How to Become a Dancer in New York City

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Have you been dreaming of moving to the Big Apple to pursue those Broadway or New York City Ballet dance dreams? We aren’t going to sugarcoat this: Deciding to be a professional dancer takes a lot of sacrifice, and often with little return—at least at the beginning. Whether you’ve just made the big move to NYC or are carefully creating a plan to take the leap (and turn), we’ve put together a NYC-specific guide to help you find your direction and get your dance career off to a solid start. For our full guide on how to become a dancer no matter where you are—where we break down the general skills and tools that you’ll need to succeed—check out the original guide here: “How to Become a Dancer.”

As the late, legendary dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham said, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” So with that, if you’re ready to eat, sleep, and breathe dance, below are some essential questions to ask that’ll get you well on your way to dancing in the streets of New York.

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What dance studios should I train at in New York City?

There is never an excuse to not take class. At all hours of the day, you can find almost any class of your choosing at one of the main dance studios in NYC. Whether you need to brush up those tap skills or get your ballet technique back in serious shape, you should take advantage of all the options the city has to offer!

Ailey Extension: Located in the center of Midtown on West 55th Street and Ninth Avenue, the Ailey Studios, home of the Ailey School and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, offer more than 80 classes each week for dancers of all levels and experience. By making dance truly accessible to all, Ailey Extension carries out Alvin Ailey’s legacy “that dance comes from the people and should be given back to the people.” These studios are also available to rent for rehearsals, events, and more. Tip: If you want to give the studio a try, Ailey Extension offers an intro package of two classes for $32, saving you $6!

Broadway Dance Center: Also located in the heart of Midtown on West 45th Street, BDC is a drop-in dance studio that dedicates itself to the international dance community. It also offers a wide variety of classes, so you are certain to find the style that you are looking for at almost any time of day. New York dancers consider this studio to be more commercial dance–focused, whereas Steps on Broadway (featured below) tends to cater more to the ballet dancers in the city. Made up of more than 80 professionals, the faculty of BDC brings expertise and knowledge to the dance studio from their diverse professional backgrounds.

Brooklyn Studios for Dance: Located in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, this studio finds its home inside the historic Cadman Congregational Church. BkSD’s mission is to serve the professional art community while building a culture of local engagement that responds to the interests of both communities (the artists and the church congregation). If you’re looking for the cheapest dance classes in the entire city, we’ve found it. BkSD provides $5 ballet classes, $10 contemporary classes, and $14 Klein Technique classes, to name a few. If you’re looking to increase your mind-body connection through improvisation, it’s got plenty of opportunities for that, too. Between the gorgeous space, relaxing atmosphere, and unbeatable prices, there’s no excuse to not come and try out a class here. Tip: Art installations are also part of BkSD’s center, so if you want to enjoy art in more than one way, make your way over early and get inspired before you move!

Gibney: Founded in 1991, Gibney (formerly known as Gibney Dance) has expanded to two locations, at 280 Broadway and 890 Broadway. This powerhouse of cultural support for the arts is also the home of the Gibney Dance Company. Open classes are geared toward contemporary dance, but also include ballet, conditioning, yoga, and more! This studio is a personal favorite of Alex Biegelson, dancer and associate artistic director of dance company 10 Hairy Legs, who says, “Gibney is a great place to find contemporary classes. So many teachers come through there and you can take 10 classes a week and never take the same teacher twice.” If you are interested in creating your own work, keep in mind that these studios are also available to rent. Tip: Movement Research classes also take place here, providing affordable classes for all.

Mark Morris Dance Center: Home of the Mark Morris Dance Group, this dance center is located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, just across the street from the famous Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). If you’re looking to keep your budget in check, this is the place to go. Whether you want to get a single-, five- or ten-class card, you’ll come out ahead here. While it also offers a variety of classes, there usually are not multiple classes going on at once. That being said, we advise you to schedule ahead and know exactly what kind of training you want to do when planning your day. Tip: Modern dancers love Mark Morris Dance Center, as well as dancers looking for West African, Afro-Caribbean, flamenco, capoeira, and salsa classes.

Peridance Capezio Center: Located on East 13th Street near Union Square, the center is also home to the Salvatore Capezio Theater. This dance hub, founded in 1983, has long been a core part of the NYC dance community. Providing over 250 weekly adult classes in all styles and levels, this is an easily accessible and inspiring center to get your training on. While the cost per class is not as affordable as Gibney or Ailey, looking into 10-class cards can help you get class in without breaking the bank. Tip: You can find incredible workshops here with various modern and contemporary dance companies. This is a great way to get yourself seen, and often choreographers hold company auditions at the end of the week. It’s an ideal way to feel their movement on your body before jumping into an audition.  

