Career Advice

These young dancers started their own initiatives to give back—and learned a lot in return.

JUNTOS dancers performing for young students in Nicaragua. Photo by Joanna Poz-Molesky, Courtesy Poz-Molesky.

In 2010, then-college senior Joanna Poz-Molesky took the stage in a packed theater in Guatemala. It was a momentous occasion. A decade earlier, she had been sitting in the very same theater watching a performance when she became interested in combining outreach and dance.

Poz-Molesky went on to found her group, JUNTOS, as a sophomore in The Ailey School’s Fordham University BFA program, at a time when she says she was trying to find her artistic identity. “Performance is wonderful, but understanding why you dance is important,” says Poz-Molesky, who has been running the group for seven years. “I think a lot of students are interested in exploring something different. They’re interested in how they might be able to grow as a human and artist.”

For Poz-Molesky and others, the answer is community outreach. Even as students, dancers can make a difference in the lives of others, while discovering new ways to look at the world and their art form. And though running or participating in an outreach group is a big undertaking, the efforts reap plentiful rewards for those on both sides of the exchange.

Outreach of any scale can be daunting for young dancers, but age doesn’t determine its potential impact. Mercedes Forster was just a freshman at Canyon Crest Academy, a San Diego high school with a strong arts program, when she started her mission to share dance with underserved students at a local elementary school. “There was a maturity that she already possessed as a freshman that was pretty special,” says CCA dance coordinator Rayna Stohl.

Still, putting the program’s logistics into motion was no easy task. Forster initially drew club participants from her pool of friends, but struggled to find faculty chaperones that could spare enough time to accompany her club on its monthly visits to Pioneer Elementary School. “I just asked absolutely everyone,” says Forster. “When they said no, I’d explain the situation again.” Less than a year after Forster proposed her Arts Outreach club, the group began teaching simple hip-hop and modern dance classes to Pioneer’s entire 120-member second grade class. “We wanted to teach something that didn’t take a lot of training,” Forster says. “Something they could do at home with the radio.”

Poz-Molesky ran into troubles, too. The biggest was fundraising. Initially, participants had to meet a minimum fundraising threshold; they now fundraise and pay the cost of a trip and JUNTOS raises money to cover remaining fees for the company through individual donations. Even once she got all the finances in order, other problems cropped up. During that initial trip in 2010, there was an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico that made Poz-Molesky reconsider the scale of her ambitions. “There have been moments when I’ve thought, This is a lot,” she says. “But I just didn’t give up.” That trip led JUNTOS to four Latin American cities in two weeks. For the first five days, its dancers took classes and workshops with dance companies and choreographers in Mexico City. The rest of the trip was dedicated to performances and workshops in low-income communities, including an orphanage and a foster home.

The persistence of these young dancers was the key to both projects’ successes. Forster’s club flourished throughout her four years at CCA and is still running today, led by another dancer who is considering expanding its reach to other elementary schools. And what was supposed to be JUNTOS’ one-time trip to Mexico snowballed into an outreach collective that now includes dancers from five colleges, including SUNY Purchase, The Juilliard School, The Boston Conservatory and the Dominican/LINES BFA program. Members teach, perform and lead workshops to a range of ages in schools, orphanages and detention centers in four countries abroad and their own U.S. cities.

Today, Poz-Molesky can look back at the positive impact her program has had. For the community participants, “it is an opportunity for these students to explore their bodies, and push themselves beyond what they thought they could,” she says. “These kids come from all different backgrounds, most from at-risk homes. It’s great to see them enjoy a moment where they can express themselves.”

And the influence she’s seen the work have on JUNTOS’ members is equally meaningful. “The dance students come back with a new approach to dance. Their improved understanding of self influences their movement.

Meanwhile, Poz-Molesky has found some answers to the questions that first compelled her to create the organization years ago. “Working with JUNTOS reminds me how much of an impact we can have as humans,” she says. “We can all do something to create positive change, and it is with our own languages that we do so. My language happens to be dance.”

