Talent, skill, work ethic. Which matters most? Which makes a dancer hirable? Which gives longevity?
Whether you’re an aspiring dancer or a working professional, it’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself before. With the pursuit of professionalism in the workplace, this topic has floated around countless Q&A panels, dance workshops, and educational industry-oriented programs. I spent a lot of time asking myself if exceptional talent is enough to “make it”, or if hard work alone can secure a successful dance career. I’d wonder about the importance of one’s personality, not just on, but off stage, too. Is there a holy grail, a perfect balance that can keep a dancer working consistently and allow them to live off of it for years to come?
Talent - The Elephant
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Talent. The dramatic, magical word that has kept generations of dancers restless. Maybe “talent” is this elusive, divine quality, randomly sprinkled between all of us at birth. Maybe it’s given like a treasure we’ll carry through life and share with the world if we so choose. Perhaps it’s more like a seed, a knack for something that we’ll have to identify, fall in love with, and nurture, so it can grow, evolve and elevate us. Most importantly… is it enough to give us a successful dance career?
In my 13 years as a professional dancer and choreographer, I’ve worked all across the world. I experienced different cultures, workflows, opinions, and different levels of predisposition or… “natural talent”. I’ve seen people show up to class in the last 20 minutes, sit down, watch the routine, then get up and perform it seamlessly. I’ve also seen people having to drill a groove or a step for twice as long as the rest of the class just to get it - and they still didn’t look good doing it. Now, which ones do you think went on to have successful dance careers? Spoiler alert… It was, in an overwhelming majority, the latter. The underdogs. The ugly ducklings. The ones that weren’t “naturals”. At the risk of stating the obvious, I’ll say: talent without hard work gets us nowhere. But here’s another interesting thesis. When things come to us easily, we don’t appreciate them as much. The fulfillment is just not as… full. Not as thrilling. There’s something about the fight, the process, and the time invested, that makes the wins taste so much better. The sacrifices we have to make become this magic ingredient that turns tiny wins into triumphs, more significant and satisfying - simply because they require more than we’ve anticipated. I’m sure you’re familiar with this empowering feeling of excitement, bliss, fulfillment, and being proud after you’ve had to stretch yourself just a bit beyond your comfort zone. That feeling can be addicting and, more often than not, it will turn into fuel that keeps us going, reaching for more and setting higher goals for ourselves.
Great work ethic means always showing up your best - even if that best looks slightly different each day.
“Talent” may simply represent these few things that are easier for you than for another person. It could be a set of a few innate dance abilities you discover yourself to be gifted with. Maybe you realized you can pick up choreography quickly or you have a great ear and natural understanding of musical pocket. But there’s a catch… Arguably, these “talents” can turn from a blessing into a curse, if not handled correctly. When things come easy, you may get bored. Not feel challenged. Perhaps you get praised a whole lot and the first time you face a difficulty (a pushback, rejection) it destroys you, simply because you’ve never developed the tools to deal with failure. Following this logic, one can argue that the lack of “talent” could become a blessing in disguise. It could make one work harder and inevitably outgrow, out-train and outsmart the competition. But one thing is certain: talent is not enough.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle presents his amazing discovery about talent. It’s based on years of travel and research across various genres of sport and art, which he conducted in different cultures, countries, financial conditions, etc. He states that talent is not something we’re born with, but rather a growing, ever-evolving result of a few necessary factors. He argues that with the right type of motivation, coaching, and practice, everyone can achieve greatness. He breaks down our brain’s natural skill-building process and proves that talent is something we can grow and harvest. It’s a must-read for every dancer who may be second-guessing their natural ability, talent, or potential.
Skill - The Muscle
Hard work, patience, and consistency. All these bring me to part two - skill. We could define skill simply by saying it’s a technical proficiency and physical ability of a dancer. However, since we can also practice and improve things like stage presence, “star quality”, musicality, or even our creativity (yes, this is a “muscle” too!), I’ll argue that these are also skills, not talents. Yes, an aspiring dancer may initially be more gifted in one or the other. But it doesn’t mean they can’t build up all these qualities to the same, high, professional level through practice. Which undeniably makes them… skills.
