Dance’s Real Crisis

By Emmaly Wiederholt

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot on the economics of dance. Lightsey Darst’s article series “The Poorest Art: Dance and Money” and Brittany Beyer’s article “A Dancer’s Retort” in the Huffington Post both popped up on my computer screen recently. At Dance/USA’s annual conference I sat through panels on how to build online platforms for marketing purposes and how to apply to the NEA. Before attending Dance/USA, I attended the Dance Critics Association conference where one of the panels focused on the economics of a dance writer’s career. My aunt even recently asked if I ever planned to get a real job, alluding to my lack of salary or 401k. Dance’s money conundrum, mainly that it doesn’t have enough, has sat front and center in my life lately. And while I have absolutely no solutions to its enormous financial problems, I do worry that the dance field’s fixation on lack of money has created a mindset that thinks money would solve dance’s problems. But the problem is not that dance doesn’t yield any money. The larger problem, as I see it, is that money doesn’t yield, and has never yielded, great dance.

Great dance, as far as I’m concerned, has nothing at all to do with money. It exists outside of monetary scope. This is true on every level of the field. A great dance teacher can get paid very poorly, or a horrible dance teacher with a wealth of friends and connections can be paid well. A great choreographer can be under-funded, or an untalented choreographer with a history dancing for a big-name company can choreograph (and run) a nationally recognized company. A great dancer can support him or herself on second jobs and freelance projects, while a lazy dancer with an ideal physique can land a job being well-paid in a major company. Of course, great teachers can be paid well, great choreographers can be well-funded, and great dancers can have great jobs, but I’m saying these are often correlations, not causations.

Dancers that are groomed to be attractive to any artistic director of a major company are not servicing the art form of dance. They are expendable. They are good at tricks. Is our dance culture emphasizing gymnastics over dance? Why is the end goal always a company job, regardless of what that company produces? And how do we give dancers sustainability and the right to grow old?

Choreographers that gear their work towards what they think grant committees want and cater their work to what they think audiences want are not servicing the art form of dance. They are good at wowing. They sound good on paper. Does the art form grow from their choreographic contributions? Is passion and a desire to say something driving the choreography? And does one need to be well-known and well-funded to make good dances?

Lastly, former dancers languishing as teachers in large institutions don’t necessarily advance the next generation of dancers. Education is a completely difference calling than performance, and while the two often coincide, they don’t always. What makes a dance teacher inspire students? Are college programs preparing students for the current world of dance beyond teaching technique classes?

Of course good dancers get good jobs, good choreographers get good grants, and good teachers get lauded for their ability to inspire, but neither the state of dance, choreography, nor dance education was discussed at length either at Dance/USA, the Dance Critics Association conference, the Huffington Post, or even around the dinner table with my aunt. However the lack of funding was always forefront of the conversation. Would throwing money at dance, choreography, or dance-education necessarily elevate the art form in any way?

Yes we need money. Desperately. But we should take a step away from our own economic crisis and look at our own artistic crisis. There is too much emphasis on notoriety and aesthetic and too little on the art of dance itself. Let’s reroute the conversation away from money, economics, acclaim, and how to get more people to consume our work and actually talk about the quality of our dancers, choreographers, and teachers. Good dance must be cultivated, regularly assessed, and always sought, regardless of how much money is involved.

7 Responses to “Dance’s Real Crisis”

  1. Xt Funsch

    Yes to Joe’s questions and to Jim’s insights, and thank you, Emmaly, for putting this out there. Each of us has to decide about the interface of money and also audience, and challenge ourselves to stay on our tack with integrity and self-knowledge.

  2. bayareadancewatch

    On economics of dance – I personally have seen more empty seats at our SF dances this year, than I have since the 2008 crash. That’s empty seats for small companies as well as large; small stages and bigger theaters too. And I’ve been sorry to see that, almost every other week as well. So money and dance is a big issue in a number of ways.

    Will alot of money “…further the art of dance?” It can. But it’s not always needed and as we can see by your article and others, it’s not alway coming.

    One of our senior female choreographers once said to me, “Jim I’m not interested in what dance is. I’m interested in good dance.” That got me thinking alot. Like I’m glad I don’t have to decide what is good and what is bad dance. It also helped me realize I want to see people dancing with their hearts. That’s it in a nutshell. And certainly, much smarter folks than myself, have been saying just that for years.

    I’m also amazed how a few dancers/choreographers will find a way to put their dances on, regardless of how few funds they are able to scrap together. This year alone, I’ve seen a few move their shows to someone’s home, or outside, because they just don’t have the money for a stage rental. Yet they want to do something. They want to keep moving.

    When I see that – when I see people trying to dance with their hearts & spirits, when I see folks put a show on somewhere, somehow, with almost nothing in resources….it makes me smile a bit and reminds me that dance will survive long after we are all gone. Dance has survived for thousands of years – thru depressions, wars, migration and on and on. Dance and the other arts as well.

    Another woman writer, recently summed up the arts, including dancing, better than I’ve heard from any teacher or minister. She simply said most people want to experience two things in life – depth of feeling and creativity. I love how she summed it up so simply. And if you’re really lucky, maybe the both overlap. They probably will. So I think whether one stays involved in dance or the arts, full time, or part time, just keep creativity going within your life.

    Some might call that having a passion. But I don’t what it’s called. To me, that desire for creativity is in our DNA. It’s part of and how we practice our humanity.

    I really now believe, it’s up to each person to keep that cretivity alive in their lives, if they want it.

  3. Joe Landini

    the dance field seems to shy away from defining good vs. bad dance, for various reasons (after all, who’s criteria would we use? a post-modernist cant really be evaluated by the same set of standards as a jazz choreographer). i think the real issue is relevance and lack of dance education. the bulk of America thinks that dance is SYTYCD, which really represents a small spectrum of what we do. so lets assume that dance education never returns (this is, after all, a very real possibility), then contemporary dance must become relevant. how do we define relevance? would Emmaly’s aunt understand most mainstream contemporary dance? does contemporary dance have a responsibility to create work that “speaks” to Emmaly’s aunt? or is it contemporary dance’s responsibility to help audiences understand why their work is relevant? no easy answer but clearly, sticking our heads in the sand isnt helping. thanks for pushing this topic to the forefront

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