Friday, February 13, 2015

Advice to Future Dancers and Dance Majors in College

After several years with Ad Deum Dance Company, I was invited to share about the experience with students in the dance department at my alma mater, the University of North Texas. Here's what I came up with: 


If you look around, there are a lot of people using all kinds of coping mechanisms to avoid thinking about life: studying like crazy, working long hours, partying all the time, being busy with every possible little thing, dysfunctional eating, overexercising, electronics addiction, anything to keep from thinking about life.

I think it's an innate thing for a dancer, an artist, to think about life, to really reflect on why we're here, what we're doing, who we are. And these questions are evident in what we bring as choreographers and as performers to any piece.

In 2011, there was one episode of So You Think You Can Dance with each dancer performing the exact same piece of choreography. It was about a minute long, and ended with a moment of stillness. One after another, the dancers finished this piece with these intense, challenging, confident faces, staring almost angrily into the TV camera. Except one girl. The judges were silent after Sabra performed, and finally one of them said, "You brought something new to this. We've seen one person after another perform this same piece, but your face, in the end, spoke hope. And that's what we needed to see."

"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." - Pablo Picasso

You are weird. Weird doesn't mean inaccessible or elitist, or even separatist, just different. Don't feel awkward or intimidated by that. Bring everything you have to share. So much is lost when we hide behind trying to be normal, or classical, or whatever we think others are expecting us to be.

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it." -- Martha Graham

We had a beautiful classical repertoire at Ad Deum. I really enjoyed those pieces.

But then we had theatrical pieces with chairs and creepy pieces with strobe lighting and slow, dream-like pieces with over-sized creatures, and you know, those are the pieces people loved.

The stuff that's outside-the-box wakes something up in an audience, and it brings out that desire we all feel to experience a full, passionate, uninhibited life.

Don't be afraid to be weird.


Yes, the world needs artists. But they're not going to come to you, not in this day-and-age anyway. Why would someone pay 20 bucks to go sit in a theater that doesn't even allow popcorn and soda during the show, when they can pay less to sit on their couch in their underwear and watch Netflix? Seriously.

Most of the world won't find you in a performance hall. We need to find ways to go where they are. While at Ad Deum, we had seasonal performances in artsy theaters and beautiful performance halls. But we also worked and performed in schools, in hospitals, in outdoor amphitheaters, in lobbies, in churches, in studios, in conference halls, and even on a farm, helping kids with special needs. We performed for 8 people. We performed for thousands of people. And it was awesome.

We were able to share dance with a lot of people who never would have stepped into a fancy performance hall. And it turned out, they loved it.


So the New York City Ballet has its very own marketing department and patrons who will funnel money to them just for having the most anorexic dancers in America (who are also really, really good). But most dance companies today don't have marketing departments or private wealthy sponsors.

You know what looks nice on a resume, besides a BFA in Dance with 20 years background in every style of dance and annual summer workshop experience from the best companies in each quadrant of the U.S. over the last four years?

Successful fundraising and grant-writing.

The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency that "funds and promotes artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities." And there are many private foundations that also support the arts and art education. Many businesses also have money or gifts-in-kind allocated to non-profit spending that they could put toward the arts.

Whether you want to start your own company, or join an existing company, or just work with project companies, the ability to market your ideas and source funding is invaluable.

Artists have such a great ability to think big when it comes to creating choreography, but we've also got to think outside-the-box when it comes to funding. Even the dancers at Texas Ballet Theatre in Fort Worth -- previously Fort Worth Ballet, previously Fort Worth Dallas Ballet -- are an integral part of their fundraising. They don't just go on stage and perform and go home and ice their feet. There was an article in the Dallas Morning News last year with pictures of the dancers standing on Fort Worth sidewalks, in "Nutcracker" costumers, BEGGING for donations. Texas Ballet Theatre, one of the largest, most prominent dance companies in the Southwest has repeatedly canceled live music and fallen short in their budget.


If you're teaching dance, please don't do it just to make money, while your real passion is performing on the side. (You know the teachers I'm talking about -- they spend most of the class looking at themselves in the mirror.)

