you want to stay in your home state, Australia, or head overseas? Do you want to become a choreographer, a performer, or an educator? Do you want to work in commercial dance or in the subsidised sector?

2. Have a Plan B, and C, and so on.

Even if you decide that you want to pursue a particular path, you may find that you are not successful in that endeavour. That’s okay. As John Lennon famously put it, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” This doesn’t mean you don’t have a plan; it just means that you need to be prepared when things don’t go according to plan, and you need to be flexible and resilient enough to take up the opportunities that arise, even if they are not what you expected.

3. Know what you will not do.

While you’ll need to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that arise, and to shift paths if you find that you don’t enjoy the path you originally chose, you also need to be clear on what you don’t want to do. In other words, what are your deal breakers? These are things you are not prepared to do because you know that they breach your values, or will take you in the opposite direction to the one you want.

Make connections

Whether you’ve decided where you are going, or you are still gathering the information you need to map your career plan, you’ll need to connect with others.

4. Reach out to your dance heroes.

There might be dancers or choreographers in your city whom you admire, and even idolise. It might seem like you’d have no chance to connect with these people, and that there’s no reason they’d give their time to you. But you’d be surprised how readily most people are to share their experience, offer advice, and put you in touch with other people, if you just ask. You can probably find them on Twitter, Facebook or just Google them to find a contact email.

If you can find an email address, it’s easy to send a message to tell them that you admire them and love their work, and to offer to buy them a coffee if they are able to catch up with you. If you don’t get a response straight away, don’t give up. If you don’t hear back, try again in a week or two. Be careful not to pester, but a couple of attempts is fine. 

5. Go to industry events, workshops and performances.

You may not be able to afford to go to the more expensive, high-profile performances if you are a student, but there are always plenty of dance performances that are affordable. You could also join some of the organisations that exist specifically to make performing arts more affordable for young people. In South Australia, we have the GreenRoom, an initiative of the Adelaide Festival Centre, and TREv (Tickets, Reviews, Events – formerly Fringe Benefits) which both offer 18-30 year-olds cheap tickets, invitations to special events and workshops, and great networking opportunities.

6. Network.

It’s not enough just to go to events, workshops and performances. You also need to talk to people while you are there. This is really all that networking is; although it’s even more effective if you exchange contact details with people you meet and follow up with them afterward. Some easy tips for being an effective networker are:

  • simply talk to people
  • have a way to share your contact details, like a business card, or use a social media account to send a contact request
  • follow up after you’ve met someone to let them know it was great to meet them and suggest catching up again

Use initiative

7. Be a leader.

Don’t wait for permission to be a leader. Anyone can be the one to take the initiative. You simply need to recognise that you’re allowed to do your own thing, and make things happen. If you don’t do it, there may not be anyone else who does it for you. Why not get together a group of your peers and organise a group to go to a networking event or performance? Or you could gather your peers to put on a performance of your own. 

8. Support others.

While it’s important to be a leader and show initiative, you also need to support others. People will be willing to support you if you offer them authentic support. This means things like going to performances, attending events, and making genuine offers of support to others. If you have a mindset of always looking for a way to offer help to others, you’ll find that others are willing to offer you help in return. This doesn’t mean you need to run yourself ragged doing things for other people, but it does mean doing those small things that can help, like getting a group together to see a friend’s show, sharing their posts on social media, or putting up a poster for them in a place that’s easy and convenient for you to do so.

9. Look after your own training.

While you’re in a tertiary dance course, you have regular classes at your fingertips, and it is easy to maintain and improve your technique and fitness. You have your teachers holding you accountable and making sure you show up and put in the effort. But once you graduate, there will be no one who cares about your training, unless you are lucky enough to get into a company, of course. So it will be up to you to maintain both your fitness and technique, and to continue to develop your artistic practice. This means you’ll need a regular training program, which may include gym, or running, or some other physical activity in addition to dance classes.  And, of course, it means you still need to go to class to keep up your technique. Check out whether there are classes at a local dance company or your state’s Ausdance branch. In South Australia, for example, there are classes at Australian Dance TheatreLeigh Warren and Dancers, and Move Through Life. You can join the community classes, or request an invitation to take class with the company. Don’t be shy. It never hurts to ask. And if you find it difficult to do this by phone or in person, just send an email.