I can’t stress enough the importance of realizing that the qualities we are all after as professional dancers are simply skills. Not superpowers. Call it a mind trick, but it works. Regardless if you’ve been dancing for a while or you’re just starting out - it takes the power away from the Goliath of the next level you’re trying to conquer. There’s nothing you can’t improve in your dancing with hard work, patience, and consistency. You’ve probably heard dance teachers say that they can’t teach you “the feeling”, but guess what… Even this is something you can get better at. You can get closer to understanding “the feeling” by studying the culture, roots, and history of the dance style at hand, and immersing yourself in it.
Now with this piece of encouragement and a little mind game to play to make things easier, let’s face the reality - skills are what will keep you working. Versatile skills are a recipe for how to work consistently. The more dance styles you know and can execute effortlessly, the more in demand you’ll be. With that said… being a versatile dancer doesn’t end with proficiency in different styles. Let’s talk about another layer to one’s versatility as a performer.
Many dancers don’t know how to adjust their performance to different kinds of dance jobs. They don’t know how to train, prepare for and execute a performance on television, in a theater, or at a stadium. This is a whole other side of a dancer’s artistic versatility that shouldn’t go unattended. Exposing yourself to as much training as possible will do wonders. You will not only become more hirable, you’ll also discover how interconnected all of dance really is. Your hip hop technique will improve from taking jazz, your textures and dynamics will get better from taking ballroom, etc.
Work Ethic - The Knockout
Now that we’ve established the power of skill in getting you hired and the power of versatility in keeping you working, let’s move on to the final ingredient for a true K.O. career combo recipe - the work ethic. Why is work ethic so important? This last element will give you longevity and most likely open more doors than you’d expect.
In my experience as both the person hiring and being hired, the value of work ethic is immense and often underrated. But what is work ethic in the world of dance, really? The first layer would be the obvious: being on time, replying in a timely manner, coming to rehearsal prepared, leaving personal issues outside the studio, etc. Now, if we peel that off and look deeper, there’s the second layer: committing to constant improvement, keeping your skills up to date, being the best version of yourself at all times, so you can not only be a vessel, but an inspiration, both in rehearsal and on stage, both to the choreographer and to the audience.
If you rest on a few laurels, talent could keep you unprepared for the real tests of professional dance life.
Sometimes great work ethic means going above and beyond, a willingness to serve outside of your job description, and adding value for the greater good (and believe me, this almost never goes unnoticed). Great work ethic means always showing up your best - even if that best looks slightly different each day. Finally, it means never giving up on yourself. The team needs you to believe in yourself just as much as they do (if not more!).
The dance industry is small, regardless of where you live. Choreographers, directors, and producers all talk to each other. A lot. Choreographers refer dancers to one another just as producers and directors refer choreographers amongst themselves. No one in the industry has time to constantly look for new talent and replace people. Auditions are expensive and time-consuming. The most efficient way is to stick to great, versatile, reliable performers who are a pleasure to work with. This is why work ethic is important. It will take you far and most importantly - it will keep you there.
Mixing It Up
So what’s the essential mixture to achieve a high level of professionalism in the workplace as a dancer? The importance and power of “talent” has been blown out of proportion by our society and culture. Yes, talent can perhaps start you off on your way to greatness. But be careful. If you rest on a few laurels, talent could keep you unprepared for the real tests of professional dance life. On the other hand, if you don’t feel exceptionally talented but love to dance and dream of doing it professionally - good news! With hard work, patience and consistency you’ll get there and very possibly outgrow the naturally “talented ones” sooner than you think.
To secure a successful and lasting dance career, developing versatile skills and topping it off with a strong work ethic is a must. It will become your holy grail, a true K.O. to any professional adversity. It will not only make you more hirable, but provide longevity as a high-quality, reliable star performer. Versatility, consistency and great work ethic are what the next generation of dance veterans will be made of. And you just may be one in the making right now.