Tessandra Chavez has always had a desire to create: The San Diego native founded her own company, Unity Dance Ensemble, when she was just 15 years old. Today, her intensely emotive work on music videos, concerts and TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars" has garnered her an Emmy win and two World Choreography Awards. Her latest endeavor brings her back to her company as they compete for the top spot on NBC's "World of Dance."
Chavez recently spoke with Dance Magazine about how the show has taught her new skills, and why she embraces both criticism and failure.
Building a freelance career takes guts, no matter where you're based. Most dancers assume you need to live in major dance hubs like New York or Los Angeles to find enough work. But as these four dancers who are thriving in unique and burgeoning scenes prove, freelance opportunities abound.
Lessons learned as a recent college grad on the audition circuit
When I graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts last May, I felt totally prepared to audition. I had listened to the faculty’s advice, gleaned insight from alum and visiting choreographers and learned everything from how to build my resumé to dressing the part. I felt ready, armed with all the tools to book the concert and commercial work I desired. Or so I thought. I quickly learned that nothing could replicate the experience of auditioning for professional work.
One of the greatest—but most nerve-racking—things about auditioning is that I still see my classmates. Just as badly as I want that job, so do they. Sometimes, I make it to the next round. Other times, I watch my friends make the cut. Self-doubt can creep in quickly, and I wonder, Why not me? But I’ve learned that taking it personally gets me nowhere. As much as I’d like to think I know what choreographers or casting directors are looking for, I don’t. There are so many variables outside of my control, whether it’s height, body type or even where I was standing in the room.
In these moments, I try to define success for myself. Success is personal, not universal. Now, I measure it on how often I work and how much I love the process.
Burnout Is Real
Staying motivated can be hard when sometimes I feel more like a professional auditionee than a professional dancer. At first, I was ashamed that I felt burnt out on auditioning—wasn’t this my life’s purpose, what I paid to go to school for? After graduation, when I went to several large auditions and nothing stuck, I became frustrated and completely exhausted. I took some time off from auditioning to clear my head, and after talking with friends, I realized this feeling isn’t that uncommon.
I started to give myself permission to take a break when I get overwhelmed—there will always be more auditions. I try new fitness classes (anything from running to trampoline cardio), explore a neighborhood or dive into a good book. If I don’t give myself a breather, I become judgmental of myself and my movement—the opposite of what I want to present at an audition. Now I aim to attend two a week so I don’t feel stretched too thin.
Recently, I also pledged that I wouldn’t audition for work that didn’t compensate me well enough—financially or otherwise. There are gigs that might not pay much but will offer me high-quality rehearsal and performance clips, exposure to an artist I’m interested in working with or a flexible rehearsal schedule.
But if I’m feeling stagnant, I’ll mix it up and whip out my character heels for a musical theater audition. Or I’ll find a hip-hop audition to refresh myself with a great challenge and a good laugh.
Learning to Fail Better
Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if I’m not ready to fail—a lot—then the process will be brutal. A couple of months after I graduated, I had several callbacks for a promising opportunity. When I got cut, I shut down. I thought, If I didn’t book this one, there’s no way I’ll book the next one. For a time after that, I avoided auditions altogether. I feared failure. Slowly, I was able to let go of that fear, which allowed me to do better work and learn from my missteps. When I learned to fail better, my fear lost its power.
Each cut presents an opportunity to reevaluate my path, and each audition is a chance to collaborate with different artists. During recent auditions for immersive dance shows, I discovered a desire to create similar work. So I became rehearsal director for a new immersive project with Billy Bell called The God Complex. I’m grateful for what auditioning has taught me about myself as an artist. When I book my next job, I know I’ll be a better performer because of it.
Taking a tip from sports nutrition, more dancers are turning to protein powder to pull off long days of rehearsals. Some grab a protein shake after class, others sprinkle it on meals to give their muscles an extra boost. But does this convenient solution really meet a dancer's needs?
The Right Amount of Protein
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that 15 to 20 percent of the calories athletes eat come from protein. But does that require a protein supplement? “For 98 percent of dancers that I work with, the answer is no," says Emily Cook Harrison, director of Atlanta Ballet's Centre for Dance Nutrition. In fact, research shows that most dancers are getting far more protein than they need. “You're not using that extra protein," says Harrison, “so your body stores those extra calories as fat."
