West Coast vs. East Coast
From when to write a post-audition thank-you note to whether to wear sunglasses in class, learning the ins and outs of dancing in a new environment can be daunting. How do you get a job in NYC? What are the hottest dance studios in L.A.? Here are some tips every dancer should know in order to avoid culture shock when moving from one city to the other.
Although L.A. has scores of dance studios, working dancers traditionally convene at Millennium, the EDGE, and Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in Hollywood. Also steadily gaining popularity are The Basement and International Dance Academy (where shows like “America’s Best Dance Crew” hold rehearsals). Despite being somewhat off the beaten path geographically, Debbie Allen Dance Academy is also a top destination for classes and special events like the LA Tap Festival and Hip Hop Intensive. Class can serve as an informal audition, since top choreographers often nurture and cherry-pick talent by teaching regularly. As a result, the class atmosphere can sometimes be competitive: “Everyone wants to be seen and heard,” says dancer Jonathan “Legacy” Perez. “Some people get caught up in the whole Hollywood thing, like wearing sunglasses to class. You can look around and see who is there to show off and who is there to study.”
In the image-conscious environs of Hollywood, it’s no surprise that the dance world is putting its best fashionable foot forward. “It’s a fashion show out here—even just for class,” says Perez, who moved to L.A. five years ago. Dancer Amanda Balen, who has shared the stage with stars like Celine Dion to Michael Jackson, agrees: “L.A. dancers are very hip; each one strives to show their uniqueness.” Brian Friedman–style boots and big V-neck shirts are popular with male dancers, while women wear funky hairstyles, racerback bra tops, and short shorts—with both genders sporting muslin scarves, stylish sweats, and colorful sneakers.
B-boying, breaking, popping and locking are hugely trendy with Los Angeles choreographers. Most Hollywood B-boys and B-girls can rock a headspin and a triple pirouette with equal prowess. As a result, choreographers in L.A. demand that all dancers be incredibly versatile. “It’s important to have a foundation of a lot of different styles,” says Balen. “So many of the styles are being mixed and meshed together, and often the choreographer will make a fusion of his or her own. They are inventing new ways to move, and lines are being blurred.”
Technology is an L.A. dancer’s best friend. Agents expect dancers to be completely accessible, since last-minute auditions and opportunities are all too common. Being reachable should be your top priority! For audition notifications, agencies often send simultaneous e-mails and text messages, while actual job offers typically warrant a phone call. Dancers and agents also use instant messaging to take care of quick questions or updates. For this reason, dancers often carry an iPhone, BlackBerry, or other all-in-one device. Though agents are the main messengers about auditions, dancers also get word through Back Stage, www.lacasting.com, and open notices on studio bulletin boards.
If all of New York is a stage, all of Los Angeles is a screen. Opportunities range from award shows to films to music videos to commercials to televised appearances. Concert tours also rehearse in L.A., where auditions are often held. Many dancers make their living by teaching class and/or assisting working choreographers on gigs. “There is always lots of opportunity to work and make money,” says Perez, whose credits range from Step Up 3-D to “My Wife and Kids” to the Grammy Awards.
Being prepared is the name of the game. As parking and traffic are unpredictable, most dancers arrive at least a half hour early. It’s a must to bring a dance bag filled with versatile gear. “A lot of dancers bring extra clothes because they may discover it is a different style than they expected,” says Balen. “I also always bring both heels and flats, as well as a makeup kit for touch-ups.” Being friendly with other dancers is also a must, since you often encounter the same faces from audition to audition. “It’s always like a little reunion, with people saying ‘I haven’t seen you in so long!’ or ‘Yo, let’s book this job together,’” says Perez. “During the audition, people standing on the side will cheer for the group performing; it’s a very supportive community. Dancers really go crazy during the freestyle part.”
New York City
Although many NYC classes are crowded, it’s worth the lack of space to be able to work with the faculty roster at Steps, Broadway Dance Center, and The Ailey School. Peridance and Dance New Amsterdam are slightly less packed. Iconic ballet teachers David Howard, Nancy Bielski, and Willy Burmann are Steps staples. Zvi Gotheiner’s ballet class at City Center is wildly popular, while many postmodern dancers love Christine Wright’s ballet approach at Studio 5-2. For hip hop, check out Robin Dunn at Ailey. At BDC, Tracie Stanfield’s jazz class and Michelle Dorrance’s tap class are inspiring, and just about every type of world, folk, and ballroom dance is taught all over NYC! Also take advantage of company workshops with artists like Jennifer Muller, Shen Wei, or David Parsons. These classes are small and intimate and can open doors.
A snapshot of NYC dancers proves “the look” is not achieved with a particular hairstyle or leotard (although lululemon has taken NYC by storm). What makes this city so inspiring is its all-embracing diversity. Personality is everything, and it comes through in dancers’ styles—in and out of the studio—from downtown hipster, Latin heat, or even classic prep. The NYC look is confidence, whether it’s in-your-face or laid-back. Mariana Cardenas, a Muller company member and aspiring Broadway dancer, says, “I do better and get further in auditions when I’m comfortable with myself, not when I’m dressing for the part.”
One of the most exciting trends is humor. Dance can take itself seriously, and in our post-9/11 environment, audiences (and dancers) can watch only so much onstage suffering. Laurie Taylor, a Nicholas Leichter Dance member, says, “Dancers are now interested in work that combines technical prowess with athleticism and, most of all, fun.” Broadway spotlights specific dance styles like salsa in In the Heights and ballroom in Burn the Floor. NYC’s fusion trend continues attracting choreographers from across the globe, notably through Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s collaborations, and Brooklyn Academy of Music and City Center’s Fall for Dance annual global lineups. The sheer volume of artists living closely on the island creates an incubator for small companies, projects, and startup groups.
For NYC dancers, Back Stage is a classic guide to jobs, but BackStage.com offers more postings with a subscription fee. Dancenyc.org posts (for free) mostly modern and ballet auditions, with the occasional TV/movie call, and choreographer and administrative opportunities. Other sites are nycasting.com, actorsaccess.com, and answers4dancers.com. And don’t forget Dance Magazine’s e-newsletter, which carries audition notices. The Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter culture has infiltrated dance, too; companies have profiles and post videos, photos, audition and performance dates. Many dancers have personal websites with their reels uploaded. As always, old-fashioned bulletin boards or card tables at DTW, Danspace, and Joyce SoHo are reliable sources.
Finding dance jobs in a city flooded with productions at all levels can be surprisingly hard. The economic downturn sadly increased the number of unpaid NYC gigs, and many projects and companies were forced to cut down on hired dancers, or take time off. More dancers are turning to agencies like Bloc or MSA to increase exposure. Others are doing double duty between concert dance and commercial or Broadway work. Jobs exist, but it takes patience and persistence to land your dream show or company.
New Yorkers are often stereotyped as pushy and unfriendly; I prefer determined and busy! Auditioners ideally arrive warmed- and made-up, or with half to a full hour ahead to prepare. You learn to hold your ground and be seen while giving other dancers space—a huge challenge in small studios. Most choreographers switch lines from front to back. While some dancers remain up front, proper etiquette is to give everyone a chance. Camaraderie develops among regulars, so even “determined” dancers cheer each other on. When let go from an audition, it is usually appropriate to thank the directors, but not to strike up a conversation unless they initiate. If you make it past a cut or two, send a quick thank-you note or agency comp card (but directors are busy, so send wisely; many hate getting extra mail).
Illustrations by Emily Giacalone