Submitting Your Work as a Choreographer

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Studio to Stage – “Diagnosis” for Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photos: Eduardo Patino)

There aren’t a great deal of guidebooks when it comes to navigating one’s way through many parts of our insular dance world. Over the years, we have made gains with more information and resources to help prepare dancers for auditions, professional life, and retirement. But there is still a dearth of guidance when it comes to finding support for your work as a choreographer and putting yourself out there to gain commissions. While I have had some success when it comes to choreographic workshops and competitions, I am still very much in the navigation phase of coming into my own as a prominent dance maker and gaining commissions to create and present larger scale stage works. When I first started my blogging career on Life of a Freelance Dancer, I was writing to fill a void of information that I wish I had available to me as I navigated my freelance career. Here on Dancing Offstage, I am hoping to do the same thing with the post-performance careers of dancers. So, while I haven’t yet fully achieved my goals as a choreographer, I plan to share what I have learned thus far for those of you who may be seeking content to help kick start your choreographic career.

There is no straight line to gaining work as a dance maker. But there is one clear place that all budding choreographers need to start. Get in the studio and start fine-tuning your craft by making some work. One of the most difficult parts of building a choreographic portfolio rests in getting in the studio to sharpen your creative pencil with quality dancers who can appropriately portray your ideas. As you continue to learn how you work in the front of the studio and refine the process of taking inspiration from your mind and putting it into a physical form on your body and other dancer’s bodies, the next clear step is to record footage of your work. Video of your creativity doesn’t need to be caught by a professional videographer and it doesn’t need to be filmed on a $2,000 camera. But it does need to be clear, far enough away that it doesn’t cut off the full visual effect that you are trying to create, and offer a crisp idea of who you are as an artist. While many workshops and competitions do not require that you have full stage production footage of your works, some do. And almost all commissions from organizations will come from a director who appreciates knowing that you have had the experience of producing a studio work that translates appropriately onstage. So, if you need footage of your work in a theatre format, perhaps consider applying to be a part of festival or ask around your local scene for performance opportunities.

(Click Here to see footage of a recent submission of my choreography)

Now that you have footage of your work, what are you going to need to put in your package, how do you find opportunities, and who do you send it to? Again, there isn’t any perfect answer to these questions. But with a bit of research and a bit of luck, you may find something that is perfect for you. Many choreographers assume that their work will speak for itself. And for a very few people, it may. But behind many of the most successful choreographers is also the mind of a writer, a presenter, and a hustler. Unless a director outright hires you to create a work for their company, most of the potential opportunities that will present themselves will require a proposal. These proposals often ask for a bit of background on oneself, where you find your inspiration for your work, and what you imagine you could make (which would include content of choreography, number of dancers, style of dance, music choices, etc.). Beyond all of this, a proposal is often requested in the form of a letter of intent, which requires you to state why you are applying. There is no exact formula for these letters of intent or proposals, but a bit of research on the company (including general style, number of dancers, etc.), past collaborators, and budget can go a long way in informing you on how to address your proposal. You may also be required to provide one or two letters of recommendation. Beyond all of this information, be sure to have an updated choreographic resumé that notes your professional experience as a dancer (to share your background and qualifications), as a dance maker, and the dates of your previous work. Many workshops will not accept submissions with footage of works that are older than 3-5 years. They want to know what your current work looks like and often have strict standards for submission footage.

While there are some workshops, residencies, and competitions that happen every season, most programs only occur when there is funding or on a less than regular basis. During your search for opportunities, you may find old links to choreographic workshops that claim to happen every other year, but are actually listings from 5-10 years ago. While at other times, you may read about a certain choreographic competition that intends to run annually, yet the organization only puts on the event once. I don’t know the exact reasoning for this, but I imagine that funding is a major factor. Also, some workshops gain financing through grants that have extremely strict qualifications for organizations to receive this money. An example of this is the Joffrey Ballet’s Winning Works competition (formerly Choreographers of Color), who only accepts submissions from non-white dance makers. When seeking out opportunities, be sure to very clearly read all of the information and submission specifications from start to finish before you begin prepping a package to send out to avoid wasting your time due to outdated information or not qualifying for the opportunity.

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“Distinct Perceptions” at National Choreographers Initiative 2014 (Photo: Dave Friedman)

One of my best choreographic experiences thus far was having the opportunity to create for 3 weeks at the National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine, CA (please read about this experience by clicking here). As I stated previously, if you are non-white, the Winning Works competition at Joffrey Ballet also seems to happen yearly. Other regular opportunities I have seen include the New York Choreographic Institute (very difficult to obtain), Western Michigan University’s Choreography Competition, McCallum Theatre Choreography Festival, UNCSA choreographic development residency, Milwaukee Ballet’s Genesis Competition, SpringBoard Danse Montreal, NW Dance Project/Pretty Creatives, and NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts fellowships. Other than these known opportunities, I am regularly perusing dance periodicals for new listings and checking out Dance/USA, Dance/NYC, and Dancing Opportunities for new listings on choreographic pursuits and funding opportunities. In the end, it never hurts to perform a Google search on “choreography competitions,” “choreography submissions 2018” (or whatever year it is), or “choreographic opportunities.” Lastly, while you can seek out many opportunities by looking online, don’t discount your network of friends and colleagues, as more work presents itself from within your community than from cold calling organizations.

Once I’ve found certain opportunities, I send my package off to the person or form that is denoted on the site. But what if I am specifically seeking choreography commissions with professional organizations? How do I get in contact with the right people with a dance company to make sure that the director gets to see my work and considers me for the future? This is a completely different beast. Taking a page from my freelance career, I have become a master at cold emailing organizations expressing interest in creating work for organizations. I have a template email that I adapt to fit each company that I reach out to. I make sure to do a little research on the company before contacting them and to make sure that they can see that I truly am interested in the company (perhaps by discussing their current season, any tours the company is taking, or discussing something I saw in the news pertaining to the organization). As I get to know certain directors who have expressed interest, my template obviously changes to a true personal email. But this takes some time and a certain track record to achieve. But the best way to reach out to a director is to seek out their email on the company website or call the front desk and request that information, to track down information on the Artistic Director’s direct assistant, or to look for a ballet master, ballet mistress, or company manager who may answer directly to the person in charge. I can tell you from experience that this is a very tedious process that usually gets anywhere from a 10%-20% response rate. But unless you have direct access to speak to an organizational leader, you have to start here.

As you can see, there are many pathways to building a choreographic career without any clear or direct path. Like many things in life, success in dance making is often led by a small pack of choreographers who are talented and have found luck in timing and presentation that gave them a platform to show their ingenuity. I have felt so lucky to be selected for the National Choreographers Initiative, as a finalist at the McCallum Theatre Choreography Festival and Visions Choreographic Competition, and to gain commissions for Columbia Ballet Collaborative, CelloPointe, Uptown Dance Company, and many students competing at Youth America Grand Prix (Click Here for footage of one of my students prepping for YAGP). But my true dream is creating larger scale works for professional organizations around the world. While I am not there quite yet, this is all of the information I have learned along the way to building what I plan to be a very successful choreographic career. I hope that my sharing this information with you is greatly helpful. And I hope that our paths cross as we work towards achieving our dreams!

