Money Talks

Socializing with your company's donors

When patrons linger at an after-party to celebrate a performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Lauren Grant, who’s been dancing with the company for almost 20 years, shows up to greet them. “I really like meeting donors because they obviously like the work enough to pledge some of their money,” she says. “Not every dancer in this group does that, and we are not asked to do that.”

Once upon a time, dancers were required to schmooze—and more. The dark side of ballet history in particular reeks with century-old accounts of ballerinas who were expected to sleep with their male patrons. Although this extreme policy no longer exists, the uncomfortable “pay for play” idea still lingers in corners of the dance world.

As a professional dancer, you will be invited to social functions where you can interact with donors. While these events are not mandatory, you might feel obligated to volunteer your time and celebrity to cultivate sponsorship. Some artists, like Grant, enjoy these parties. But newer dancers might wonder if they have to go, what to say when they’re there and how to handle inappropriate behavior if a patron crosses the line.

To Go Or Not To Go

When you sign a contract with a professional company, the agreement focuses on your responsibilities in the studio and onstage. But because American dance companies receive little government funding and rely on private sources for financial stability, they market you—the dancer—to help drive interest and contributions. “Dancers are an organization’s most potent resource,” says Janis Goodman, former chairperson of Pennsylvania Ballet. “Funding has become so difficult that companies focus their efforts on individual donors and how to seduce them.”

While dancers are not obligated to help raise money, you might be concerned that refusing to schmooze could negatively affect your career. That’s not entirely so, says Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. “It could be hurtful if you are aloof and reluctant to engage. But it’s a gray area,” he says. “At the end of the day, the dancer’s career is made by how they dance.” Performers are hired for their talent, but companies want to work with people who are also friendly and willing to go above and beyond to help the organization. Companies cannot overtly criticize dancers for refusing to do so, and the day-to-day consequences for dancers remain unclear. But, the big picture is easy to see: Unsatisfied donors means unhealthy companies, and unhealthy companies means no places to dance. It’s a risk that’s on everyone’s mind.

Perks and Dangers

There are great advantages to attending donor functions. “Connecting with people could lead to future opportunities,” says Vanessa Zahorian, principal at San Francisco Ballet. Through her friendships with longtime donors, Zahorian has broadened her network, met Olympic athletes and posed for a sketch artist whose designs might be used in a future SFB collaboration. Grant has also had positive experiences, exchanging ideas with people who are enthusiastic about her work. “It can be isolating being stuck in the studio all day,” she says. “Donors can give an outside perspective about the pieces you’ve been slaving over.”

But there are times to be wary. “There’s a definite line between donors and dancers,” says Zahorian. “I’ve always been cautious not to tell everyone about my personal life.” Grant knows of a dancer who received excessive, unwanted attention. “It’s tricky because a donor might have access to the people who work within an organization,” she says. “Contact information has to stay private so that dancers are not hounded in any way.”

Be aware of situations that could become extreme, such as stalking or sexual advances. It is okay for patrons to follow your career at the theater and presence on social media; it is not okay for them to smother you or make inappropriate comments. Jacobus remembers an incident in which a dancer reported that a board member was singling her out at events, and he addressed the situation right away. “If you ever feel uncomfortable, tell someone immediately,” he advises. “Go to human resources. It’s management’s responsibility to do something about it.”

Keep Your Eyes Open

Mingling with strangers might be the last thing you want to do at the end of a show or in the midst of a grueling season. Socializing can often feel like another performance. But recognizing the people who support you could be win-win: They appreciate your efforts, and you are showered with flattery. 

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21.

PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at

Sylvie Guillem, via

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

Keep reading... Show less
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

Keep reading... Show less
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

Keep reading... Show less
When it comes to BodyVox, it's best to expect the unexpected. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy BodyVox

In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected.

Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

—Terry, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less





Get Dance Magazine in your inbox


Win It!