Assessing the Contexts of Professionalism

LORIEN HOUSE is a dancer-turned-lawyer currently based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She shares the sense of insecurity she experienced pursuing dance professionally in comparison with her later career, and the fraught questions of validation and self-worth it accompanied. 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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Would you call yourself a professional dancer?

Not now. I would call myself a former professional dancer.

What does your current regular dance practice look like?

My current dance practice is pretty minimal. I quit dancing almost 20 years ago, and, although I’ve always been and continue to be physically active, I haven’t danced or trained as a dancer since then. During that time, I went back to school, got my BA, then went to law school and became a lawyer. For a long time, I thought I had to reject my dancer self in order to fit some idea I had of being a lawyer. I tried to fill the hole left by the absence of dance with running, biking, etc. But while I enjoy those activities, they aren’t dance. They don’t fulfill the same need, at least not for me. Flash forward to a few months ago, I had a revelation—I didn’t need to banish dance from my life in the sort of extreme way I did. Dance is bigger than I thought it was, and, even if I’m no longer a professional, I’ll always be a dancer. I began renting rehearsal space at Maple Street Dance Space here in Albuquerque once a week to find out what I could still do. My “dancer self” of yore was very athletic and I was used to working in ways I can no longer work, so I’m struggling with that. But the payoff is that I’m allowing myself something I never really allowed before—the luxury of experimentation.

I’m also taking Alexander Technique teacher training, which is a huge mental and physical re-set. I want to teach it eventually, and in a more inclusive way, i.e. to people who can’t usually afford it. I also run, walk, bike, stretch. I do something physical every day. Being a lawyer is very sedentary, and that’s not the way I naturally deal with the world.

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

“Professional” was a very loaded word when I was dancing, and probably still is. First: Yes, getting paid is part of it. I would say that if you’ve never been paid to dance in any way shape or form, you’re probably not a pro. But money’s not the only part. I don’t believe that you have to make your living exclusively from dance income in order to call yourself a professional, because that’s an incredibly small pool of dancers. Even some of the Broadway dancers I knew had to wait tables or do temp work in offices between shows. Also, auditioning took up a lot of their time. That’s not something people often factor into the idea of “professional”—the fact that a lot of your jobs will be temporary.

Second, and more importantly, the word “professional,” and all its baggage, may not be all that helpful when applied to dance, or to any art. In this country, to make a sweeping generalization, art, especially dance, is not seen as a “serious” pursuit. So, for example, while most people with a law degree can probably get a fulltime job doing law, i.e., can make their living as a lawyer, most trained dancers cannot, even those who are incredibly gifted. I know it’s not a straightforward analogy, but I think it’s worthwhile making the comparison because it highlights the fact that “professional” is not a one-size-fits-all term.

To borrow from law, we can talk about “descriptive” versus “normative” terms or claims. A descriptive claim is a factual statement; it doesn’t contain a value judgment. A normative statement contains an inherent value judgment—it speaks to the way something “should” be. I think the danger with the word “professional” is that we think it’s used descriptively, when really it’s used normatively—to refer to a whole set of circumstances and attributes that the dancer or artist should have to be considered worthy. Thus, to be “unprofessional” in a normative context means more than just not getting paid all the time. It means that someone is unworthy of being taken seriously.

To expand that, the idea that “professional” is somehow a neutral term is flawed. Instead, it’s highly political—it essentially has to do with who is worthy to be seen and who isn’t. Often, the very struggle to become a “professional” can include the tacit obligation to keep quiet about a lot of things. For example, I remember an outcry over auditions for a Broadway show back in the 80s, some cowboy story, where the female dancers were to appear dressed as cows and be roped. A lot of dancers refused to audition for it on the grounds that it was sexist, but a lot didn’t. The show didn’t last long, but I believe it did open, with all the dancers it needed. Why? Because those dancers needed the work. They were professionals who didn’t have the luxury of complaining about the paycheck. So, the idea of professional can be a way of keeping out dissent. I think we have to be very careful about the normative baggage attached to the word.

I was fortunate enough to work with choreographers who believed in paying their dancers, but I rarely made enough to live on. I worked in restaurants or I did temp work to supplement my income. So, while I did consider myself professional, I always felt a certain embarrassment around the term, because in my dark moments I bought into the idea that “professional” meant making your living from dance. Again, most non-dancers I knew had that idea, and it was always hard to explain otherwise. For example, one man I knew, in response to the statement, “I’m a dancer” always replied, “So where do you waitress?” He thought it was funny. It wasn’t if you were on the receiving end, but it illustrates perfectly that idea most people have of “professional”—a kind of “either/or” notion.

On the opposite side of the coin, the highest paying jobs I ever had (film and TV work) actually required the least talent, time and effort, while the concert dance I did—much less well paid—required a lot more of all the above. So the well-paid work that most non-dancers would consider “professional” did not automatically equate with ability, skill or dedication.

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

Yes, although it can vary according to the dance you are doing. But to jump out of bed one day and call yourself a dancer—I don’t think that works very often. There are prodigies of course, and some kinds of dance are less physically demanding. And, as I mention below, street dancers don’t generally learn their craft in the hallowed halls of ballet class. But they do train. Basically, training keeps you healthy. You have to know how not to hurt yourself. Part of being professional is just that—how to not hurt yourself in a very demanding career. Also, the discipline of getting up and working on dance every day seems essential to be able to call yourself a dancer. You put yourself out there every day, trying things, and failing or succeeding. It’s not an abstract art.

Do you consider project-based work to be professional?