The large doses of protein powder can backfire. “Overconsumption of protein is hard on your kidneys, and doesn't provide any benefit," says Joy Dubost, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eating too much protein creates excess nitrogen in the body, which the kidneys must overwork to expel. Harrison adds that high-protein diets are associated with weaker bones over time, a danger for dancers, who are already at a higher risk for stress fractures.
When It's Helpful
So, does protein powder ever have a place in a dancer's diet? “Protein powder can be beneficial when dancers don't have access to protein right away," says Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist for the School of American Ballet. Grabbing a shake can help you get the protein you need after dancing to assist with muscle repair. “But don't rely on it," Skolnik adds. Instead, she suggests that most of your protein intake come from whole foods, like poultry, fish, soy, nuts and nut butters, milk, yogurt, eggs, beans and seeds.
Read the Label
There are many different types of protein powder on the market, including whey, soy and hemp. “I recommend a plant-based protein powder, rather than dairy or whey-based," Harrison says. “Hemp, for example, is full of omega-3s."
Beware that supplements are not always tested by the FDA, and can contain ingredients that are not approved. “Look for a protein powder that's NSF [National Sanitation Foundation] certified," says Dubost. That ensures that there's nothing present that isn't on the label. Skolnik suggests dancers scan labels for creatine, which can cause gains in weight and muscle mass. And avoid any anti-caking or whitening agents, such as silicone dioxide or titanium dioxide, says Harrison, as well as hydrogenated oils, maltodextrin, arsenic, cadmium, lead or acesulfame potassium (or acesulfame K)—all common additives and preservatives.
Strike a Balance
“There's nothing magical about protein powder," Skolnik says. As long as dancers maintain adequate protein consumption, she advises, grabbing or making a protein shake full of fruits, veggies and even nuts and seeds can help fuel you through a long day. “Dancers are athletes, and it's great for them to view their bodies as such," she says. “They need to fuel themselves for performance and for well-being." A protein shake once in a while won't harm you, but don't regularly substitute them for real meals.
Cedar Lake shut down, and suddenly its dancers were thrust back into the job hunt.
Cedar Lake in Richard Siegal's My Generation. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy BAM.
The dance world lost a cherished company when Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet took its final bow at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June. Just two months prior, its founder, Walmart heiress Nancy Laurie, announced the company’s closure, leaving its 16 members stunned and jobless. “Finding out about Cedar Lake’s final days was shocking,” says Jon Bond, who danced with the company for eight years. “I thought I would finish my career there.”
When it came to finding a new job, it seems natural that many of the dancers from Cedar Lake, a company that had become known for bringing European choreographers to the U.S., would gravitate towards companies with similar contemporary repertoire. This fall, Bond started dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater. Matthew Rich and Joseph Kudra have joined BODYTRAFFIC in Los Angeles, and Guillaume Quéau and Daphne Fernberger are at Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company (formerly The Forsythe Company).
Others are taking the time to explore less traditional routes. Ebony Williams hopes to continue working as a freelance dancer in both the concert and commercial dance worlds. Ida Saki has joined the cast of Sleep No More, under a performance schedule that will allow her to finish her degree at New York University, from which she took a leave of absence upon joining Cedar Lake. Joaquim de Santana and Vânia Doutel Vaz have joined the cast of Sleep No More, as well.
Saki was sad to see the company go, but is excited to find out where the next stage of her career will take her. “It was my dream company, so it was so surreal to be a part of it,” she says. “For now, I’m happy and growing.”
How to keep up your training without breaking the bank
Nikki Chalmers had a plan. After spending a year dancing with Ballet Austin, she booked a contract with Celebrity Cruises, saving the money she made to fulfill her dream of moving to New York City. What she didn’t plan for, however, was how much it would cost for her to keep up her training once she got there. “I had saved up for all of these expenses, like rent and public transit,” she recalls, “but I totally underestimated how much I would be spending on class each week.”
Many freelance dancers simply don’t have the means to pay for single classes or expensive class cards. On average, a 10-class card can cost up to $170, while a single class can run between $12 and $20. To maintain their craft without breaking the bank, dancers need to get creative.
Work-Study Hard, Dance Hard
With no job and no contacts, Chalmers joined the work-study program at Steps on Broadway. Most major studios offer these programs to provide dancers with the opportunity to work in exchange for free or discounted classes. For example, Steps offers work-study participants $5 classes, while those at Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles can take class for free.
Chalmers found that the benefits of the program reach far beyond the wallet. “A work-study program puts young dancers in touch with teachers, mentors and choreographers,” she says, recounting the many opportunities she had to work with some of the teachers she’d taken class from. “Some have gone so far as to work one-on-one with me to nail an audition, or recommend me for jobs,” she adds.