Even while you’re still in your tertiary course, it’s a good idea to take up the opportunity to participate in special masterclasses or workshops that might be on offer. So find out who the people are in your area who organise these kinds of things. If you find that there is no one, refer to Number 7 – take the initiative and organise something yourself. You can get together with a group of peers and either co-teach, or pool your money to pay for a venue and a teacher. You can even apply for grant funding to bring someone into your area to run something. Make contact with your state arts ministry or regional arts agency to find out about grant funding. In South Australia, these are Arts SA and Country Arts SA.

Build your personal brand

The word “branding” may sound scary, like it’s a complex marketing term that you don’t understand. Or you may have the opinion that by thinking about “marketing” or “branding” you are somehow jeopardising your artistic integrity. But having a personal brand is about integrity. It is about being clear about the type of person you are, what you value, what you are passionate about, and how you want people to see you.

10. Know what you want to be known for.

What do you think you have to offer a potential employer? Write these down. Find out what employers are looking for. If you are clear about where you are going (as outlined in points 1-3 above), then you’ll know the kind of people you want to work for, and the kind of work you want to do. Make contact with those kinds of people to find out what they are looking for. As mentioned in point 4 (reach out to your personal heroes), people are often happy to talk to you, and will be impressed by your initiative.

Once you know what you have to offer, and what the people you want to work for are looking for, you can get a clear idea on your personal brand. Write it down. Remember it in everything you do, from the way you interact with people face-to-face, to what you post online, and how you communicate in email, and how you behave when you have a gig (even if it’s unpaid).

11. Get to know people.

We’ve covered much of this already, under Making Connections. Remember, getting to know people means reaching out to them, following up on connections, staying in touch, and responding to people when they contact you.

12. Build an online profile.

If you already use social media like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter (or something else), you will need to make sure that everything you post aligns with the brand you want to project. You might also like to set up separate, professional social media accounts (and make sure your personal accounts are private, so if you do post something that doesn’t align with your brand only your friends can see it).

It’s up to you which social media platforms you use, but it can be easy to use a tool like Hootsuite that means you can create profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and Google Plus, and not have to keep posting to each of them separately

Stay motivated

One of the most difficult things to do once you leave the supportive university or college environment is staying motivated. When there is no one pushing you to meet deadlines, or be in class, or encouraging you, it can be easy to become lazy, disillusioned and discouraged.

13. Set clear targets.

If you enter your post-graduation career with a vague intention to keep doing class, or get into a company, you may find that you go nowhere. Six months will pass and you’ll realise you haven’t been doing much. But if you set yourself small targets, you’ll keep making progress, and you’ll know if you’ve strayed. Targets could include:

  • how frequently you take class
  • a fitness program
  • time and frequency for spending time on creating choreography
  • maintaining memberships and connections with professional organisations
  • sending job enquiries
  • creating a project, and setting milestones and deadlines

14. Find a group of like-minded peers.

It’s easier to stay motivated if you are surrounded by inspiring and motivated people. When you feel discouraged, they can help lift your spirits and help you keep believing in yourself. It’s even better if you are working on projects together, which gives you a degree of accountability – you’ll stay on track because you don’t want to let them down. Your peers don’t need to be other dancers; they might include people working in other art forms, like music, theatre, visual art, design, even business.

15. Seek out a mentor or coach.

A mentor can simply be someone with more experience than you in a particular area who is willing to share their expertise with you. It can be an informal relationship, where you catch up for coffee with an established artist once a month or so, or it could be a more formal relationship where you have a formal mentoring agreement and may be funded through a program like the Australia Council Jump Mentorship Program.

Your coach or mentor could be someone who has more experience in dance, someone offering broader experience in the arts, or an expert in a specific area, such as social media, marketing, grant writing, business management or positive thinking. You can also find guidance from industry people, like in South Australia, there is Ausdance SACarclew Youth ArtsFifth Quarter and the Arts Industry Council of South Australia (AICSA).

Having a successful career as an artist requires so much more than talent. It requires tenacity, flexibility and support. There are no guarantees, but if you follow these 15 tips, you’ll have a much better chance of being one of the few dance graduates who manage to make a career in dance.

 By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.

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