Questioning the Professional Paradigm

JESSICA PERINO is co-artistic director of 20MOONS. Based in Durango, Colorado—a town of 17,000—the company offers a contemporary and explorative approach to dance-making. Here, she offers several questions and concerns about the way society conceptualizes professional dance. 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.

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What does your current regular dance practice look like?

My current regular dance practice is planning classes, teaching classes, creating choreography for students and for my company. I perform in a variety of capacities – mostly with my company, 20 MOONS, sometimes with a dear friend in a local comedic cabaret, sometimes as a solo performer, and sometimes in the weird, random ways dancers find themselves performing. Because there isn’t a lot of dance in my small town, I find myself traveling about once a year to take class from others. Every now and again, in the sweetest of moments, I get the total joy and pleasure of sneaking into the studio and dancing for myself.

Would you call yourself a professional dancer?

Yes.

What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional? Is part of being a professional getting paid?

This is such a rich and puzzling contemplation, and, as with any good discussion, I came up with more questions than answers…

Is a profession what I do all day, every day, regardless of monetary compensation? The word “professional” typically does imply getting paid. But in a field where funding is increasingly nominal, yet the level of dedication we put in remains the same (or even increases), it seems that how we define someone as professional should be up for examination. The origin of the word “professional” does not have to do with money, but rather with making a public declaration. Aren’t we as people who commit our waking, and often dreaming, minutes to dance (or at least, thinking about dance) in a near constant act of professing? So, are we therefore, professional?

Then, if it can it be said that a professional dancer is someone who dedicates all their time to dance, how are we dancers to support ourselves, if we dedicate our time to a field that does not pay, or does not pay much? We end up working a slurry of other jobs that do pay, leaving small pockets of time to practice our actual profession. If I spend more time at my “jobs” then I do dancing, can I still consider myself a professional dancer? Perhaps a dancing professional? Is what I spend the majority of my time doing and getting paid for my profession? I guess all those years that we were considering ourselves to be professional dancers, we were actually professional dog walking, nannying, food serving, souvenir selling, dance/yoga/Pilates/Gyrotonics/gymnastics/preschool teachers. No… we can have many professions at once. It’s not that we can only be professional in one thing at a time. Thank goodness; I like the way that string of things sounds.

Is there a certain amount of training involved in becoming a professional dancer?

To be a professional dancer, I think you need to be at the top of the field, and this does require a certain amount of training. Attaching “professional” to a product implies that the work will be of a certain quality level. And this is where things get slippery, as what is “good” or “bad” dance is so subjective.  Being a well-trained, professional dancer doesn’t necessarily mean that you are technically proficient in a westernized, virtuosic, ballet schooled kind of way. That’s one way, but it’s not the only way. There are so many ways of moving, expressing, and getting the point across in a quality way. If you are able to say what you want to say, or to say what the choreographer would like you to say… maybe then you’re a professional?

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?

Absolutely, in many ways. The thing that has most affected my immediate sphere of dance is technology and social media. As people shift away from theaters towards screens, the dance heroes and teachers of today are visiting us via free, Instagram-length tidbits and YouTube (rather than season) subscriptions. I am curious about these Instagram and YouTube personalities that myself and my students follow, along with hundreds of thousands of others; does having a major social media following qualify someone as a professional dancer? In my teaching, I wonder if I am setting my students up for this shifting world of professional dance. It’s hard for me to gauge where exactly the target is because it seems to be in the midst of major transformations. I am excited to watch things continue to evolve.

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?

Yes. Often, when people don’t fit a particular mold, they are not considered professional. Maybe they don’t work for a famous company, look a certain way, live in a certain city, or, basically, move outside of the realm of colonial ideals of what dance is or should be, yet they are trained, dedicated, proficient artists, and should be considered professional.

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 grew up in a small town, and started dance as a teenager, late by some standards. I didn’t think there was any way I’d ever “make it.” Early in my college years, I attended a workshop given by a teacher from NYC (the dream place, then). And she said, “You should come to New York and dance,” and I thought a miracle had taken place. I couldn’t believe there was any way that I could be a dancer in NYC. She said something along the lines of: “There’s a place for every kind of dancer in New York.” That moment changed my whole understanding of what it meant to be a dancer. So I moved to NYC, and then several other cities, to check out what it was to be a dancer in each new locale. And her comment was so right, but even bigger – there is a place for every kind of dancer in the world. I am thankful that my experiences have also expanded my understanding and acceptance of a variety of aesthetics and dance forms from all around the world. There is such a spectrum of possibilities of what dance is and can be. I feel like every day I make a new discovery in dance. This process of discovery is what keeps me at it.

What do you wish people wouldn’t assume about the dance profession?

Often, people are shocked to learn that I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and that I make a living through dance (albeit a combination of teaching, choreographing and performing). My hope is that people will start assuming that professional dance can, and does, happen anywhere.

People assume that dancers are only professional if they are employed in the large company model. My hope is that people will start assuming that one can dance professionally in a variety of ways.

Often, people are shocked that I consider myself a professional dancer, yet I do not have a certain body type. My hope is that people will start assuming that dancers look like humans of every variety.

In my experience, dancers are often asked to provide their services for free. My hope is that people will start assuming that dancers should be compensated just as a professional in any other field should be.

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Jessica Perino

Photo by Brett Masse

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