Yes, certainly. Broadway dancers are, essentially, doing project work, although they can often collect unemployment when the job ends. The only dancers who aren’t doing project work are those in the very few well-paid company positions. I’d be interested in the numbers, because that’s probably some minuscule fraction of all the dancers in the US.

Do you consider solo work to be professional?

Sure, it can be, but it may be a question of “I’ll know it when I see it.” I think the demands of solo performance would tend to weed out someone who wasn’t serious. But again, the word professional is not so useful in this context. For example, if I were to do a studio showing of some of the stuff I’m working on, I’m not sure I’d even want to think about whether I’m being professional or not at this point—because that question would squelch the experimental mindset I need right now. On the other side, if you’re doing an evening length work, or even smaller polished pieces, at some larger venue, that’s probably professional. So the answer is maybe.

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 think it has changed. Dance is more inclusive now. I danced 20-30 years ago, and we had pretty rigid ideas, although even then the dance world was very big. All the late 1960s exploration—minimalists like Yvonne Ranier and venues like the Judson Church—was still active in my time, and there were newer choreographers doing extremely experimental stuff. But by the late 80s, a lot of experimental dance was being “professionalized,” by which I mean that choreographers felt less free to explore ideas that wouldn’t pan out. It was the Reagan era, “go go” capitalism, and “greed is good,” and all the fallout from that. New York City went from affordable in certain areas to prohibitively expensive in most. Choreographers had to appeal more to the deep pockets; they couldn’t just do their thing in their lofts. Deep pockets tended to want more “spectacles” and less stuff that would push buttons or make people uncomfortable. I’m speaking very generally, of course, and subjectively. But in my, admittedly myopic, experience, the 1980s represented a kind of turning away from experiment and towards a kind of “professionalism” which concentrated in technical proficiency and athleticism. So, while experimental and politically provocative stuff existed, it was largely in the margins. That was the context within which my ideas of “professional” were formed.

Now, dance is opening up to a lot of experiment again. It’s exciting. For example, I worked briefly with Heidi Latsky, a former Bill T. Jones dancer. At the time—the mid-90s—she was doing some pretty athletic stuff, modern dance, theatrical dance. Now she has a company of differently abled dancers. That expansion was probably in the back of people’s minds in my day, but no one I knew was doing it, or even questioning the paradigm of athleticism. So I do think there has been a wonderful opening up in what we think of as dance. Accordingly, there should be a corresponding shift in the notion of what is professional… if we need the term at all, and I’m not so sure we do.

Are there instances when people apply the term “professional” to a dancer or group of dancers when you feel it shouldn’t be applied?

If you’d asked me back in the day, I might have said that I’d seen some experimental stuff I didn’t consider professional. But if I think back to what I was objecting to, it was often that the experimental stuff eschewed dance technique, as I saw it then. And, as I said above, I did have a rigid idea of technique and professionalism. So, right now I don’t know.

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?

I’m not sure I’ve seen that. The truth is, I’m in the process of changing my own ideas about dance, so the term has grown a lot more nebulous for me.

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?

Very heavily as you can probably tell. I come originally from the neighborhood ballet/jazz/tap school of dance where the only accepted trajectory was show dancing. Or ballet, but that was rarer; the ballet girls were a whole different breed. I went to New York thinking that dance was Broadway—A Chorus Line—and having no idea the level of competition I was getting myself into. Fortunately, I happened on a ballet class I loved where a lot of modern dancers studied, including dancers from Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor—the biggies, and then a lot of smaller companies (and those dancers were often as good as the big company dancers.) So I got interested in modern dance. I straddled those two worlds for a while. I liked the modern world more and felt more comfortable with the work, but my ideas about what was professional were very much limited to Broadway, show dancing or big companies.

Certainly, class and privilege colors my experience. On one hand, a lot of the modern dancers I knew came from a more upper-middle class, college-educated idea of dance than I did, so were more open to experimental forms. Some had the conservatory experience. I hadn’t had any of that, just the chain-smoking, false-eyelash wearing ballet teacher who taught in her basement. On the other side, I had the dance classes. I wasn’t learning on the street. When I first arrived in New York, breakdancing was big. I worked in a video with some breakdancers who had never studied dance “formally” because they’d never had access to classes. They’d developed their work on the street, or in clubs. And they were professionals.

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

Don’t assume it’s easy, and don’t assume a degree will automatically make you a professional—like a law or medical degree, or that there’s some test you take to become a pro. Don’t assume that dancers who work waiting tables or as temps aren’t professional.  Don’t assume it’s boring, or elitist, or irrelevant to your experience. Don’t assume “dance” is only one thing, either. It’s enormous, like music. Go out and see a lot of different kinds of dance before you make any assumptions about it at all.

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Lorien House Pro

Lorien House danced in New York and Nova Scotia during the late 1980s through the 1990s, performing with choreographers including Gina Gibney, Phil McAbee, Joanne Jansen, Errol Grimes, Meg Eginton, Christina Hamm, Denise Dalfo, and Diane Martel, as well as in the Latin Rhythms Dance Company; in venues which included Dance Theater Workshop, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and the Joyce Theater. She danced in the Off-Broadway Play, “Funny Feet,” and her television and film credits include Bill Irwin’s segment from Alive from Off-Center, titled “As Seen on TV,” R.E.M’s “Stand” video, and the film “Bloodhounds of Broadway.” She studied ballet with Jocelyn Lorenz and Maggie Black, and jazz dance with the legendary Betsy Haug and Luigi. She presented her own solo work at the Halifax Fringe Festival, in the New Choreographers’ Showcase produced by Live Art Productions in Halifax, N.S., the fFIDA Festival in Toronto, Ontario, and in various New York City venues.

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