Stop Asking When I’m Going to Get a “Real” Job

"Our daughter was a dancer! Until she decided to get a real job. Oh…not that your job isn't a real job, of course." I was at a wedding when one of the groom's relatives said this to me. "That was so rude," remarked a friend after the woman left. "I can't believe she said that to you."

I shrugged. I'm used to it. People imply that dance isn't a real job all the time—especially when they find out that my income comes from a mixture of dance, freelance writing and personal training. Juggling multiple jobs is the norm for most artists, but to many nonartists, it's confusing. And while some people might find my dance career more legitimate if I had a full-time job with a company, I know that many would still see it as a "fun" thing I'd grow out of eventually.

I'm fortunate that my immediate family never questioned my decision to pursue dance. That probably helped me withstand the criticism I got elsewhere. Once, when I was visiting home for the holidays during college, I ran into a high school teacher of mine. He asked me what I was studying, and I told him I was double-majoring in dance and English. "Really, dance?" he asked. "You haven't given that up yet?" In college, I got tired of introducing myself as a dance major to nondancers and hearing comments like "Oh, I wish I could have a fun major like that!" or "You can major in dance?" "I thought dance classes were just for P.E.," said my first-year academic advisor.

When it came time for graduation, some peers suggested I didn't deserve to graduate with honors because so many of my courses were "easy" dance classes. People constantly asked me if I would go to grad school, and they weren't referring to MFA programs. "I always thought you'd become a doctor," said one family friend. "Why?" I asked. "Because you're smart."

I've been working professionally for nearly seven years now. If there's a point at which people stop asking "Are you still dancing?" I haven't made it there yet.

I used to skirt these awkward conversations by introducing myself as a choreographer. While I do other freelance dance work, my own choreography is my first priority. To some, choreographer is a more impressive job title. It implies that you're the boss. That your ideas are valuable. But there is no choreography without dancers, and I don't want to contribute to the undervaluation of dance as a skill. I am, and will always be, a dancer first. So that's how I introduce myself now.

I don't spend much time trying to justify my profession to people who make it clear they aren't interested in hearing what I have to say—except maybe to tell them that I started dancing when I was 3 years old. I don't even remember my life before dance, so, no, I can't imagine a life without it.

I also find that responding to a question with another question can be the most effective way to show someone that they're being rude. When I ask, "Why don't you think dance is a real job?" or "Why don't you think dancers deserve to be paid for their work?" most people don't have a good answer.

When they are willing to listen, my favored approach these days is brutal honesty. I talk about how long it really takes to make a dance, and how many steps go into bringing it to the stage. I talk warming up before a show, and the body care that's required afterward so you can wake up and do it all again. How hard it is to balance that with other work.

The main reason people don't see dance as a real job is because dancers don't make much money; we don't make much money because people don't value our work. It's a real capitalist catch-22. This is especially true here in the U.S., where we rely so heavily on private funding for the arts. Nearly 60 percent of that funding goes to just 2 percent of arts organizations, and those big institutions aren't commissioning a lot of early-career artists like me.

So again, I turn the question around: "Do you think that art should exist in our society?" "Yes." "Then what have you done recently to support an artist?"

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021