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Sharing Your Art – Perfectionism vs. Pretension

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Sharing our art form with some of my students at Greenwich Ballet Academy

As professional artists, we have worked very hard to perfect our art. In fact, for many of us, our entire lives have been dedicated to perfectionist acts in order to understand, live, and share our art form. For me, it sometimes feels like there is nothing more important than the refinement process in the studio, the artistic process in the psyche, and the exploratory process in the form of play, trial, and error. But at times, I catch myself sharing my artistic practices (something I care about very deeply) as if they have more value than anything else in the world. I’ve wondered over the years whether this makes me impassioned or gives off an air of pretension.

During my time dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was extremely unaware of the insular artistic bubble that I existed in. While dancing for this high-end organization for 7 seasons, dozens of highly qualified artists worked diligently daily beside one another using collaboration and competition to boost one another to the next level of perfectionism. This works well on an insular level. But it also tends to dissolve an artist’s reality outside of this bubble, as it requires an intense level of commitment and effort. Striving for perfection daily along with constant peer-to-peer comparison creates an atmosphere of exponential growth. But it also cultivates a sense of judgment that (while helpful and understood within our tight-knit community) bled outside of our thickly insulated bubble. This often led to intense scrutiny of all things across our art form as if they were all being judged by the same standards as we were, albeit not sharing our company history or budget. It took me leaving this intense, safe atmosphere to recognize the benefits and downfalls of having a mentality that the work we were doing was more important than most anything else. This was a place where anybody who wasn’t achieving an equally high standard as we were could be judged using words including bad, fat, unmusical, cheap, awful, weak, unqualified, and a variety of other negative descriptions. While this may appear as perfectionist behavior within one community, it may project as pretentious if these unwelcome opinions are shared.

Every dance artist has to start somewhere. Aside from maybe one or two prodigies in every generation that passes by, practically no dancer naturally begins performing technical exercises with perfection, maintains perfect physical form at all times, dances with immaculate musicality, or exudes the inner soul of every character they portray. Most of us start out with recreational intentions. And many of us do so without regards to how our feet are pointed, how fit we are, or how it makes us feel emotionally. All of these characteristics plus passion must be cultivated within an artist over a period of time without judgment beyond constructive individualized criticism. Similarly, all audiences must be shown why it is important for them to be involved in any cultural institution. If we present artists with expectations of pure perfection before they are ready to put that pressure upon themselves, it will be impossible to build the future of our art form.

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Sharing a lighter moment w/my dancers at Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

In my own personal practice as a dance educator and choreographer, I have found myself exploring the practice of making our art form important to my students without coming off as pretentious about the need for extreme effort, motivation, and artistry. Just because I had success in my performance career and love what I do doesn’t mean that anybody who enters my classroom will share the same sentiment as me. Just because I tell a student that something is important doesn’t mean it actually is to them. What I try to do is slowly educate those in my classes about all aspects of our art form. By adding interesting trivia questions at the beginning of class, I subtly educate students on American (and sometimes international) dance culture. Whether listing off major, regional, and civic dance companies, to explaining the company rankings, offering details on full length and one act works, the internal administrative and artistic workings of a company, and choreographers of note, I offer information that a student can take home with them and research if they find it interesting. Beyond this, I use other tactics to motivate physical and artistic development. Only when we pique a blossoming artist’s interest can dance become something more than an after-school activity.

When I first started teaching, I expected dancers to work hard because I already had them in my classroom. What I found was that many dancers didn’t understand why they had to work hard or know how to work hard in a way that was effective. My perfectionist tendencies would project onto students and come off as pretentious because they had not yet bought into the process or the need to create a sense of importance around their work in the studio. It is necessary to buy-in to do many tasks that artists do. Why do I care that I am holding my leg at or above 90 degrees for 8 counts? Why does it matter if I do or don’t let my standing leg give out in a pirouette. Lately, I have found myself telling students that, in the grand scheme of the world, it isn’t important that they want to do these things. But in order to accomplish these feats, it is integral that in those moments they are working in class or onstage that they feel that the work is the most important thing on earth. Only then can we accomplish superhuman feats. But it is also important while working with impressionable students (young to senior) that we remind them that there is a reality outside of our beautiful art form that must be recognized.

Looking at the separation between pretension and perfection in our art form also lies in who we are interacting with and how we respond to others that we feel haven’t yet obtained the same level of execution or understanding that we have. If something is important to me, but not you, and I really push the point, I may come off as pretentious. We too often share the tendency to tear down others in their process of finding artistic excellence, especially without consideration for where they came from and where they are going. I remember when I first started my 4 years freelancing with multiple established and fledgling professional organizations across the country. Only having the standards that surrounded me during my time dancing at PNB, I judgmentally felt that anything that wasn’t on the level of work that I had been a part of during my tenure there was either bad, dysfunctional, or laughable. I was afraid to share some of what I was doing publicly for fear of humiliation when viewed through the eyes of my former colleagues. But what I learned throughout this period was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout the entirety of my nearly 16 year career, thus far. We must remember that we are not all dancing along parallel tracks of artistic growth and expectation. We all exist in different stages of our art form and all have different purposes that can grow or reroute at any time.  A great example of this can be seen in the differences between dance organizations across the country. Some regional dance companies are still in the audience education period of their organization’s growth. Yes, their practices may currently be flawed. Yes, the quality of their performances may pale in comparison to companies with multi-million dollar budgets. But most of the nation’s finest cultural institutions started this way. Look at American Ballet Theatre. When they were merely just Ballet Theatre touring around the country by bus and performing in any and every theatre possible, they probably didn’t have the finest quality productions. Additionally, there was no nationwide comparison to vouch for the quality of these dancers. But look at them today. They are one of the leading arts organizations in the world.

The important thing to recognize here is that all artists are an important part of our community, whatever stage they are at in our art form. And in order to continue cultivating dance into a sustainable place, we must develop the importance of perfectionist actions through a carefully curated process that neither pushes potential artists away from the art form, nor tears down working artists that are not quite as far down their professional path as you are. If a young dancer stops training because the teacher doesn’t slowly allow them to explore why our art form is important, we have failed. If younger arts organizations try to force their audience to understand our art form too quickly, people will look at the organization as if they are pretentious and the company may begin to lose support. Without community support an arts organization can no longer exist. Pretension is a turn off that slows down or completely halts the progress of our art. For this reason, it is so important that we don’t let our own personal or “insular-bubble” perfectionism project unto others. Instead, I find it best to offer a helping hand that is ready to offer guidance and insight only when an artist is ready to accept it.

The Expensive Reality of Retirement

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Reaching for Financial Health (Photo: Bill Hebert)

Some dancers have the luxury of meticulously planning out their retirement from the stage and glissade-ing smoothly into their second career. While this is a reality for a small handful of artists, I have learned that it isn’t for the majority of us. Whether a dancer suffers a sudden career ending injury, gets non-reengaged by their company, or freelance work becomes more of a chore than artistic fulfillment, many dancers don’t get to plan out their retirement strategy with tons of advanced notice. For me, I experienced two completely different realities throughout my career; one that included support to prepare for the future and one that drained nearly half of my life savings and accrued substantial credit card debt in a short few years.

I feel blessed that I was employed for 7 years by a company that invested in its dancers and their futures. Aside from having the most generous 401K match for dance artists in the country (to help make up for the brevity of most dance careers), Pacific Northwest Ballet also encouraged us dancers to partake in a revolutionary program that granted up to $8,000 to each artist in the troupe (which could be used towards a college degree or post-performance career pursuits). During my time with the company, I used grant money from our Second Stage program to take classes at Seattle University, transferred those credits to gain my Associate in the Arts degree at Seattle Central Community College, and purchased equipment to build materials for my budding choreographic career. I was very proud that when I left PNB I had built up a substantial amount of life savings, had deleted all of my debt, and had obtained some level of college education while sustaining a performance career with one of the nation’s most illustrious dance companies. I felt I had gained some important ground on preparing for the future, whatever that meant at the time.