Take note of the things your favorite teachers do, and when you teach, do them. Personalized attention? Great music? Pre-planning choreography? Letting students choreograph? Whatever it is, think about it, and intentionally incorporate it into your teaching style. Sometimes students don't learn well from your teaching style. Be flexible and see what gets them excited about dance.

It's also okay if you need to get out of the dance world for a few hours a day and not teach dance. I worked in the office at a driving school while dancing in Houston. Between the dancers and the driving instructors, I was kind of always around weird people. And fit right in. 


In college, you learn, you experience, you form opinions and styles and preferences, you build friendships that will be your future guest choreographers and mentors and creators.

I really regret that I was only a dance minor. I took many great technique classes, and left as a competent dancer, but you know what I missed? Anatomy, Costuming, Lighting, Choreography, regular Performance classes, Tech, Improv, and the list goes on.

These classes are so valuable! Take them! They'll make you a better dancer, a better teacher, and a better asset to a company.


I'm not saying the value of an education, or the value of a college experience, or the value of the opportunities you have equal zero dollars. I'm saying the piece of paper that gets mailed to you six weeks after graduation is worth absolutely nothing on your resume.

If you're just here checking off courses on your degree plan, doing well enough to pass, and expecting something magical to happen when you graduate, there is a better way! (You don't have to cross your fingers and panic six weeks before graduation!)

Fill your resume with the opportunities that you took while here at UNT. Your normal class schedule is absolutely vital to your overall success as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and artist in the world. But the things that are going to piece together your unique calling are the other hundreds of opportunities, through UNT and throughout the area, to perform, to volunteer, to network, and to learn.

Join dance associations. Volunteer at events. Volunteer at organizations that are doing what you want to do. Take every guest class you can. Take every workshop you can. Talk to every teacher you can. Most people love answering questions and sharing advice with someone who's genuinely interested. All of this will help catapult you into great opportunities, self-knowledge, and a confident approach to the future.

If you know someone who's doing what you want to do, ask them to meet with you. Take them to lunch, share your admiration, and they will pour out ideas for you. They might even have a connection to a good opportunity. Or they might share some reality of their life with you that makes you think, "No way, this is the last kind of job I would want!"


Follow them on Facebook. Learn their culture. Become friends with their dancers. Attend their summer dance workshops. If they have open technique classes, go take them. Know their repertoire. Go to their concerts.

Most companies aren't just looking for an amazing dancer. They're looking for someone who understands and fits their culture. Make sure you like what they're doing, and understand how you could help support their work with what you have to offer.


If you audition and don't make it into the main company, ask about trainee and apprenticeship programs. If you express interest, you might help start something.

"Hey, I understand that you don't think I'm right for the company right now. But can I just come take class with you?" 

Or, "I know you don't have a place for me in this project, but could you use an understudy? I'd love to just learn your movement and your style."

If there's a particular teacher or choreographer you really like here at UNT, and you don't make it into their piece, ask if you can understudy. Not with any expectation to perform, not with any strings attached that they pick you next year, just for the opportunity to learn what you can.

Don't stew over auditions. Don't get bitter about not being placed where you think you belong. If you think an adjudicator missed a call, prove them wrong.


When I moved back to Dallas after three years with Ad Deum, I taught ballet for Ingredients, the trainee company of Dance Revolution. At the end of the year, we held reviews for each dancer. It's important to speak honestly, kindly, and directly about a student's placement and technique level. False compliments and B.S. will not get anyone anything, except false expectations and disappointment. When I told one of the Ingredients students that I didn't think she was ready to advance, she was offended.

She handled it with real class though. There were no angry words, no threats of lawsuits, no calls from offended mothers, no demands for another review, no antagonizing gossip. I gave her a follow-up call to talk about the assessment, because I didn't want her to experience long-term discouragement from one teacher's review at one place in time.

"The truth is," I told her. "This is only my opinion of your ballet technique level after one year as your teacher. I feel like you could have focused more, you could have taken more of an edge in ballet. I know you feel your strongest techniques are in other styles. I would love nothing more than for you to come back next year and prove me wrong. Show me that I made the wrong call."

