Jobs Guide: Desperately Seeking Dough

June 19, 2007

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king…” sings Frank Sinatra in the song, “That’s Life.” How to add to that litany of occupations? Ask a dancer! Lots of top-notch movers take on offbeat tasks for extra cash when the going’s slow, all in the name of their consuming passion for dance.

Though their daily schedules are rigorous, many dancers who freelance with smaller companies extend their days even further. Resilient and hard working, they take on odd jobs to make ends meet, and to keep their feet beating the marley. Dance Magazine interviewed seven troupers about the (curious) jobs they’ve worked.

Musa Cooper, freestyle street dancer extraordinaire, starred on last summer’s TV hit show, So You Think You Can Dance. The former collegiate track athlete and self-taught mover has also danced for Jay-Z and Beyoncé at Radio City Music Hall, taped a commercial with Wade Robeson, and toured with Macy Gray and Neil Young. As if that’s not enough, Cooper also cleans windows.

Cooper, based in New Jersey, initially entered the dangerous world of skyscraper window washing as a part-timer during summers. “I’m a wild person, so it was a natural thrill for me,” says Cooper. Skyscraper work entails rappelling off buildings while dangling above the streets in a chair-like rig, and climbing ladders way up high. Cooper says his job is like “being paid to rock climb,” and that his top climb-and-wash was 50 stories high.

For the past three years Cooper, who now is part owner of a window-cleaning company, has moved into residential areas. But he misses the exhilaration of working on skyscrapers. With all his achievements, does he still wash windows? “I’m doing windows a lot less now that I’ve chosen to dance,” he says. “I’ve got an agent, so I only do it about once a week. I look at it as extra money if I’m not busy auditioning.”

Dressing like bees, sea creatures or giant orange “whatevers” is all in a day’s (or night’s) work for some dancers. Jennifer Harmer, a member of New York’s Misnomer Dance Theater, was paid to be the “spunky bee” at a swanky, two-day party for ESPN’s employees and their kids. Harmer wore a fabulous costume created by the Muppets costume designer, and led kids up to the Spelling Bee, where she had to comfort the losers and congratulate the winners, all with a bee-like personality. “I think putting on the costume was my favorite part of the day,” she says. “It was my first experience becoming a character.” Harmer got to choreograph some moves for her three bee-mates, too. “We got paid a lot of money for this gig—it was corporatized fun, which they take very seriously,” she laughs. For extra cash, Harmer now works the coat check room at a celebrity-studded club located smack in the heart of New York’s trendy meatpacking district.

Atlanta Ballet dancer Nathan Griswold has taken on a variety of side jobs during his career. One of his most notable non-dance experiences was donning a full purple unitard (fingers and all) for a gig at the opening of The Atlanta Aquarium. With only his face exposed, he weaved throughout the throngs, moving as instructed, like a sea anemone. “It was a one-day job and it paid around $200, so it was worth it for a couple of hours,” he says.

Abigail Rasminsky was an aspiring modern dancer when she took a few costume-clad odd jobs. “Once I was hired to work a party at the Museum of Natural History,” she recalls. A slew of performers were paid to dress up in absurd creature costumes and roam around, weaving in and out of garrulous guests while they downed elegant hors d’oevres. Rasminksy sported a huge orange “head” and a bright orange body suit, replete with feathers. “During our breaks we’d take our heads off, and eat in the basement with people on stilts, and jugglers and such,” she says. Rasminsky’s friend was cast as a caterpillar, and was instructed not to get off the skateboard she careened around the museum on—on her stomach. Her dancer discipline kept her on board, even as drunken revelers trampled and tripped over her. “It seemed like a great job,” says Rasminsky. “We left there with bruises and battle scars and $300 checks!”

Mirah Moriarty and her partner Rodrigo Esteva are founders of the San Francisco–based company Dance Monks. The two have created a “fairytale” book of the odd jobs they’ve had over the years, listing each and every activity they’ve taken on to survive. “We have a pretty extensive list of what we’ve done in order to pursue our passion for dance,” Moriarty says.

To cut their costs, the two moved to Mexico, where Esteva sold cheese made by homeless children (which the president of Mexico now enjoys). They also sold alarm systems, vitamins, his paintings (he had time to paint?) lampshades, marmalade, coffee, and paper. He taught flute to kids, movement to children with Down Syndrome, and gave chair massages at flea markets. All this, in addition to dancing every day!

Moriarty has sold her sculptures, scarves, bags that she designed (these are busy folks) and Vermont Teddy Bears (she learned that grandpas make decisions about which bear to purchase more quickly than grandmas). She’s taught relaxation to Mexican businessmen and dance to seniors. “We learned to be good sales people,” she says. The experience seems to have paid off. Now living in the United States, Dance Monks sells their dances to companies in Montreal and Amsterdam, and tour with their work twice a year. Moriarty and Esteva also made time for another ongoing project: their 3-year-old son Oscar.

Though you’ve probably never met him, you may have slammed your phone down on freelance dancer John Corsa. During his “Philadelphia period,” Corsa, who works with MOMIX and the Los Angeles-based Diavolo dance group, conducted phone surveys and street intercepts for a telemarketing company. “Basically we just dialed and dialed and dialed,” he says. “Someone would pick up once every fifteen calls.” Luckily, Corsa was able to laugh off any hostility thrown his way once they did answer. “People would get really riled up at the political surveys and just go off,” he recalls. “I thought it was funny.”

Desk jobs can have real perks. MOMIX dancer Katherine Fisher rubbed shoulders with some serious bling-meisters when she worked as a secretary at a classic car dealership. Sitting behind a desk made out of a giant Chevy body, Fisher buzzed celebs and hoity-toity business folk into the Rolls Royce showroom behind her desk. “One day a posse of really good looking guys breezed in and naturally I buzzed them in,” she says. Fisher was busy trying to chat up the hunky bodyguards, when about 20 minutes later, a huge custom convertible Rolls pulled up outside the showroom. The wildly famous Diddy, and Mace, the rapper, jumped into the car, and “People started mobbing them,” says Fisher. They were strutting about in their ride, and “their appearance was the talk of Tenth Avenue for the rest of the night,” she recalls.

While dance jobs are artistically rewarding, they don’t always pay the rent, so for many dancers, the ability to improvise is as necessary offstage as it is on. Versatility is key when juggling constantly morphing income sources and rehearsal and work schedules. But as Katherine Fisher says, “Dancers are so passionate about what we do that we find we can endure menial, and physically and mentally demanding tasks. We’re also able to handle financial insecurity. We’ll do whatever we have to in order to keep dancing.”

Nancy Alfaro, a dancer and writer, lives in the borough of Queens.