Dance Lessons For My 22 Year Old Self

January 23, 2015

“That’s the problem with you [classically trained] dancers. You get some of the best training in the country, and then you move to [New York City] with a long list of things you won’t do.”
—Dance instructor to me at 22

There is very little to be said for the dancer with no resume. Unfortunately (or not), to be considered a professional in this industry, you need to have a very quantifiable work history. That work history will also determine the type of work you get booked for in the future and who is interested in you as an artist. Without a solid resume, without real world experience, even the most talented dancer is just a student.

We all know this, or at least we should. The problem is that most of us as dancers are ambitious people. We all want the best jobs in the best companies front stage center. The thing that we do not understand right away—or rather what we lack—is a comprehension of the dynamics of the dance world (or any world) before packing up our bags and embarking on long entitled NYC careers. Personally, I remember turning down opportunities with regional companies. Jobs in South Carolina, Washington DC, and Florida came and went in a blink without a second thought because, “I didn’t move to New York, to dance in Washington DC.” I know many young dancers share this feeling. They would rather work for years in the artistic Mecca that is NYC as a freelance pickup artist season by season over working with a smaller regional company somewhere else. This is what I have to say to those dancers, (and my 22 year old self).

DISCLAIMER: What I am about to say addresses concert dance. I am not referring to theatrical, show, or commercial work. Those are completely wonderful and legitimate genres of dance; and what I am about to say may apply to them as well. But not necessarily. Or even at all.

To the green and ambitious, I would being by saying I totally get it! What you desire has its merits. After all I have been lucky enough to work with nine different New York City-based companies, choreographers and projects (and yes, these were all paid positions—thank you) ranging in styles from modern, African, contemporary and ballet. It would be completely hypocritical of me to pretend that either career path was better than the other. Recently I decided to take a gamble and accept a contract to dance with Ballethnic Dance Company based in Atlanta, Georgia. I have come to accept that both types of jobs have their pros and cons.

The mature adult in me needs to start by addressing finances. Yup, money. No one ever planned on being a wealthy (or even rich) dancer. If you think that fame and fortune await you just because you dance in New York City—and your last name isn’t Copeland—then wake up and smell the marley. The reality is that there are only a handful of companies in NYC that pay enough dough to keep you from being evicted—and they all have very well known acronyms. And since not all of us can dance with ABT, NYCB, AAADT, PTDC or MMDG (and if you don’t by now, statistically speaking, you probably won’t) that means you will need another source of income. Theoretically forever. And no, that really cool avant guard company that you love and dream of dancing with doesn’t pay enough either. I have had single shows that have paid me well over my portion of one month’s rent in a Harlem 3bed/1bath. That being true, if you divide that paycheck by all the hours and months I spent rehearsing, you are barley left with a living wage. If that same company was based in a city whose cost of living was not as high as NYC, then sure—but it isn’t. I am not saying that it is not possible to carve out a wonderful life as a dancer who moonlights as a pilate’s or flybarre instructor, and many people do. Or, if you can find someone to go halfsies with on a studio apartment in Dyckmann partitioned by a shower curtain, more power to you. Work it out.

Then there is artistic growth. Without a doubt, a consistent time doing pick up company work in NYC is hard to beat in terms of experience. After all, literally every major working choreographer in concert dance comes through the city at some point through the year. The ability to network with that kind of volume is unparalleled in any other place. At the same time in any one company, the room for artistic growth and versatility in style is usually limited to company repertoire which is necessarily dated (even at it’s most stunning). At best, you can pray for a guest choreographer to be flown in from somewhere else to set something fresh on your company. That somewhere else will probably be New York. To this end, the eighteen year old who needs artistic freedom could make a great case for turning down a long term company contract. Then again, any eighteen year old in NYC who claims to need, “artistic freedom” probably just needs a time-out.

Here is the caveat. Bane of the artist’s existence as it is, without technique artistry is impossible. This is where the standards of concert dance may differ from those of the other dance genres. As a male dancer I can give the following quick points about technique:

1) No one with any real money (even very little real money) is going to give you a job when your hip is up in second-besque.
2) It is really tough to get a hired with a double pirouette.
3) A triple pirouette is only one more than two.

How about those double tours? A-la seconde turns? Is your Lateral T square and are your contractions initiated correctly? And if your feet resemble something better suited to be on a breakfast plate than in a tendu, then you are going to need to work on some good ol’ fashioned technique. Whether it’s Graham, Horton, Vagonova, Checcetti, Dunham, or Luigi, you will need to be stronger than the local professional training program student in at least one of the aforementioned styles to get a check. I am convinced that the only reason I landed my first contract was because by the grace of God I nailed a triple lateral T turn in a room full of 74 other dancers. If you are not sure what that means, this next paragraph is for you.

It is extremely difficult to refine your training in one of the biggest cities in the world. The dancers who come to the city have already achieved their accolades in their conservatories, and professional training programs. By the time you are 22, most conservatories simply are not accepting applications. Open studios may be the daily workout for the working dancers, but if you need to really excel and surpass your technical limitations, at the very least you are going to need to enroll in a work study program and find an instructor who is willing to invest the time and energy in you as a promising (meaning talented) pupil. This usually means taking consistent private lessons. Even then, the growth that you find working this way simply cannot compare to the results that come from daily company classes followed by a 6-10 hour rehearsal day under the surgical eye of a ballet mistress or company director who is really investing in you. Except for the two unpaid ballet apprenticeships I had, only one out of the the nine companies I worked with in the city gave company class; and that was only intended to get us warmed up. As a dancer your technical proficiency should always be improving, not plateauing or diminishing. If you feel like your technique is suffering as you progress from season to season, it might be time to consider ditching the artistic experiences for some serious company rigor.

So what does all this mean? Without knowing where you are in your career it means nothing. We all have to take a look at ourselves and our abilities and work to maximize our opportunities. No contract lasts forever. No one gig makes a dance career. The overall message here is do not shoot opportunities in the foot. There is nothing wrong with working for a few years in a regional company while coming back to NYC in the off season to pick up work with the local companies. Smaller companies with great names can be stepping stones to bigger things. There are so many roads to success that no one’s path is the rule. You also have to decide what success means for you. If your goal is to become a huge downtown choreographer, then sticking to the grind in the city might be your calling. If you are more performance-based then the more variety on your resume the better. You have to make a judgement call. I would still not undo any of the work I have done in NYC. The company position I have now only came because a director I worked a season with in NYC recommend me in the first place. All the same, the time I spent in-between gigs could have been better spent dancing under a longer contract somewhere else. So far I can say with conviction that it is not just the body of the dancer, but the body of work that makes a career shine.


—Robert Graham
Freelance Dancer, Writer

Dance Lessons For My 22 Year Old Self