Once I transitioned from big company life to that of a startup contemporary ballet company, things quickly began to unravel. My husband and my cross-country move, a sick cat, a major pay and benefits cut, and a lease at an apartment owned by a slumlord quickly drained the $10,000 I had apportioned into my savings account for moving costs and emergencies. A poorly timed injury and the subsequent fallout (which cost me my job) wiped out the remainder of that hard earned savings within 10 months of moving across coasts. I spent the next 4 years working through feast-or-famine periods as a nationally-touring freelance artist. While on paper this was one of the most fruitful periods of my performance career, it was full of difficulties, stress, and anxiety surrounding my already damaged finances, my physical health (which was difficult to maintain performing with 8-10 different organizations around the country each season), and my emotional health (which suffered from being alone on the road for 8-9 months each year). In 2015, while attempting to recover from my career ending injury (which occurred in 2014), I came to the realization that nagging volatility and pain in my lower back would prevent me from returning to the stage. At this point, I began to consider transitioning into the second stage of my dance career. Only, I didn’t know it would cost me nearly $40,000 and 2 years of effort to fully arrive on the other side.

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Taken during the period I considered transitioning

Most dancers don’t have the means to transition in the way that I did. While I began super-commuting to New York City in order to build my choreographic and teaching portfolio, I had to begin pulling money out of my 401K to survive and completely focus on transitioning. I didn’t have any money left in my savings account and I had begun to slowly accrue debt because I could no longer make money from dancing. Additionally, I had no other work experience outside of my specialized field, therefore any new work would be at greatly reduced rates from what I had developed throughout my adult life. What most dancers don’t realize is that it costs a substantial amount of money to transition appropriately and as quickly as possible. Aside from paying bills and rent, there are other financial items that often arise while transitioning; like the cost of education, reduction in value from previous income, and room for trial-and-error. Dancers who choose to stay in our field as dance educators or choreographers typically drop back to entry level rates of pay, as well. While dancers who choose to try something new have the exorbitant costs of college courses, fitness training programs (like yoga, pilates, or personal training), and a wide array of other financially draining items. The major challenge faced by retiring dancers in paying these additional costs is that most didn’t have expendable income during their careers to save up for these expenses, especially when transitions happen unexpectedly. This often leads dancers to rely on low wage non-career focused work to give them a chance to find their new passion. There is very little sympathy for retiring dancers who paid the price of college tuition during their finishing training years, started their professional careers in their late teens, and became so specialized in such intense atmospheres that there was little room for outside interest or cultivation of potential secondary work passions.

While I hated pulling money out of my life savings, I feel extremely lucky that I had this to fall back on to avoid distractions on my path towards transitioning to choreography, dance education, and media work. For dancers who have no choice but to fund searches for their post-performance careers with non-career trajectory work, they run the risk of slowing down their transition process or completely derailing it just to survive. While nobody should be given a direct hand-out at the end of their stage careers, it is important that companies work to provide dancer’s appropriate support and financial tools to ensure that they can transition safely and appropriately, whether it is their own choice or fate that pulls them away from the stage.

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When the only class you can afford is your own at the gym

(How did you finance your transition? Did you have to take work that negatively affected your transition or forced you to give up on your hopes for the next step of your career?)

Teaching Hurts

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Demonstrating Contemporary Movement at a Private Lesson

As professional athletic artists, we come to expect to be in some sort of minor or major pain for a majority of our performance careers. Whether these aches are caused by day to day muscle fatigue or a more acute injury that requires rest, recovery, and healing, we are educated from early on in our training that these issues are a common hazard for dancers. I remember moments throughout my career where I dreamt of the days after I retire from the stage (of course, I hoped this would be after a prestigious performance career) and imagined myself guiding students through the rigors of professional track training free of pain and worry. Well, this day dream clearly wasn’t a reality because one of the biggest lessons I have learned in the early stages of my career as a dance educator is that teaching hurts!

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Working with my niece

Every one of us who has built our technique to a professional level knows how strenuous dance training can be. But what many instructors don’t realize is that, while not completely the same as a student in class, teaching is also taxing on the body. I have a particularly unique perspective here since I teach both ballet and contemporary technique classes to students ranging from recreational to professional. While there is a different approach to teaching each of these distinct styles of dance and level of students, I have found that I am in pain and at risk of injury just as much, if not more, than I was throughout my performance career. Why is this?

Being a younger instructor, I can still perform most of class at a high level. Even teachers who have been out of their performance careers for some time know how to fully execute the entire range of dance vocabulary and can still perform exercises with aplomb. Often, in our efforts to demonstrate for students, we forget that we weren’t warm to start with, we were warm and aren’t anymore (which is common when teaching multiple classes in a row), or we are constantly showing exercises on one side of our bodies (creating fatigue and imbalance in our muscles). It may not seem like a big deal when you are giving a plié or tendu exercise. But as we move to more extensive parts of class that include higher extensions or batterie, petite allegro, and grand allegro, we are likely to forget that we aren’t properly prepared to execute these steps. Giving class often tricks our mind into thinking that we are taking class because we go through the same pattern we did every day as a kid, teen, and professional. Only we aren’t performing these combinations beyond showing them to students. And in a moment where we are trying to convey the appropriate execution of a step to a student, we may forget that our ankles, legs, hips, and backs are not properly warmed up to show and share our physical knowledge.

While not always possible (some days I teach first thing in the morning), I endeavor to take morning class or to arrive early and give myself a barre before I teach. I have found that this helps me in the same way that warming up did when I was preparing for rehearsals or the stage. Sometimes, in my company life, I wouldn’t have rehearsal the first few hours of the day. But as long as I took class in the morning, my body only required a very short half barre to feel good enough to work through rehearsals. I find this helps greatly.

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Working with Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

While this approach is generally helpful for my ballet classes, I am still navigating a safe approach when teaching contemporary technique. I have found that I am more at risk here due to the nature and structure of these types of classes. Over the past year and a half, I have been developing a codified contemporary training syllabus that is excitingly gaining traction. Where my classes first mimicked the format of a master class (warm up, technique exercises, choreography combo), they have grown into codified steps that can be strung together into combinations in the same way a ballet class does. Since I am currently the only one that knows these exercises (hopefully not for long), the movement is foreign to most people. In order to effectively teach certain movements, it is necessary for me to show steps full-out for much of class. With contemporary movement tending to be more off-center and less upright, it can really take a toll on one’s body. While I warm up earlier in the day for ballet classes with ballet, I need to be extra warm for contemporary classes right as they start. Unfortunately, my schedule rarely allots me this luxury. So, this is still a work in progress. While I prefer to walk around and correct my students, sometimes I find it necessary to join in performing exercises to make sure I am getting warm and staying warm. It is a tricky line to walk to ensure that my students are getting the most out of my classes and making sure I am warm enough to protect my instrument. One step I hope to take in the near future to counter stresses put on my body as a contemporary instructor is to cultivate enough dancers who know my technique to offer opportunities for students to assist in my classes. This will help me train dancers without risking injury and hopefully increase the longevity of my career.