In hindsight, I'm pretty sure I made the wrong call. She either shook off that review and moved on, or she used it as motivation, but regardless, she has taken off. She has her own company, started her own dance studio, and has a vision for dance that far surpasses anything I could imagine.

That is the way to handle critique.


I was fresh out of college, dancing since I was four-years-old, in the best shape of my life, and I was a trainee position after auditioning for Ad Deum. Not only would I not get paid, I would have to pay for classes, and I didn’t even qualify to take class with the company. It was humbling.

But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The trainee director was phenomenal. There was much for me to learn, both technically and about the culture of life in a dance company. There's a huge learning curve when you change dance environments, just like picking up the style of a guest choreographer. It was a really frustrating transition for me, trying to incorporate these new expectations into my dance vocabulary. I felt awkward, I felt unknown, I felt unappreciated, I felt lonely. It took me a full year to begin to pick up Ad Deum's style.

As a trainee, we took a lot more classes than the company members, including my nemesis: hip hop on Fridays. My roommate at the time was an awesome hip hop dancer, and she would help me dress the part for class and try to camouflage the ballet nerd in me as much as we could. As it turns out, one of the first pieces I was in as an apprentice included a hip-hop wedding scene. I was so grateful for those mandatory Friday hip hop classes. 

Don't limit yourself. Learn every style of dance you have access to. If the sororities are stepping in the Union, join in. If UNT brings in a guest teacher, don't even check what they're teaching, sign up. If there is a spare hour in your schedule, pick up an extra technique class. 


After a year as a Trainee, I was invited to be an Apprentice: still no pay, but technique classes were free, I'd be working with the company, and travel expenses were covered for touring. This began as a whole lot of understudying. I would take class from 8:45 am - 11 am, rehearse from 11 am - 2 pm, work at the driving school from 4 pm - 8 pm, and then go home and study videos in my living room to learn the choreography that all the company members already knew from years past. It was awesome, and I loved it.

When a company member had to miss a performance on tour, I got thrown in. I was so grateful for those boring nights reviewing performance tapes in the living room.


No matter where you work, whether it's a dance company, a small office, or a Fortune 500 company, there will be drama. There will be politics. People will be people.

There's a fine line between advocating for someone and sticking your nose in other people's business. I still don't know where that line is, and I tend to err on the side of speaking up, stirring up more drama, backtracking, and then regretting I said anything in the first place.

Chances are, whatever you see of a situation, is not the whole picture. Whatever someone tells you about a situation, is not the whole picture. Even if you are directly involved in the situation itself, it is not the whole picture.

There's something to be said about keeping your mouth shut. If you can do this, list it under skill sets on your resume.


A lot of times dancers are so fixated on our own reflections in the mirror that we don't realize what's going on around us. The studio could be burning down around us, but we're thinking, "Maybe I can get my leg just a little higher in arabesque," or "Hm, my hair looks good today."

There are a lot of things that need to get done in a dance company. And we can choose between being a disgruntled Prima Donna, or joining the team to make things happen. It might not be your job to carry the costumes, lay the marley, clean the dressing room, prep programs, be a stand-in for lighting, sew a prop, be on the post-show audience panel, or clean the theater after a show. But this is where relationships are formed. This is where life happens. And this is where true leadership emerges.


It's kind of a curse for dancers. We have our vision for what we want, we don't like criticism, we really like positive feedback, we like to work on our own timeline, and we don't like sharing credit. We love to dance, and we love an audience. It can make working in a community difficult. 

I really like what my director in Houston had to say about being a dancer in a company:

"I believe that unity in a group, true collaboration with others can only flourish with a healthy sense of self for the individuals involved. The demands of dance, the self-discipline that it requires helps to nurture a sense of who the ‘self’ is and what it is capable of. A huge part of the self-discovery is the reality that especially in this art form “a man who isolates himself seeks his own ruin.” Indeed, dance is a collaborative art form." -- Randall Flinn, Ad Deum Dance Company

Performing outdoors (That thing -- about going out to an audience, instead of expecting them to come to you -- so good.)

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