How building a side business within the dance world can transform your career
Allison DeBona with artÉmotion Summer Intensive students. Photo by Alexis Ziemski, Courtesy DeBona.
Early during her career at Pennsylvania Ballet, Abigail Mentzer discovered a new creative outlet: sewing. “I needed something outside the studio to stimulate my brain in a different way,” she says. “I was taking ballet too seriously. Once I let go, I enjoyed it more.” But her sewing soon became more than an outlet. Today, her custom-designed dance skirts have blossomed into a full-grown business with an office, three administrative employees and a sewing team she manages remotely while performing on tour with The Phantom of the Opera.
Mentzer’s not alone in the desire for a secondary outlet within the dance world. Many dancers find opportunities to flex their creative and managerial muscles, building businesses that lay the groundwork for post-performance careers. “Knowing I’m capable of doing something else gives me confidence that once I’m done dancing I won’t be lost,” Mentzer says. Not only does entrepreneurship prepare dancers for the future—the sense of empowerment it brings can add depth to your artistry now.
Explore the Possibilities
Like Mentzer, New York City Ballet soloist Craig Hall’s photography business grew out of a hobby. “I realized that there was a side of ballet that so many people don’t get to see—the whole studio setting, the rehearsals, the downtime, the prep time,” says Hall. As he honed his eye on Instagram and started uploading images to the photography website EyeEm.com, people began asking to purchase his work—and as simple as that, a business was born.
For Ballet West first-soloist Allison DeBona, who co-founded the artÉmotion Summer Intensive last year in collaboration with Cleveland’s Ballet in the City, where she had previously taught master classes, entrepreneurship grew out of a love for teaching combined with strong ideas about what she wanted to see in dance education. “It’s about building children up to succeed,” she says. “What they learn from dancing will make them successful at anything.”
Learn the Trade
Dancers are already equipped with the basic skills of entrepreneurship: discipline, drive and a willingness to take risks. For DeBona, this was all the foundation she needed to launch a summer intensive from scratch. “I’m sort of bullheaded—I just kind of learned along the way,” she says. “We didn’t have any money. The only advertising was on my personal social media accounts—but we ended up with 70 kids.”
The key is networking—and knowing when to ask for help. For Mentzer, as demand exceeded what she was able to sew herself, she had to learn the all-new role of managing a business. “I realized there are no stupid questions,” she says, “and that people are really eager to help. The ballet world can be cutthroat, and I was expecting the rest of the world to be that way—but it wasn’t.” Some of her most helpful contacts were PAB board members, who connected her with advisors and lawyers who could explain the complex paperwork of hiring employees and setting up an office. While on tour, she takes advantage of the opportunity to meet with boutique owners around the country.
Find Your Balance
Launching a business while maintaining a performing career is a careful balance. “I’m on my computer all morning and evening,” says DeBona. “I feel stressed at times, but I’ve never felt overwhelmed.”
For Mentzer, balance comes from learning to delegate to her employees. “I do everything remotely,” she says. “If I have two days off, sometimes I’ll go back to Philly to meet anyone new that I’ve hired while on the road. It’s not easy.” The hardest part, she says, is keeping a steady routine. “I take class or work out in the morning, and then work on my computer for a few hours in the afternoon before going to the theater,” she says. “Seeing people wear my skirts is what keeps me going.”
Hall’s approach is to keep dance his first priority. “I would like my second business to become bigger, but right now I need to focus on being a performer,” he says. “Photography is downtime physically, but not downtime creatively.” Rather than scheduling time with his camera, he follows his inspiration. Hall always has his camera in his bag and often snaps behind-the-scenes portraits during spare moments. When he’s on the subway, which has become one of his favorite places to create portraits, he might watch for unique people.
Enjoy the Rewards
Any dancer will tell you—the balancing act is worth it. “Our art isn’t tangible,” says Mentzer. “You rehearse and then you perform and it’s gone. After spending a few hours sewing, I have something to show for my efforts.”
DeBona believes the outside work has made her a better dancer. “Dancing is more what I like to do and not a means to survive,” she says. “It’s wild what you’re capable of when you’re passionate.”
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.