Dancing with other freelancers is smart, both artistically and financially. Newer programs like The Playground and CLASSCLASSCLASS in New York City provide a community-like setting for dancers and choreographers to workshop their ideas and form new professional relationships. Dance Exchange, near Washington, DC, hosts a similar program, Friday CLASS, where area artists and dancers are able to get in the studio to exchange ideas and information. Due to their experimental nature, classes of this kind can be as low as $5, and some are kept at a smaller size so that the class feels personal and more exploratory.
Want to start a similar project in your area? Begin by reaching out to your contacts, booking space at a local studio and inviting your freelance friends to bust a move for a few bucks.
In Your Area
Check out National Dance Week, which runs during the spring, for free classes. At nationaldanceweek.org, you can sort events by region to find a class that’s close to home. If you’re interested in teaching, NDW encourages artists to create events on their own.
Often, smaller-scale “dance weeks” are held at other times of the year by local organizations. Keep an eye on the bulletin board at your area dance center to check for any upcoming opportunities.
Keep In Touch
Check in with your former professors or dance teachers. If they’re teaching class, ask if there’s an opportunity for you to guest (to take class for free), whether it’s at your home studio, college or another dance center. Your alumni network is a great resource, too.
Look out for job opportunities that come with company class as a perk. For example, dancers at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City can take company class even if they aren’t currently cast in a show. Some companies even allow freelancers to take company class as the first step toward building a relationship that may eventually lead to a job.
Though auditions can be stressful and don’t offer the nurturing environment that classes do, they’re often free. Open calls can be a chance to learn challenging new material, hone your audition skills and connect with other dancers and choreographers without paying the price of an open class.
Create a Connection
Fostering a relationship with a teacher can lead to the chance to take their class as their guest. Cherice Barton knows a bit about how these relationships work. As a teacher and choreographer at studios and universities, Barton has come across her fair share of freelancers. She’s accumulated a group of dancers that she invites to be assistants on projects she choreographs and take her class for free when she teaches. But what can a dancer do to cultivate this kind of connection?
Barton first suggests coming to a teacher’s open classes regularly. “Making yourself recognizable by continuing to come to class not only compliments the teacher,” she says, “but shows eagerness and determination. It also allows for the teacher to get to know you.” She also believes in not being afraid to talk to a teacher, to let them know you are interested in their work. “And most importantly, don’t be afraid to follow up,” Barton asserts. “Sending an email every few weeks to remind me you’d love to get in the studio sometime won’t bother me. What I will do is remember you and, likely, invite you to guest my class when I teach next.” —AC
Cross-Train to Gain
Consider working at a yoga, Pilates or fitness studio. Unlike a work-study program, these types of studios often allow you to work for pay and take free class.
Even if you don’t have time for another job, many studios offer discounts to new students, like a free class or a group of classes at a discounted rate. Many gyms offer a free week—take advantage by trying them all.
Be sure to look into ongoing free, cheap or donation-based cross-training classes in your area. During the summer months, free yoga classes are held in parks all across the country. Yoga to the People offers many donation-based classes, and has a variety of locations from Seattle to New York City. Check out yogatothepeople.com. —AC
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As summer draws near and the school year comes to a close, I got to catch up with the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation 2014 Dance Magazine College Scholarship Winner Paul Morland. He’s finishing up his first year at New York University. Between classes, finals, rehearsals and a student choreography showing, he shared some of the most important things he’s learned this year. Whether you're entering or exiting college, Morland offers some wonderful insight.
1. It’s totally up to you. “It’s your responsibility to get to class and do the work,” Morland says. Your college professors are there to push you technically and artistically, but it’s not their responsibility to wake you up and make sure you’re getting to class on time.
2. Keep an open mind. Morland found that composition classes and some technique classes were far different than what he had expected. Instead of backing away from new artistic territory, he went for it, head-on. “You have to approach class with the right mentality, and then you can get a lot out of it.”
3. Know when you’ve taken on too much. It’s easy to, especially your first year, say “yes” to everything. Take advantage of opportunities, but know your limit. Morland advises, “If you commit to something, you have to do it. When you’ve said enough 'yes,' don’t be afraid to say ‘no.' ”
4. Appreciate the artists around you. In the beginning, all of the new faces may be a little overwhelming, but trust that you’re with other dancers that want to be there and who want to pursue their passions, too. “Everyone is here for a reason. Everyone is here to create and to learn and to help people grow.”
