Diary of a Professional Dancer: Nicole Leigh West

by frank-stuart

My career in dance started because of an obsession with Simon Gallaher in Pirates of Penzance in the 1980s. Little did I know then that I’d soon be attending his performance school and joining my first professional dance troupe, Simon Gallaher’s Young Aussies, at 11 years of age.

Dancing at shopping centres soon turned into musicals, back-up dancing for live acts, music videos, commercials, and a cabaret contract in Japan as soon as I finished grade 12. I was intending to get a Bachelor of Arts degree, however the urge to be on stage swept me up quickly and relentlessly, leading me towards the roles of choreographer and director for international brands in entertainment.

One of these was Sea World theme park, on the Gold Coast. Theme parks around the world are an exciting option for dancers. In my time there, I performed in numerous roles, including as a costume character, a 60s meter maid, a cheerleader, a mermaid host, and a water-skier on top of the three-tiered human pyramid, before I began to choreograph shows and supervise dancers.

Nicole Leigh West choreographed shows like this at Sea World, Gold Coast

Nicole Leigh West choreographed shows like this at Sea World, Gold Coast

Trials and tribulations

Like most professional trades, the training involved in becoming a dancer is a long, and often hard, road. Though I started ballet and jazz classes as a small child and studied dance, the launch of my professional career disrupted further study to hone my skills with regard to technique.

While I may have already kicked the goal of being paid for my trade, it was often difficult to branch off into other genres. The scary world of auditions loomed large at all times and, though I didn’t lack performance skills, I often wished I’d kept up the ballet classes during the times I didn’t make the cut.

Amazing highs and searing disappointments sit side by side in the dance world, and preparation in both body and mind is essential. At the beginning of my career as an adult, I wish I could have told myself to keep training, despite the early success, to prepare myself for further opportunity.

The bottom line is… you can never have too much training and it also leads to the development of a professional mindset for the odd moment when the ‘razzle and dazzle’ loses its sparkle.

Gaining experience

Most of us first gain performance skills via dance school concerts. While they’re invaluable in learning the craft, they don’t compare to the reality of dancing in a show that audiences are paying to see, with the pressure of producers and directors who have exceptionally high standards and financial goals.

Many communities have amateur theatre companies and performance troupes to perform at local events. Auditioning for and joining amateur groups is a fantastic opportunity to learn what goes on behind the scenes and to perfect your on-stage presence.

It also equates to the beginning of a resume, by displaying that you have experience in covering mistakes on stage (an inevitable circumstance of live performance), working with choreographers, and enduring long rehearsals both physically and mentally.

The mark of a professional begins with industry knowledge of music, costumes, blocking, stagecraft and the myriad tiny specifics that eventually create a show. The number one tip, once you’ve landed some roles for experience, is to include professional photos with your resume, as the first step to being invited to auditions.

Steps to landing roles

Auditions are at the heart of a career in dance. While holding my own and selecting dancers for my shows, versatility in style and technique is the first skill I rate highly. Secondly, though it’s often the toughest pill to swallow for a dancer, is appearance, as most shows require a certain physical look to harmonise the overall effect. Thirdly, the ability a performer has to imbue choreography with personality is key to an engaging performance.

On top of all that, it’s imperative that dancers are polite, responsible, reliable and committed. Interviews generally follow a successful audition and, even if you’re exceptionally talented, it’s of equal importance to display these qualities in order to be contracted.

Directors and choreographers want to maintain a professional and successful process from bump-in to bump-out and for this, they look for dancers with outstanding work ethic.

Surviving auditions

So, how do you become an expert at auditioning? Quite simply, you must attend as many as you can. Overextend yourself and audition for gigs you may not think you’ll get, as the experience of being in the same room with the pros and going through the process will definitely pay off.
Auditions can be nerve-wracking and intimidating, but they’re never as scary as stepping out on stage to open a show for the first time – making them the perfect learning ground. The panel of judges wants to see you perform exactly as if you were on stage, in that your appearance, facial expressions, energy and attack matches their ultimate vision of the choreography.

Directors and chorographers understand your nerves and forgetting choreography you’ve just learnt isn’t always a deal breaker; in fact, if you handle it with professionalism, it may just help you to stand out.

The final act

When all your hard work pays off and you land your first gig, it’s hard to match the adrenalin rush. A career as a professional dancer is exciting, rewarding, challenging, and can lead you towards the inspirational and highly creative world of teaching, choreographing and directing your own works of art.

The industry continues to expand and evolve in new directions, with the demand for dancers growing worldwide. No matter what your niche, if you’re persistent, hard-working and willing to go the extra mile, there’s a show out there for you. Get out the glitter, don your dancing shoes, and get ready to show the world what you’ve got!


– Nicole Leigh West.
More from Nicole Leigh West? Check out her blog here.


If you want to live and breathe dance as an industry professional, are passionate about dance as a professional activity, and as a medium for personal and community enrichment, development and enjoyment, then a career in the dance industry could be for you. Check out our dance courses for more info.

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