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Dream of working in dance? Tap into a portfolio career

You’ve likely spent time thinking about your dream job in dance: who you’d like to work for and what you’d like to do. If you’ve struggled to imagine the perfect role it’s possible that instead of one position, you should be looking for multiple.

As employment trends shift, the concept of a portfolio career – a self-managed career made up of multiple part-time, casual or contract roles – has become a popular way to create a flexible, satisfying and sustainable career.

Dr Olivia Millard, a lecturer in art and performance at Deakin, says when it comes to dance careers, a portfolio set-up is the norm. ‘A portfolio career is very common for dance professionals, particularly for the kind of students that come out of most dance courses in Australia.’

It hasn’t always been this way. ‘30 or 40 years ago the best dancers coming out of an institution would go into a dance company,’ Dr Millard explains. ‘They would work full-time for however-many years as a dancer: various works would be choreographed and they would perform those and then they might go on to become a choreographer.’

The industry has now changed significantly. ‘These days there are fewer dance companies and those dance companies don’t work all year round so dancers do other things,’ Dr Millard says. ‘My career is an example of this: I worked professionally as a dancer before I came into academia and I never worked all year round as a dancer despite being quite readily employed as a dancer.’

Misconceptions about dance careers

There can be a perception from the outside world that it’s impossible to find work in dance. Secondary school careers advisors might be hesitant to recommend studying dance. ‘My understanding is that parents are much more likely to prefer a course that guarantees a job at the end,’ Dr Millard says. ‘Portfolio careers can sound a bit nebulous and might not satisfy the desires parents have for their children.’

Dr Millard understands these concerns but has seen first-hand how successful portfolio careers can be. ‘The biggest concern might be ensuring you can earn an income long term,’ she says. ‘But it’s quite possible to set yourself up so that you are doing something that is more regular and sustainable and then have project-type situations to sit alongside that.’

In some ways, portfolio careers have put dance practitioners in control of their own career. ‘When I graduated from my undergraduate degree the expectation was that you became a paid dancer in a company or you were considered a failure and not a “real” dancer,’ Dr Millard says. Nowadays Dr Millard has a clear message for her students: ‘If you consider yourself to be a dancer or a dance practitioner, then you are one.’

Picturing a portfolio career

For those with a passion for dance, a portfolio career offers a way to keep this passion front and centre in your life. ‘One might work as a dancer, either with a company or as an independent practitioner,’ Dr Millard says. ‘They might also make their own work – with or without funding. Young practitioners often start without funding and work towards ultimately getting funding.’


'A portfolio career is very common for dance professionals, particularly for the kind of students that come out of most dance courses in Australia.'

Dr Olivia Millard,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Outside of developing skills as a dance practitioner there will be space to pursue experience in other fields. ‘The way that a portfolio career works is to find other things that are also a) interesting, b) developmental in terms of your career and c) related to dance,’ Dr Millard explains.

Teaching is a common part of a dancer’s portfolio and in addition to teaching dance, some graduates also teach Pilates or barre classes. ‘Some dancers will work for festivals or work in venues as front-of-house staff,’ Dr Millard says. ‘Lots of dancers work in administration or in marketing or social media. And there are other less obvious directions such as working in the community in various ways, in local council, in health or in the disability field.’

A career that stays interesting

Dr Millard emphasises that strategically combining part-time or short-term projects can add value to all of the activities that you are pursuing. ‘What you can successfully do is allow one project to feed the other so over time you’re working as a dance artist and you have a satisfying career which happens to have a range of activities in it.’

There are many benefits to being able to exercise different parts of yourself. Dr Millard explains: ‘If you spend all of your time teaching, for example, then you aren’t learning or being “fed” new information. But if you spend all of your time either learning movement or making movement material to be performed then that can also feel kind of limiting and even boring after a while.’ Alternatively, if you are combining different roles then this will feed your skillset, desires and interests in multiple areas.

Dr Millard’s key message to those pursuing a portfolio career is to choose jobs that you enjoy. ‘Make sure the jobs are interesting and aligned with your skills and what you want to be doing,’ she says. ‘Don’t just choose a job to earn the money. Accept from the beginning that this is how your life will be and if you can find a way to make that interesting and enjoyable then that is very sustainable.’

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