Many women remember their mothers dressing them up in tiny tutus and sending them to ballet class as soon as they could balance on two feet. Over their childhood and teenage years, these young women may replace that tutu with a pair of sports cleats or a violin.
But some persist. Some of those young dancers choose to plan a career in ballet, saying pure love for the art form is what gets them through the many injuries, rejections and inherently low salaries they face.
“Right now in my life, I can’t see myself not dancing. It’s just something I need to do; it’s part of my identity,” says Elena Carter, a professional dancer with American Midwest Ballet in Omaha.
Before attending the University of Arizona’s prestigious School of Dance, Carter spent her childhood studying at the Pacific Northwest Ballet school on scholarship. Although other graduating seniors decided to bypass college and continue training at Pacific Northwest or other companies, Carter always knew she wanted to go to a university.
Along with her dance degree, Carter also received a degree in mathematics, insurance to put those skills to use after retiring from dance. Since her graduation in 2016, she has danced with American Midwest Ballet, previously known as Ballet Nebraska, as an apprentice, the second-tier position in the company.
Other aspiring ballet dancers initially choose to streamline their careers by skipping college altogether. One is Wen Na Robertson, who also trained at Pacific Northwest before moving to Atlanta to join Atlanta Ballet’s conservatory program in lieu of college.
However, after two years with the conservatory, Robertson left for the same program that Carter trained at, the University of Arizona’s School of Dance.
“UA offered a college education while also offering some of the best dance training in the country,” she says.
Robertson, graduating this May, says she is excited to take on the real world after refining her training and building her repertoire in Tucson.
Not all dedicated dancers choose to stick with ballet like Carter and Robertson. The steep climb to the top of the industry causes many to make a tough decision to leave ballet behind, such as former professional ballerina Rebecca Hambalek.
A ballerina since she was two and a half years old, Hambalek was elated to accept an apprentice position at Ballet Tucson after graduating high school. For her first year in the company, in 2014, she was not paid — except for free pointe shoes.
One year later, when she was offered the same apprentice position, Hambalek felt stuck between pushing through another year of unpaid work or attending the University of California Los Angeles, to which she had been accepted after high school graduation.
Though many tears were shed over her decision to leave ballet behind, Hambalek says she is excited to pursue a career in Child Life while continuing to move and create with Los Angeles based dance group ICARUS Contemporary Dance.
“I know in my heart that I’ve lived my dream of being a ballerina, even if it was for a short period of time,” she says.
On top of the gruelingly hard physical and mental work that ballerinas undergo to pursue their passions, most are also paid relatively poorly even when they do make it to the professional world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, “The median hourly wage for dancers was $14.25 in May 2017. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.74 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $30.95”
However, for professional dancers such as Carter, the adage “Choose a job you love; you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” rings true.
“I just feel so fulfilled when I dance and when I perform and I would rather be a poor, happy dancer than working a job I hate,” Carter says.
Not all ballet dancers are living paycheck to paycheck, though. Some do pretty well.
Caroline Perry, a member of Houston Ballet’s corps de ballet says she has not found it necessary to work more than one job – the one she loves — and says she is living very comfortably.
When Perry graduated from high school, she received a job offer from Houston Ballet and said the excitement of the opportunity made it easy to choose to continue with dance rather than attending a college.
According to paysa.com, a dancer at Houston Ballet earns an average of $62,973, which is almost double the national average. As a younger dancer in the company, Perry says she instead receives a large stipend bimonthly as well as half of her rent supplemented.
If a dancer keeps pushing, they may be rewarded with a top position as a soloist or principal dancer, which can command pay upwards of $100,000 annually.
However, many ballet dancers come to realize that getting into a company and eventually making it to the top involves much more than talent. Hambalek says other uncontrollable factors dictate whether someone makes it or not.
“I think that’s the harsh reality; no matter how talented you are or how much you train, it takes the right timing and a little bit of luck to get your foot through the door. I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but it’s just something that took me a long time and frankly a lot of tears to realize,” she says.
For those who do have the right combination of talent, luck and timing, the hard work never ends — but truly pays off.
Robertson says, “It takes an extraordinarily strong and passionate person to undertake all the hardships of being a ballerina, You need to be able to focus on your love and dedication to the art form in order to make it in this cutthroat world.”
It is undoubtedly difficult to continuously keep your head up through the twists and turns of being a ballerina but those who identify as dancers stick with it no matter what.
“If someone really wants it, then no matter how much you practice at it, you’ll always still want it and that fire and determination will always be there,” Carter says.
Gabrielle Mix is a dance and journalism major at the University of Arizona.