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By Roger Lee
After the applause subsides and the curtain closes on the last show, dancers take a deep sigh of relief. For members of a secure company, their hard-earned vacation time has finally arrived. But for freelance dancers, this marks the beginning of a period of uncertainty. Either way, dancers often wonder, “What do I do now?” Dance Magazine spoke with Melissa Rector of Koresh Dance Company, James Ihde of Pennsylvania Ballet, and Karine Plantadit, most recently of Come Fly Away, to find out how they cope with the sudden lack of work.
Hard to Handle
When an active dancer becomes jobless at the end of a tour or performance season, it can be a hard pill to swallow—especially if you’re not part of a company roster. “One of my darkest periods happened after I left Saturday Night Fever in 2000,” admits Plantadit, a charismatic performer who regularly stopped the show in that Broadway musical. “I was confused as to where to go and absolutely burned out from the Broadway schedule of eight shows a week. I was lost in my professional choices, which I thought had no direction.”
After a rigorous tour there is often a sense of pressure about what to do next. Like Plantadit, many freelance dancers worry about how they will sustain themselves, whether they will find consistent work, and if they still have a future in the dance field. It can be a very scary time.
It can also be a time of great emotion. “We work so hard all season, the dancers become very close to each other and the work,” says Rector, who is also assistant artistic director of Koresh. “It is very personal and intimate. When the excitement starts to settle, I miss it almost immediately.”
Rector continues: “The first couple of weeks I feel a little lost and I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know how to relax sometimes without feeling guilty.”
Relaxing and Reflecting
“It is great to take some time for yourself to relax, enjoy the sun, breathe, spend time with friends,” says Rector. “Your summer break is a great time to get back to the basics of dance, get back to your roots, and remember why you love to dance.” Rector, who is a powerhouse of a dancer, does this by taking Ronen Koresh’s popular advanced modern jazz class in Philadelphia. “I love to take Roni’s class in the summer. I can enjoy myself without the stress and pressure of a show. As dancers, we need to learn to just relax and breathe sometimes. It has taken me a while to get to that place.”
A similar outlook comes from Ihde, known for his strong partnering and intriguing stage presence. “Sometimes,” he says, “you just get burned out.” Ihde feels that if there was a lot of anxiety during a performance season, then there needs to be a lot of relaxing afterwards. “I like to take four or five days off before even thinking about going to the gym, or anything else physical,” he says.
For Plantadit, a 2010 Tony Award nominee for her performance in Come Fly Away, the end of a performance season signifies a new beginning. “After a tour you do not start at zero again. You have to embrace this new, more experienced version of yourself and reflect on how you grew throughout the process. That reflection is your next offering to your next gig,” says Plantadit. She also works to rejuvenate her mind into a peaceful and strong state before embarking on her next audition. “Going in with a desperate attitude does not help at all,” she says. “I want to walk in ready and prepared to give myself to the work. I want to be clear on how this new project will benefit my life professionally and personally. It is a two-way avenue.”
“When I was younger and taking as many dance classes as possible at The Rock School, I was thinking about improving and getting better all the time,” says Ihde, who continues that kind of schedule today. “If I am not spending the summer working in the dance field, I am spending time training and conditioning my body at the gym.” His workout consists of weight-lifting and cardio exercises such as running on the treadmill, using the rowing machine, and circuit training.
After performing an average of eight shows a week for a year and a half, Plantadit seeks to rebalance her body. “I take acting classes and push myself to do something new,” she says. “I work on my voice, go swimming to equalize my body, take daily yoga classes, and eat properly.”
After a season of Koresh’s demanding work, Rector conditions her body with the help of massage therapist Lawrence Tran. “He gives an awesome Zen tissue therapy massage and works closely with your joints in a way that resembles acupuncture.”
Rector also spends her off-time developing her teaching. “I love teaching in the summer too. I can give back to my students. I like to have fun in my classes. Dance is a joyful thing and we are supposed to enjoy it!” she says. She feels revitalized when she witnesses talented and passionate dancers coming to class with a hunger for growth.
“I prefer to have a summer job, usually in the field of dance,” says Ihde. He has spent several summers working as a guest artist with BalletX, a small contemporary offshoot of Pennsylvania Ballet. This past summer, he spent some time in the classroom, taking a stimulating course called “Survey of Dance Studies.”
Plantadit feels that off-time can be the perfect time to develop your personal creativity as an artist. “Dancers tend to wait on other people,” she points out, “and they don’t realize their own power.” She says that when you’re not loving what’s going on around you, that is just when you “are called to create and be the trigger to something new.” Case in point: About four and a half years ago, Plantadit and a couple other ex-Tharp dancers sat down and decided together to approach Tharp in hopes of a new project. That led to an open-ended exploration in the studio that eventually took off as Come Fly Away (see cover story, March 2010).
Plantadit urges dancers “to remember that your point of view and your way of giving to dance are worthy. “Whether you have a job or not, you are worthy!” From her own experience of performing in other people’s works alternating with her own projects, she encourages dancers to stay strong through it all. “You have to learn to create a self that is constant and not dependent on specific projects. It is like the wave of an ocean. We are the ocean and our work is the wave. The ocean is way bigger than any wave that may come and go.”
Roger Lee performs with SHARP Dance Company, teaches hip hop master classes at Mid-Atlantic Ballet and Philadelphia Ballet School, and works as a freelance arts publicist and journalist.
From top: Karine Plantadit. Photo by Matthew Karas; James Ihde and Riolama Lorenzo of Pennsylvania Ballet in Robbins’ In the Night. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy PAB; Melissa Rector of Koresh. Photo by Pete Checcia, Courtesy Koresh.