Working as an Art Model: Modeling as a Dancer

By Isabel Rosenstock

Like many people trying to make a career out of dancing professionally, I have to do other things to make money. I work as a live model for artists and sculptors because it provides me with a fair amount of flexibility in scheduling work and more importantly, because it feels relevant to my work as a dance artist.

While many people bristle at the thought of posing naked in front of a classroom full of people, this is a detail that’s never really concerned me. As a dancer, I am used to people looking at my body and really, a leotard and tights don’t cover that much more. While nudity isn’t a big deal to me, I realize this isn’t true for everyone, although I do object to the fact that the nudity aspect is usually the first thing people comment on, and more often than not the conversation stops there.

When I started modeling nine months ago, I definitely saw it as a side-thing, something purely to make money. However, I have grown to really enjoy it and I am invested in a way that I never thought I would be. That’s more than a lot of dancers can say for their “normal person” job.

More than anything else, it is exciting to work in an environment where people have the utmost respect and admiration for the human body, regardless of any specific shape or size. In this context, the physical form is the focal point, so it is the model’s responsibility to fully illustrate the body’s expressive and physical capabilities. And isn’t that essentially what we are after as dancers? Maybe the difference, though, is that in my experience as a young dancer, we often don’t take ownership and full responsibility of this aspect of the work. Dancers are good at learning choreography and mimicking teachers, but feeling native in choreography and taking authorship of movement are not always emphasized, even though they should be.

As in dance, as an art model I employ different techniques to say something with my body. This is important because people are looking at me for inspiration and clarity. For the artist, I can imagine it would be difficult to work with a model that seemed uninspired, bored or lacking intention. If I don’t have a clear intention in a pose – and it doesn’t have to be an emotional one, it can just as easily be a specific geometric shape – the artist will have a hard time discerning “what’s going on” in the pose and subsequently translating it to paper.

Having a background in dance has certainly informed my work as a model. For one, I cannot imagine doing this job without the body awareness that comes with being a mover.  Having this awareness not only helps me avoid strain and tension while in a longer twenty-minute pose, but it helps me gauge whether or not a certain pose is interesting or not. For example, if I feel that my body is too square or symmetrical, I know that the pose is probably not as expressive or dynamic as it could be. Similarly, I know that slight changes in focus and positioning of the head can make a world of difference to the person drawing me. I can gauge the micro-shifts in my body that might change the pose for the viewer in a significant way.

Despite having to be still for twenty minutes at time, modeling is very much a physical practice. As a dancer, it feels horrible to be “out of my body,” so working somewhere that requires me to be sedentary is out of the question. While I may be sedentary during some of sessions, I feel very much in my body doing this kind of work – even keeping my face still, in portrait work for example, is a physical challenge that requires a certain control and postural demeanor.

While I expected modeling to come somewhat naturally to me because of my dance background, I didn’t at all expect modeling to inform my work as a dancer as much as it has. For one, it has given me more confidence and a greater appetite for being watched. In most modeling sessions, the poses are completely up to me. The artist might ask for something a bit more specific, but I decide what I want the artist to see. Much like in an ideal relationship between choreographer and dancer, the work between artist and model is co-dependent and collaborative. I often feel just as inspired by the artists I work for as they are by me. This is empowering, especially as a young dancer, when it is easy to feel replaceable and like yet another anonymous body in the studio. As dancers we can easily become burdened by “the struggle” – negative experiences in auditions, rehearsals, or classes; being in an environment where my contribution feels consistently valuable is enormously beneficial to the work I do in the dance studio.