Be Your Own Agent
It’s every commercial dancer’s dream: You move to Los Angeles, get an agent within your first week, and are immediately inundated with job offers. Because someone else is doing the hard part—finding audition opportunities, getting your name out there—all you have to do is show up and dance. After all, you’re talented enough that you should have gigs falling in your lap, right?
Keep dreaming. The commercial world requires a lot more from you than dance skill, and if you want to work regularly, you have to put in some serious legwork both in and outside the studio. Even if you have an agent—and let’s be honest, it’s almost impossible to make it in L.A. without one—it’s not really the agent’s job to get you hired.
“Agents only make 10 percent of the profit because we only do 10 percent of the work,” says Jim Keith, an agent with DDO Artists Agency. An agent gets you in the door at auditions and safeguards your rights when it’s time to sign contracts, but it’s up to you to actually land the part. So whether you already have representation and are looking to book more jobs, or you’re just breaking into the commercial world, here are some strategies to help you take charge of your professional path.
Get to Class
It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Even professional dancers need to continue to train, to keep both body and mind at peak performance level. Choreographers appreciate the extra effort. “I gravitate toward dancers who are still training,” says Mandy Moore, who often choreographs for So You Think You Can Dance, among other venues. “I think dancers who are in class, expanding their knowledge and keeping their minds creative, are going to be more successful.”
However, class can benefit you in practical ways, too. “I tell my dancers to utilize class to build relationships,” says Terry Lindholm, an agent and co-director of the dance department at McDonald Selznick Associates. Look for classes and workshops taught by choreographers you’d like to work with, as well as by their assistants and even dancers who have worked with those choreographers in the past. “Taking class with any one of those people will help you feel the sensibilities of the choreographer,” Lindholm says. “You’ll also get an idea of what the audition might be like, which will put you one step ahead of your peers.”
Class can even be the place where you land a job. Alex “B-Girl Shorty” Welch, who had a featured role in Step Up 2 the Streets, garnered her second professional gig thanks to a standout performance in Shane Sparks’ class. “Shane likes to pull people out to freestyle,” she says, “so I just went out there and did my thing. He grabbed me after class and invited me to audition for him the next day! If I hadn’t stepped up in class, I wouldn’t have gotten that job.”
Dancing in L.A. is almost as much about who you know as about how you dance, so it’s vital to keep networking. “Choreographers like to work with people they know and who can handle their style,” explains Keith. But if choreographers prefer to hire people they already know, how do you get your foot in the door?
Once again, it starts in the classroom. Get to know your classmates—particularly the ones who work regularly—and introduce yourself to teachers. “It’s great to come up and say thank you,” Moore says. “It may take teachers time to learn your name, but all it takes is that one fabulous moment for us to really notice you. Then we remember you forever.”
You’re networking every time you perform, whether it’s a free showing at a studio or a paid gig. “So many of the people you work with on a job will be able to hire you in the future,” says Samuel Roberts, who has danced in films like Across the Universe and on various industrials, and also performs with Battleworks Dance Company. “If your work ethic is strong, you’re punctual and open to the process, and people know that you’re reliable, they will rehire you. How you behave on set definitely affects how much you’ll work.”
Welch points out that even non-dancers on a job can be good contacts for the future. For instance, if you befriend a music producer or actor, he or she could recommend you for a gig. “It’s all the same industry,” she says. “Almost anybody can help you get work.”
Work the Web
It’s almost unheard of in this day and age for a working dancer not to have some sort of web presence. The easiest way is to use Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, or dancemedia.com. Posting videos of yourself in class or performance will expose your talent to a broader audience, and many casting agencies and choreographers actually search the internet for fresh dance faces. Just make sure that your videos are brief and show you at your best: You want to hook the viewer in the first 10-15 seconds. If you choose to launch your own website, make sure it’s easy to navigate and that it showcases your versatility. Finally, double check that you have the rights to any music and choreography clips you post.
Be aware that photos and videos can affect potential employers’ first impressions of you—so you might want to think twice about posting the evidence from last week’s drunken party. Don’t post anything that you aren’t proud of. You never know who will see it or how it will affect your professional life in the future.
Cultivate Your Image
Like it or not, the bottom line of working in the commercial realm is that image matters. Dress for class in a way that highlights your best features and shows off your personal style.
Before auditions, research the type of performers the choreographer tends to hire, and create your audition look with that image in mind. “You want to look like you’re already in the commercial or video,” Keith advises. “That way, when the casting directors are looking at that sea of dancers, you already belong in the gig.”
Remember that building a saleable image doesn’t mean changing who you are. “People try a lot of things to make themselves more marketable,” Lindholm says. “But if it isn’t real—if it doesn’t come from within—it’s not going to work.” Decide which traits you already possess are worth highlighting. “Whether you’re bubbly or edgy, think about who you are and sell that,” Roberts says.
Most of the time, whether you get a job will still hang on how you dance, and only secondarily on who you know or how you look. However, learning to network, market yourself, and build a unique image will open the door for opportunities to come your way. The more you’re working, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to support yourself as a dancer—and isn’t that really the dream for all dancers, concert and commercial alike?
Above all, remember that you aren’t alone as you put your nose to the grindstone. “The people who are successful in L.A. work their tails off,” Moore says. “It’s OK to work hard—and in the end it’s a sweeter deal anyway, because you worked for it.”
Kathryn Holmes, a former editor at Dance Spirit, is a freelance writer in NYC.
Illustration: Clare Mallison