The Path to Principal

What are common features in American ballet dancers’ paths to principal dancer?

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The principal dancers are the top of the top. Most professional dancers aren’t looking to retire as corps or soloist dancers. But with only 154 out of 1024 dancers last season in the largest 26 American ballet companies by budget, principals make up only 15% of all dancers. How fast do dancers get to the top? How many companies do they work at before getting there? When do they usually retire?

The Long and Winding Road

We reconstructed the paths of all principal dancers within our dataset (one season of just the top 7 and two seasons of the top 26). Because we didn’t have a straightforward way of detecting leading dancers at unranked companies, we excluded them for this analysis. This left us with 175 unique principal dancers to analyze. See the list of companies included at the bottom of the post!

We then used primary sources (company/school/competition bios, news sources, promotion updates) to confirm hires, promotions, retirements, and age (give or take a year) if available. We were able to find approximate age data for 139 of the dancers.

How Fast Do Dancers Get to Principal?

Or said another way, after how many years dancing professionally does it become unlikely I ever become principal?

For this estimate, we had to remove 3 dancers where there wasn’t enough information on their early careers (Asuka Sasaki, Danielle Brown, Davit Hovhannisyan).

The average time to become a principal after first joining a company is 7.8 years (7.1 years for men and 8.5 years for women). The average age is 26.7 years.

There are absolute prodigies who become principals at such a young age it’s instantly news worthy. We categorize them as “unicorns” becoming a principal within 4 years of their first job.

After 11 years dancing, there is a substantial drop in the probability of becoming a principal dancer at one of these companies during your career.

How Many Companies Do Dancers Work at Before Becoming Principal?

Is it better to climb the ranks in a single company or to move around? We will call these “Grinders” and “Hoppers”!

37% (65/175) of principals moved companies at least once before their first principal promotion (hoppers). That means most principals in the top 26 were grinders before potentially moving to different companies.

To be a principal at one of the largest 26 American ballet companies, is it better to be a hopper from within or from outside the top 26? Hoppers danced at more companies outside of the top 26 before becoming principals than companies within the top 26 (71 versus 45 employments). Most of these companies were outside the US as well. We think this means “hopping” is a strategy that many foreign-born principals end up using more often than their US-born counterparts.

Whether or not climbing to principal at one company also depends on which company – some companies hire “external principals” rather than prioritizing promoting their own dancers. Keep a look out for this analysis in a future post!

When Do Principal Dancers Usually Retire?

For this analysis, we confirmed retirements by looking for public announcements either through news sources or company news. We had only 26 dancers with available age data retiring within the past 3 seasons.

The average age for both genders was 37.5 years old with only a slight difference in genders – men retiring at 36.8 and women at 38.4 years on average.

Ultimately, we are looking to gather information about when dancers of all ranks leave ballet. As we gather more data, we think we’ll see more clear trends between genders with men retiring earlier.

The Ultimate Goal?

Can dancers have a fulfilling career without being a principal? OF COURSE!

As a field that ranks artists by the opinions of a few artistic staff, it can be difficult to separate your career trajectory and your self-worth. It’s also difficult when so little of your work remains visible after your dancing career ends.

We hope this information helps dancers navigate shifting goals over their careers. Here at Data Pointes, we are thinking of ways to honor every dancer’s experience and provide channels for dancer’s to use their skillsets beyond dancing. -J

Company List

Our dataset includes dancers in the largest 26 American ballet companies (by domestic budget from a 2018 – 2019 season report):

  • New York City Ballet,
  • San Francisco Ballet,
  • American Ballet Theatre,
  • Houston Ballet,
  • Boston Ballet,
  • Pacific Northwest Ballet,
  • Joffrey Ballet,
  • Miami City Ballet,
  • Pennsylvania Ballet,
  • Ballet West,
  • Kansas City Ballet,
  • Atlanta Ballet,
  • Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre,
  • Washington Ballet,
  • Cincinnati Ballet,
  • Dayton Ballet,
  • Ballet Arizona,
  • Texas Ballet Theater,
  • Colorado Ballet,
  • Sarasota Ballet of Florida,
  • Ballet Austin,
  • Charlotte Ballet,
  • Tulsa Ballet,
  • Richmond Ballet,
  • Oregon Ballet Theatre,
  • and Milwaukee Ballet.

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