Career Advice

How to have successful conversations about pay

Eliza Sherlock-Lewis. Photo by Al Viciedo, Courtesy Sherlock-Lewis.

A few months ago, freelance ballet and contemporary dancer Eliza Sherlock-Lewis was hired for a brief project: one week of rehearsals culminating in two paid performances. A couple days in, she asked a fellow dancer if the director mentioned how much they would receive. “My friend said, ‘No, she didn’t say anything. But I feel like at this point, it’s awkward to ask,’ ” recalls Sherlock-Lewis. Nonetheless, she e-mailed the director, inquiring about the fee and mentioning that she was enjoying rehearsals. “I phrased it casually,” she says.

Sherlock-Lewis didn’t receive a reply that evening, which made her nervous. But the next morning, the director approached her. “She was very nice and open about it,” says Sherlock-Lewis. The director told her how much she’d be paid and then rehearsal began—without any trouble.

The outcome was a relief and Sherlock-Lewis walked away with more than a paycheck. “I learned that I have to know what I’m signing up for,” she says. “Not just the details of the dancing, but what they’re offering me. And I have to know that before I agree in case it’s not what I want.”

For many dancers, discussions about money evoke discomfort if not outright fear. Some worry they’ll be seen as too demanding and hurt their chances of being offered work. But there are ways to broach the topic successfully. “Dancers have a right and responsibility to think about the quality of their lives, and compensation is an important part of that,” says Griff Braun, the New York–area dance executive with the American Guild of Musical Artists. “No matter how the conversation turns out, hopefully the dancer will leave feeling confident and in a better position to have this conversation again.”

 

Timing is Crucial

Financial considerations should begin before you audition. “When you’re looking into a job, you should always know whether it’s paid, performance stipend, rehearsal stipend or salaried,” says Sherlock-Lewis. But what about gigs that aren’t so straightforward? “I personally feel that a dancer has a right to ask about compensation before the audition,” says Francis Patrelle, artistic director of Dances Patrelle.

But the critical moment arrives after you’ve landed the gig. “That’s the only time dancers have some leverage,” says Braun. “Then you have the discussion about money.” If you’re hoping to get a raise, the window of opportunity comes between contracts or seasons. “Before the next block of work, go in and talk about your position, the work you’ve done and what you think you can do, and what you’d like to receive for it,” says Braun.

 

Pop the Question

Braun and Patrelle recommend having money conversations with a general manager, executive manager or someone else handling a company’s business affairs. But in smaller companies, the director or choreographer may take care of everything. Whatever the situation, enter the conversation with a sense of what you want and how you’re going to ask for it. “I definitely practice before,” says Sherlock-Lewis. “I want to know exactly what I’m going to say, and have a response if they say yes or no.”

The key to success is all in your approach. Try framing the conversation in a positive light as Sherlock-Lewis did, conveying enthusiasm and professionalism. “Approaching it from that angle—I want to be here, I’m passionate about this work—evokes confidence,” says Braun. “I think directors appreciate young dancers who are direct about their abilities and what they want.”

 

Grow from the Outcome

In the best-case scenario, you’ll receive the compensation or raise you had in mind. But the company might not grant your request, and how you proceed depends on your particular situation. Perhaps they can offer something else, such as classes, pointe shoes or a performance reel. And sometimes the artistic or networking opportunities are worthwhile enough. Sherlock-Lewis works gratis “only if I feel like it serves me as much as it serves them,” she says. “This is your job.”

If not enough compensation is offered, you can turn down a job without souring the relationship. Gracious language goes a long way. Sherlock-Lewis also tactfully explains that she’s declining for financial reasons. “Of course this should be done respectfully and politely, saying something like ‘At this time, I can’t commit to an unpaid gig, but would love to work together another time,’ ” she says.

