Nine years ago, Del Mak decided he was done performing for artists like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and One Direction. "I'd done everything I wanted to, and I was tired of the rat race," he says. "My body was starting to hurt." The next obvious step? Choreography. Though "obvious" doesn't mean "easy."
For commercial dancers looking to transition to behind the scenes work as an assistant or choreographer, Bloc Talent Agency's Steve Gaeto offers two pieces of advice. First: There's no one set way to go about your career. Second, much of it comes down to relationships. "It's about being a reliable person who people can trust," he says.
Give It Time
A transition like this doesn't happen overnight. "A good rule of thumb is to give yourself two years to develop a new craft, business or career," says Sophia Kozak, a career counselor with Career Transition For Dancers. And while a pandemic might translate to fewer opportunities, it's a great time to gather your materials, says Mak, now an in-demand choreographer for pop artists, award ceremonies and commercial campaigns. "More people are working from home, so they'll have time to read your emails," he says. "Get your portfolio together—edit your reel, work on your visuals—and then push it out."
Express any changing career desires early to your agent, if you have one. If a dancer comes to Gaeto with a request to start assisting, one of his first questions is: Who? "If that person is a client I also represent, I'd be happy to let them know, once an opportunity presents itself," he says. Highlighting any special skills—roller-skating, say, or aerial work—can help you get noticed if a choreographer needs someone with a particular expertise.
Show Off Strategically
Mak puts a lot of stock in how he presents his portfolio. "We work in a visual art," he says. Although he had already learned how to edit video and use Photoshop, he hired both a graphic designer and a backend designer to bring his vision for his website to life. The attention to detail paid off: "Clients have said, 'We hired you because of your website,' " he says. He curates his content carefully for each social media platform. "People hiring me for commercial work want to see my choreography," he says, "but a lot of people on Instagram, for example, want to see my face, so behind-the-scenes stuff is much more beneficial."
Harness Your Network
Networking doesn't have to feel inauthentic, says Kozak. "There are so many ways to show up and connect—take a class from someone you admire, or see a piece by a choreographer and share your experience of it," she says.
Early on, Mak resorted to cold-calling tactics, which he doesn't recommend. "I had a reply rate of maybe 10 percent, and of those, I think I got three jobs," he says. Instead, he suggests starting with your current contacts: "Say, 'I've got a new reel. Is there anyone you could forward it to?' "
Gaeto recommends attending dance community conversations. "There's a lot of talk right now about improving the contract terms of dancers working on tours or nonunion projects," he points out. "If there's an open-door meeting, participate—connect with your peer groups."
Find Scholarship Money
Career Transition For Dancers recently updated its eligibility requirements for scholarships for dancers looking to train in a new field or skill, to make them more accessible: Dancers must have five years or more of professional dance work within the last 15 to 20 years, totaling at least 70 weeks of work and gross earnings of $40,000 or more.
Take the Small Jobs
Gaeto encourages clients looking to transition to be flexible on two fronts: compensation and availability. "Say yes to opportunity," he says. "If I call you and say, 'Hey, I have a nonunion music video with a talented director, but they only have X amount of money per day,' you should still take that job."
For instance, "So You Think You Can Dance" allows Bloc choreographers to present their work live for the executive producers. "A lot of people might say, 'Well, I have to put these dancers together and rehearse them, and I'm not getting paid,' but I'd say invest in this opportunity—I've seen it pan out," he says.
Mak encourages choreographers to fill noncreative roles on projects, as production assistants or COVID-19 supervisors who ensure cast and crew meet safety protocols, as a way to get your foot in the door. "That's how people start," he says.
Do Your Homework
Knowing who's who and what's on tap will give you a leg up. "Read the trades—Variety, Playbill—and know what's going on," says Gaeto. "The clients who do their homework are able to hit me up and say, 'I saw that this movie is going into production this summer. I'd love to be considered.' "