When dancers’ income slumps in the summers, they turn to teaching, second jobs and money stockpiled during the lucrative Christmas seasonBy Marcia LuttrellContributor July 16, 2023 6 AM PT
Summer is synonymous with vacation time, when sandy beaches beckon and thoughts of cruise ships, road trips and carefree days tease the imagination.
American classical ballet dancers, however, can’t afford those thoughts. They must spend their sunshine days scrambling for survival.
In Europe, China and in Latin America, state-supported ballet companies offer year-round contracts with generous wages and paid vacation.
Not in the United States. With minimal government funding, dancers must hustle to make a living, which can undermine promising careers.
Ballet companies in the United States typically offer contracts that last for an average of 30 weeks. Annual salaries for ballet artists, according to salary.com, range between $28,143 and $41,697, depending on education and experience. Highly trained principal dancers are paid more.
During non-work weeks, a dancer can collect unemployment but it’s not enough to survive, especially in a high-rent city.
Short-term freelancing is an option, but getting back on unemployment can be challenging because the layoff weeks are not consecutive, rather, they revolve around a company’s performance season.
Generally speaking, dancers are on break during the summer — but also at the end of December after “The Nutcracker” and during the first few weeks in January. Off-season jobs are competitive and usually involve travel.
As a result, American ballet professionals are often resilient, internationally savvy, multitaskers who are passionate about maintaining their careers.
Consider Sophie Williams, who was born in La Jolla, trained in Solana Beach and last year, she was invited to join Texas Ballet Theater.
“I have a 35-week contract,” she says.
“But in Texas, you can’t get unemployment unless you have lived there for 12 months. So, for the first year, I was not eligible and I was desperately trying to find teaching gigs. I was going from state to state, trying to find work.”
Common options for employment include ‘guesting’ or working as a professional guest artist at a company or school that stages a summer performance.
To secure a guest artist position, a dancer sends out multiple audition tapes and waits for an offer.
“It’s usually never where you are based,” says Williams, who has danced with 13 different ballet companies, including the New Zealand Royal Ballet, English National Ballet in London and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in New Mexico.
“Other than guesting, it’s unemployment or working at a café while trying to find teaching jobs.”
A weeklong guest artist job can pay from $500 to $900, and usually that includes travel and housing expenses. Ballerinas also can receive a pointe shoe allowance, an important consideration given the expense.
“Pointe shoes are $100 a pair and I go through two pairs a week,” Williams says.
“That’s alternating shoes and gluing them and doing everything possible, but that’s pretty standard for a professional.”Megan Jacob as the The Dying Swan in City Ballet San Diego’s production titled “Reimagined.” (Courtesy photo by Jaroslav Richters / City Ballet San Diego)
Megan Jacobs, a principal dancer for City Ballet of San Diego, keeps her salary consistent with two side jobs.
City Ballet offers a 31-week contract and, in addition to dancing, Jacobs works as the company’s social media manager, plus, she is a promotions coordinator for the theater and dance department at UC San Diego.
“I feel fortunate that a lot of my job at UCSD is remote,” Jacobs says. “I have a little more leeway but I work almost every day, even when I take time off.”
There is no time off for professional dancers who need to stay fit year-around.
Working or not, their bodies require daily attention.
“You can go somewhere for a week, but it’s very hard to get back into shape,” Jacobs says. “Even if you have a layoff period, you are making sure that you are not only taking class, but also cross-training. I do Pilates, yoga and some cardio exercise.”
Skilled male ballet dancers are in high demand an,d consequently, summers are not as stressful. They also are paid more than ballerinas, even though females, who must wear and cover the costs of pointe shoes, are often better dancers.Reka Gyulai and Preston Swovelin star in the Golden State Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.” (Samantha Zauscher)
Preston Swovelin is a principal dancer and the rehearsal director for Golden State Ballet, which offers a 17-week contract.
He also works as a guest artist and as a teacher at the prestigious Idyllwild Arts Academy, a private school that serves students from more than 30 countries.
“Based on my gender, I have more opportunity than women do, which is unfortunate,” Swovelin confesses.
“Freelancing is a big component of what I do for the remainder of the year. While Golden State Ballet continues to grow its season, I am still able to do a decent amount of freelance work. But it’s not consistent or reliable. I don’t always know I have work down the line.”
Though summers are unreliable, a constant in a ballet career is “The Nutcracker,” a veritable cash cow that is capable of balancing budgets for companies and dancers.
“It can go wild and crazy for ‘Nutcracker’ season,” says Swovelin, who starts booking ‘Nutcracker’ jobs in the summer, sometimes a year in advance.
“A weekend ‘Nutcracker’ guesting job can pay up to $5,000,” Swovelin said. “I can do five ‘Nutcrackers’ in different cities. My last Nutcracker guesting job was in Japan. More often than not, I’ll play the Cavalier, but I’ve done Mouse King and Russian roles. I’m happy to fill in the spot that needs to be filled. I’m willing to adapt.”Tonatiuh Gomez and Stephanie Maiorano, a married couple, are principal dancers with San Diego Ballet. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Mexico-born Tonatiuh Gomez became a principal dancer with San Diego Ballet five years ago. That’s when he met the company’s longtime principal dancer Stephanie Maiorano, who is now his wife.
Gomez knew a dance career would require another source of income; the San Diego Ballet season is about 22 weeks.
When he first moved to San Diego, he stayed with cousins in North County and took a bus to the San Diego Ballet studio in Point Loma, a nearly three-hour trip.
“The first year, I started making a budget to have money for the rest of the year,” Gomez says. “In the summer, I normally teach or do guesting. I have a business degree and I have been developing entrepreneurial projects.”
Preparing for the future is critical for all ballet artists, who typically retire from dancing when they reach their 30s and 40s.
In addition to his dance career, Gomez is the president of Fundacion Tonatiuh Gomez, a nonprofit that supports artists and young dancers through workshops and alliances. He also co-produces ballet productions that tour internationally.
Williams also has a plan for supplementing her career. She has established Pointeworks, a nonprofit dance company in San Diego that will utilize her many connections with ballet artists. She hopes to stage a future show that highlights works by female choreographers.
“I really enjoy working with artists I don’t see every day, especially during summer months when you are not on contract with the same company,” she says. “It helps the process when you have a group of people together full of energy with the same goals. And I want to pick artists who need a job in the summer.”
Luttrell is a freelance writer.