Memo To Non-Dancers: No, Being A Professional Dancer Is Not Just "Fun" and "Easy"
"So what do you do?"
This is the first question many of us ask when we're getting to know a new person—but it's one I've come to dread. When I tell people that I'm a dancer, occasionally I am met with enthusiasm and interest. But more often, I'm met with confusion, condescension or even hostility. "Oh, that's fun. I wish I could do something fun like that," a new acquaintance once said to me. She then proceeded to tell me about how difficult her job was and how hard she was working, making it clear that in her mind "fun" meant "easy." And if I had a dollar for every time a simple getting-to-know-you conversation has turned into a debate in which I've had to defend my career choice, maybe I could quit one of my other jobs.
Henderson working as a personal trainer at Studio 26. PC Mallory Rosenthal
That's another thing that makes conversations with non-dancers more complicated: dance doesn't pay my bills. To other artists, this is practically a given. Few of us are able to earn a living wage exclusively from the work we are most passionate about. So, I have other jobs: I'm a personal trainer and a freelance writer. When I introduce myself, I could just say that I'm a dancer and choreographer, and sometimes I do. But I take pride in all the things that I do, and in fact, I view them all as part of my dance practice. The money I make training and writing is what enables me to dance and make dances.
But explaining all that to non-dancers is a mouthful, and it's confusing for many people. Most assume that being a professional dancer means dancing for a big company, but fewer and fewer dancers' jobs look like that. I get tired of fielding questions about whether I'm just going to "pick one" career and stick with it, or explaining that dance isn't a "hobby" for me just because it's not where most of my money comes from.
I know that this is a negative cycle: experience has made me reluctant to talk about dance with non-artists. I feel guilty about not being a better ambassador for my art form. Maybe, I think, if I were better able to talk about why I'm willing to engage in this neverending hustle, people would come to understand and respect it more. It's a financial issue, too. I think that all art is labor, but non-artists will never see it that way or be willing to invest in art if they don't understand the work that goes into it.
Henderson and Hadley. PC Julie Lemberger
Many of the dancers in my circle share these frustrations. "I often find people's attitudes towards dance completely off the mark. Most people think that dance is some kind of inborn gift, that dancers are naturally graceful, and that they themselves are naturally awkward and could never dance. That attitude downplays the many years of training required to do what we do, and the consistent hard work that dance demands," said Rebecca Hadley.
But how to explain the effort behind something an audience may perceive as effortless or natural? "Dance is just as nuanced and specialized as any PhD program in the sciences," says dancer, choreographer and teacher Eleanor Barisser. "I use that as an example because to most people, that is objectively rigorous. People understand that there is a ton of work behind the scenes to get to a PhD." I've tried similar tactics with mixed success. The truth is that dance is unique in its combined demands on the physical body and the mind, and I find that translating it into purely academic or purely athletic terms always falls short.
"I've been able to surround myself with others in the arts community in New York who 'get it' and have had these frustrating conversations less often, which I prefer," says Hadley. "But that also leaves the questions: How do dance artists reach the general population? Do we want to? Should that be a goal?"
As a choreographer, I do want to reach non-dancers. I don't want to play to an echo chamber; I want people outside my community to see my work. What's more, it's helpful to my career as a young artist to show producers that I can generate an audience. But my friends, acquaintances and even family members seem to fall into two categories: the ones who "get it" and make an effort to come and see me perform, and the ones who don't. I don't expect that everyone in my social circle will make it to every performance, but I often debate whether it's worth it to continue trying to reach the people whose interest doesn't seem genuine.
I haven't given up. I'm thinking about ways to bring my work to audiences who might not otherwise seek out dance, like dance on camera (since video is so easily shared online) and public site specific performance. But there are plenty of people who have been exposed to dance and still don't value it. This is a personal issue for me and many other dancers, and with arts funding in such a precarious position politically, there is more at risk than just our hurt feelings.
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.
You ever just wish that Kenneth MacMillan's iconic production of Romeo and Juliet could have a beautiful love child with the 1968 film starring Olivia Hussey? (No, not Baz Luhrmann's version. We are purists here.)
Wish granted: Today, the trailer for a new film called Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words was released, featuring MacMillan's choreography and with what looks like all the cinematic glamour we could ever dream of: