JOANIE GARCIA is one of the founders of Dark Sky Aerial, an aerial theater and performance art company in Flagstaff, Arizona. She describes her personal ambiguity toward the term “professional dancer,” and recognizes the more comprehensive role dance can play in a person’s life. Her responses are part of a larger series dissecting what it means to be a professional dancer. To read other perspectives on the topic, click here.
What does your current regular dance practice look like?
My current dance practice looks different depending on the season. When I am producing work, I am choreographing, attending ballet, training in aerial, and dancing with my company. Oftentimes this is around 10-20 hours per week of actual movement, but the majority of my time often seems to be on the computer. As a dance producer and founder of my own company, it takes a lot of behind the scenes work to make dance happen. This includes teaching classes, writing grants, marketing, accounting and coordinating all aspects of a production, like permitting, logistics, insurance, meetings, etc. The drive to carry out these activities is my deep passion for dance!
Would you call yourself a professional dancer?
In many respects, I think people in my community would look at me and say that I am some sort of “professional dancer.” Is dance my profession? Yes. Am I paid to dance? Yes. Do I “feel” like a professional dancer? Not really. In my mind, that type of title is reserved for Misty Copeland and co. Even in all the work I do to democratize dance, I still feel this weight of the dividing line. There is a lot of prestige wrapped up in the term “professional dancer.” It is a funny thing! I do not feel that it is important to declare myself a “professional dancer.” Rather, it feels more accurate to call myself an artist, aerial artist, producer, dance maker, even a professional teaching artist. It is like the term “professional dancer” is still off limits to me in my mind.
What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional? Is part of being a professional getting paid?
I do believe strongly in being paid for my work, and paying others for their work. This is a huge component that I advocate for all the time. During my time in Flagstaff, I have actively participated in a cultural shift from a time where artists were paid in beer and pizza to a time where artists are paid for their work, including contracts and riders. I feel proud of that!
Is there a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional dancer?
Yes, there is significant preparation in making professional level work. In my case, I have been training in aerial arts for over 10 years and began dancing as a young teenager. I was told that I was too old to start dancing at age 14. In my work, I believe dance is for every body. That is why I am drawn to using dance/movement in all sorts of applications: physically integrative dance, dance for Parkinson’s, and dance as a therapeutic tool. To me, “professional dancer” connotes a short lifespan on a stage. Maybe you have two to three years of a professional career and then you are tossed aside for someone younger and less injured. In my opinion, this is the ugly side of dance: the eating disordered, competitive, and disconnected side of a beautiful, cultural and transformative experience that belongs to all who choose to experience it.
Do you consider project-based work to be professional?
I consider my project-based work to be professional, yes. Dark Sky Aerial does site specific, aerial theater productions that are project-based. We utilize large collaborations of artists. In our recent production, TILT, we had 45 collaborating artists from across Arizona.
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?
I live in a smaller city center; Flagstaff has 80,000 residents. This significantly changes who or what may be considered “professional.” We do not have resources for a fully funded dance company. Even the orchestras in Flagstaff do not have fulltime musicians. The artistic community is largely comprised of people who work a day job in one field and moonlight their passion in the arts. A recent economic impact survey conducted by the Flagstaff Arts Council cites there are 3,035 local jobs in the arts. That isn’t very many for the $90 million economic impact of this same sector.
What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about the dance profession?
There are so many assumptions I would like to change in the dance world. Mainly, it is the messaging to young artists about what dance is and isn’t. As I previously mentioned, I was told (by my own dance teacher) that I was too old to ever “make it” in dance. I was also told not to try, because there were so few job prospects as a dancer. In my teacher’s eyes, her students could either go to Los Angeles or New York to try to “make it” as a back-up dancer, or they could teach dance. There is so much dance has given me. It does take hard work, and you have to pioneer in many cases, but movement can be a lifelong practice that enriches your social connections, body expression, mental health, and creativity. Dance is my meaningful connection to this earth. My creations, productions, and dances have impacted viewers and participants in life-changing ways, just as my participation in other work has done the same for me.
To learn more, visit www.darkskyaerial.com.