1  Introduction

1.1 The Path to Becoming a Professional Ballet Dancer in the US

From the first class to the final bow on stage, ballet is a huge investment of time, effort, and money. To become a professional ballet dancer through the US “system,” one typically goes through three main stages: student, pre-professional, and professional. The number of dancers who make it to each stage gets progressively smaller and smaller.

flowchart LR
  A[Unaffiliated School] --> B[Second Company]
  Z[Affiliated School] --> B
  A <--> Z
  A --> Y[College]
  Z --> Y
  B --> C{Main Company}
  A --> C
  Z --> C
  Y --> B
  Y --> C
  C --> D[Retirement]

Our section on schools focuses on the student stage. We examine schools by their ability to get their students into top US ballet companies. We also talk about ballet-related health and look at schools’ geographic locations.

At the pre-professional stage, we look at second-company programs. These programs are common among US ballet companies and serve as a bridge between school training and professional careers. Again, we evaluate these programs based on their ability to find dancers employment in our subset of top US ballet companies.

Finally, the professionals. These dancers are in “main companies” and are paid salaries through annual contracts. Dancers in main companies have different ranks, with principal dancer at the top. Our analysis focuses on dancer demographics, career progression through the ranks, and movement between different companies.

Pathways into these companies vary between dancers. Differences exist between gender identities, countries of birth, and racial/ethnic backgrounds. We break down most analyses by gender identity. Additionally, we discuss the path for foreign-born dancers as well as representation of various racial and ethnic groups.

You can explore dancers’ paths to the top seven companies (the largest by domestic budget for the 2018-2019 season) interactively here.

1.1.1 The Dance Industry Described by the US Government


Interpret with caution: Bureau of Labor Statistics data for things like number of dancers employed can vary drastically depending on what survey the data came from, whether they include self-employed dancers, and whether the number was adjusted for seasonality. Both the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics and Current Population Surveys use sampling for their estimates; numbers of total dancers are always underestimated. Keep this in mind when using their data exploration tools!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out a report describing the number of and hourly wages of dancers in the US (not limited to ballet). Here, we have linked the 2021 report. As of May 2021, an estimated 3850 individuals worked as dancers, most working as employees of performing arts companies rather than freelancers (self-employed dancers are not included in this number). This is much lower than the same statistic (9690 dancers) in the May 2019 report.

The 2021 report also shows percentile ranges for hourly pay with median pay of $18.78 (bottom 10% - $10.03; top 90% - $47.62). The analysis also includes maps showing the distribution of jobs by state, with New York, California, and Florida employing the largest absolute numbers of dancers. In a different report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 6200 dancers working in the US in 2021, including self-employed dancers.

The following information comes from a research brief published by the National Endowment of the Arts. The most relevant findings include:

  • 23.1% of dancers and choreographers are self-employed.

  • 31% of dancers and choreographers hold bachelor’s degrees.

  • From 2015 to 2019, the US labor force had roughly 23,385 recorded dancers and choreographers.

  • Dancers and choreographers had median annual incomes of $36,365 per year immediately pre-pandemic.

To summarize, the majority of dancers are employed by a company, do not complete a bachelor’s degree before working as a dancer, and earn incomes almost half the median annual income of United States citizens ($67,521 per year in 2020).

1.1.2 Is the ballet industry growing or shrinking?

Market studies indicate that the ballet industry has grown over the past decade, but expenditure is down for US ballet organizations since the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Dance Data Project’s Artistic and Executive Leadership report states that the largest 50 US ballet companies by domestic budget had an aggregate expenditure drop by “almost 12% from the previous year, totaling $586,724,176” (report released in Season 2021-2022). Along similar lines, a Dance/NYC report details the difficulties that dancers and organizations based in New York faced during the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports estimate roughly 6000 fewer dancers were employed by an organization in May 2021 compared to May 2019. However, the BLS predicts these jobs will return with above-average growth in the coming years.

A study in the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science (Bronner and Worthen-Chaudhari 1999) estimates statistics for the dance industry as a whole. Refer to this study for a more in-depth look at the economics of the ballet industry.

1.2 Other Resources to Learn About the Ballet Pipeline

1.2.1 Dance Media

The Dance Media group produces several influential publications with a wide variety of content and is great for dancer-focused interviews and keeping up with major events in the ballet world. Pointe and Dance are the most ballet focused.

1.2.2 Ballet Forums

Multiple online forums focus on ballet. The largest and most active are dancers.invisionzone and BalletcoForum. There is also a subreddit for ballet. Be sure to consider the author’s credibility and background when seeking information in peer-to-peer networks like these forums.

1.2.3 Social Media

Out of the major social media platforms, most dancers from companies we track are on Instagram. While dancers’ posts tend to be visual media rather than information, several other ballet-related accounts focus on topics including training, rehabilitation, diet, mental health, and diversity.

1.2.4 Non-Profit Organizations

For information on the intersection of ballet and race, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet and Final Bow for Yellowface (or their new non-profit, Gold Standard Arts Foundation) have been involved in community building and advocacy focused on racial identity and ethnicity for years.

The non-profit Dance Data Project is focused on producing data related to gender equity in ballet. They are the best source of company-level data related to budgets, leadership, and choreography.


Interpret with caution: A member of the team serves on the board of Dance Data Project.