One major commonality I have noticed among my colleagues is that teachers tend not to take care of pain and injuries in the same way that performers do. While dancing for Pacific Northwest Ballet, I had access to world class physical therapy, had regular massages, and addressed even minor aches and pains at onset of symptoms. Under the assumption that my teaching career would be easier on my body, I didn’t really head to the front of the studio with a game plan on taking care of myself. I remember the first time I spent more than an hour and a half at the front of the studio. I came home in shock, awe, and OW that I was so physically and emotionally exhausted. But this experience didn’t lead to an immediate sense of what my body required to continue teaching pain-free. Just like many dancers working professionally, it took my first real injury as a teacher to really raise my awareness and to take better care of my body.

While I am still not as good at taking care of my physical self as I would like to be, I see a chiropractor almost weekly, I am seeking a physical therapist I can reach out to without having to go through my doctor, and I try to get massages here and there. Of course, there is always the burden of affordability and financial stability. But as I move deeper into my career as a dance educator, I see how important it is to have a game plan and figure this out. It was really eye opening for me to realize what my teachers had gone through to pass on our incredible art form to me. And I am learning that if I want to do the same, that I have to be sure to take care of myself to ensure longevity in this second stage of my career.

(How do you take care of yourself in and out of the studio? Feel free to leave your answer in the comments)

2018 – To Be Resolutionary, Revelationary, or Revolutionary

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Dancing Offstage appears in Dance Teacher magazine

I hope that all of you lovely readers have had a wonderful holiday season and are eagerly awaiting what will hopefully be an amazing 2018. If you haven’t seen yet, Dancing Offstage has already been getting some exciting recognition, even in the infancy of this new platform featuring information on the post-performance careers of professional dancers. After writing my most recent post discussing whether I should perform physical corrections on students, I was contacted by Dance Teacher magazine to see if they could gain permission to share my writing on their website. I was honored to be published by this magazine, which marks the 2nd time my writing has been published by a dance periodical this year (check out my feature from Dance Magazine in May here). It has been on my goal list for a few years now to write for and be featured by a major dance publication, and it happened twice this year. Exciting times here at Dancing Offstage.

My intention in sharing this exciting news is not really to gloat (though I do hope it garners excitement and new subscribers). But instead it is the perfect segue to discuss goals, particularly goals that we often have as artists. And with the new year upon us, it seems an appropriate conversation. I’ve never really been one for resolutions. I honestly can’t remember the last time that I even set a resolution. This is mostly because I despise the idea of doing something because everybody else in society around me is doing it. Perhaps, this is the plight of an artist. I tend to write down my own personal goals as a part of a quarterly retreat that I try to execute in order to remain focused on reaching my wildest dreams (tune into last week’s podcast to hear my current goals). My major problem with resolutions outside of the general pack mentality in setting them as the earth prepares to restart it’s annual journey around the sun is that more people are setting themselves up to fail than laying the groundwork for the long, effortful process it takes to become successful. But, alas, people continue to be resolute as December’s holiday glow fades into January, a month that probably needs more inspiration than most.

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Puck at Pacific Northwest Ballet

Even though I rarely did it, I found that it was much easier to consider resolutions when I was in my performance career. I want to dance the role of Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. I want to take better care of my body (less partying, more cross training). I want to be promoted to Soloist. As I continue to dig deeper into my career as a choreographer, dance educator, and media personality, I find that it is almost impossible to be resolutionary about my career. But at the same time, I find this strange pull to be both revelationary and revolutionary (Note: I’m pretty sure that I made up at least 2 words).

There was a period at the beginning of my dance career where I thought that I wanted to be famous. That time has long passed. But when my mom asked me if I still wanted to be famous a few years ago, I came to realize that my great ambition for achievement and success was driven by two things that had nothing to do with fame. First and foremost, my want and need to remain in the dance world post-retirement from the stage was the major driving factor for the work ethic I did and do maintain. I don’t want to live as a starving artist and I don’t want to burn out on my art form (commonly caused by struggling to maintain a quality adult lifestyle while gaining a certain compensation level in an undervalued and underpaid art form). Those artists who achieve the most onstage practically get handed jobs in our field the moment they step offstage. This is why I was so adamant that I needed to dance with a major company and keep an eye on my promotion outlook. If you take an honest view at the list of most retired leading dancers with American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet and see where they landed after they stepped offstage and how quickly that happened, you will see exactly what I am talking about. Many of them even land jobs as directors, shockingly, without any business or leadership experience other than dancing company repertoire and schmoozing with high level donors. My second reason for being so aggressively ambitious in building my portfolio has been due to the fact that I want my legacy to be that I contributed a great amount to our art form and that I shared a valuable wealth of information with our field. In other words, I aspire to inspire as a revolutionary. And as a part of the process of getting there, I hope to be revelationary.

So, here is the problem with this. I feel that every artist feels this nagging gravitational pull towards being somewhat revolutionary in their art. This is much more difficult as a stage artist who isn’t performing their own work. Dancers are the blank canvas that choreographers wish to paint on. The paint shouldn’t be put on the paper as the color green, yet reveal itself as blue when a passerby pauses to view the work. But once many of us move on to the afterlife of our performance careers, we have more freedom to make decisions. And that often makes us feel like we have to do something that hasn’t been done before (which is practically impossible) or we have to be so utterly unique that when we show our work the audience has an extreme reaction. There is such a gravitational draw with this that many of us feel we have to be more eccentric as artists. But is this really necessary?

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Revolutionary Artist?

When there is very little room left to be revolutionary, attempting to be radically innovative may come off as pretentious or cheap. There is something about trying so hard to be new or different that it destroys the character of the art and it lessens other’s opinions of the maker. This is where I think that it is more important to be revelationary. When almost everything original has been created, one must reveal the layers of their work that have not yet been as deeply explored. Nearly all of the best choreographers today are not creating revolutionary work. Instead they are revealing aspects of their art to audiences that have not yet been explored deeply or that were once brought to light and had moved into the realm of passé. Resolving for revolution is a dangerous act. Yet, it is sought by artists more often than revelation.

As I move forward into 2018 and continue building the foundation towards reaching three of my major goals, I find that there is no point in making a resolution to achieve these items. Instead, I choose to continue to take all of the small, medium, and large steps that I feel are necessary in order to continue making positive forward progress to achieve these goals. In the vein of revolution, I continue to seek information on an international scale to continue building and codifying my contemporary dance training program for pre-professional ballet dancers. Through this effort, I hope to gain a fellowship at NYU’s Center for Ballet in the Arts to provide additional support and network to achieve this. In the vein of revelation, I hope to gain the status of Permanent Faculty at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center (I am currently Guest Faculty in the ballet and contemporary dance departments with both of these organizations). I am fully invested in the concept that it is not so much the responsibility of a dance educator to tell a dancer what they need to do. But, instead, it is our purpose to reveal a dancer’s fullest potential to themselves in order to give them the tools, knowledge, and confidence to perform superhuman feats with the soul of an artist. And in the vein of revolution and revelation working concurrently, I hope to continue building my choreographic portfolio to include moderate to large scale regional and national organizations for main stage productions and to continue sharing my voice in our oft silent art form here and on my Pas de Chát: Talking Dance podcast. Happy New Year and Merde for a fantastic 2018.

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Some of my kids at Greenwich Ballet Academy performing contemporary technique exercises for my fellowship application at NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts

(Will you be making any resolutions for 2018? Do you plan on being resolutionary, revelationary, or revolutionary?)

Should I Teach “Hands-On?”

