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As ballet store owner, and former professional dancer, I have had the honor to be around some of the most beautiful ballerinas. As they progress through theirs training, there inevitably comes a time when we start talking about what separates the student from the professional dancer.

While to the outside eye it may look like professionals just have this “je ne sais quoi”, there are actually very specific qualities that give them the polish and poise you see on stage. And no, it’s not how many fouettés they can do or how high their legs go.

If you are a dancer looking to make your way in the dance industry, you’re going to want to pay attention to these seven tangible qualities professional dancers possess:

1 - They make every movement count

Transitions, transitions, transitions! We tend to focus on the big moments - the developpés, the grand pirouettes, the saut de chats - but what gives you that extra edge is paying attention to every step in between. And pointing your feet during transitions is the bare minimum - I’m talking about how you shift your weight, how you bring your audience with you even when your back is turned, how you elongate through every inch of your fingertips, how you enter and exit the stage. Professionals know that every single moment matters and they use every second they have on stage to their advantage.

2 - They know everything is figureoutable

Every single day you step into the dance studio, you are a slightly different dancer. It’s easy to fall into auto-pilot, but what worked yesterday might not work today - and you’ve got a short amount of time to figure out what to do about it.

If you watch a professional dancer at barre, you will see how they take in information about their body and their surroundings and use it to their advantage. They let go of the barre right away and figure out where their weight is so they can get on their leg right away. They pay attention to what parts of their body feel sticky or what muscles aren’t firing the way they want and give them extra love. They don’t allow themselves to get complacent - they take intentional steps to figure out whatever is giving them issues so they can do their job to the best of their ability on any given day.

3 - They take risks

Taking risks is scary. As a student, I didn’t want to practice things I wasn’t already good at because I was afraid my peers and my teachers would think I was a bad dancer. And guess what? I didn’t get better at those things until I finally let my ego go and went for it.

Professional dancers know that progress lies beyond their comfort zone. They know it’s ok to try something and fail, to fall down, to make mistakes. They have enough confidence in their abilities to be willing to look less than perfect. If you want to make it in the world of professional dance, adopting a growth mindset and continually working to improve your abilities is essential.

4 - Their movement quality is divine

“Movement quality” is one of those phrases that gets thrown around, but what does it actually mean? In the simplest terms: it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. It’s not how high your leg goes in grand battement - it’s blasting your leg up like a rocket ship and controlling the descent down like a feather. It’s making each step speak its own language - every frappé is crisp and clean and every fondu is ooey-gooey like a grilled cheese melting in your mouth. Professional dancers recognize that each movement has a distinct quality and they commit fully to it. This ability to dance dynamically is what keeps audiences engaged and on the edge of their seats.

5 - They’ve got the music in them

Professional dancers don’t just dance with the music - they embody it. When you see a dancer with musicality, it’s almost as if their body is playing the instrument. Of course, professional dancers also know there’s a time when they can test the limits of their musicality and play with every little moment, and times when they need to be incredibly precise to dance as one with the corps de ballet. Both skills are equally important and having the maturity to make an educated choice on how to approach musicality is key.

6 - They take in vast amounts of information and apply it quickly

The speed at which professional dancers learn combinations and choreography is staggering - but it’s part of the job. Rehearsal periods are considerably shorter in a company than they are during your training and you’ve got to get performance ready quickly. Part of building this skill is of course practice - but another part of it is willpower.

I remember the first time I took class with older dancers and saw that they would get through entire combinations without messing up - something I had previously thought seemed like just a pipe dream. From that moment on, I made it a goal to get through as many combinations during class as I could without forgetting a step. And guess what? I grew as a dancer exponentially.

As I tell my students, it doesn’t matter if you’re the most technically beautiful dancer in the entire world - if you can’t remember the combination, we’ll never get to see you dance. Challenge yourself to see how far you can get your next class and then keep going up from there!

7 - They tell a story with their dancing

Professional dancers are not just doing steps - they’re telling a story. To truly connect with an audience you have to be not only technically proficient, but an actor as well. One of the best ways to become a more mesmerizing dancer is by drawing from your lived experiences outside of the studio. We always hear to leave our problems at the door - I say use what’s going on in your life to inform your dancing. Whether you’re sad, excited, joyful, jealous, angry - use it! Take that emotion and let us feel it in your dancing. Bring your whole self into the space. Only then will we feel your full presence and connect to the story you are telling us.

What does all this boil down to? To make dance your profession, you’ve got to have skills beyond tricks. You have to be a storyteller, a risk-taker, and a critical thinker. You have to be finely tuned into your mind, your body, and your surroundings every day. Fully commit to giving your absolute best every day and it’s going to pay dividends.

Challenge: pull up some YouTube videos of your favorite professional dancers, go through this list, and see how many of the qualities you notice. I guarantee you something will start to click and you’ll be well on your way to applying these lessons in your own dancing.

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