5. Network from the beginning. “Don’t stress yourself out about it, but do it!” Morland says. Take a class outside of school every once in a while, meet students from different schools, establish positive relationships with your professors, and make good impressions right from the start. “It all begins as soon as you walk in the door!”
6. Have fun! “It’s supposed to be fun, too!” It’s your time to explore and play, both in the studio and out. Morland finds that, especially being in New York City, “there are so many opportunities and things to do. You have to remember that they’re there for you, so take advantage of them!” Stepping away from campus to visit a park, a museum, or a gallery is an easy way to refresh after a busy week of classes and rehearsals.
For more information about the NYCDA Foundation's scholarships and opportunities, click here!
Imagine having a career as a dancer, but never seeing any of the work you had done. Until recently, 102-year-old Harlem Renaissance dancer Alice Barker had never seen herself dance. When a group of volunteers, led by Mark Cantor of jazz-on-film.com, presented her with footage of herself performing in the '30s and '40s, her touching response went viral.
A young Barker shimmies and shakes in glittering costumes, her feet tapping along at the speed of light. "It's just fabulous, it's fabulous to see this," she said as she relived her past, a time when she shared the screen in "soundies" with greats like Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Frank Sinatra.
What most resonated with me, though, was not only the pure joy that she experienced watching the clips, but the unfaltering pride she still has in her work. Barker recalled feeling, even some 75 years ago, that "I am being paid to do something that I enjoy doing, and I would do it for free."
It's a gentle reminder of why we, as dancers, do what we do. Like Ms. Barker, we pursue dance—whether it be commercial, concert or otherwise—mostly for the fulfillment it brings us.
Over the past few days, I've had the pleasure of taking a choreography workshop led by Donna Uchizono, a Guggenheim fellow and Bessie award-winning choreographer. She came equipped with exercises designed to challenge and provoke the future dancemakers in the room. The first day, we experimented with tasks and strategies in the space to create short phrases to play with. On the second day, we started off with a discussion of artistic statements, and what each dancer looks to achieve in their work and in performing the works of others. The discussion then turned back to Uchizono.
She addressed the nature of her own work, describing it as "downtown" and "experimental," still a niche genre in the dance world. She's been creating and performing work of this nature for her company since establishing Donna Uchizono Company in 1990. As she described her aesthetic interests and artistic pursuits to us, she laughed, reminiscing about a time when she attempted to give a disclaimer to a friend interested in catching one of her performances. "Are you sure you want to run all the way down to Judson, just to see some strange downtown modern dance piece?"
I find myself giving my friends and colleagues disclaimers, too, before I perform or show work. "I just want to let you know, the show tonight might be a little out there," I warn them. But why do I feel the need to justify the work I'm performing and creating? Why did Uchizono? Why do groundbreaking artists (artists she calls "on the fringe") fall into that trap, and how do we fight that urge?
Uchizono's friend, a business-type working for the United Nations at the time, said to her, simply, "You are on the edge. We at the center need people on the edge to move forward."
This moved me just as it had moved Uchizono years ago. It's important to remember that many large companies and new ideas now "at the center" were, at one point, led by dancers and choreographers "on the edge." Starting on the fringe is an essential part of the process for artists trying something new. I thought first about what I'm interested in, the recent trend in immersive work I've noticed. When I first moved here four years ago, this strange show that unfolded around you called Sleep No More had just found its home in the city. Now, immersive shows seem to be popping up all over, whether they plan to run for just a few days or are here for the long haul.
Though there's no guarantee that a company or movement will pick up momentum, that doesn't mean I can't move forward with my own ideas. Young artists should continue to embrace their work for what it is, not dismiss it, even if it is a little "out there" or "on the fringe." It's yours, and that's what makes it worth creating.
Last week, dance great Bill T. Jones blogged about the question of preserving the past within the next generation of dancers. He commented on how refreshing the Martha Graham Dance Company's performance of its newest work—The Tempest Songbook—was, as it fused classical Graham movement and shapes with contemporary elements of film and design. For Jones, the event was "encouraging," perhaps because the company was able to maintain the formality of Graham technique within a more updated—dare I say contemporary—structure.