Steps on Broadway: Located on the Upper West Side on 74th Street and Broadway, Steps is one of the most well-known dance studios worldwide. Founded in 1979, this studio has served as the epicenter of New York’s professional dance community. This cultural hub, especially cherished by the ballet dancers of the city, is home to highly sought-after dance teachers from top companies such as New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Boston Ballet, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Classes are offered seven days a week in every style of dance you could think of, from ballet, pointe, and body conditioning to tap, street jazz, contemporary, and hip-hop. No matter what your schedule may be for a given day, Steps’ constant stream of classes will give you ample opportunity to dance at any hour. Tip: If you’re looking for ballet inspiration, you can find Misty Copeland and other ballet stars taking class here often.

What about cross-training?

The majority of professional dancers would enthusiastically give two thumbs-up when it comes to the idea of cross-training: The incorporation of other forms of exercise into one’s training in order to increase performance in the main area of focus. Some favorites among dancers include strength training and cardiovascular workouts at the gym, Pilates, yoga, swimming, and biking. Pilates and yoga, for instance, use a lot of the same muscle groups and sculpt them in the same long and lean manner as ballet training does. Since most dance classes are anaerobic and not geared to build up cardiovascular strength, swimming and biking are beneficial in rounding out a dancer’s workout routine.

For those who have to perform lengthy shows, like on Broadway or in classical ballet companies, this kind of cross-training is crucial for keeping in shape and saving the body from injury. Your future self will thank you! Jaclyn Rea, professional dancer with Heidi Latsky Dance and Caterina Rago Dance Company, expresses how crucial cross-training has become to her: “No matter what, I’m cross-training, because I think at a certain point my body just needs to be physical, without attaching it to phrase work or trying to move or be a certain way.” Yes, we want to be dancing as much as possible, but allowing your body to experience new and different information can be just as beneficial.

Often, a dancer will wonder how they can possibly fit in everything that they should do to keep their bodies in peak form and as healthy as can be. It really comes down to what your body needs most. If you are a serious ballet dancer, naturally a ballet class every day will be first on your list. If you are a contemporary dancer and you have to be quite versatile, this may change things up a bit. Biegelson suggests asking yourself these questions: “Are you needing a barre or Pilates or yoga [class] before rehearsal? Is your work very ballet-based and you need that full ballet class? Or is it more floorwork and grounded and you need to work your upper body and cardiovascular strength at the gym before you rehearse?” Overall, listen to your body. Don’t push beyond what it can handle, but stay open about what may be most beneficial for certain pieces of work you are currently rehearsing.

Where can I find dance auditions in NYC?

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times. When it comes to finding roles to audition for, there’s no better source than Backstage, especially for early-career artists! If you don’t have a manager or agent who’s in direct contact with casting directors of various projects, Backstage is the No. 1 trusted source and top casting platform—for over 50 years—to kick-start your career, land your next (or first!) role, and get discovered. The casting notices on Backstage can help you bolster your demo reel and get you an agent to take your career to the next step. Plus, with thousands of vetted casting opportunities across smaller projects like student shorts, web series, and regional theater productions all the way to larger blockbuster features and productions on the Broadway stage, you know that with Backstage, you’re always getting reliable information and scam-free gigs.

Once you’re subscribed to Backstage, you can go to backstage.com to edit your public profile. This is the page that casting directors see when booking talent for their latest projects, so make sure your headshots and résumé are up to date, and link or embed your reel, website, social media accounts, and other fun extras as you see fit.

In NYC, Dance/NYC is the best place for concert dancers to find the latest auditions, classes, workshops, choreographic opportunities, and dance-related jobs. You can also always check out the community boards at dance studios for upcoming workshops, open company classes, or auditions. Dancing Opportunities is a great place to look if you’re seeking opportunities with international companies that may be passing through the city. Or perhaps you simply want to get out of NYC for a monthlong residency without fully relocating.

An important thing to remember is that many ballet and modern companies hold open classes for any dancer to take. This is a great place to start to become familiar with their particular style of choreography, as well as to challenge yourself as you build your versatility. Many of these companies also hold company classes that can be extended to noncompany members upon invitation. If you are particularly enthusiastic about dancing for someone, don’t be shy in expressing interest!

How do I book a dance audition in NYC?

There are a few ways one can book an audition. If you are going the agent route, they will usually submit you for a preliminary selection and let you know if you were given a spot at an audition. It’s common for companies to be looking for a certain body type or aesthetic, so don’t take it personally if you are not invited to an audition right away. Your agent will do their best to get you in the door for roles that best fit your look and talent.

