Dancing Life

Photo Credit: Bellevue Fine Art Repro (Scott). Licensed CC-BY-NC.
Photo Credit: Bellevue Fine Art Repro (Scott). Licensed CC-BY-NC.

It was on a balmy summer evening in 1956, seated high in Athens’ open-air Odeon of Herodes Atticus, that I watched Prima Ballerina Maria Tallchief magically glide and float through a performance of Swan Lake. Like many other six-year-old girls, I instantly wanted to be that ethereal creature, and like most other six-year-old girls my passion faded over time. But there is that small number of girls in whose hearts ballet, Beyoncé, tango, Savion Glover, or some other experience of dance ignites a burning fire and fuels their life. For those few, life becomes a narrow beam with one focus: mastery of their instrument, their own body.

While most athletes master a specific group of muscles and singers master their breathing and respiratory system, dancers must learn to control and implement every system in their bodies, forehead to toes: muscles, tendons, joints, respiration, everything. Furthermore they must understand the fundamentals of their bodies as machinery. This requires knowledge of nutrition and of physics, no less than any athlete. The more they master, the more work it takes to maintain that mastery.

On stage, a dancer appears to pass effortlessly and painlessly from one move to the next. The truth is much more complicated. What an audience sees on stage is the culmination of years of study, research, practice, determination and discipline.

The little girl who takes her first ballet lesson is stepping down a path that will take every moment of her life, a path that requires not only vigilance and discipline, but also demands an understanding of relationships within her own body and outside it.

I met over lunch recently with a group of local female dancers, to discuss how to craft a career in dance. In Seattle, they told me, women coming through the University of Washington or Cornish School of the Arts dance programs are overabundant, creating a glut of competition for larger companies such as the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Evergreen City Ballet, or Spectrum Dance Theater. There are also local teachers, like Spectrum’s Donald Byrd, whose national reputations draw dancers. This results in many dancers starting their own, smaller companies. While that might be great news for audiences, who have the opportunity to view a broad range of dance visions brought to production, it brings great insecurity to the individual dancer.

Dancers who are invited to join large companies are usually covered by union rules. They have predictable hours and wages. They have access to health insurance. They receive dance classes and opportunities to regularly showcase their skills. Freelance dancers have none of that security. They must purchase health insurance on their own, work the hours required for each contract, and pay for their own classes to keep their bodies in tune. Unless they benefit from a family trust or spouse’s income, this usually means they must work a second, full-or part-time, job with benefits that will give them flexibility to take classes, attend rehearsals, and participate in productions. At times they choose between paying for health care and paying for the daily classes they need to maintain their body.

Freelance dancers are also open to workplace behaviors that other professions would view as predatory. For example, one of the prominent local companies accepts many more dancers into the rehearsal process for their productions, but only pays the dancers who actually appear in a final production. This might mean months of time committed for rehearsal, financial commitment for classes to support the production, and saying no to other opportunities only to be cut from final production and receive no pay.

The most egregious story of predation I heard about was Inception Dance Theater. Google “Inception Dance Seattle” and the returned results will show links to a website filled with beautiful photographs of dancers captured in elegant motion, videos of them stating their dreams and aspirations, and Inception’s founder/artistic director, Christian Richards, expounding about dance. What the site doesn’t show is how the young, ambitious, hard-working dancers in this company signed contracts with Richards that filled them with hope they’d found their artistic home. They spent hundreds of hours rehearsing for, marketing, and performing in Inception productions over the course of more than a year. They were repeatedly told that payment was simply delayed. Then they arrived for a rehearsal one day only to learn that the company was no more and Richards was nowhere to be found. The dancers were never paid a single dollar for all their work.

Then there is the gender gap. The U.S. mythology of dance as the purview of gay men has been somewhat revised with the introduction of hip-hop and the TV shows Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. Still, the ratio of female to male dancers is high, with the numbers of men anecdotally reported much lower in ballet than in modern or hip hop. Male dancers often start their training much later in childhood than females, and some start as late as their early twenties. This dearth of men contributes to additional behaviors that would not be tolerated in other professions: bonuses and higher salaries paid just for being male. In addition, men with less training and experience than women are often paid more, sometimes up to twice as much, for the same performance. Some dance schools waive fees for male students. For example Evergreen City Ballet waives first year fees for boys between four and seven years of age.

When I ask the gathered dancers what advice they would give another dancer about Seattle, they are unanimous in their response: If you want to make a living, go somewhere else where you’ll have a better chance to support yourself. Go to Europe if you can; they like U.S.-trained dancers. If you want to innovate and play with other highly creative artists, find a way to make Seattle work for you.

When I ask what advice they would give a new dancer they say:

  1. Find a variety of teaching styles to learn from.
  2. Find teachers with the same body type as yours, they will understand how to make it work and how to overcome its challenges.
  3. Take courses that will help you understand your body’s functions.
  4. Start auditioning before you have to, while you’re still in school or being supported by your family.
  5. Intentionally find a mentor who can serve as sounding board and adviser.
  6. Work with companies that are run by dancers. While there are no guarantees these will be healthy, their reputations can be confirmed among other dancers.
  7. If other dancers tell you not to pursue a dance opportunity, take them seriously.
  8. There’s always pressure to put something on your resume and show no down time. Avoid making decisions on that basis.
  9. Recognize that “company” dancers are often ignorant about the life of a freelance dancer.
  10. Be open to every type of dance and every opportunity.
  11. Your story has to be your own path, not the repetition of the one some famous person travelled.
  12. Join a company that proves it can take care of you.
  13. You will get “no” all the time. Don’t take it personally.
  14. Acknowledge the elitism that exists within the dance community. For example: ballerinas do not consider themselves dancers, they are ballet dancers.

When I ask what they would like the public to know, they say:

  1. We get joy from telling you a story through movement.
  2. We are not dolls. We work hard and expect to be respected and our craft taken seriously.
  3. The terms ballerina and dancer are not interchangeable. Ballet is a specialty. Oh, and not all ballet requires tutus.

Why would any parent let their daughter pursue dance? Just ask any dancer and you’ll get the same answer you would get from a writer or musician: “It’s who I am.” The hours of study, class, research, and rehearsal all culminate in the exquisite moments of public expression that make it worthwhile. Still, it raises the question for those of us who are lucky enough to receive the gift of their talent: are we actually worthy? Do we keep up our end of the artists’ relationship? Do we balk at ticket prices? Do we support small, artist-led productions? Do we smile politely at a party when introduced to a dancer, while thinking, “Must be nice to just prance around all day?” While they’re doing their preparation work, perhaps we ought to spend a bit more time on ours.

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