Not the Big Apple: Why a Smaller City Might Be Right for Your Dance Career

May 24, 2022

Sure, if you can make it in New York City, you’ll make it anywhere—that’s how the song goes. But what if eschewing a larger, more dance-saturated city like New York or Los Angeles in favor of a smaller one allowed you access to better funding, more choreographic opportunities and quicker name recognition—not to mention a lower cost of living? For many recent dance grads, that’s reason enough to put down roots in a lesser-known dance city, like Cleveland or Minneapolis. 

Greater Access to Financial Support 

“In Chicago, we have a huge system for supporting individual artists,” says Kia Smith, founding executive artistic director of South Chicago Dance Theatre. “In other cities, sure, if you’re a big dance company, you can get funding. But Chicago has so many awards and grants for individuals. I’ve been able to get support to build my own creative voice.”

Choreographers Alexandra Bodnarchuk and Megan Gargano report similar experiences in Minneapolis and Cleveland, respectively. “There are tons of theaters in Minneapolis and plenty of opportunities that consistently happen every year to make work,” says Bodnarchuk. “There’s a lot of state funding for the arts here—our tax dollars go towards that.” Gargano, who is co-artistic director of dance company and school The Movement Project in Ohio, describes the nonprofit arts community in Cleveland as “vibrant and strong.” “We have a lot of great regional funding opportunities, and it’s an easy application process—they’re not trying to trip you up,” she says. “They’re there to support you.”

You Can Make Your Own Opportunities

Smith never feels New York FOMO because of the creative freedom and company recognition she’s enjoyed in Chicago. As a big fish in a smaller sea, she’s forged experiences that only a company with a multi-decade tenure could manifest in New York City, like creating a choreographic diplomacy program—which she’s in the process of getting trademarked—and traveling with her company to Korea and, soon, the Netherlands. And though a smaller city means fewer dance companies overall, for Smith, that translates to a greater interest in and access to collaboration. “Chicago Repertory Ballet artistic director Wade Schaaf and I did a choreographic exchange this season—I’m creating a ballet for them, and he made a group work for my company,” she says.

Kia Smith. Photo by Michelle Reid, courtesy Smith.

Build a Reputation Faster

Living in a nonmajor city can offer you the chance to fast-track your success. “It definitely takes time to work your way into a community, but by year five here, I’ve built up name recognition for myself,” says Bodnarchuk. “I have a community of dancers who are interested in my work. I’m building an audience. I have funders and private donors.” In 2023, The Southern Theater in Minneapolis will present her second evening-length work. “My career has grown in ways that I was only dreaming of in 2016,” she says. 

Having grown up in Chicago, Smith already had a built-in network to expand on. “It’s really easy to connect with people, like my elementary school, where the company now teaches,” she says.

Lower Rent

One obvious perk of a smaller city is the cheaper cost of living. “The best thing about being located in Clevel affordability aspect,” says Gargano, who has seen many friends struggle to make a dance career work in more expensive cities. “They work hard and perform and rehearse and take class, but the structure of having a paying dance job isn’t really there in those cities. Our dancers are working their butts off, too, but they’re getting somewhere with it—they live in their own apartments, they have thriving relationships with family and friends, they have dogs, they can go on vacation.”

The Downsides

“It can feel insular in Chicago,” admits South Chicago Dance Theatre’s Kia Smith. “For example, I think Chicago Repertory Ballet and the Joffrey are the only full-time ballet companies here. But in New York, there are so many.” If you live in a more geographically isolated city, like Minneapolis, you’ll have to travel far if you want to get to the nearest dance hub, says choreographer Alexandra Bodnarchuk. 

And while a smaller pool of companies may mean more arts funding for those that exist, it also means that there likely won’t be as robust an infrastructure set up to support freelance artists. “We offer classes, but we don’t offer as many as Gibney does,” says choreographer Megan Gargano. “No one in Cleveland is doing that.”

It can be difficult to find recognition on a national level, too. “It’s hard to get funding from the National Endowment for the Arts,” she says, adding that there can be a stigma about the type of work you make if you live in a smaller town. “One of the things that bugs me the most is when people don’t take artists in these cities as seriously. The work being made in any place is just as valid.”

Megan Gargano. Photo by Jonny Riese, courtesy Gargano.

How to Know What’s Best for You

“There’s a difference between loving a city and knowing it’s right for your career and work,” says choreographer Alexandra Bodnarchuk. She suggests paying attention to what you don’t want. “Maybe you don’t want to live in a city that’s noisy,” she says. “Okay, then don’t move to New York. Or know you’ll have to live far away from the noise, and what will that mean for your commute time?” 

Choreographer Megan Gargano suggests asking yourself: “What’s your living situation going to be like? What’s your financial situation going to have to be? What other jobs would you probably have to do to maintain that lifestyle?”