What makes ballet so expensive?

It’s no secret that ballet can be pricey, but the extent of that cost is often underestimated, especially by those that are new to the ballet world. Today I want to help map out what actually makes up the expenses of ballet.

I have trained in ballet for almost 10 years, and therefore have developed a deep respect for my peers. Even though I chose not to pursue ballet, I know that it is a completely individual decision that weighs on much, much more than just numbers. Dancers choose a career in dance because they have a very strong love for what they do. Ballet is a career of passion, and dancers are brave, admirable people.

Essentially, if a dancer wants to dance, there’s no stopping them. But, for parents that want to know what they’re getting into, or just curious outsiders, let’s define how much pre-pro dancers actually spend, and analyze the effect that that has on the demographics of the ballet world, and the success of the industry.

To help us out, we are going to look at a typical ballet dancer’s expenses starting at the age of 14 (first year of high school). So we don’t get confused, let’s call her Svetlana (haha).

Please see the end of this post for disclaimers and sources!


Tuition, Room, and Board

Of course, tuition, room, and board are the foundation of the expenses for ballet. Up until around the age of 16, most students will live at home and take classes with their local studio, which averages around $2,000 per year for tuition (this is variable and depends greatly on the studio in attendance). In this case, Svetlana spends 1 year at home (her freshman year of high school).

Typically, around the age of 16, the pressure for ballet students to move away from home becomes immense. The teenage years are a critical time for a dancer to develop their skill set and fine-tune their technique in the years before they join a company. Svetlana has tuned into this pressure, auditions for a year-round program, is admitted, and chooses to attend.

For most students that continue on a professional path, the cost of tuition and room and board at a ballet school away from home is immense. For example, the cost of tuition/housing at the School of American Ballet in New York City is approximately $26,000 per year (1). Remember that most students stay at these schools for 2-3 years before moving onto company life. We’ll say that Svetlana spends 2.5 years at the School of American Ballet (go Svetlana!).

But at this point, we haven’t even accounted for summer programs. Most serious pre-professional ballet students will go away annually for 5-6 weeks at a time to study at a big ballet school with connections to companies and high-end faculty. At a few of the most popular summer programs, the School of American Ballet (2), Pacific Northwest Ballet (3), and Miami City Ballet (4), tuition/housing costs $6360, $5795, and $6070, respectively. Keep in mind that most ballet students will attend 3-4 big summer programs throughout the course of their training. Svetlana attends 4, at $6,000 each.

To review, let’s count up what we’ve spent so far throughout Svetlana’s high school career, if she spends freshman year at home, and then 2.5 years away, with 4 summer programs.

ProgramQuantityCost
Year-round tuition (local school)1$2,000
Year-round tuition (away from home)3$65,000
Summer programs4$24,000
TOTAL =$91,000

Pointe Shoes

The next thing to discuss…pointe shoes. These are pricey little items. Each pair comes in around $90, which is quite possibly even more expensive if you are wearing Freed pointe shoes, which need to be shipped in most cases, and are preferred at most American ballet schools.

Dancers deal with pointe shoe “death” — which is much more tragic to the wallet than to the heart, because pointe shoes need to be replaced every 2-3 weeks in most cases, depending on the flexibility/strength of the feet, intensity of the work, and amount of “rotation” the dancer does with other shoes. Let’s say Svetlana has average feet (we all know that the real Svetlana doesn’t), and needs a new pair of shoes every 2.5 weeks.

With the average school year lasting 36 weeks, and adding five weeks for summer programs, that’s around 17 pairs of pointe shoes per year. That adds up to about $1500 each year, just for pointe shoes. Over the course of Svetlana’s four high school years, we can expect her to spend around $6000 just on shoes.


Ballet competitions

While tuition and pointe shoes are the main bulk of the spending, “extracurricular” activities outside of the ballet school are highly recommended for most pre-professional students.

Most dancers wish to participate in the Youth American Grand Prix or a similar competition throughout the course of their training. These competitions are beneficial, as they allow the dancer to be exposed to dancers of a similar skill level to them, have their name out in the professional world, build connections, and earn scholarship money. But this exposure comes at a cost.

To keep things simple, we can just look at the YAGP numbers for now. If Svetlana participates in YAGP, we can expect registration fees to total up to around $320, plus another $320 if she makes it to the New York finals, which adds up to $640 (5). Don’t forgot an extra $100 (or more) for costumes, making it $740. We also have to remember that training for YAGP involves around 10-15 private lessons with a teacher to prepare (Svetlana only needs 12), which generally cost around $50 per hour at 1 hour each.

Check out the costs for 1 year of YAGP below (does not include travel or hotel rooms).

ItemQuantityCost
Semi-finals registration (2 solos)1$320
Finals registration1$320
Costume1$100
Private lessons (1 hr at $50/hr)12$600
TOTAL =$1340

Most serious pre-professional dancers will participate in YAGP 2-3 times over their training. We’ll just say that Svetlana goes to YAGP 2.5 times, which adds up to $3350 on ballet competitions during high school.


Dancewear

Now we should discuss dancewear, which is a smaller but still significant cost. Let’s outline the cost of dancewear for 1 year:

ItemQuantityCost
Leotards ($35/leo)4$140
Tights ($10/pair)10$100
Flat shoes ($20/pair)2$40
Other$40
TOTAL = $320

If we multiply our 1-year total of $320 by 4, we can conclude that Svetlana spends approximately $1280 on dancewear during her four years in high school. The small costs really do add up!