For concert dance, freelance projects, and company auditions, posts will always inform you as to whether the audition is going to be an open call with no preregistration needed, or if steps need to be taken before you arrive. Be sure to pay attention to deadlines! Even when you think you have some time, some companies only want to audition a certain amount of dancers based on the studio space or time constraints. It’s therefore going to be in your best interest to have your materials ready at all times so that when you see the audition post, you can submit right away and grab that time slot! To register, they will either ask you to email with a headshot, CV, and dance reel or, similarly, look at your materials upon receiving them and let you know if you have been selected to attend the audition.

Established dancers also may rely on their established network of directors, choreographers, agents, and colleagues to book an audition and land their next gig, but what does that mean for the hundreds of other capable talents who are just finding their legs in the world of dance? Backstage’s casting notices are a way in.

Once you become a Backstage subscriber, take a look at our online casting notices at backstage.com/casting. You’ll see that each one is broken down by type of production, type of role, whether or not it’s a paid job and if it’s a union or nonunion job, its location, the age range for talent sought, and the list goes on. Search results can also be filtered based on what your preferred search preferences are. Save those preferences for future use, and there are bound to be new listings for you to consider every single day.

Say you find a project that interests you and fits your type. From there, information on submitting a résumé and reel or self-taped audition will be made available to subscribers. Or, if in-person auditions are being held, timing for the open call or additional information on how to schedule an audition time will also be available. The key is to be ready and waiting, because you never know when the right opportunity will come knocking.

 

How do I network as a dancer in NYC?

Being well-connected is always an advantage when it comes to expanding your experience of the arts and finding creative opportunities to grow. As the years go by, you’ll notice this happens naturally as you befriend your peers and find artists whom you work with particularly well. If you’re just getting started, here are some ways to get yourself out there and meet the people who can ultimately make a big difference in your career.

Taking dance classes is necessary for keeping in shape and continuing to develop your craft, but it’s also a great place to create your network. Founding member of the all-male 10 Hairy Legs dance company Biegelson shares his advice: “If you don’t know anyone in the room, introduce yourself to someone. Ninety percent of the time, it’s about people knowing who you are. If they don’t know you, they won’t call you. The people that see you in classes, in rehearsals, at auditions...the reason they know your name is because you introduced yourself.” You will notice that as you start to follow teachers and regularly take classes at certain studios, you’ll see the same people every week. It’s not uncommon that dancers looking to create their own work, or who work for a choreographer who is looking for dancers, will approach people they take class with to let them know they think they might be a good fit. You never know who you will meet and collaborate with in the future.

Workshops also function in a similar way. Many are held by already established choreographers and company members, and more often than not, they are keeping an eye out to see who is picking up their movement well. If you can make a good impression in a workshop, it could absolutely lead to performance opportunities down the road.

Seeing performances is another great way to meet artists and feel connected to the dance community. Being an observer of dance is imperative when it comes to discussing artistic works with others and creating dialogue around dance. When you can discuss what you’ve seen with others it can progress to ideas that can be collaborated upon. These sporadic encounters are wonderful when the right timing and people come together.

Reaching out to those whose work you find inspiring and innovative may take some courage, but don’t let that stop you! People like to talk about what they are passionate about, and a quick coffee meet-up may be the perfect moment to ask questions and make that connection.

How do I start my own project or dance company in NYC?

Do you tend to be choreographing in your head during rehearsals and classes and wishing you could just run the show? Being a choreographer takes a lot of effort and the dedication necessary to produce your own work and take it to the stage. It is always an enriching experience to interpret another artist’s work, but if you feel the need to branch out to do your own projects, you should follow that intuition. If you have something to say through movement that is not already being expressed, you should absolutely see your vision come to fruition. Even if you can’t get work on a full-time professional company because you are just getting started, don’t let that hold you back!

Sometimes starting your own work can be intimidating, but if you feel the pull, just get started! Thryn Saxon, professional dancer with the Kate Weare Company, advises: “Let go of the pressure of what it’s supposed to look like and just get into the studio and make something. It’s easy to beat yourself down and feel the ticking clock in the corner, but it’s so different in creation. You can’t feel good about what you put out if you haven’t taken some sort of time to process and allow it to come through honestly.”

Many dancers are willing to participate in projects related to a strong mission or cause. Do what you can to take care of and financially compensate your artists, but if the expression of a collective feeling is most important, it’s possible for you to get dancers on board and ready to perform your work wherever possible.

