BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY CAMILLE TAFT
Am I a professional dancer? The question reads like something out of those “advice for dancers” columns I read in Dance Magazine as a teenager. “Dear all-knowing dance guru: I’ve studied dance in many forms for several years and I perform regularly, sometimes for money, other times not. However, I still pay a fair amount of money for classes and studio space, and I don’t make enough from dance to live off of… Am I considered a professional dancer?”
I guess the short answer would be no, right? A quick search on dictionary.com tells me that “professional” is “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.” It’s not my main paid occupation but, for me, dance completely transcends “pastime.” I have studied dance since I was five (that’s over 25 years at this point), achieved a BFA in dance, further studied at a prestigious conservatory, danced in numerous performances (some paid, some not) while living in San Francisco for six years, run a dance blog for six years, written a book about dance, and I continue to run the blog, teach a weekly class, dance at least three to five times a week, and perform a handful of times a year. Yes, I occasionally receive pay, but I still pay (for classes and workshops), and I still do an enormous amount of work that is unpaid (running the blog you’re reading, and most performances). This patchwork dance lifestyle is not unique to me, but true to many dancers I have both interviewed and know personally. Does that make us obsessive hobbyists, or is there a separate definition of “professional” when speaking of a pursuit like dance?
In order to find a fitting definition of what it means to be a professional dancer, we have to ask ourselves if it is possible to earn a steady income from dance over a lifetime, to have a steady ongoing career the way architects and nurses have careers. A “career in dance” should be differentiated from a “dance career.” Careers in dance include, for example, dance/movement therapist, wherein the accompanying skill that makes the career profitable is therapy. Or consider dance teachers, where the income is through the engagement of students, not just from knowing how to dance. For other careers in dance – directors, choreographers and, of course, dancers – the profitability comes from having an audience. Unfortunately, our current social climate undervalues creativity and expression. Even within a company (the traditional hallmark of a dance career), finding paying audiences to support several salaries is a labor unto itself, and is mostly achieved via the help of grants and the largesse of patrons. If those grants or monetary gifts don’t steadily roll in, then how can a dance career pay bills?
According to the 2016 New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project’s report “Moving Dance Forward,” 80 percent of respondents said they were doing project-based work and 50 percent said they were doing solo work (there was room for crossover). Fulltime company jobs are few and far between; every dancer I’ve ever met has had to be creative in order to find ways to earn money over time. And for those who choreograph and/or perform outside a well-endowed institution, the creativity necessary to pay for rehearsal space, venue rental, marketing and rehearsal time can be even more demanding. It’s difficult to imagine how empty the dance field would be if nobody did pro-bono work.
The next several weeks, I’m publishing the perspectives of several dancers on what “professional” means to them. I’ve enlisted dancers of different genres, geographic areas, and ages. Here are the questions I’ve posed, with responses by yours truly to kick things off.
What does your current regular dance practice look like?
Right now, I take ballet class on Mondays, West African and contact improvisation on Wednesdays, and work in the studio on my own on Thursdays. Additionally, I stretch for about 40 minutes every morning. And I’m in the process of trying out some new classes around town. I have an upcoming show at a gallery space in April that I’m choreographing on myself.
Would you call yourself a professional dancer?
That depends on the day, week or month and what I have going on (can one dip in and out of professionalism?). More often, I find myself saying I used to dance professionally, referring to my time spent dancing in San Francisco, though I still dance quite often (though perform less).
What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional? Is part of being a professional getting paid?
I think professionalism comes with a certain amount of training (though I don’t think it has to be in any one kind of dance) wherein one reaches a fluency and ability to mold the art form. Perhaps a better word than “professional” would be “masterful.”
In a social system that devotes more funding to the arts, we might be able to associate professional status with compensation, but I just don’t think there are enough funding sources for dance, so no, it’s not currently practical to solely define professionalism by income. The “Moving Dance Forward” survey found that “A majority (50.9%) of presenter survey respondents indicated that relative to 10 years ago, contributed income available for dance presentations (i.e., grants, individual donations, corporate sponsorships, etc.) has decreased.” With less funds available, it seems dance artists are often willing to do the work they care about for free, regardless of their training and experience.
Is there a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional dancer?
Yes, training is a requisite. Though there are some prodigies, it seems safe to say that, in general, it takes about 10 years of study to truly become adept at a form. I realize there are serious barriers to entry in terms of training, but that’s fodder for another discussion, and in what highly skilled field are there not?
Do you consider project-based work to be professional?
Yes, if the dance artists are highly skilled, though I don’t have preconceptions about how that skill should manifest.
Do you consider solo work to be professional?
Yes, same as above.
Do you think the definition of a professional dancer is different than it was 25 or 50 years ago? If so, do you have any ideas why it might have changed?
I don’t know if it has changed on the micro level. In the 1970s, there were several dance celebrities, mostly in ballet, who elevated the general public’s awareness of dance. But I think dancers in general have always had to hustle.
Are there instances when people apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it shouldn’t be applied?
Every mid-size US town seems to have a dance school that calls its highest level “the company,” when they are really just intermediate/advanced-level teenagers whose parents are paying for training.
Vice versa, are there instances when people don’t apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it should be applied?
There seems to be a real bias wherein dancers from big cities are considered “legit” and dancers from small towns are provincial. There’s just more dance in big cities. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily better though.
How might your cultural perspective – where you live, where you’re from, what form of dance you practice – influence what you think of as professional?
My training is predominantly in ballet and contemporary dance though, since moving to Santa Fe, I’ve also studied West African, flamenco and contact improv. Different dance forms have different constructs of what professional dance is, and the classical dance version leans heavily toward paid company work performing on a proscenium stage. However, I can’t say much more than that, as I haven’t tried to be “professional” in anything other than classically-trained dance forms.
What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about the dance profession?
I wish people wouldn’t mix “big city” with legitimacy. I often feel like, in order for people to take me seriously, I have to say, “I danced professionally in San Francisco for six years.” I didn’t make all my income from dance in San Francisco, and I don’t today in Santa Fe. I found brilliant dance practitioners who pushed my understanding of the art form in San Francisco, and I’ve found brilliant dance practitioners who continue to challenge me in Santa Fe. Professional dance isn’t something that’s handed to you in the form of a contract, for those are too rare and too fleeting; for me, it’s a fluency and mastery that is earned over time, regardless of compensation or demand.
This is part of a larger series dissecting what it means to be a professional dancer. To read other perspectives on the topic, click here.