What to Expect to Become a Dancer 

By Fran Ichijo

Everyone and anyone is a dancer, from the moment of birth, and even before, when the heartbeat is felt and movement results. We all either tap our foot to the beat of the music or are moved by the sadness or joy in a particular song or phrase of music. To become a classically trained ballet dancer, however, these innate skills require specific training, and patient daily effort.

It takes at least 10 years of hard work with excellent instruction to become a classical ballet dancer. There are no short cuts and anyone who tries to sell you that has some other agenda. If a child starts at 8-10 years old, with an appropriate physique and talent, by age 18 they can expect to join a company, if they have correctly applied classical ballet principles and steadily worked to make them a natural part of their movement and expression. Even if a dancer wants to perform exclusively contemporary or jazz pieces they need 8-10 years of correct and thorough ballet training in today’s world in order to change the body to where they can use their turn out in motion and at rest, have beautiful knees and feet, expressive arms, strong jump, high extensions and consistent tours (turns). A positive and humble attitude is also a must.

Appropriate physique and talent means to be well-coordinated, a slim build for girls, arched feet that point well, straight knees, well-turned-out hips, a flexible back and spine, well-shaped arms and legs (training helps shape this), a long neck, and a clear sense of rhythm and musicality. A natural dramatic flair is a plus and can determine a dancer's future.

From age 4 – 7 a ballet student should expect a class once a week in the school year, with some training in the summer, but mostly during the school year. From age 7 -8, a ballet student should increase their weekly class to twice a week, and include some stretching at home. From age 9 a child should definitely be coming twice or even three times a week, continuing until 10 years old. From 10 – 11, this should increase to 4 times a week and by 12 to 13, a student should be studying classical ballet 5 times a week, for at least 1 1/2 hours each day, and this should include pointe for girls three times a week or in daily class for 20 minutes or so, as well as some variations from the classical repertoire. Of course, a well-trained student also needs performing opportunities to develop properly. After all, ballet is a performing art  that needs to be well-honed, with chances to be happy and natural on stage.

By age 12 – 13, the study of other dance forms is desirable such as character, jazz, and other forms of contemporary dance into the weekly program or at least in the summer months. In addition, a healthy, well-rounded nutritional diet is mandatory for all aspiring dancers and can not be ignored. Good supportive shoes should also be worn in the average day to support the feet and prevent injury.

From age 13 and on, the ballet student will be coming 6 days a week, which includes pointe for girls, variations, contemporary, some pilates or strength training, and pas de deux classes by age 15. Every dancer should rest the body one day a week. Attending auditions is another way to develop confidence and skill at dancing under pressure. Dance competitions are another way to develop poise, and an important component of training is to go and see performances whenever possible.

Pointe: By age 9, a child should be taking pre-pointe class to prepare for pointe. A proper fitting should be done by a pointe shoe fitter when the instructor deems the child ready. Sometimes a doctor’s X-ray is necessary to confirm the bone readiness in the foot. The decision to go en pointe is determined by foot strength and arch, turn-out, back /torso strength and placement, and the straightness of the knees. The dancer should start with basic, slow work on pointe, for only 10 minutes 3 times a week or so in the beginning.

Boys: In most schools, boys can attend the same classes as girls technically, until 13 years old, as the basis is the same, but often,  boys will progress better when in class with other boys because of the male psyche and competitive factor.  It is a luxury to have boy classes taught by a male at a young age, but often necessary to develop the camraderie and desire to continue in the face of low numbers of boys in classes. This is a typical situation for most small ballet schools, especially in rural areas. Boys should start the serious study of partnering at age 13, with the appropriate size partner. More difficult lifting starts at 14 - 15.

These are general guidelines. You cannot measure desire, maturity, or just plain God-given talent that may break the regular rules for some students and allow them to advance at a young age, or to start later and quickly catch up. There are countless examples of this. Some bodies are naturally flexible and need less arduous stretching than others who are less flexible. Some students may have a natural ballon, or buoyant jump, while others may have to really work at it. The good instructor recognizes the strengths and develops those, while applying exercises to improve the weak areas. The good instructor also looks at the total child and their life and what is an appropriate choice for them as a dancer, advising them on summer programs and eventual companies to audition for.

A family support system is usually required for the young dancer to succeed, but not always have dancers had this luxury, and the strong desire to dance filled the gap and drove the student to excel. It is hard to explain to the non-balletomane the strong pull of classical ballet and the passion to pursue the ideals and challenges that daily confront the dancer. It is an art that almost defies explanation.