Collaborating with other dancers who also have a passion for choreography is a wonderful way to share what could feel like an overwhelming project if it is your first time working on your own. You can also bring other artists into the creative process, like musicians and singers, who may be able to help you augment the strength of the statement you are trying to convey. The opportunities are endless.

How can I find choreographic opportunities in NYC?

If you have already checked out Backstage for casting calls looking for choreographers, some additional go-to resources would be Dance Magazine and Dance/NYC. These two websites post choreographic opportunities available all over the country. Postings can include residencies at colleges looking for emerging choreographers to set work on student dancers, giving them professional experience. Many posts give you the space to shine in festivals featuring new choreography.

Of course, applications are necessary for all of these openings, so be prepared to have your materials ready. Just as you would have your headshot, résumé, and video reel ready to apply for a dance audition, the same is likely to apply for choreographic posts. Normally there will be an electronic application that you can download and submit either online or through the mail. For those that require physical materials, be ready with hard copies of your choreographic résumé and a press packet for your company or project. Links to excerpts or full videos of your work will be required to give those in charge of selecting a feel for the potential of your work and how it would fit among other pieces in the festival. If there is a common theme or audience that the festival is targeting, it is best if they can preview how your work will express itself onstage and make their decisions accordingly.

Where should I live in NYC as a dancer?

Depending on where you are going to spend most of your time, what you’re looking for in a neighborhood, and how much stimulation you can take, the following suggestions should give you a good sense of where you may feel most at home. Whether you’re dreaming of Broadway and enjoy the buzz of Times Square, or would prefer more calm, there’s a place for you to call home.

Astoria, otherwise known as “Actoria,” can be a great spot for dancers and actors alike. The N,W, and R subway lines run directly between Midtown and Queens, making it easy to get to many Broadway and theater auditions. This neighborhood has delicious cheap eats, a warm sense of community, and is still holding on to some affordable rents. You’ll need a roommate or two, but it is an ideal area for an artist. Another great perk about getting to Midtown efficiently is its proximity to incredible dance classes. You can reach New York City Center, a great venue for dance performances, as well as classes, in just a five-minute walk from the NQRW at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. Also about a five-minute walk away from the Times Square subway station is Broadway Dance Center, located on 45th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. You can find all your commercial dance needs here, with a plethora of classes active during all hours of the day.  

Clinton Hill will have you a hop, skip, and a jump away from a few incredible dance centers with affordable classes. Clinton Hill is one neighborhood over from Fort Greene, home of Mark Morris Dance Center. Also nearby is Brooklyn Studios for Dance, located between the Fulton and Classon Avenue G stops, as well as a few minutes away from the Clinton-Washington C stop. The Pratt Institute lies in the center, so if you’re looking for a beautiful sculpture garden to relax in, this is it. Clinton Hill is also home to Gallim Dance, a contemporary dance company based out of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew. The vibe is homey and community-based, so you’ll be sure to find a cozy café you enjoy, farmers’ markets, and diverse restaurants. If you’re in the mood to see some dance and get inspired, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is also within walking distance.

East Harlem is rich in community and culture. If you’re looking for museums to enrich and inspire you as an artist, this neighborhood is home to El Museo del Barrio and the Museum of the City of New York. Not too far off on the Upper East Side is the 92nd Street Y, a historical arts center with plenty of lectures of dance performances for you to immerse yourself in. Being off the 4 and 5 subway lines will also make going to Peridance and Gibney practical for dance classes. They may be downtown, but this express line will get you there quickly enough to make that 10 a.m. ballet class.

Inwood takes us even farther north along the A line, giving you similar options as Washington Heights (detailed below) when it comes to dance classes. If you’re a lover of nature and don’t want to give up being surrounded by trees or waking up to the sound of birds, this cozy neighborhood is definitely your best bet. Inwood Hill Park, a major city perk, feels like a serene getaway compared to the heightened city energy. You’ll really feel like you can escape to your own oasis at the end of a long day of work, classes, and rehearsals.

Red Hook is a unique waterfront area with an incredible view of the Statue of Liberty. If you’re someone who likes to get away from the city hustle and enjoy art and a little peace and quiet, this secluded neighborhood may be just right for you. Pioneer Works and Red Hook Labs are a couple of major artistic gems that have found their home here. One thing to keep in mind is that there is no immediate subway located in this area, so you will need to be comfortable with taking the bus, or even better, biking! You can still find affordable rents here, but you’ll have to move soon. These shipyards and old warehouses are charming others, too.

