The Many Meanings of ‘Professional’

CHRISTIAN BURNS – a dancer, teacher and choreographer in the San Francisco Bay Area and founder of burnsWORK – muses on what professionalism means, the permutability of definitions, and how it varies dancer to dancer. His 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?

Personal dance practice: One hour a week, somatic movement practice with two colleagues.

Broader dance practice: My teaching practice is the channel for much of my dance practice and research. I teach over 800 hours per year. Each class I teach is grounded in my original quest to understand myself through movement. I teach with an improvisational mind, always responding to my students so that the class becomes the shape of our engagement and can at times become extraordinary art. Since it’s not ultimately possible to teach improvisation if I’m not doing it, I get a lot of regular dance practice every week.

Would you call yourself a professional dancer?

Yes. And I’m not sure all the time.

What do you believe is necessary for a dancer to call themselves professional?

I find the term ‘professional’ to be problematic relative to art. Are we talking making money, being socially validated, attaining highest degree of excellence? Or are we talking about a lifelong commitment to a practice of altruism and poetry? The term suggests a false binary of either ‘making it’ in the field, or not.

In my mind, I always equated the idea of ‘professional’ with excellence (there are no shortage of examples of great artists who didn’t make a dime). I think it’s important for a dancer to strive for personal excellence and foster the professional attributes of being focused, respectful and dedicated.

I am constantly reevaluating if I identify as a professional dancer. At 45 and making little income from my dancing and most of my income from teaching, this is a question for me all over again. There is a great interview on Fresh Air from last year with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch where he talks about self-identifying as a professional ‘amateur’ – whose Latin origin means ‘the love of.’ He’s not offering a case for poverty but a case for keeping your connection to the art as pure as possible and letting your love of the work drive you.   

Is part of being a professional getting paid?

Sure, it’s part of it. There is a great satisfaction and pride that comes with making one’s living doing what one loves. But there’s always a trade off somewhere.

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

No. But commitment expressed through spending enough time practicing is essential. Usually years.

Do you consider project-based or solo work to be professional?

Yes. If the artist feels their work is at a professional level, then it’s professional. If they are making grant and box office income, then it’s professional. If the artist considers their work to represent a furthering of the field, or a comment on historic contributions as a means to continue the artistic potential for the medium, then yes, it’s professional.

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). Do those numbers make you rethink your responses?

No. This data seems to reflect the current climate. The old models are struggling. There are exponentially more dancers in the field than ever before with fewer full time company positions available. The internet has enabled scores of independent dance careers. The easing up of traditional body-type prejudices has opened the door for anyone willing to bust their ass enough to step in. The old gatekeepers no longer hold the keys; if you want to dance, you can do it on your own. It’s a wonderful time right now in dance, but it brings uncertainty.

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?

Yes, it’s very different. In the past, the dance field was much smaller with fewer options. 50 years ago, you had only a limited number of boxes to choose from: classical ballet, neo classical ballet, classical modern, post modern. It was simpler times – if you were lucky, you got a job and you called yourself professional. 25 years ago, all those same professional models still existed, but from the choreographic side of things you started to see trends leaning towards hybridization, which has led to new models of solo and project-based career paths.

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 am always of two minds. I identify with the laborer, the worker, and the working-class reality of making an honest living. It’s a powerfully validating mark of pride to find work that utilizes your skills.

And I identify with the poet, the artist, and the outsider who will not be defined by societal norms and whose deep sense of self-truth is wrapped up in a purpose to communicate their human experience – as an altruistic act. An act of service.

Professional can mean different things to different people at different points in their lives. It’s definitely connected to a sense of self-worth, self-pride, self-validation, accomplishment, excellence and lots of hard work.

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

That all we do is dance steps.

Christian Burns PRO

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Since 1993, Christian Burns has been performing, teaching, directing and speculating about the numerous ways we can experience, observe and communicate through the body. In the San Francisco Bay Area, his work has been seen at numerous venues, as well as nationally and abroad. He received his classical training from The School of American Ballet and began his improvisation education in 1994 and, since then, has been researching various improvisational methods. Christian was a company member of Alonzo Kings LINES Ballet (1999 – 2002) and James Sewell Ballet (1993 – 1998). In 1998, he established The Foundry with Alex Ketley, which received the support of numerous private foundations, contemporary art centers and residency programs. Between 2003 – 2008, Christian collaborated with Kirstie Simson, together giving over 100 improvised performances worldwide. In 2007, he was invited as a guest artist by The Forsythe Company for the creation of William Forsythe’s installation piece EQUIVALENCE. In 2008, Christian co-founded the interdisciplinary art space Parsons Hall Project Space in Holyoke, MA. Christian is a full-time educator for several programs and independent workshops. He is a founding faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, as well as being on the faculty of Lines Ballet Training Program and Lines BFA at Dominican University. He is the founder and director of burnsWORK. To learn more, visit www.burnswork.org.

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