Learning Curves: Class on the Cheap
Work-study programs reward dancers with training and exposure.
When Sean Bell walked into the audition for upcoming Broadway musical Dames at Sea, he felt more at ease than the typical auditioner. He was confident that choreographer Randy Skinner, a guest teacher at Steps on Broadway in New York City, would recognize him from the many times Bell has taken his class—not to mention from Bell’s frequent post at the front desk. “It happens all the time,” says Bell, who has held a work-study position at Steps since 2010. “I’ll walk into an audition and there’s that choreographer I’ve taken class with, and he knows me by my first name.”
Bell’s story proves that who you know—and who knows you—is a prime factor in auditioning and booking jobs. But let’s face it: Dance classes, especially master classes, can be expensive networking opportunities, let alone pricey training tools. So it’s no surprise that work-study programs, which offer free or discounted classes in exchange for work at a studio, are popular and competitive gigs. We spoke to top studios with thriving work-study programs to get the inside scoop on how the programs operate and what you need to know if you’re looking to nab one of the spots.
One of the busiest open studios in the Big Apple, Steps on Broadway has a highly competitive work-study program that puts dancers in command of the front desk, café or boutique. In return, they receive unlimited classes for $4 each, a considerable discount on the standard $18 single-class price. There’s also room for growth: Steps has what they call “promotionary positions,” including front desk assistant manager, phone receptionist and night manager, for which dancers get free classes.
Work-study programs across the board offer invaluable networking opportunities. Dancers become part of what Steps operations director Matthew Martine calls “a creative home,” which can be a huge benefit to students new to an often-overwhelming city. And the savviest dancers take advantage of the unique position of the front desk job. As AnnMarie Hudson of Los Angeles’ Millennium Dance Complex puts it: “The front desk is a frenetic hub of the L.A. dance scene—choreographers, artists, working dancers and agents all must pass through this portal.”
Perks also lie in gaining administrative experience and learning the daily operations of a large studio. At Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, Washington, for instance, work-study participants do everything from cleaning the studios to helping out at performances. “It’s a great entry point for students to get involved with the Velocity community, either administratively or on a deeper level as a dancer,” says Stefanie Karlin, who supervises the program. And she would know: Karlin started out as a work-study student at Velocity before working her way up to her current position as producing director, where she helps manage the studio and its programming.
Landing the Job
So how can you get a leg up on your competition? For one, it pays to know the studio to which you’re applying. Claire Bataille, director of the Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago, says she receives emails on a weekly basis from dancers interested in the program, and the candidates that top her list are those who “have been taking class and who are invested in this studio in particular.” She also likes to see resumés that detail non-dance work experience, especially in customer service.
Karlin notes that Velocity’s work-study application even asks specifically if dancers have taken class at the studio before, and which classes or teachers they frequent. She adds that dancers need a strong work ethic, and she looks for those “who are responsible, and who we can count on to show up and do their tasks,” she says.
At Steps, where roughly 20 students apply to the program each month, Martine says that one of the first things he asks applicants is what their goals are and how they’ve worked to achieve them so far. “I definitely look for people who have a sense of who they are and what they’re looking for, because otherwise we can’t really guide them properly.” He offers twice-weekly “help hours,” where dancers can come to him for advice on everything from booking jobs and choosing classes to finding apartments and writing resumés.
Make Training Your Priority
Freelance dancer Stefanie Piatkiewicz praises the sense of community she has gained as part of work-study program at the Lou Conte Dance Studio. It was through her work-study connections that she landed her current teaching job with Mindful Practices, an organization that brings dance and yoga into Chicago schools. But she cautions dancers considering a work-study position to not get caught up in the administrative work. “Make sure you leave time in your schedule to actually take class,” she says.
At Steps, dancers are given two set shifts a week, which allows them to plan the rest of their schedules ahead of time. Martine encourages dancers to take advantage of Steps’ vast offerings and master teachers: “This is a great way to get yourself up to that New York level and be ready for auditions,” he says. “You can really focus on your training and take 10 classes a week.”
Bataille agrees. “I never want anyone to feel like they’re just volunteering at our front desk,” she says. “They need to be getting the training that they want—that’s the whole point of the program.”
Meredith Benjamin writes about dance in New York.
Image courtesy iStock
By the Numbers
Steps on Broadway, New York, NY
Number of positions: ~120
Commitment per week: 7–10 hours
Perks: Earn unlimited $4 classes, discounted master classes and studio rentals
Term: 12-week minimum
Velocity Dance Center, Seattle, WA
Number of positions: 5–6; 30 in the summer
Commitment per week: 5 hours
Perks: Unlimited $5 classes and discounted space rentals
Term: 3 month rotation
Lou Conte Dance Studio, Chicago, IL
Number of positions: 10–14
Commitment per week: 8 hours
Perks: Unlimited free classes and discounts on workshops, master classes, merchandise and private sessions at the Pilates studio
Broadway Dance Center, New York, NY
Number of positions: ~300
Commitment per week: 2–4 hours
Perks: Earn a $5 class for each hour worked
Term: 3 month minimum
Peridance Capezio Center, New York, NY
Number of positions: 75
Commitment per week: 6 hours minimum (varies slightly by position)
Perks: Earn a $6 class for every 1.5 hours worked (varies by position); merchandise discount
Term: 3–6 month minimum; can be extended
Millennium Dance Complex, Los Angeles, CA
Number of positions: 25
Commitment per week: 7 hours
Perks: Unlimited free classes
Term: 1 year
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: