In college it was easier for me. I knew if I worked hard and did my best at x, y, and z then I would be rewarded. There was a linear pathway where I could easily see the rewards my efforts would reap. Nothing seemed to prepare me adequately for life outside of college as a dancer. Suddenly, Denise Vale wasn’t peering over me while in the midst of a deep contraction during the infamous Graham 16 bounces at 8:30am. Now instead of having classes guaranteed to me 5 days a week – nothing was guaranteed. The structure of school, which was entirely comforting for me, was gone. No one warned me that even once you begin to work with a company, the sense of a consistent work period remains ambiguous. Now with the economic recession looming over the arts and non-profit sectors, dance companies across the board seem to suffer having adequate rehearsal periods and performance opportunities. With the inconsistency of work as a dancer, how do you maintain the life style, health, and mindset of a performer? Where’s the how-to-guide artist survival guide? Believe me, Barnes & Noble doesn’t have it because if they did I would have at least 20 copies of it and knowing me they would all be highlighted and doggie-eared galore (thank you Dad for my anal-retentive qualities, that is all you shining through).
So survival out in this concrete jungle means the basics – shelter, food, and clothing and for the dancer this list extends to include the oh-so-necessary class. Beyond the basics, everyone has a personal list of lifestyle requirements to uphold and maintain a feeling of normalcy and contentment. For me this has been a process of trial and error. I now know I prefer to live in Manhattan rather than in a borough; it may have taken a U-haul, 50 boxes, lots of sweat, 4 months in BK, 50 more boxes, select curse words, and a moving company but its about the journey, right? I prefer to eat organic, but I definitely make sacrifices for the sake of affordability. I feel sane and in optimal health with my yoga membership in my neighborhood so when I can’t make it to class one day I know I can do something physical and stimulating. If I take Zvi Gothermier’s ballet class I work well on improving my technique and have fun doing it. Seeing and experiencing art and performances is a necessary part of my routine. Last but not least, when I am not actively working with a company, I need to be creating something of my own or learning a new form of dance. These “needs” are what allows me to feel personally content and connected to my career as a dancer even when I am not immediately employed with a project. Why it seems to have taken so much time to figure out this ideal equation is beyond me. Once again, patience is something I need to work on!
So the catch – how do you afford these personal requirements? Also, how do you juggle the job and these necessities so you feel you retain the lifestyle of an artist rather than an office manager? The biggest news flash for me after graduating and obtaining my immediate goal of getting into a dance company was that it simply wasn’t enough financially. The most fantastic dream job comes around, and the money woes are still there. Whether the way you earn a living is through a dance-related field or not, everything you do informs the other. The skill set and relationships you learn and develop while in an office advance your dancing and your dancing mind and devotion readily enhance the work you do in any other profession.
There is no scientific equation to finding the optimal parallel/intermediary job, I can only share what has worked for me. In addition to dancing, I have made a living as an office manager with Cornfield Dance, occasionally guest teaching/choreographing, and bartending/waitressing at sister restaurants Bounce sports bar and Vero wine bar on the UES. The administrative work I do enjoy because I am constantly learning about the inner workings of a dance company alongside people who understand and appreciate dancers. I see what works and what doesn’t within the company and since having one of my own is something I long to embark on in the next chapter of my life this information is endlessly valuable. The guest teaching and choreographing are ideal opportunities, but at the moment these gigs are few and in between.
My main gripe stands with my simultaneously wonderful and painful restaurant job. It does have its perks – good food, free liquor. How many occupations encourage you to drink on the job? Counting money at the end of a fuzzy night, being told by my manager, “good job today,” still makes me laugh. I can enjoy meeting people and working in a relaxed atmosphere and making quick money. The long, occasionally alcohol-induced hours have brought prioritizing to a whole new level – post-work cocktail versus ballet at 10am? While in the bar atmosphere, it is the life-style of most employees to stay out late and sleep in until their next shift which typically doesn’t start until late afternoon. As a dancer, I need to intentionally separate myself from this lifestyle to ensure my main focus doesn’t slip away while in between gigs. Lately more than ever I’ve been feeling the nagging tug to leave the restaurant industry in the dust and obtain my income through more “adult-like” ways – whatever that means. The only thing I fear is relinquishing the flexibility of my schedule. I tested my theory and set up a meeting with a temping agency. May be another flexible income option, however any line of work not incorporating my art is just another parallel step. I have a feeling that leaving the bottle opener at home and trading it for pumps and business slacks may only give the illusion of adulthood. The meaningful work takes place on my time off, further establishing and networking myself as an artist.
Another bizarre phenomenon post-graduation is to look and see how many of your fellow graduates are still dancing. It is interesting to see the wonderful spins everyone’s lives have taken. However, if a career in performing is where your heart lies, make sure you can maintain a lifestyle which includes class and auditions. I often see dancers who have jobs which slowly start to creep in on their dancing and take over their lives. This is by no means a negative thing. Rather it is quite wonderful to have a job. It is only negative if you want to have a job in performing and you find all your time is spent in an office sorting papers and answering phone calls. Where are you making your connections? Who are the people you are meeting? What skills are you honing? If the answers are geared towards your non-performing job, just take note. Maybe you quit, open up your schedule and find a job with more flexibly. Maybe you love it and educate yourself further to advance your new-found skill set. Any choice you make is ultimately just a choice. Nothing is permanent or lasts forever, both the life of a performer and the life of an office worker.
Instead of fighting it, which trust me I did plenty of, I’ve learned to accept the less-elating, profitable, non-dance weeks. My current goal is to generate my income through dance-related work and to wean out my waitressing/bartending/temping positions all together. Sad as it is, I fear it will be a pay cut and I am concerned about maintaining the lifestyle I have created and become happy with for myself.
You can’t just dance for a living. However you can make a living submerging yourself in the industry in various capacities. Those pointed toes can only get you so far. Your mind and dedication you use to think about your artistry can and is useful in the “real” world. Tap into your vast intelligence as an artist and apply its practical use to make the most of yourself while not physically dancing.