2018 – To Be Resolutionary, Revelationary, or Revolutionary

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 4.42.51 PM
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.

puck
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?

IMG_0277
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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 9.57.56 PM
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?)

Advertisements

Should I Teach “Hands-On?”

AK BK Intensive 2015 158(2)
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.

dance-inquiry1-master768-v2
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.

AK BK Intensive 2015 401(2)
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?

 

dfdf37f7de9345895bc2a1a64667805c
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.

IMG_2356
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.

Seattle_PNB_Company_class_ca_1990s
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.

IMG_3588

 

Post-Performance Careers for Dancers

IMG_0168
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!

——————————

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.

repetiteur
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.

dance photographer
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.

Joaquin-De-Luz-working-with-NYCB-Principal-Andrew-Veyette.-Photo-courtesy-of-De-Luz
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

IMG_2538
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.
IMG_5082

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.
Kerollis-Guggenheim
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.

IMG_4898
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.

AMZL3667
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!
IMG_9927
The View from My New Home in New York City