Feeling Unchallenged? Here’s How to Advocate for Advancement in Your Company

June 3, 2021

Updated 10/11/22.

You’re performing well year after year, but you’re still not being cast in larger roles. Your work ethic and technique are strong, but, for some reason, your director hasn’t approached you about advancing in the company. Many dancers face this very dilemma—they’re ready for a new challenge, but featured roles or a promotion don’t seem to be on the horizon.

When opportunity doesn’t knock first, it may be time to approach the door and do some knocking of your own. “I’ve been having those conversations with my director since I joined, which is rare,” says Amanda Morgan, a corps de ballet dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet. She believes directors are waiting for dancers to advocate for themselves. If you’re wondering how you can be more proactive, here are a few questions to help prompt your preparation.

In front of blue skies and the Pacific Ocean, Amanda Morgan jumps into a parallel passu00e9 position with her long braids flying behind her. She wears a short white dress and brown pointe shoes, and holds her arms out wide to the side.
Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Amanda Morgan: “Find a good medium of having humility and knowing your worth.” Jacquelyn Diaz, Courtesy PNB

Am I developing more than my technique?

“There’s so much more responsibility, commitment, time, energy, will and courage required to do a major role,” says American Ballet Theatre artistic director Susan Jaffe, who was a principal dancer with the company for 22 years. Recounting the time and money she spent on weekly Pilates classes, private Gyrotonic lessons, and working with a dramaturg to further develop her artistry, she recommends dancers invest in their own development before approaching their director about advancement. “First become committed to yourself in the deepest way you can,” she says. “If you’re doing the work, the artistic director has already noticed.”

To initiate the conversation, Lauren Anderson—associate director of education and community engagement programs at Houston Ballet and the company’s first African-American principal dancer—suggests scheduling an appointment with your director towards the end of the current season. “You would want the director to be thinking about you before casting for the next season begins,” she says.

Susan Jaffe, dressed in black dancewear, clogs and with a face mask, stands casually in a dance studio and teaches class. On the right, a male and female dancer do an arabesque. at the barreSusan Jaffe with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers William Moore and Hannah Carter. Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy PBT

Am I prepared to receive the feedback?

Approach the conversation with intentions of learning what improvements you can make to increase your chances of promotion. Be open to the feedback, and be careful not to come off as frustrated, emotional or entitled. “Leave emotions out, and be factual and authentic,” says Anderson. She recommends dancers discuss how they’ve worked to improve gaps and then ask for suggestions on how to further improve in specific areas. If you’re a stronger technician, for example, you might share how you’ve worked to enhance your artistry, then ask what more you can develop to get the bigger roles you want.

Ensure you’re able to receive feedback without getting defensive or rebutting your director’s assessment. “Justification would be a turnoff,” Jaffe says. Instead, she advises that dancers have enough humility to keep trying even if they’re not able to perform the part they’re most interested in. Even as a principal dancer, she recalls asking to understudy major roles if she wasn’t cast. “Just be authentic and say: ‘I really feel like I could grow if I were given the opportunity. I would really like to request if I could learn this part.'”

Morgan adds that dancers should get clarity on vague feedback if they’ve been rejected for a promotion or a role. “We’re often told ‘You’re not right for the part,'” she says, and notes that specific feedback is key for assessing equity and measuring improvement.

Lauren Anderson, wearing a black V-neck T-shirt, is shown speaking one-on-one with a young ballet student, who is shown from the back.“Leave emotions out, and be factual and authentic, says Lauren Anderson (above) when approaching the topic of advancement with your director. Courtesy Lauren Anderson

Am I prepared to take the next step?

If you’ve mentally and emotionally prepared to have a mature, candid discussion with your director, then it’s also important to outline a few next steps following the conversation. Those might include addressing any gaps your director mentioned within a certain time frame, as well as scheduling follow-up appointments to ensure there’s ongoing dialogue about your growth. It may also mean researching other companies if you’re still not advancing after meeting, or even exceeding, the expectations that have been set for you.

“Know that you could go somewhere else and get opportunities if you’re not getting them where you are,” says Morgan. Below are some reasons why your lack of growth may be more about the company than your performance:

  • Your movement style doesn’t fit the aesthetic preferences of the artistic director or the choreographers they commission. “Sometimes it’s the taste of the artistic director,” Jaffe says. “Instead of just being defeated or thinking ‘I’m not good enough,’ why not go out and find a company that’s a better fit?”
  • It’s harder to stand out in a large, highly competitive company. “Sometimes you have to go to a smaller pond to get the experience,” notes Anderson.

Whether the factors are out of your control or not, you should feel empowered to advocate for your growth. “You wouldn’t be where you are now if you weren’t good enough,” Morgan says. “Find a good medium of humility and knowing your worth.”