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By Ann Farmer
Modern dancer Darrin Wright often squeezes in two long rehearsals a day. He’s in such demand that numerous choreographers in New York City employ him, including Susan Marshall, Terry Creach, Jane Comfort, Tami Stronach, and Bill Young/Colleen Thomas. This fall he performed in a dozen or more productions. But in the mornings, he doesn’t sleep in. He rises at 6:30 a.m., slips into a blue dress shirt, fastens a gold nametag to it, and heads to his bank job.
“It’s amazing that you can work with five different choreographers and still need a job,” says Wright. His part-time occupation as a bank teller provides about half his yearly income and all of his health benefits. The job also yields him a retirement fund. “Most of my dance colleagues don’t even know what that is,” he laughs. He confesses that he’d quit the teller job if he could afford to. “It gets a little crazy.”
To help pay the bills, dancers take on everything from straight-laced office positions to part-time waitress gigs. Probably the most common criterion is whether the job offers enough flexibility to pursue their passion for dancing.
“I made my intentions clear; I wasn’t planning to be a bank person,” says Wright, who is allowed to set his own hours as long as he informs his supervisors a month in advance. Some weeks he works 40 hours at the bank, standing for long periods in orthopedic slippers behind the teller window. He often does pliés and stretches when no customers are around. When he goes on tour, he’s excused from work. Rarely does he have time for dance classes. Still, he can’t help feeling pressured whenever the bank asks him to fill in for an absent co-worker and he’s got a rehearsal scheduled. “I make it clear that I’m offering all the hours I can. When I’m not there, I’m not slacking off.”
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko is another dancer who packs his schedule. In his second year with Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia (which pays him a modest hourly rehearsal and performance fee), he doesn’t manage one part-time job, he multitasks several, and they’re all dance-related. He teaches hip hop, the first dance style he ever learned, at a neighborhood gym where the members range from 18 to 65 years old. “It’s a great class,” he says.
“I’m able to share my gift and what I know about dance.” He organizes his own schedule as a teen outreach specialist for Philadelphia’s Free Library system. He signs students up for library cards at their schools and entices them to explore the library system with offerings of hip hop classes at local branches. He also administers a program for the Philadelphia chapter of the advocacy organization Dance/USA, which provides resources and opportunities to the dance community. When he needs a break, he models for yoga photographers at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts in exchange for room and board. “I love the work I do,” he says. “It’s beautiful the way movement circulates and travels.”
A few years ago, Lauren Engleman, a classically-trained modern dancer with the New York–based Christopher Caines Dance Company, was juggling 10 jobs. She babysat; she worked as an extra for the Metropolitan Opera Company and as a restaurant hostess. She taught ballet and Pilates at three studios and danced for four companies. Finally, she’d had enough and condensed everything into one or two main side jobs. She currently teaches at a dance studio in Connecticut. “It’s a good stepping stone,” she says.
Meanwhile, focused on performing at her peak, she cautions dancers against taking side jobs that are too distracting. “Don’t sacrifice your intentions,” she says, pointing out that late night jobs, for example, can make it tough to get up for morning classes and auditions. “Five to 10 years down the road, you never got on a stage and what are you left with?”
That’s not an issue for Elisabeth Rainer. At 20, she’s already been dancing professionally for several years, currently with LiNK contemporary jazz company. She’s nailed her financial picture down too. She receives a salary and free classes by working as the front desk manager for Broadway Dance Center in Manhattan, a job that requires a lot of data entry and interpersonal skills. And she lives rent-free by helping her wheelchair-bound roommate, whom she found on Craigslist, get ready for work each morning. “It’s opened my eyes to how normal life can be with a physical disability,” she says. “I think the jobs I have are amazing, but they’re not for everyone.”
Creative job solutions can be found lots of places. Robyn Felicity Conroy, a dancer for Tere Mathern and Josie Moseley in Portland, Oregon, tired of being a retail sales clerk. Last year, she began her own business called Simplify Me, in which she organizes events and peoples’ cluttered spaces. “It was a lot of word of mouth and passing out my business card,” says Conroy, who enjoys tapping into a skill she wasn’t exploring as a dancer. On the other hand, “I wake up in the morning anxious because it’s up to me to create the life I want and the job I want.”
Another Portland dancer, Jim McGinn, is even more atypical, although he might disagree. A physicist working in the field of nanotechnology, he sees a strong correlation between science and dance, which he began pursuing in earnest 14 years ago. Describing, for instance, how a choreographer might ask him “to jump very high but feel very heavy,” he approaches dance problems like a scientist. He tests various solutions “to see what’s best.”
Currently, he studies ballet and release work every day, and he performs regularly with Oslund + Company. Because he’s a respected senior scientist, he can set a flexible schedule for himself and often relegates his lab work to odd hours. The hardest part is that he operates under the constant strain of fatigue. And lately he’s put off writing as many scientific papers as he used to. But he can’t stop dancing. “I’m driven,” he says.
In Chicago, Martha Mulligan also balances dance with a very demanding second profession. During the day, she teaches math to high school students. Several evenings a week, she grabs a sandwich and races off to rehearsals with Dance COLEctive, a modern troupe directed by Margi Cole. She is equally committed to dancing and teaching. “If I pursued dance exclusively,” she says, “I’d waste some of my talent.” Sometimes she combines the two, using dance movements as a visual aid in the classroom to get a math concept across. “I know they’re laughing at me,” she says of the students. “But they get the idea.” She adds that being “on” in the classroom has taught her to relax more as a performer. “I rarely get the jitters.”
Generally speaking, professional ballet dancers have it easier financially than modern dancers. Ballet salaries are often substantial enough to live on. Mindy Mosolygo suspects she may be the only dancer in the Grand Rapids Ballet Company to hold a side job other than teaching dance.
Every Monday for the last 10 years, she’s worked as a receptionist at a local spa and hair salon. “It uses a different part of my brain,” she says, describing her growing expertise with computers and how her dealings with customers have taught her to be a better public speaker. The customers also get a kick out of her. “They’re always saying, ‘Do a little dance for us,’ ” says Mosolygo.
Her boss has tried tempting her with a full-time position. But that’s when Mosolygo puts her foot down. “I never would take a job,” she says, “that would interfere with my dance career.”
Ann Farmer writes for magazines about culture, law, and other topics. She also freelances as a breaking news reporter for The New York Times.
How to plug into teaching gigs when you’re on tour
You’re probably itching to stay busy and creative when you’re on tour, and a little extra cash wouldn’t hurt either. So what if you could teach in a studio in the area where you’re performing? Broadway Connection, founded by Broadway dancers Melissa Harres and Jennifer Jancuska, is your link to the outside dance world. The group launched last December and is building its client and talent rosters. After you submit your performance and teaching resumé with some references, your skills are assessed, and Broadway Connection matches you with studios on your tour route that are interested in what you’d like to teach: from hip hop to ballet, to acting and voice, for any level. “We want to offer everything,” says Jancuska.
“So many studios across the country pay to fly people out to teach master classes,” says Jancuska. “But why do that when there’s a professional already performing in your town who wants to teach?”
The Connection crew got their start when they linked up some touring cast members of The Drowsy Chaperone with studios on their route, starting in Rochester, NY. “There are about 200 studios in any touring area,” says Jancuska. “We contact them with head shots, resumés, information about the show, and the studios are usually eager to find out when talent would be available to teach.” Broadway Connection takes care of all the logistics—finding the gigs, booking, and travel—and only takes a commission when you get a job. www.broadwayconnection.net.