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Teaching my Contemporary Ballet Workshop in Anchorage, AK (Photo: Pamela Montgomery)

I was probably about 15 years old when this conversation occurred. It happened around the time I became extremely serious about the prospect of having a dance career. The director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She had asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. Initially, she explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position, and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn’t expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did. “Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn’t do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field.” The look on my face must have been utter shock, as the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my art form had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

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Peter Martins (Photo: Jakob Dall – NY Times)

Unless you’ve been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the grand ole U.S. of A. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years began to bubble to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly and those interested in our performing arts world were beginning to speculate if something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers, and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month as I was given a heads up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years). While the subsequent investigation into Mr. Martins’ behavior has yet to be complete, this has reignited my childhood concern about misinterpretation of touch in a class or rehearsal setting.

I’ve struggled throughout the entirety of my career as a dance educator with the decision on whether I should be a hands-on teacher or not. Dance is essentially the art of ultimate control of one’s own body. Understanding how to use your body correctly could mean the difference between an amazing feat or a debilitating injury. For example, proper execution as a student lifts their leg in adagio could result in greater height, better line, and exaggerated lift in the working leg. But more important than how it looks, a student who is not properly supporting and lifting their leg at superhuman heights can cause bulky muscles, seizing cramps, painful hip tendonitis, or worse. Sometimes, a teacher has to put their hands on a student to show them what their body should feel like when they aren’t properly aligned or are supporting themselves incorrectly. I know for a fact that this is effective. And I look back fondly on my teachers who were willing to get hands-on to show me how to work properly and assist me on my path towards my performance career. For this reason, I have made the decision to be one of those teachers that shares a very hands-on approach to teaching. Though, to be completely honest with you, I’m frightened by the idea of a poorly placed correction or an extremely sensitive student misinterpreting the intended purpose of physical adjustment.

I feel that this item isn’t as much of an issue for female teachers (though, I do know for a fact that they also have to deal with concerns about physically touching students for corrections) because of a few sensationalized cases of inappropriate teacher/student contact, which historically have been committed by males. In fact, there was recently a guest instructor who was arrested on the premises of a well-known New York dance school for sexually assaulting an underage boy at another one of his jobs. I was shocked to hear about this just as much as anybody else, especially considering that he hired me to teach master classes at his school in the past. But what was most disappointing for me here was that it gave dance parents fresh reason to be concerned that their kid’s teachers could act inappropriately towards their young ones. It is easy for protective parents to focus on one negative story. But for the few stories that have ever come out about these unfortunate circumstances, there are millions of positive experiences that students have with their teachers every day. It is important that schools focus on this and cultivate a safe environment that also includes educating parents/families on what is happening inside their studios.

Since dance is the art form of controlling our own physicality, we require students to wear skin tight clothing that shows physical alignment and muscle movement. This uniform leaves eager to please, impressionable children and teens exposed in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable in many places outside of a dance studio. If a student’s school isn’t educating their student body and their respective families about what is happening in the studio, this could lead to a more sensitive environment that could potentially be harmful to a qualified teacher’s career. Every school that I work for must have a waiver that is signed by all parents explaining that physical touch is an integral part of the learning process of dance. I refuse to work for a school that doesn’t have this protective measure in place. Beyond this, it is important that schools have regular parent observation days. Allowing parents to take a step into the learning process can offer them a better perspective on why certain practices are necessary.

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Hands-On Teaching (Photo: Pamela Montgomery)

I feel that my hands-on approach has really helped push my teaching career forward at a faster rate, especially in my open classes at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, where corrections are often less frequent than other educational settings. Like I said, I am still a bit nervous that a misplaced hand or a sensitive student could cause issues. But I have enforced a handful of practices that I hope will continue to protect me as I offer the best training I can in ballet and contemporary dance techniques. First and foremost, whether I am giving a private lesson or conducting a large master class, if there are no windows into the studio, I will try to keep the door open. I have nothing to hide, so I feel that an open door policy allows anybody to view the classroom/rehearsal process. From here, I try to fashion the touch in my physical corrections into the most obvious, non-sexual type of touch possible. If I am working with a group of students that are not used to my physical corrections, I will often ask the student before I adjust them, “Are you comfortable if I move your body to show you how to do it correctly?” This is often met with a positive response. Though, I am respectful if the student tells me no. When correcting, I adjust students with the sides of my hands or with my palm while my fingers are glued together like a spatula. Fingers tend to be more touchy-feely and can have misinterpreted intentions, so I try to avoid using my fingers as much as possible. If I do absolutely need to use my fingers, I will make sure they are rigid and avoid any inappropriate places. When a student requires corrections anywhere near any private area, I absolutely do not apply physical corrections. Instead, if it is a correction near or on the pelvis, I will show by pointing to myself. If it is close to the chest area, I will often pretend like there is an invisible string attached to their chest and imitate the act of pulling on the string to get them to shift their chest placement. If there is anything involving the rear-end, if it is along the sides of the hips or high enough like the gluteus medius, I will use the sides of my hands or a knuckle with my fingers tucked into my palm. The final protection that I enforce as a dance educator is that I will ABSOLUTELY NOT follow a student into a private place. If I need a student who is in the dressing room or in a bathroom, I will ask a parent or a peer to get them. This way there is never any question that I have been around a student in a private setting.

There is no better teacher than one who can build you up with confidence as they teach you our deftly difficult art form. It is pertinent that students receive information with clarity. I honestly don’t feel that anybody can become a professional dancer without any physical adjustments. Our American culture tends to be touch-sensitive, which can sometimes leave students feeling extremely cautious about any type of physical adjustment from teachers. I made the decision at the beginning of my teaching career that I would be one of those teachers that risk their livelihood to offer the best training to my students possible. And, it has worked thus far. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I approach each and every classroom I teach with tentativeness and an ounce of fear that one of my well-intended corrections may be misinterpreted as the worst of intentions. What has your experience been with physically correcting your students? Do you do it or not? And, if so, how do you approach making these corrections and protecting yourself as a dance educator?

Do I Stop Dancing When I Retire?

 

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Patricia Barker in her famous tendu curtsy

I remember one of the first times I stood onstage as a colleague experienced retirement from their illustrious stage career. This didn’t happen to be any casual final bow. The lady that stood before me, our company, and her adoring audience had been one of the major factors in increasing Pacific Northwest Ballet’s visibility on the national stage and building the reputation for it being the feet and leg company of the United States. Patricia Barker, now the Artistic Director of both Royal New Zealand Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet, had been dancing at PNB her entire life. She was home-grown talent that became internationally-known as a Balanchine Queen. Even into her 40’s, she was dancing quite well and proved this by dancing an entire evening of works that represented her career and importance to this institution. When the curtain rose one final time, I clearly remember watching Patricia curtsying bent over in a tendu en croisée devant with her famous feet, which she often liked to do. As I watched bouquets of flowers launch onstage out of the darkness, felt the tickle of confetti pour over my head, and clapped my hands numb for what must have been 20 full minutes, I remember thinking, “Wow! This is the end for her. Does she just stop dancing?” When the woman we often affectionately called Patty returned to PNB a few months after retirement, I remember a short conversation that still plays clearly in my mind. Patricia had cut her famously long, blonde hair to about chin length, she had spent a ton of time in Hawaii learning to surf, and she had not taken class since the day she took her final bow. Now, the hair and the surfing, I totally understood. You have to maintain a certain type of appearance for the stage and you have to be very careful about your outside activities to protect your body from unnecessary injury. But prior to this I had never thought that once a dancer steps offstage that they just stop dancing cold turkey.