Articulating goals and expectations and getting honest feedback empowers dancers. “It allows them to take a more active role in their careers,” says Braun. And asking for a raise can provide insight about your performance. “I think that’s the crux of the situation,” says Patrelle. “What is your standing in the company?” Above all, being able to talk about compensation instills confidence. “You have to respect yourself and your time,” says Sherlock-Lewis. “You’re only worth as much as you believe you are.”

 

What’s in a Number?

When approaching a director to talk about money, you should have a ballpark of reasonable numbers in mind. “That’s done before you walk in,” says Francis Patrelle, artistic director of Dances Patrelle. Researching the compensation landscape doesn’t have to be tedious: Just chatting with peers can be revealing. You can also use union contracts as a gauge. “Look into the contracts on the AGMA website, or call an AGMA representative and talk about it,” says AGMA’s Griff Braun. You can use the same methods to determine an appropriate raise, although pay increases can be more nebulous. “It could be based on what dancers earn in a comparable union company,” says Braun, “or on what others in the same company earn, if that can be deduced.”

As a rule of thumb, freelance dancer Eliza Sherlock-Lewis says she expects at least $100 per performance. But as she builds experience, that rate increases; more recently she’s been getting $200 to $300 per show.

Magazine

The dancer dives into choreographing for Broadway with Holler If Ya Hear Me.

 

It’s not often that someone pulls double duty on Broadway. But while dazzling audiences in After Midnight, Jared Grimes has also been working as an associate choreographer on Holler If Ya Hear Me, which begins previews on May 26. The musical about the inner city struggles of two friends is set to the lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996. Grimes spoke with Katie Rolnick about his latest project.

Were you a Tupac fan before Holler If Ya Hear Me?

Tupac was my favorite rapper of all time. His words, energy and charisma have had a huge impact on me. He was more of an activist than a rapper. I feel like he had the same kind of influence on a generation as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass.

What dance styles did choreographer Wayne Cilento and your team draw from?

The vast terrain of hip hop from the ‘90s until now—everything from krumping to bone crushing to gliding to waving to popping. There’s a theatrical quality because we are people of the theater world. And there are elements of jazz to keep the eyes guessing.

How did you tailor the movement to suit the music?

We added that Tupac edge and ruggedness. He was very sure of himself, and we glazed that conviction over the movement. It’s into the ground, has a little bit more plié. During the workshop we didn’t have a set, but in a lot of ways that was beneficial because it showed us that the story doesn’t need much to make it magnificent. A challenge will be making the intricacies bigger: the tension you’re building with your arms, putting a cigarette out on the ground or popping your chest.

Above: Grimes in After Midnight

Is it tough to perform and choreograph?

I enjoy both. My first love is performing. Choreographing just comes with the territory. I can’t turn off my mind; it’s always creating, so it’s kind of a relief. The hardest part about choreography is not performing it—you have to enjoy it through the dancers.

Do After Midnight and Holler have any similarities?

Jazz music is the birth of all of this music. Without Duke Ellington there would be no Tupac.

What’s most unique about Holler?

Tupac’s music broke the mold. And I think the show is going to break the mold: It’s going to be real, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be beautiful, but it’s not going to do that with a Broadway smile.

Photos from top: Courtesy Grimes; Matthew Murphy, Courtesy After Midnight

Career Advice

Adding emotional dimension to musicality and skill

On Wednesday evenings in Smalls Jazz Club, you'll find eager New York tap dancers waiting to take a turn improvising with the house band. If you're lucky, Warren Craft will be among them. An uncanny performer who uses every inch of his rangy body, Craft can create tempestuous flurries of sound, his upper body twisting like a child throwing a tantrum. But he's just as likely to resist the urge to move, holding his weight suspended on his heels, elbows pulled up like a marionette, until he collapses in a rhythmic stutter.

Though only 20, Craft performs like a veteran. Long recognized for his impeccable skill and sophisticated musicality, lately Craft has transformed. His virtuosic technique is now informed by emotional vulnerability and artistic experimentation. “His personal style has grown leaps and bounds in the past two years," says Michelle Dorrance, the artistic director of Dorrance Dance, which has been showcasing Craft's talents. “There's no one on the planet who dances like him."

