Raja Feather Kelly admits he's gone into debt in order to fund his shows. Photo by Kate Enman, courtesy Kelly

Can We Have An Honest Conversation About Who's Really Paying Our Rent?

When I moved to New York City in 2000, my life looked like that of most 22-year-old aspiring modern dancers: I lived with two roommates in a rundown two-bedroom apartment deep in Brooklyn. I was paid $100 a week to dance for Tamar Rogoff, but I also worked the front desk at a yoga studio and as a "counter girl" at a coffee shop. I made a few hundred dollars a week.

But I had a safety net. My parents insisted I have health insurance, so they paid it. If I couldn't make rent, they paid it. And when a rent-stabilized apartment became available—an alarmingly cheap one-bedroom that would allow me to survive as an artist in the city for the next decade—I used an inheritance from my grandfather to pay the sizable broker's fee, which I admitted to nobody. Without help, none of this would have been possible.

This is not an uncommon story. Lots of dancers are aided by parents or spouses—whether it be $100 here or there, a deposit on a venue for a weekend of performances, or a trust fund that allows them to dance with nary a financial worry. But the topic is so heavily cloaked in shame and resentment that few feel comfortable talking about it.

Those who have money are afraid that admitting to it makes their success seem unearned or their path easy. Those who have fewer means feel that they're working three times harder—sacrificing sleep, comfort and sanity—to simply get to the starting line. In fact, while I personally know a handful of dancers who were bankrolled in big and small ways by family, nobody would go on the record to talk about it. The most common response I got was: "I've always worked."

The author dancing for Tamar Rogoff. Photo by Richard Sandler.

This is, of course, absolutely true—so did I—but there is a big difference between contributing financially while dancing for little or nothing and working yourself to the bone to keep from jumping ship to a more lucrative career.

"I'm of two minds about it," says Raja Feather Kelly, artistic director of the feath3r theory, who moved to New York City with more than $100,000 in student loan debt and no parental support. "My first impression when I hear someone has help? I'm resentful. I'm working my ass off to pay my bills and put up a show. But I'd totally take help if I was in their position!"

At 22, Kelly was already dancing with David Dorfman, Christopher Williams and Colleen Thomas, as well as teaching dance classes, but none of it paid enough—it still doesn't—so he cobbled together restaurant work and graphic design jobs, and lived rent-free for a year in a friend's parents' apartment.

"Many people think my resumé is impressive," Kelly says. "But I'm just trying to make a living, and am still in debt!" In order to finance a 2015 show and pay his dancers, he took out a massive loan that he is still paying off.

Can we have an honest conversation about this in the dance world? Can artists who aren't walking on a tightrope cop to how much easier it is to make work when they're not worried about making rent?

I think they should, not out of a sense of guilt or obligation, but for the sake of transparency; by way of acknowledging the financial realities of succeeding—and surviving—as a dancer. If we pretend that we are all just bohemians trying to make it, we fail to admit that some are much better set up to thrive, and that this has zero relationship to talent or drive. Denying the reality of class—just like denying the realities of race, gender or sexuality—will never move the conversation forward, and will never shift the way resources get allocated.

There were times when I felt guilty about the help I got, but never more acutely than when dancers I knew were forced to turn to venues like GoFundMe to pay for unexpected health crises, or immensely talented colleagues were driven out of the field because of impending bankruptcy. In fact, when an injury ended my career and I was paying for myriad healers, family support was more lifesaving than ever.

Kelly admits that, for him, the hustle won't be sustainable for too much longer without something changing rather substantially—and he's not the only choreographer I spoke to who contemplated moving on because it was financially unviable.

The truth is that it is easier to keep going in an unforgiving culture—one in which a fresh BFA graduate or budding ballet trainee will invariably dance for free—if you have a partner or parent who will foot some or most of the bill. Money can't make you a better artist, but it can certainly give you the time and resources to focus on your craft, which is all any artist really wants.

That said, it's not the only way. "I've learned that it's impossible," Kelly says, "but I'm defiant enough to make this possible out of the impossible circumstances."

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Ballet BC dancers Tara Williamson, left, and Darren Devaney in RITE by Emily Molnar. Photo by Chris Randle, Courtesy Ballet BC

Why Do Mixed-Rep Companies Still Rely on Ballet for Company Class?

In a single performance by a mixed-rep company, you might see its shape-shifting dancers performing barefoot, in sneakers and in heels. While such a group may have "ballet" in its name and even a rack of tutus in storage, its current relationship to the art form can be tenuous at best. That disconnect grows wider every year as contemporary choreographers look beyond ballet—if not beyond white Western forms entirely—in search of new inspiration and foundational techniques.

Yet dancers at almost all of the world's leading mixed-rep ensembles take ballet classes before rehearsals and shows. Most companies rarely depart from ballet more than twice a week and some never offer alternative classes.

"The question, 'Why do you take ballet class to prepare you for repertory which is not strictly classical?' has been in the air since Diaghilev's time," says Peter Lewton-Brain, Monaco-based president of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. "What you're doing onstage is often not what you're doing in class."