For almost every professional dancer out there, taking class most mornings is as much a morning ritual as brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of coffee. When you first start taking class, it is commonly in the late afternoon or early evening as an after-school activity. If you are lucky enough to make it as far as your finishing training, your schedule begins to resemble that of a professional dancer. The first class of the day for most pre-professional training programs is either before or concurrent with company class. Once a dancer becomes a professional, they spend nearly every morning waking up at barre, refining their technique in center, and warming up their body for the rest of their rehearsal day. By the time that any dancer has had any substantial career, this means that they have likely been taking ballet classes daily for anywhere from two to three decades. If a dancer retires and decides to break that pattern immediately, my assumption is that there must be physical, emotional, and neurological consequences.

While I had always dreamt that my exit from the stage would be at least half of what Patricia had, I didn’t expect my career to end the way it did. After 7 seasons with Pacific Northwest Ballet, a failed transition to Ballet X, and a 4-year national freelance career, I became badly injured. Beyond the fact that I was trying to stabilize my career away from freelancing to avoid traveling so much and I wasn’t always dancing in appropriate conditions, I truly think a major reason for such a devastating injury was due to severe burn out that I had not addressed. I gave myself some time to recover by taking a hiatus to direct Alaska Dance Theatre. Since I wasn’t sure if this was going to be my transition (and if it wasn’t, I fully expected to return to the stage), I continued giving myself class most mornings before my work day began. When I decided not to continue on with that organization after my interim contract had expired, I returned home to Philadelphia to prepare my return to the stage. It was January, so I had some time before audition season would arrive. I got back in class, I spent the longest period of time at my home in 4 years (5 months), and I began coming up with a game plan for audition season. I was still coping with the injury that had derailed my career nearly 9 months earlier. But, even worse, I couldn’t wake up in time for the morning open classes I would often take during my freelance career. And when it came time for the evening open classes, I would often come up with excuses to avoid them. I didn’t want to take class, but I felt guilty that I wasn’t following my plan. To remedy this situation, I began giving myself class at my local gym a few times a week.

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Prepping to give myself class at the gym

While I was depressed and avoiding most structured classes (which I didn’t realize was a result of my burn out), I spent 8 months staying in shape doing pliés and tendus in an aerobics studio planning my return. I was essentially retired at this point, but there was absolutely no chance that these words were going to come out of my mouth. I hadn’t resolved my career, nor had I moved on. But I was still taking class, even if it was my own. I didn’t even realize it, but I was cultivating my future as a teacher and continuing my daily ritual without having to define the parameters of retirement. By the time I started super commuting to New York City and started to fall in love with taking class again (thanks to the inspiration of Nancy Bielski), I finally saw through the smoky, hazy fog that had been hovering over my career for nearly 2 1/2 years and decided to officially call it quits from the major part of my performance career. Luckily, I had already laid the ground work for my post-performance career, which included continuing my ritual comfort of taking class as often as possible.

I’ve had this conversation about continuing to dance a handful of times over the past year. It seems that there is almost an understood notion that once a dancer retires, they should no longer be a dancer. And, to be completely honest, that hurts my soul. I’ve discussed on my podcast how a dance career is a major relationship and how the end of a dance career can feel the same as a divorce or major break up. On many occasions, when a relationship that deep ends, the two parties feel that they must sever the things that once connected them so strongly. But what too many people often figure out down the road is that the relationship changed them for the better in many ways. And to ignore what got them to that place would only hurt them in the long run. I know this is a roundabout way of getting to my point, but I feel that taking class and continuing to dance as a retiree is the same thing.

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PNB Company Class (Photo: Kurt Smith)

We spend most classes staring in the mirror, assessing our needs and criticizing our art. It just happens that our art is our very being. When our body starts to betray us (whether weight, injury, or age), we often become negative about our relationship with dance. Add the fact that most days a dancer enters the studio, they are either physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, or both. So, when a dancer finally gets a chance to release themselves from the commitment of our daily ritual, they go full out and remove it from their lives altogether. But in my own personal journey, I am so very glad that I didn’t have an official retirement, as it likely prevented me from accidentally removing my class ritual from my life.

When I take class most days, I find that my body feels and functions better and I am much happier and more positive. From my own personal experience, I am convinced that former professionals NEED to continue taking class for their own physical and mental health. I’ve read studies that the brain creates pathways with repeated actions in order for more economical function. If a dancer stops taking class for a few weeks, the brain doesn’t necessarily notice that this pathway has been neglected. But if a dancer stops using this pathway altogether, I believe it is disruptive on a cellular level. I’ve talked to retired professionals who stopped class for an extended period of time, only to find themselves back in class after suffering severe depression and increased body pain due to lack of movement in their daily lives. There must be something to be said about this.

One of the most validating conversations I’ve had in recent years was with an established choreographer and good friend of mine, Val Caniparoli. As I began transitioning my focus to teaching and choreographing, I asked him if he missed dancing. In his special form of sass, he turned to me and exclaimed, “What do you mean? I am still a dancer. I dance every day.” In that moment, it was so important for me to hear him say that. I had been grappling with the idea of losing my identity as a dancer because I was no longer performing for audiences numbering in the thousands nightly. But the reality here is that I am still a dancer, I am still in the studio moving every day, and I love continuing to learn about my body, technique, and art daily. We need to take away this idea that the dancer part of us ends with our dance career and remind ourselves that we will always be dancers. Just like a tattoo imprinted onto your skin, it is practically impossible to remove all that we become when we embark on a career as a dancer. The only difference here is that dancer isn’t a label, it is a human trait . We will always have a sense of being a dancer in our muscles and minds. And we should do everything we can to acknowledge that and provide our dancer selves the physical nutrition we require.

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Post-Performance Careers for Dancers

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Post-Performance Career Professional

During my performance career, I was very eager to learn about the ins-and-out of the many functions of a world-class organization beyond my career in the studio and onstage. Many dancers choose to focus completely on performance aspects of their careers. But I always had great drive to gain as much information about as many different areas of our field as possible. During my time with Pacific Northwest Ballet, this drive led me to take multiple college courses in business and marketing, to seek election as a delegate for our dancer’s union (American Guild of Musical Artists – AGMA) to provide representation and protections for my colleagues, and to act as the dancer liaison for the organization’s young patrons/donor development program named Backstage Pass. All of these experiences were greatly beneficial following my time at PNB, when I managed my career for 4 years as a Principal Guest Artist freelancing around the country. It has been especially helpful as I have entered this new stage of my career as a choreographer, dance educator, and media personality.

While I have gained much from each of these positions, I found my time as the dancer liaison for Backstage Pass particularly insightful in learning the importance of educating audiences about our art form and sharing information with the most nonjudgmental approach. Between engaging young adult ballet patrons and experiencing conversations at events, I always seem to field the same questions over and over again. First and foremost, non-dancers are particularly intrigued by the fact that dancers will retire from their first career at such young ages. So, it isn’t shocking that almost every engaging conversation I’ve had with the general public includes the question, “How much time do you think you have left before you have to retire?” This simple response that I stole from our physical therapist when I danced with Houston Ballet always felt most fitting. “There is no timeline to a dance career.” Some people will nod their head and move on. But most will acknowledge my response and ask for actual numbers. After appeasing their curiosity with a generalized idea of prospective retirement ages of dancers, the next question they ask is always pretty representative of how our culture perceives dance and our need for surface information with little insight beyond a few talking points. I can’t tell you how many times I have answered the question, “So, when you retire, you choreograph and teach?” Now that I go back and read what I just wrote, I find it funny that this is exactly what I chose to do when I retired from the stage. This fact aside, much of society believes that there are only 2 options available to dancers after their young careers are cut short by physical injuries, emotional injuries, or the reality of aging out of the youthful population of dance companies. Well, I’m here today to change that perception. If you have always wondered about possible job options for dancers in their post-performance career, look no further! I have compiled an informative list for you below. Enjoy!

