How to become a professional dancer

We find out what it takes to make a living on twinkle toes

Kimberley Brown
Kimberley Brown
Bareface is always on the lookout for new talent
Bareface is always on the lookout for new talent
Krista Degaetano
Krista Degaetano
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Ever wanted to dance for a living? Time Out meets two of the city’s most nimble-footed performers to find out what it takes to earn a wage from the stage.

Movers and shakers come in all forms in this city. From salsa to pole fit to hip-hop to ballet, Dubai is rife with adult classes for people looking to improve their skills on the dance floor or seek alternative ways to get fit.

Also running this month for five days from Wednesday September 25 is the Dubai International Dance Festival, which brings together the city’s dance community with a line-up of live performances, classes and nights out. The event is something of a cross between an international dance conference and all-out party. It’s expected to be action-packed from start to finish, with a 6am start every day for participating dancers – many of whom are flying in from around the world. Daily workshops will include intensive choreography training and bootcamps with top salsa teachers, while nightly parties will range from glow-in-the-dark and ‘razzle dazzle’-themed dances to shows performed by local and international talent attending the event. For many professional dancers, the festival marks the end of the quiet period and the relaunch of the dance season, where gigs can be aplenty.

One such dancer is Dubai-based Sophie Simms, who is eagerly looking forward to an exciting new season after a typically quiet summer. ‘I’ve made about Dhs40,000 in a really busy month, but that changes from month to month, and in the summer you usually earn nothing,’ she explains. As a freelance dancer, Sophie relies on agents to get gigs and has previously performed at Mahiki, Al Maya Island in Abu Dhabi, Embassy, Sandance, Trilogy, Sanctuary and Peppermint Experience. Her friend and fellow dancer Kimberley Brown also works freelance, with past gigs dancing in Swan Lake, the Abu Dhabi F1 and most recently the pre-function area at The Illusionists in Dubai World Trade Centre. ‘Sometimes you can earn enough on one job to see you through the quiet period, but you have to be sensible with your earnings,’ she says. The 24-year-old has been living in Dubai for three years and says the biggest challenges dancers face here are the injuries, due to the lack of training schools for professionals. ‘Most dancers are not training every day, so we have to make sure we are stretching and warming up before any rehearsal or event,’ adds the petite Brit, who reveals many dancers suffer from sprains to their to wrists and ankles from extensive floor work, as well as back injuries from lifts. ‘Our body is our tool in the job and if you injure yourself severely you face problems in the future with your work,’ she says.

For most, if not all professionals, dancing is a career you invest in at a very early stage. Those with the ability to murder a dance floor have had years of practise. ‘You need to have trained, not everyone can just pick up a style or genre of dance,’ says Brown, having been on stage since the age of three. ‘I trained four times a week until I was 16 and then I went on to a dance college where I trained for three years every day,’ she says.

Krista Degaetano, though, a Dubai-based professional dancer and teacher, says its never too late to start. ‘It is possible to take up dancing as an adult and become good at it. My students start from beginners and move up levels as they improve their technique. The more classes you do a week, the better you become. Some of my beginner students have gone on to be accepted at dance universities. They trained three times a week as well as privately,’ says Degaetano.

As well as training, it’s imperative to be thick-skinned. ‘The dance industry can be brutal, so learning how to handle yourself at auditions, accept rejection and continue to train and improve are all important aspects of becoming a pro dancer,’ says talent booker for Bareface, Dan Bolton. But there is also a flipside. ‘In the UK and internationally auditions can be gruelling and you may not get the job – here you can build a successful career much easier as the talent pool and competition is relatively small.’ Though Dan says you have to be committed to succeed. ‘There is also a certain amount of sacrifice that you need to make, early morning starts for dance classes at weekend when your friends are out partying, personal investment in clothing, dance shoes, competition fees, photo shoots and showreels – it all adds up,’ he says.

But you can’t quite make it on skill alone. ‘People need to be born to be on stage. You can’t teach charisma, it’s a gift you have,’ says founder of Dance Collective, Riina Liukkonen. ‘From 50 dancers, I might find one who’s charismatic and skilled enough to be on stage. As the dance circles here are quite small we know when we have new dancers coming to Dubai.’

But small circles such as the one in Dubai means there is often more opportunity to dance the big gigs, making it a great place to start out or try and make a name for yourself. ‘Here it’s no big deal if you share a stage with Nicki Minaj or another famous celeb, perform for royalty or do a launch event for a global brand,’ says Bolton. ‘In other markets you would often only dream of doing this and would have to go through a rigorous casting process, and nine times out of ten get rejected,’ he explains.

That being said, it’s difficult to survive on freelance gigs alone, perhaps this is the reason why Dubai is full of new dance classes for kids and adults looking to take up a hobby. ‘Making a living from being a professional dancer is almost impossible unless you’re also teaching,’ says Degaetano. The 30-year-old divides her time between dancing professionally and teaching at Contemporary Dance Dubai Studio at Habtoor Grand Beach Resort & Spa.

‘There is no government funding here and unless you get financial support from somewhere, it really is very difficult to get the ball rolling for a home-based company,’ she says. For the rest of us looking to simply bust-a-move, it’s as simple as signing up to one of many Dubai dance classes. Conga, anyone?
Dubai International Dance Festival 2013 runs from Wednesday September 25 to Sunday September 29. Full festival pass Dhs495 (includes all shows, parties and workshops), Salsa Fever Musical on Friday 27 Dhs225, choreography bootcamp Dhs55, Inspiration to Dance on Friday 25 Dhs195. For the full schedule visit www.dubaidancefestival.com.

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