What Does it Cost to Become a Prima Ballerina?

You're young, you have dreams of being a ballerina, and your eyes are set on NYCB, Lines, or maybe a professional company in Europe... but what does it actually cost to rise to the top? No, I don't mean what your dance tuition costs (although it's also very very high, just ask your parents). But what does it cost you emotionally and physically? The simple answer in my opinion? Too much.

TV series like Dance Academy, movies like Center Stage, and Instagram make a dancer’s life, or more particularly the life of a principal ballerina, look SO glamorous. From the toys you played with as a young girl, to the clothes you were put in when you were three, the inspiration to become a prima ballerina is everywhere, and it makes the job look very desirable through the eyes of a child. Maybe you played with a ballerina barbie, or you had your very own Bella Ballet Barre. Or maybe you were like me, and a tutu was your go-to outfit no matter the occasion. Either way, when you’re young, ballet surrounds you, and the dream to become a ballerina is everywhere. But what does it actually cost to go from creative movement to landing the lead role at Lincoln Center? Fair warning, the answer is not for the faint of heart.

In truth, a dancer does not become a principal dancer for the money, but for the passion.

In my opinion, becoming a principal ballerina in a major company is one of the hardest things a human being can hope to achieve. With that being said, it is achievable, and the girls who make it there are extraordinary humans who deserve every bit of success they have earned. But it is not a simple journey. First and foremost there is the debate of natural facility. Some girls just have it - the legs, the look, the flexibility, and the bone structure. Not everyone wants to be honest about this topic, but let's face is - there are some people who are born with a facility for ballet. But that doesn’t mean their way to the top is easy. They still have to take the following steps…

First, you basically give up every summer of your young life to train with professional companies at summer intensives. You also train throughout the year, and do not take “breaks” to try other sports or hobbies. The track to becoming a prima ballerina is a full-time job after the age of thirteen. Second, you start at the bottom. Let’s say you audition for a company at sixteen and become an apprentice, you then have to work your way up the totem pole… and even if you manage to avoid injury (which, let’s be honest, is usually not the case, because you know… we’re human), the journey is still a long process that can take years. However, if you make it, the payoff is not too shabby; for a top ranking company you could potentially be making somewhere around $100,000 a year as a principal dancer. However, most dancers can expect to make much less than that - sometime apprentice positions start as low as $125/week, according to Bizfluent.com. And unfortunately, your retirement is not exactly the bees knees, or up to the standards of your average American job. In truth, a dancer does not become a principal dancer for the money, but for the passion.

Power to the pupils who go for it and never look back.

If you make it through the tears, the rejections, and the pain, then your passion for ballet could probably move mountains. This art form is not for the weak or the sensitive, and it is such a juxtaposition to the way we move. Everything about the exterior of ballet is calm and delicate, and yet the journey to achieving that level of execution is grueling and exhausting. So power to the pupils who go for it and never look back. You have my unwavering respect and a standing ovation for your efforts. The prima ballerina is truly the queen bee, reigning over the hive, and I am sure the buzz at the top is totally worth it.

About the author

Keira Whitaker is a dedicated teacher, performer, and choreographer, who has been dancing for the past 21 years. She recently graduated from the University of California Irvine with a BFA in Dance performance and a minor in English.