The Results

Let’s add up what Svetlana has spent throughout her four years in high school, after the following:

  • 1 year at a local dance studio
  • 3 years at a year-round program (tuition, room, and board)
  • 4 major summer programs (tuition, room, and board)
  • 2-3 dance competitions
  • Pointe shoes
  • Dancewear

*Please note that this does not include travel of any kind or hotels!

Now it’s time to calculate the grand total:

ItemCost
Tuition, room, and board$91,000
Pointe shoes$6,000
Ballet competitions$3,350
Dancewear$1,280
TOTAL =$101,630

Just in case you missed it, Svetlana spent $101,630 in her four high school years towards becoming a ballet dancer. And so did many, many other ballet dancers with the same goals.

But the question is…will it pay off?


Return on Investment

Now that Svetlana has completed her training, she will be thrown into the professional world. But dancers generally don’t go right into a company.

Most dancers spend 2-3 years as trainees/apprentices and in second companies, which are institutions in which the dancer is either paying tuition to be there, or making very little money. So, we can say that Svetlana’s net income for her first 2.5 years as a ballet dancer is $0.

But, at this point Svetlana is still paying for her pointe shoes and dancewear, which adds up to $4550 over 2-3 years.

So far in her professional career, Svetlana has lost almost $5000. If she can land a contract as a professional dancer at this point, she will potentially have her first salary. The median salary for ballet dancers is $30,007 each year. (6)

It should also be noted that the average retirement age for ballet dancers is 35 years old (7). If Svetlana gets a major injury that keeps her from dancing, she may have to give it up earlier. At this point in time, Svetlana could either go into another field (with no college degree or prior experience), or continue on in ballet as a ballet teacher, choreographer, or director.


So, that was a lot of numbers. But, what does it all mean?

Pursuing a ballet career is very hard, and impossible for many families. Yet, that won’t stop dancers from going for it, because they love what they do, and this world needs ballet. Again, dancers don’t spend this money thinking that it is a good financial investment, rather they spend it because dance is their passion, and what they want to spend their life doing.

The bottom line is that the price of a ballet career is way too high, and not manageable for many families. In most cases, it is not possible to prepare for a ballet career while still keeping the option of college open. Therefore, most dancers need to make the decision to either pursue dance or go to college by their sophomore year of high school, when the dancer is usually only 15/16 years old.

This is unfair, because most dancers at this point aren’t ready to be making such a big life decision. It’s a daunting task, as I know from personal experience. To put it into perspective, most people don’t even decide on a career path (i.e. declare a major) until around their sophomore year of college.

The result of this is a demographic of ballet dancers that is primarily wealthy. This also does nothing to help the lack of diversity in the ballet (8) world. This is extremely sad, as the wonderful field of ballet is now lacking the gifts and influence of an entire class of people from which it is isolated.

Ballet is something raw, pure, beautiful, and dearly loved by many people. And even if you don’t make it as professional, the experiences gained through ballet training are invaluable and life-changing. We need to keep these opportunities open for all, and ensure that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background or situation, can experience the joy of dancing.

This is a problem that cannot go unaddressed, yet the solutions seem unattainable. How do you prevent the inflation of ballet tuition, when the field is shrinking (9) and the top 1% is still willing to pay the bills for their child?

For starters, if you are passionate about your local dance company, donate. These funds are often used for scholarship and financial aid for students. Also check out GoFundMe, where many ballet dancers create campaigns to help raise money for their training, pointe shoes, competitions, etc.

Even if you can’t donate money, raising awareness is a great place to start. We, as a whole, need to be more transparent about the costs of ballet. You can take the first step toward making a difference by sharing this post on social media, or simply talking about this problem with your friends, family, and colleagues.

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Disclaimers

The dancer I am modeling here is a girl. (Costs for boys in ballet tend to be much lower, as scholarship opportunities are greater and they don’t deal with pointe shoe costs.)

Now, we need to specify a few things. What I did not account for:

  • Scholarships or financial aid
  • Travel/hotels of any kind (i.e. plane tickets to/from year-round/summer programs, hotels during YAGP, etc.)
  • Audition costs
  • Any training that was done before high school
  • Any extra years of training done after high school

Svetlana is only one case. There are obviously exceptions to the ranges and averages that I provide in this post, and scholarships/financial aid make a lot possible.

Sources

  1. School of American Ballet – tuition, room, and board for year-round
  2. School of American Ballet – tuition, room, and board for summer programs
  3. Pacific Northwest Ballet – tuition, room, and board for summer programs
  4. Miami City Ballet – tuition, room, and board for summer programs
  5. YAGP costs
  6. Median salary of a dancer
  7. Retirement age of ballet dancers
  8. Diversity in ballet
  9. Is ballet a dying field?
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2 thoughts on “What makes ballet so expensive?

  1. I knew ballet was expensive, but only had a glimpse before I read your article. You and others have been fortunate with the emphasis on fortune! What a service you did by compiling all this data in a well organized way with personal experience to back it! Twisting in a little humor lightened the shock of what it takes to be a professional or even stopping after high school. Take a bow, Ella. Bravo !

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