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Dance Educator – Since we already talked about this, why not start with the obvious and expected response. Many retired dancers choose to pass on their craft after they leave the stage. Whether this is seen as a second stage to their dance careers or it is used to field income while determining their next career path, it is a viable option for many who are hoping to remain in the field in some way. I will get more into this in a future post, but teaching is more challenging than one may think. Not every dancer will be a good teacher. And there is a difference between giving a class and teaching a class. Don’t be afraid to dive in and learn as you go. But being an effective, quality teacher take a lot more than having had a successful stage career.

Choreographer – Assuming that any former professional dancer can be a choreographer is a novice error, as choreographing dance is a complex activity. But if you have a knack for finding interesting music (and listening to it on repeat a million times), developing compelling movement, creating and solving complex patterns, improvisation, teaching, coaching, stage direction, and sharing your imagination on a public platform, this might be the career for you. I find that cultivating my choreographic career is just as challenging and complex as the preparation I put into auditioning for contracts with companies. There are exciting and great successes, as well as a ton of rejections and time put in. Be ready for the long haul and prepare yourself to cultivate other aspects of your career while you are gaining traction and interest in your work.

A taste of my choreography:

Ballet or Rehearsal Master/Mistress – Did you feel like you were always a leader in company rehearsals? Are you great at counting, retaining choreography, and helping the group of dancers around you adjust to material faster? Then, maybe you should consider transitioning your career into that of a ballet or rehearsal master/mistress. These former dancers are responsible for teaching company class, staging previously set works, assisting choreographers with new works, cleaning up choreography, and managing dancers. There are very few of these positions available with organizations, and these long-term positions usually go to former dancers familiar with the organization. This can make it very difficult to gain this type of position. But if you want to stay working in the studio and continue helping your fellow dancers, this is the job for you.

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Darla Hoover – Balanchine Repetiteur

Repetiteur/Stager – Acting as a repetiteur or stager is not an easy job to obtain. Former dancers (or, sometimes, working dancers) head around the world regularly to restage the works of choreographers (both living and dead), as a part of their jobs. It really is quite a niche that requires timing, luck, friendship, and/or Principal/Soloist status. Think of your favorite choreographers of today’s time (Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian). Imagine that 5 of their works are being staged at company’s around the world at any given time. These dance makers clearly can’t be in all 5 places at once. So, they will hire repetiteurs (also commonly called stagers) to teach their work to companies in their absence. Most repetiteurs have danced the works of these choreographers, worked as ballet masters/mistresses while the choreographer was making the piece, or are long-time friends of these dance makers, who they trust on a personal level to share their work as it was intended to be performed.

Costume/Dancewear Designer – Dancewear can be quite expensive to buy, especially while surviving on an artist’s salary. Maybe a dancer wanted new leg warmers or a leotard, so they decided to go at it on their own. Then, perhaps, that dancer wore their new leo in class and all of their friends asked where they got it. Before they know it, they are making dance wear for their friends and selling their products online to supplement their income. Many dancers just happen upon other talents they possess out of need or to enrich their lives outside of the studio. It is not uncommon for these dancers to eventually own a dancewear line or to begin moving in the direction of costume design. Already possessing an artistic sensibility and an eye for what looks good on a dancer, this post-performance career befits dancers who have left the stage to enter this side of the profession.

Administrator (Company or School) – For dancer’s like me, who are seeking longevity in the arts world beyond their time onstage, working in administration is a great way to stay connected and give back to your art. Whether working as an Executive Director guiding the financial health of an organization and executing the vision of the Artistic Director, joining a marketing team to help promote an organization’s work, or helping create dancer’s of the future as a School Principal, administrators keep the world of dance functioning on a systematic level outside of the studio. Today, many dancers are gaining degrees in Arts Administration to help gain tools to bring dance forward into a more fiscally responsible era with greater visibility for our great art form.

Technical Director/Lighting Designer – Have you ever found yourself enthralled by the happenings onstage behind and surrounding dancers. I am talking lighting, scenery, and stage craft? If so, you may be the perfect person to work as a technical or lighting director. These behind the scenes masters can turn a stage into an atmospherically magical box for dancers to perform their art. This jobs responsibilities often include lighting design, coordinating scenery and crew members, and creating all of the onstage magic that makes a fairytale ballet so ethereal to view.

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Dance Photographer – Lee Cherry

Photographer/Videographer – Unsurprisingly, dancers tend to be masters of the visual arts, as well. Standing in front of a mirror day-in and day-out gives dancers a scrupulous eye when it comes to line, imagery, and the most minute details. For this reason, it is no surprise that many dancers are complete naturals when it comes to photography and film-making.

Arts Lobbyist – It takes a lot of grit to sustain a dance career. These days, especially, it also takes a shit ton of grit to fight for what is right and needed in Washington. Many dancers who find themselves in leadership positions also make great politicians who are willing to stand up for our art form. We need more people than ever fighting to maintain government programs and funding that are necessary to keep dancers dancing.

Fitness Expert – Who else is more suited to share the joys of health and fitness with the general population than a dancer? Dancers not only spend time dancing in the studio every day. They have been working at their fitness since they were young children.

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NYCB Principal Joaquin De Luz training fellow dancer

Additionally, cross-training in other fitness fields is a necessary aspect of maintaining a healthy body, as is proper understanding of nutrition. Many dancers naturally fall into the fields of fitness trainers, pilates coaches, gyrotonics coaches, yoga instructors, and other areas of the fitness world.

Physical Therapists/Medical Experts – Dancers spend their lifetimes analyzing everything from the way their body looks on the outside to the way the tiniest muscles and joints move on the inside. This gives dancers an edge when it comes to understanding how the body works and using that knowledge to help keep dancers dancing. Some of the best physical therapists I have ever worked with were either working as therapists in their post-performance careers or were training to become dancers and changed their focus towards P.T. after suffering an injury, burning out, or deciding not to further pursue a dance career.

Whatever the Hell You Want to Be – In reality, there is no definitive pathway to the post-performance careers of professional dancers. Many dancers want to remain in our magical field. But many move on to become successful in a multitude of professions. With intense work ethics, determination, grit, instantaneous problem solving abilities, and so much more, dancers are adept to finding success in most any career in or outside of dance. No more than 20 years ago, it was assumed that the only appropriate ages to attend college were between 18 and 24 years old. These days, it is now acceptable and common to gain your secondary education at any point in your life. For this reason, many dancers are heading straight to college outside of their first careers as dancers and moving on to become doctors, lawyers, and other successful professionals. The great thing about these artists in non-artistic professions is that they become our ticket buying audience and use their fruitful salaries to help support arts organizations around the country.

