Career

Memo To Non-Dancers: No, Being A Professional Dancer Is Not Just "Fun" and "Easy"

Garnet Henderson and Rebecca Hadley, PC Julie Lemberger

"So what do you do?"

This is the first question many of us ask when we're getting to know a new person—but it's one I've come to dread. When I tell people that I'm a dancer, occasionally I am met with enthusiasm and interest. But more often, I'm met with confusion, condescension or even hostility. "Oh, that's fun. I wish I could do something fun like that," a new acquaintance once said to me. She then proceeded to tell me about how difficult her job was and how hard she was working, making it clear that in her mind "fun" meant "easy." And if I had a dollar for every time a simple getting-to-know-you conversation has turned into a debate in which I've had to defend my career choice, maybe I could quit one of my other jobs.


Henderson working as a personal trainer at Studio 26. PC Mallory Rosenthal

That's another thing that makes conversations with non-dancers more complicated: dance doesn't pay my bills. To other artists, this is practically a given. Few of us are able to earn a living wage exclusively from the work we are most passionate about. So, I have other jobs: I'm a personal trainer and a freelance writer. When I introduce myself, I could just say that I'm a dancer and choreographer, and sometimes I do. But I take pride in all the things that I do, and in fact, I view them all as part of my dance practice. The money I make training and writing is what enables me to dance and make dances.

But explaining all that to non-dancers is a mouthful, and it's confusing for many people. Most assume that being a professional dancer means dancing for a big company, but fewer and fewer dancers' jobs look like that. I get tired of fielding questions about whether I'm just going to "pick one" career and stick with it, or explaining that dance isn't a "hobby" for me just because it's not where most of my money comes from.

I know that this is a negative cycle: experience has made me reluctant to talk about dance with non-artists. I feel guilty about not being a better ambassador for my art form. Maybe, I think, if I were better able to talk about why I'm willing to engage in this neverending hustle, people would come to understand and respect it more. It's a financial issue, too. I think that all art is labor, but non-artists will never see it that way or be willing to invest in art if they don't understand the work that goes into it.

Henderson and Hadley. PC Julie Lemberger

Many of the dancers in my circle share these frustrations. "I often find people's attitudes towards dance completely off the mark. Most people think that dance is some kind of inborn gift, that dancers are naturally graceful, and that they themselves are naturally awkward and could never dance. That attitude downplays the many years of training required to do what we do, and the consistent hard work that dance demands," said Rebecca Hadley.

But how to explain the effort behind something an audience may perceive as effortless or natural? "Dance is just as nuanced and specialized as any PhD program in the sciences," says dancer, choreographer and teacher Eleanor Barisser. "I use that as an example because to most people, that is objectively rigorous. People understand that there is a ton of work behind the scenes to get to a PhD." I've tried similar tactics with mixed success. The truth is that dance is unique in its combined demands on the physical body and the mind, and I find that translating it into purely academic or purely athletic terms always falls short.

"I've been able to surround myself with others in the arts community in New York who 'get it' and have had these frustrating conversations less often, which I prefer," says Hadley. "But that also leaves the questions: How do dance artists reach the general population? Do we want to? Should that be a goal?"

As a choreographer, I do want to reach non-dancers. I don't want to play to an echo chamber; I want people outside my community to see my work. What's more, it's helpful to my career as a young artist to show producers that I can generate an audience. But my friends, acquaintances and even family members seem to fall into two categories: the ones who "get it" and make an effort to come and see me perform, and the ones who don't. I don't expect that everyone in my social circle will make it to every performance, but I often debate whether it's worth it to continue trying to reach the people whose interest doesn't seem genuine.

I haven't given up. I'm thinking about ways to bring my work to audiences who might not otherwise seek out dance, like dance on camera (since video is so easily shared online) and public site specific performance. But there are plenty of people who have been exposed to dance and still don't value it. This is a personal issue for me and many other dancers, and with arts funding in such a precarious position politically, there is more at risk than just our hurt feelings.

Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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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 swandreamsproject.org

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 swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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.

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Dance As Activism
Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
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. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
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."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

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.

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