When Your Dream Dance Job Takes Place Offstage
It's fall 2009, and I'm standing in Andy Blankenbuehler's midtown office where he, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others are working on their next show, Bring It On: The Musical. Already it's clear that Miranda/Blankenbuehler collaborations are just daring enough to be groundbreaking. Blankenbuehler hands me a note scribbled on a page from the script.
In that moment, I realize I've found my place in the dance world—as a writer, telling the stories of the artistic greats.
I'd moved to New York to perform in musicals. But just a few months into a dream contract, I realized that I'd been so caught up in proving I could "make it" that I never explored career options that might better fit my personality.
In reality, dance training prepares you to do a lot more than perform. It gives you a specialized insight that many dance-related professions need in the people they hire. As Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's Joyce Theater, says, "There are many careers in dance that don't include performing, that are equally as important—and equally as satisfying!"
Michelle Fletcher working with her own company members.
Savannah Lee Sickmon, courtesy Fletcher
Company manager for Camille A. Brown, tour manager for Beth Gill, artistic director of Here Now Dance Collective
How she got into management: "Growing up I was a die-hard ballerina in the making. Then I became one, and it didn't bring me joy. So I got an MFA and found directing and choreographing. The skills involved—the organizing and puzzle-piecing—translate into managerial work. After grad school, I moved to San Francisco and started cleaning the studio for Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab in exchange for rehearsal space. Two years later, I was her company manager. Every opportunity that has come to me has been through relationships."
What it's like to change your dream: "You wrap up so much of your identity in one trajectory, so when you decide not to do that thing, it's like 'Who am I?' There's still something that triggers when I see ballet, a feeling of loss, even though I know that I'm much happier with this path."
Biggest challenge: "On tour as a manager, you're still in a creative process—you're so close to the work. There are times when I get really maxed out and don't feel like making my own work. I just need time to refill the tank."
Heather Olcott at work
Production stage manager for Dance Theatre of Harlem
How she discovered stage managing: "At Point Park University there's a class where you work backstage. I became really intrigued and interviewed for the stage management minor. But I'd spent so many years and so much money pursuing performing, I asked my parents, 'Would you be upset if I didn't do it?' They said, 'Of course not. Don't be afraid to change your dreams.' "
Special skills required: "You have to be able to communicate well with all departments—dancers, artistic staff, production staff. They're all going to talk with you differently."
Best part: "Seeing the dancers onstage nail it. We're a family, and knowing that I played a role in their success is really rewarding."
Misconception about the job: "A lot of people don't know what a stage manager does. Any time the lights change, it's because somebody called a cue. Because I'm the production stage manager, I also 'advance' the shows, communicating with venues a month ahead about what our tech needs are, prepping to be there. I attend rehearsals, as well, learning new ballets so that I'm prepared to call the show. I learn all of the choreography!"
Elizabeth Harrison, PT, DPT
Elizabeth Harrison helping Nashville Ballet dancer Katie Vasilopoulos get back onstage after injury
Martin O'Connor Photography, courtesy Harrison
Physical therapist at Susan Underwood Physical Therapy in Nashville
Why she became a PT for Nashville Ballet: "While dancing at Nashville Ballet, I had hip surgery and one of the PTs had a dance background. I saw how valuable it was to have someone who understood the day-to-day demands."
Best part: "It's really fun to see a dancer onstage again for the first time after an injury. Recently one of our principals danced Odette/Odile for her first role back. I felt like a proud parent."
Biggest challenge: "It can be hard to figure out how to help a dancer heal while respecting the aesthetics of the art form. Maybe someone has an ankle injury, and winging is aesthetically pleasing but it's creating imbalances in the joint. I'll talk to the dancer and say, 'This is temporary. We're modifying your dancing for a short period of time,' and sometimes I'll talk to the artistic staff so they're not giving the dancer a correction that's the opposite of what I'm telling them."
A typical day: "I'm at the clinic weekdays from 7:30 to 5, then a half day on Friday. I see up to nine patients before my lunch hour, when I do lots of documentation for insurance, and then up to seven patients after lunch. During performances, I'm at the theater 30 minutes before the show for anything that needs to be prepped, like taping an ankle, then stay throughout the show. I live close to the studio, so during my free time, I'll take calls, like if someone rolls an ankle. You know they need you, so you try to make it happen."
Advice for aspiring PTs: "While you're dancing, if you can plug away at even just one college class at a time, PT school will look a lot less intimidating."
Lauren Pajer says her dance background helps her know how to speak about dance
James Barkley Photography, courtesy Pajer
Digital design manager for Boston Ballet
Special skills required: "A deep understanding of how to use Adobe Creative Suite, an eye for good photography and a knowledge of what looks good on a dancer. It also helps to know how to speak about dance."
Biggest challenge: "Sometimes you have to really think outside the box because the budget might not be there or maybe the person you wanted to feature just got hurt. The marketing team has dressed up many times as the Nutcracker Bear for our Instagram photos."
Best part: "Being able to showcase something I believe in. My goal is to share with the world that this is something beautiful that's worth paying attention to."
Vice president at Clear Talent Group
Why be an agent: "It's a little more consistent than auditioning and pounding the pavement. I also like being in a leadership position."
Special skills required: "You have to network, which didn't come naturally for me, so I watched other agents and stepped outside my comfort zone. And you have to know what makes a great dancer—there's such a marketability factor we have to consider."
Best part: "When a client I love books something major."
Biggest challenge: "All the no's. Just like dancers deal with rejection, we do too as we're pitching."
Misconception about the job: "That it's a glamorous life! While we do enjoy some perks, it's really a sales job, and you're glued to your computer and phone."
Jeffery Filiault, Courtesy NEA
Director of dance for the National Endowment for the Arts
Special skills required: "Being able to see the bigger picture. I worked as a producer before I switched over to the funding side of things, and I learned how to listen and anticipate needs."
How she got her job: "I applied for it! I've never had a pathway marked out in front of me. It's been about keeping my eyes open, and even if something seemed like a stretch, throwing my hat in the ring and going for it."
Biggest challenge: "The need is so vast that no matter what you're able to do, there's always a bigger need."
Misconception about the job: "That the people working at the National Endowment for the Arts are not accessible. We want to talk to people!"
Courtesy The Joyce
Executive director of The Joyce Theater in New York City
The weight of the job: "I feel a huge responsibility to the dance field. New York is a home for dance, and I take that very seriously. It means keeping up with the needs of the field, making sure we have an audience for things that are less popular, and more popular, and constantly finding ways to find a new audience as well as keep the audience we already have."
Biggest challenge: "You're basically running a business, and your product is dance. The employees need to be paid and the brochures printed, and we're in an old building, so we have to raise money for upkeep—the nonglamorous things that need to be taken care of."
A typical day: "We have an opening night almost every week. You're at performances, at events that are outside of 'working hours' all the time. There isn't really a typical day—that's why I'm still here after a very long time!"
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Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.