As a young child in Poughkeepsie, New York, Craft began taking ballet at 8 and added tap classes soon after with David Rider, who helped him build a strong foundation of classic tap technique. When Rider went on tour, Craft's parents began shuttling him to New York City to study privately with Ayodele Casel, a star of the rhythm tap scene. “She taught more about music and improvisation," says Craft. “Some days we'd just listen to music the whole time."

Then he began studying at the American Tap Dance Foundation—a New York City tap hub directed by Tony Waag—and joined their student repertory ensemble. ATDF offered Craft invaluable experience working with top tap dancers such as Barbara Duffy, Brenda Bufalino and Dorrance. It also provided a host of performance opportunities. In 2006, Craft performed at the foundation's annual summer festival, Tap City. Tony Waag and tap dancer Tony Mayes sang Neil Young's “Old Man," while Craft—then 12 years old—danced. It was a pivotal experience. “They led me in an interesting direction with such a mature song," he says. “I saw how much greater a reaction I could get if I understate my ability and think of myself as an artist rather than an entertainer."

As he was making strides in tap, Craft continued to study ballet, training at the School of American Ballet and then American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. But as the demands on his time became unmanageable, he had to choose a path. “I felt like ballet school was really stifling to my creative energy," he says. Today, he seems to have shed any remnants of the form. “A lot of ballet dancers can't let go," says Duffy. “To me, Warren looks like a tap dancer, and that's not always easy to accomplish."

Once he refocused his training, Craft sought out new ways of moving—and found inspiration in butoh, a Japanese dance-theater form. In 2009 and 2010 he took butoh workshops at CAVE, in Brooklyn. Butoh also inspired a new look. “I felt I had broken free of something," Craft says. “I trained my body to move not like anything I had seen before, but just to express. I really want to continue to where my body can do whatever I'm feeling in my head." And he wanted the outside to match the inside. He shaved his head and accumulated a collection of piercings, including a small bullring in his nose.

Craft's metamorphosis has recently been on display with Dorrance Dance. When the company debuted its first full-length piece, SOUNDspace, he was featured in a memorable solo. Wearing leather-soled shoes, Craft articulated quiet rhythms made all the more resonant by his dynamic body. He'll perform with the company this year at the Spoleto Festival and at Jacob's Pillow.

Duffy and Dorrance say they'd be curious to see what Craft's choreography would look like. For the moment, Craft simply wants to keep growing as a performer. In addition to his dancing, he hopes to forge a music career (he plays drums and also sings). Whatever he does, it will undoubtedly be distinctive. “He's not trying to be like anyone else," says Duffy. “He's finding his voice."

Photos of Craft performing at the Tap City 2013 gala by Amanda Gentile.

Career Advice

5 things you should be doing with your money

Financial planning for dancers usually runs along the liens of "How to live on pennies a day." But what about when you begin to earn a steadier income? Whether you're patching together several jobs or have landed a full-time position, you should develop a financial strategy.

Budgeting may seem dour, even daunting. But a realistic plan will prove invaluable--particularly when you hit hurdles no dancer likes to think about: unemployment and injury. "Our profession is fleeting. One day you could be healthy, the next day you could have a torn ACL," says Ariana DeBose, who was recently in Broadway's Motown: The Musical. "You have to be proactive."

Health insurance should be number one on your list of expenses. If you do get injured, it will ease the financial pain. DeBose gets hers through a performers' union--she's a member of SAG-AFTRA and the Actors' Equity Association. Freelancers also have options--many more with the Affordable Care Act (see "Your Body, Your Health Care," page 116). But there are other priorities, too. From setting aside money for taxes and retirement to spending wisely on daily expenses like rent and classes, planning carefully will help you make the most of your income.

1. Develop a Savings Plan

As a freelancer, it's common to face extended breaks between gigs. In these situations, a rainy day account can be a huge help. As a general rule of thumb, Las Vegas-based financial consultant Jessica Scheitler recommends that most people have enough squirreled away to cover at least six months' expenses. But each individual's needs are different.