The Art of Reinvention

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Taking a Final Bow (Photo: J.Ro)

Isn’t it funny how life never leads you exactly where you think it will take you. I have a saying that I always get what I want, I just never get it how I expected it. If you work hard, are honest and kind, and are willing to take risks, I truly believe that you get what you need. It just isn’t always what you expected or thought you needed. And you may not realize this until you’ve spent some time in that specific experience. Well, here I am, Barry Kerollis, the creator of the popular dance blog Life of a Freelance Dancer, beginning a brand new writing endeavor about the post-performance careers of professional dancers that I felt would be most appropriately titled Dancing Offstage. Now, how the hell did I get here?

If you know me from my previous blog, thank you for being a dedicated reader of my work. But if you happen upon this post and choose to read on in intrigue and curiosity, let me tell you a little bit about myself through my own personal reinvention.

Any successful person needs to have the capacity to reinvent themselves throughout their lives and careers. We all start as little kids and identify with the innocent mind and body of a child. Then puberty hits and we have to reinvent the idea of who we are and how the world views us. For me, my reinvention of self into adulthood involved a refined sense of my personal masculinity as a teenage dancer; which included the deepening of my voice, pronounced musculature, and socially idealized sexuality projected by our culture and the connotations that came along with being an American male dancer. This was only one of my first major reinventions of self. It happened again when I decided to come out as a gay man and pursue a career in an elite art form that requires mere teenagers to work in an intensely stressful field at performance levels higher than middle aged employees in major corporations. Reinvention is the lifeblood of success and I find myself very aware of this, especially in this particular period of my life. But you’ll have to keep reading, I’ll get to that in a second.
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Who am I and why am I waxing poetic about reinvention? I am a passionate influencer in the unique art form of dance. I have been involved in the professional ballet and contemporary dance worlds for over 15 years. It may surprise people that I have such a depth of experience when I only turned 34 a few weeks ago. My major credits include dancing for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, and working as a nationally touring freelance artist for over 4 years. I have danced on stages at opera houses and concert halls in many major and regional cities around the United States. After spending 7 seasons dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, I felt the need to reinvent my dancing. As many of you have read in my former blog, my intention in leaving the west coast was to evolve myself into a contemporary dance artist and tour the country with my work. But as I said earlier, I always get what I want, just not how I expect it. After joining Ballet X in Philadelphia to achieve this goal, I became injured. And as history would tell it, instead of being supported by this young, fledgling company, I was fired, kicked to the curb, and forced to reinvent myself in a different way than I planned. This wasn’t a choice. It was survival. In this painful period, I reinvented myself almost immediately, turning my career-style into that of a freelance artist and began blogging. I didn’t write because it helped me express myself. Instead, I did it through necessity. I had no idea what I was doing, I was scared, I didn’t know how to find work, and I couldn’t find any information about the world that I was blindly entering. So, I found my way into writing to offer a tool to others in my situation, as a journal of my experience, and in hopes that it would become a valuable marketing tool for myself and my colleagues. Five years later, my former blog has been featured in articles by Dance Magazine, has been viewed over 330,000 times, has solidified paying work for me, and has been viewed by people in over 100 countries around the world. It was a successful endeavor. So, why did I stop and decide to start this new venture here at Dancing Offstage? I’m getting there.
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Photo: Matthew Murphy

At the peak of my freelance career, I found myself obtaining job after job, flying from city to city. During this time, the longest I ever slept in my own bed was 7 week (only twice). And I did all of this for 4 years with barely an audition. My blog validated my audition package and organizations would contact me and my network would give my name to employers. But little did my audience know that I was horribly burnt out and experiencing severe anxiety symptoms that were beginning to develop into physical issues. I ended up in a horrible situation dancing with Oakland Ballet, where my housing fell through and I spent 5 weeks sleeping on multiple strangers couches while not always knowing where I would sleep from night to night. It was no surprise that I suffered my career ending injury before I made it onstage with the company. While this physical injury was great, I hadn’t yet realized that I had developed a much worse emotional injury. It took nearly 2 years of soul searching to determine the root of the issue and remember why I loved the art form of ballet. I didn’t know it yet, but I was beginning my greatest reinvention to this date, retirement from the stage and my first career as a dancer onstage.

I don’t think I was resistant to the idea of ending my performance career. I just didn’t realize that it needed to end. I couldn’t bring myself to take class. I couldn’t imagine putting myself in front of people to perform in a public setting. I couldn’t fake an emotion or act onstage or off (I’ve always taken great pride in my acting skills), even if they paid me lots of money. There were a lot of I couldn’ts. I still loved dance, but I couldn’t remember why.

To survive financially, I began to teach. And because I wasn’t performing, I took some time to focus on my choreographic career that was put on the back burner to allow me to travel the country for 4 years. With an unabashed and hyper-focused work ethic, I began to find myself again and started to gain more recognition for my work offstage than I had ever received onstage. From Dance Magazine to Pointe and Dance Spirit, a YouTube series I created received features. I directed Alaska Dance Theatre as Interim Artistic Director, where I began develoIMG_8945ping classes in contemporary dance. I was selected to create a work for the prestigious National Choreographers Initiative and was a finalist at the McCallum Theatre’s 18th annual Choreography Festival. Even with all of these accomplishments at the beginning of my transition, I still hadn’t even begun to tap into the depth of work necessary for my reinvention.

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My First Time on the Big Board at Steps on Broadway

After trying to make my home-base in Philadelphia work following those 4 years on the road, it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to turn my focus to New York City. But I was scared. Never one to let fear prevent me from achieving success, I embarked on a near 2-year journey as a super commuter, traveling the round trip from Philadelphia to The Big Apple almost daily. Call me crazy, but this is when my reinvention truly took hold. My biggest successes throughout this difficult period of my career came in the recognition I received from acclaimed institutions. I was hired as a speaker for two organizations that were just named on a list of Dance Magazine’s most influential people and organizations (The Actors Fund & Gibney Dance). I was offered the opportunity to host my own podcast (Pas de Chát: Talking Dance) on iTunes and the Premier Dance Network alongside other prestigious dance luminaries. I was hired as faculty at both Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center, taught a master class for the Second Avenue Dance Company at Tisch in New York University, and received choreographic commissions from Columbia Ballet Collaborative and CelloPointe. Beyond this, I also began developing a 4-year codified syllabus to teach pre-professional ballet students the tenets and pillars of contemporary dance and movement.

As with most anything in life, the good must exist in balance with challenges.

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Studio to Stage – Columbia Ballet Collaborative – Photo: Eduardo Patino

Super commuting took a toll on me emotionally. Just like a caterpillar painstakingly evolving into a butterfly, opposing my newfound success as a dance educator, choreographer, and media personality, my entire life existed on a bus. Friendships fell to the wayside, I slept 4 hours on average most nights, and I lost any semblance of normalcy as my success outside of Philly grew greater. But with great effort and perseverance, I was able to come out to the other side. A few weeks ago, my husband and I finally made the move up to New York City to begin happily residing in the neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens. With this move, I feel that my reinvention has been achieved. Yet, the funny thing about this is that it is abundantly clear to me now that this is where the real work begins.

Everybody will have to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their lives. But few people will have to do this as often and as young as those of us who choose to live the fascinating life of a dance artist. In this bi-monthly blog, I plan to continue exploring my own reinvention as a dancer who is no longer dancing onstage. I will share my experiences, my highs, my lows, my friends/colleagues, their experiences, and valuable information for dance artists, entrepreneurs, and people from all walks of life around the globe. I hope that you will join me on this new journey and that you will become an integral part of this reinvention process. Cheers!
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The View from My New Home in New York City