This, to me, presents a great challenge. As a young dancer, I'm frequently asked to generate my own material and set my own phrase work in both student and guest dances. I love this opportunity—to be able to move like myself—and I know my fellow dancers do, too. But if we're consistently encouraged to explore our own movement, even in technique classes, â€‹how do we maintain the rigor of classical techniques? Without many "classical" modern companies left, should we even care to infuse post-modern traditions and ideas (pertaining to the techniques of Cunningham, Limon, Graham and others) into our work?
Jones posed a similar question â€‹to some of my peers when he popped by Tisch Dance to coach a rehearsal for his Ravel: Portrait or Landscape?, which was set on the students by dance goddess Janet Wong. To Jones, Ravel was a response to post-modern greats, an attempt to preserve their legacy through a slicing-and-dicing of their signature styles. At Tisch, the work had changed. Unlike the Graham work he wrote about, which had maintained its signature structure and style even in a contemporary setting, Tisch's Ravel was a personal interpretation of the movement.
The question remains: Do we, as the next generation of dance artists, find it important to preserve and present classical traditions in our own work? In our interpretations of others' work? It's one that can't be answered generally, I think. Personally, it's not one I had even necessarily addressed until reading Jones' post—and I'm not sure my peers in his rehearsal had thought about it either. I appreciate that Jones opened up the floor for this type of discussion.
In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy watching Ravel as part of our final concert. It's become one of my favorites of the evening, and it's exciting to see the influence that Jones' thoughts and comments have had on the way the dancers perform the work.
Nothing to do on a Friday night?
For the ultimate post-rehearsal treat, grab the popcorn (and maybe an icepack) and head for the couch: Tonight, as part of its "Great Performances" program, PBS is bringing Mark Morris' masterpiece, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato to the screen for the first time—26 years after its premiere.
L'Allegro, set to the music of Handel and inspired by the writings of Milton, deals with action versus contemplation, mirrored beautifully by moments of pure kinetic energy and moments of complete stillness. The evening-length work will be introduced by none other than Baryshnikov—naturally—and will include interviews with Morris, several of his dancers and his music director, Colin Fowler.
Keep an eye out for MMDG member and Dance Magazine's February cover girl Laurel Lynch in tonight's showing of the modern dance classic—this time around, with brilliantly restored costumes and a few gender-reversed roles.
You can catch L'Allegro on your local PBS station at 9pm EST. For local listings, check here.
It’s no secret that a career as a modern dancer doesn’t typically pay the bills. With fewer companies offering full-time contracts, many dancers are working as freelance artists—meaning, they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. Despite this, dance programs at universities continue to grow. More young dancers seek to further their training, in the hopes of going pro.
That’s why Sarah Austin’s post for Dance/USA caught me, and many other dancers, a little off guard. It went viral almost immediately; dance students and professionals circulated it on social media. The post elicited responses from Tere O’Connor, Roz LeBlanc and Jennifer Edwards, who questioned Austin’s ideas. In my opinion, it's almost as if Austin thought she was unveiling some sort of well-kept secret—that modern dance isn’t financially lucrative. She goes on to liken American modern dance to a pyramid scheme, arguing that university dance programs imply the promise of profit or a job post-graduation. Young dancers, then, are baited into paying tuition to programs that don’t really have a payoff.
I’m one of those young dancers. And as my graduation approaches, I actually feel prepared. Though I appreciated that Austin was willing to start a discussion about the nature of arts programs in university settings, I can’t really say that I could agree with her on all fronts. Perhaps this sounds naïve, but I feel that my professors and advisers were able to train me in an honest way—technically and artistically—and, most importantly, about the reality of life as a working dancer.
In her response to Austin’s post, LeBlanc, assistant professor of dance at Loyola Marymount University, argues, “dance defies thinking about money." I truly believe in that idea. I’m not interested in being a dancer for the financial stability. That’s not why I attended a college dance program, either. To me, the payoff reaches far beyond my bank account. Within the Tisch Dance program at NYU, I have been able to gain more technical knowledge of my craft, both inside and outside the studio. I have been able to freely explore and refine my own movement in a safe and constructive space. I have been pushed past my limits, both physically and artistically. I have been challenged and cultivated as an artist, and I’ve been granted opportunities I wouldn’t have encountered on my own. Yes, the tuition bills are high, and of course, I have student loans. It’s important to be realistic—I’ll need that second (and maybe third) job. But at the end of the day, I’m able to pursue my passions. One way or another, I’ll make it work.
We're not starry-eyed here at Dance Magazine. Whether you're figuring out how to survive on a starting salary, when to dance for free, or worried about waiting for that big break, we've got you covered.