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What Does a Principal Dancer Do?

By J.M. Densing
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A principal dancer, also known as a principal artist, is a dancer in a dance company who performs the leading roles in productions. This term is often used in ballet, but can also apply to other disciplines; it is the highest rank that a dancer can achieve, and there are usually several in each company. Becoming a principal dancer requires years of dance training, usually starting at a very young age, and a lot of talent as well. Professional dancers spend many hours every day in dance classes and rehearsals in addition to performances. Dance is extremely competitive and it is difficult to earn a living as a professional dancer.

There are several different levels, or rankings, of dancers in a dance company. The highest level is a principal dancer, also known as a prima ballerina, a status that is usually only achieved after working up through the other ranks. Most dancers start out as a member of the dance corps, or corps de ballet, and dance in all of the group scenes in a production. The next level is usually known as a soloist; these dancers get to perform in important roles, but not usually as the central character. Finally, a select few may rise to the rank of principal dancer and dance the leading roles, spending large amounts of time on stage.

In order to rise to the level of principal dancer, an individual needs to have a great deal of dedication. Determination and hard work are required since the dancer must begin training from a young age. Often, dancers begin taking classes as young as the age of three, and those who show talent may take several classes a week or even attend class every day. In order to become a professional dancer, it's usually recommended for young dancers to attend a dance studio that is affiliated with a dance company, since many companies tend to recruit heavily from their own schools. Once an individual becomes a professional dancer, he or she continues to spend hours daily in classes and rehearsals to refine technique, as well as performing in the evening, while working his or her way up to higher rank within the company.

It is very difficult to become a professional dancer, and only the most talented and dedicated are able to attain principal dancer status. Competition is fierce. As a profession, dance has a high level of risk of injury, and relatively low salaries. Often, the low pay makes it hard to earn enough money, so many dancers will work additional jobs in order to be able to support themselves. Principal dancers usually earn more money than lower-ranked members of the company, especially if they become well-known; other benefits are that they have a job participating in the art form that they love, dancing in the most coveted roles.

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Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Aug 25, 2014

I used to dream about being a dancer, but I don't know if I could deal with all the pressure that comes from being a principal and having the spotlight on me all the time. It would be daunting, to say the least.

I love ballet, but I don't see how the dancers do all they do, and still stay sane. It's so incredibly physically demanding and dancers get hurt all the time. It must take a huge amount of mental fortitude and perseverance to dance through the pain and to do it as a career. I have so much respect for these dancers, principals, soloists and corps. Wow. They do amazing work.

By Scrbblchick — On Aug 24, 2014

I know the New York City Ballet only takes students from the School of American Ballet. That's the only way to get into the NYCB.

I watched a video series about the New York City Ballet, and they said a dancer might spend years in the corps and as a soloist before being promoted to principal. They said being a soloist was the hardest thing because you didn't dance as much and it was hard to stay focused and driven to get to that next level of principal. It was a great video series and told me a lot about how a ballet company works.

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