Washington Heights, situated above Upper Manhattan, is closest to the A, C, and 1 trains, giving you a straightforward commute to Midtown. If you’re going to Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen often for auditions, this may be the perfect neighborhood to give you some elbow room with an affordable rent and still get you to where you need to go without much hassle. Broadway Dance Center, the Ailey School, and Steps on Broadway are all very accessible as you commute south, giving you infinite class options no matter what genre of dance you’re focusing on.

How do I make a living in NYC as a dancer?

You probably already know it’s not always going to be easy to make ends meet as an artist. It requires a lot of creativity, but that’s part of the fun, right? There are a few ways you can go about getting your bills paid without having to completely sacrifice your art. The main thing to keep in mind is what kind of schedule will be required of you. Do you have an agent that can send you to an audition at a morning’s notice? Will you need weekend nights available for shows most weeks? What part of your day is usually the least filled with dance? Having a flexible schedule is important, but if you have to lock in a work schedule to pay the bills, don’t fret.

Of course, everyone would love to be able to land the Broadway gig that allows financial freedom while doing the thing they love most in the world. But we aren’t all so lucky—or even looking for that type of work. For modern dancers, company projects can be sporadic and unpredictable. Having a flexible schedule can allow you to be available for a sudden residency upstate for four days or a last-minute performance opportunity. Jobs that allow you this flexibility can include areas like teaching dance, fitness training, working in retail or the food industry, babysitting, arts administration, and any other freelance jobs you can find work in. Are you also an amazing photographer and want to help dancers with their headshots? Schedule them in around auditions and classes! Are you organized and don’t mind administrative work? Why not help out a director and learn about the ins and outs of running a dance company? If you can relate your work to your passion, you’re less likely to feel like you are working and instead can feel that all you do is culminating toward a common end goal.

Even if you have a full-time job, there are still ways to keep your art alive. Think of all the actors and dancers who have had to commit to day jobs for years before reaching “overnight” success and making the switch to being a full-time artist. Many artists are happy to have the financial stability and peace of mind from their full-time job, and commit to their art on nights and weekends. Many dance companies rehearse in the evenings and perform on weekends, leaving the daytime free to work, hopefully in an area that you are also passionate about!

Creating and following a budget is also a key tool to keeping your finances in check. Living in a city like New York is expensive, so remember that you can only do the best you can. If you’ve already made it this far, you’ve probably got a solid start. When making your budget, be realistic with your income. Freelancing isn’t always easy, and jobs can fall through at the last minute. It’s smart to have a solid stream of income to cover the basics (food, rent, utilities, phone) so you won’t have any emergencies. When it comes to paying for dance classes, audition fees, and material fees like headshots, you may have to take those in smaller chunks as the money is available. Staying in shape and expanding your abilities as a dancer is of course crucial as you make your way through auditions, so be sure to allocate the amount of money you will need each month for the amount of training you wish to pursue. Cross-training can help in cutting costs while staying in shape. For example, donation-based yoga studios have become popular among dancers, as it works strength and flexibility equally and can be a good replacement for a day or week when your budget is not as ample as you’d like it to be.

How does dancing in NYC differ from other cities?

If you love the hustle, NYC is the place to be. There is an undeniable energy here that drives one to work hard and play hard. There is also a constant flow of opportunities at every moment. “Take every opportunity that comes by. You just never know,” says Saxon. There truly is a magic to New York, where anything is possible.  

At the moment, there is also an incredible amount of opportunity for the concert dance world, so if you’re a contemporary or modern dancer, NYC is your epicenter in the United States. It’s got some of the greatest opportunities for technical ballet and modern training, and auditions are constantly in session. If you’re looking for theater, Broadway, and ballet auditions, you’re also in the right place.

That said, if you’re looking to be in commercials or tour the world with your favorite music artist as a backup dancer, Los Angeles is the place you’ll want to find yourself. Where New York is reliant upon the subway system, in L.A., you’ll need a car. You’ll also find more access to nature and private spaces in L.A., along with a much more vast city to navigate. In Philadelphia, there is also an abundant concert dance scene being cultivated, but with fewer opportunities than NYC. However, rent will be much cheaper and your pace of life much slower. Finally, don’t forget that companies exist all over the country in even smaller cities and towns, such as Tulsa, Oklahoma; Boise, Idaho; and Stamford, Connecticut. Based on the lifestyle you want to live and the kind of energy you want to infuse into your artistic living, different locations will give you different experiences.  

Overall, in NYC, if you’re a freelancer, get ready to hustle and enjoy a colorful journey, and if you’re one of the lucky few that land a full-time Broadway gig, you’ll be enjoying both worlds of stability and living your best artistic life. Every experience is beautiful and will allow you to express the artistic voice you were meant to share.

Check out Backstage’s dance audition listings!

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