When DeBose was building her savings, she used the six-month guideline (plus a little cushion), which put her goal at $20,000. That figure may be overwhelming--especially if you've just started working. But saving doesn't happen all at once. DeBose says she put aside one third to half of her weekly paycheck until she met her goal.

Kristin Klein, choreographer and artistic director of Inclined Dance Project, saves a more modest sum, about 10 percent of her income. The amount is up to you, but the goal is the same. "Everybody wants some sort of stability," Klein says. "It's a way to feel safe."

2. Account for Taxes

For freelance dancers, tax season can be especially stressful. If your paychecks don't have taxes withheld, you may owe a balance on April 15--which often comes as a shock. Setting aside some of your untaxed income will lessen the blow; Limón Dance Company member Logan Frances Kruger says she tries to earmark a third of her 1099 income for taxes. And if you owe taxes one year, you may be required to make quarterly estimated payments the following year--another cost to plan for.

Whether you're a full-time employee or a freelancer, it's also important to understand tax deductions. "Anything that's helping you advance your career is going to be deductible," Scheitler says. That may include everything from dance classes to headshots. But you have to be able to prove these, so organized records--receipts and bank statements--are a must.

3. Pay for Continuing Education

Although investing in developing new skills early in your dance career may seem unnecessary, it will help you in the long run. When Kruger was freelancing, she worked the front desk at a Pilates studio. The position allowed her to take teacher-training classes at a discount and practice on the studio equipment for free. "It was completely strategic," she says. Not only did she build a valuable skill set that can provide financial support during a career change, she uses Pilates to keep in shape when she's touring or unable to take class. Plus, Kruger was able to deduct her Pilates training on her taxes.

4. Plan for Retirement

With your career just hitting its stride, retirement may be the last thing on your mind. But the earlier you start contributing to a fund, the easier it is to save slowly and steadily. Opening a retirement account will help keep you on track: You can take money out of a savings account at any time, but retirement funds won't be touched for decades. (Withdrawing money early almost always incurs penalties.)

If you have a full-time employer, you may be able to pen a 401(k) retirement fund. All Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, for instance, are offered a 401(k) options in their contract, negotiated by AGMA. One facet of their agreement is a company match; if a dancer puts money into her retirement fund, PNB matches her contribution.

If you're a freelancer, the most common option is an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). There are two main types, Roth and traditional, with significant differences. Do you r research before making any investment--whether that's talking with financial professionals, researching online or reaching out to friends and family.

5. Spend to Save

After living on so little for so long, you'll want to enjoy your influx of cash. Rather than completely altering your lifestyle (and your budget), remember that small luxuries can go a long way. Kruger has been able to save and invest without sacrificing creature comforts. One frugal choice: She cooks most of her meals at home. But she treats herself to indulgent items, like truffle oil. And rather than buying the cheapest bottle of wine, she now splurges on a $10 bottle--sipped out of a nice wine glass. "Little things like that are worth it," she says. "They help you stick to your plan and goals."

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and TV producer based in New York City.

Image courtesy iStock.

Emily Cook Harrison, registered dietician at Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, talks about nutrition with pre-professional students. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

 

 

It’s a situation every dance teacher dreads—and one almost all will face. A young student starts to withdraw or becomes moody. Her body, once strong, begins to wither away and her muscle tone fades. When you touch her hands to adjust her port de bras, you feel that they’re cold and clammy. Or perhaps you notice her weight yo-yo, or see her making frequent and long trips to the bathroom. Eventually, you decide it’s time to say something.

 

As a dance teacher, approaching a student you suspect is struggling with an eating disorder can be vexing. “If you step in too soon, or too aggressively, the problem only gets worse,” says Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School. The situation requires care and tact: You need to protect the student’s privacy and health, while expressing genuine concern. With a considered approach, you’ll be able to address this sensitive issue in a way that best helps a student to overcome her eating disorder and flourish as an artist.

 

Before talking to a young dancer, collect notes documenting any physical, psychological, or behavioral changes you’ve noticed. These objective observations will help you make a compassionate case when talking to her. “What you want to do is show your concerns without being critical or judgmental,” says Dance Magazine columnist Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., who serves on the New York State Department of Labor’s Child Performer Advisory Board to Prevent Eating Disorders. Tracking changes also helps to ensure that what you’re seeing is actually a problem, not just a result of natural fluctuations during adolescence. At Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education, dean Sharon Story addresses health concerns in tandem with faculty member and on-staff dietician Emily Cook Harrison, MS, RD, LD. “The first thing we do is talk about the signs the teacher has seen,” Harrison says. “Has there been dramatic weight loss or gain over the past year? It has to be over six months to a year—a month is too short.”


Once you’ve determined that you need to step in, be sure to have referrals lined up to present to the dancer. Eating disorders appear in many forms, and while you may observe symptoms in a student, only a medical professional can make a diagnosis. Many schools develop ongoing relationships with local doctors. NBS, for instance, has a group of eight consulting psychologists and psychiatrists. To find a reputable professional in your area who understands a dancer’s needs, Staines suggests contacting local dance companies for recommendations.

 

When the time comes to talk to the student, focus on the student’s health and development as a dancer. “You’re dealing with young people who are putting themselves on the line for their art form, and you want to be as supportive as possible,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, chair of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The approach is about making them understand that there are requirements for this career. They don’t need to be drastic: They’re about health, vitality, energy, and mental alertness. You don’t want a starved body or one that has more weight than it can fully articulate.”


At the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, dance students take at least two dance classes every day in addition to a full academic course load and weekly rehearsals. When faculty talk to students about eating, they frame it in terms of the rigors of school and a professional dance career. “It’s about body care and how you get to the optimum level physically and mentally,” says Lily Weiss, the school’s dance coordinator. “What is too heavy and too thin is different for every body.”


It’s imperative that any conversation about health—and eating issues in particular—take place in private. Hamilton recommends talking with the student alone before contacting her parents. “You want to give the student a chance to try to deal with it,” she explains. “You’re trying to approach her in a respectful way to see if she’s on board.” With younger students, however, or those who live away from home on school premises, some teachers prefer to include parents in the discussion right away. “A parent wants to know that the school is on their side,” Harrison says.


 Unfortunately, some parents won’t respond in a proactive manner. “Eating disorders tend to run in families,” Hamilton says, “so parents may be very defensive.” A parent may also react negatively because of other troubles at home—the very things, in fact, that may be contributing to a student’s disordered eating.


Hamilton recommends that schools have a policy that outlines the steps the teacher may take to address health concerns. This could include everything from contacting a dancer’s parents, to making treatment referrals or suggestions, to requiring a student to provide a physician’s note to verify that she’s healthy enough to dance. NBS asks all students and parents sign a contract that includes a section on nutrition and eating disorder prevention. It states, “If an eating disorder is identified, the student struggling with the disorder can only stay in the program if he/she, with family support, does focused work with the School’s eating disorder specialist and nutritional consultant.” While such language may seem exacting, Staines explains that it keeps everyone on the same page. “From the very first meeting, they’re aware that these are our protocols,” she says.


Hopefully, a student will be able to continue dancing while pursuing treatment. But if she does need to take a break, it’s vital that she be welcomed back to class with open arms. When one dancer at New York City Ballet sat out for part of a season to receive treatment for dietary issues, Hamilton says that ballet master in chief Peter Martins handled the situation discreetly and thoughtfully. Martins let the dancer and her specialist determine the right course of action. Because the dancer was underweight, the specialist set a healthy weight goal, and when the dancer met it she was allowed to dance again. “The dancer’s health was the most important thing,” Hamilton says. “His approach left a very positive impression on the company.”

 


Katie Rolnick is an associate editor at Dance Spirit and a contributing editor to Dance Teacher.

 

 

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