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Is Dance a Field in Danger?

July 16, 2012 · 7 Comments

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on Dance Advantage and has been republished with the kind permission from the author. You are encouraged to continue this discussion in the comments section below.

By Lauren Warnecke


In the months surrounding Jennifer Homans’ 2010 account of the history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, there was an effectual freak-out from dance writers and bloggers about the impending death of ballet as Homans claimed quite boldly that “ballet has come to resemble a dying language … understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture.”

Whether or not you agree with Ms. Homans, her bold proclamation stirred up the dance community and forced us to take a good look at the state of ballet regionally, in the U.S., and beyond.

Perhaps it was for the same shock-value that the most recent Dance/USA conference presented the dramatically titled break-out session “Dance: A Field in Danger.” Dance blogger and Dance Advantage founder Nichelle Strzepek and I sat in it together, and speaker Kadida V. Doumbia (after a somewhat incomprehensible intro) simply posed the question, “Why are there no jobs?” and let the group take it from there. Tensions ran high as we struggled to define what a successful job in dance looks like. Some claimed that the lack of jobs is due to a diversity problem, with predominantly white, upper/middle class individuals capitalizing the market. Others questioned the definition of “diversity” in dance, and cited job scarcity as an overall problem in that there are not enough resources to go around.

A young woman started to cry as she described her personal struggles with a career in dance, and the difficulty of working multiple jobs in the service industry without access to adequate health care or insurance.

This could be you.

This could be your dance student.

The truth is, this young woman’s story is more common than the glamorous dance careers presented by the media and dance teachers. Are we doing enough to prep college students and young emerging dancers for the day-to-day struggle of a career in dance? Are we lacking creativity in defining what a job in dance looks like? Why would anyone actually want to enter this profession?

Finding the “why”
An over-arching theme of the conference was the need for all of us to “find the why” in what we do. The status quo can be a really comfortable place to be, even when we spend entire conferences discussing why change is imminent and essential. It’s easy to stay in our day-to-day bubbles and stop considering the greater dance community in what we do …. that’s why finding our “why” is so critical.

I found that an unfortunate trend of this session in particular*, and perhaps of the conference in general, was to bring up a problem, complain, and not have time left to pitch positive solutions. As the predominant national service organization for professional dance companies and, to a lesser extent, individual dancers, the somewhat suppressed efforts of Dance/USA to lead are not for lack of trying … they struggle with the same poor funding and infrastructure that plague the dance organizations they seek to support. Dance/USA appears to be in the business of retweeting, when it wants to be leading the charge. In a conversation with Brandon Gryde, director of government affairs, he openly acknowledged the backlog of communication and the steps that need to happen in order to truly be the face of advocacy for dance in this country. How does he hope to accomplish this?

Maybe the question isn’t how, but why?

Big budget dance studios teeming with three year olds and pre-professional hopefuls are turning out dancers at a remarkable rate and the non-profit sector of dance companies are struggling to keep heads above water. As funding flounders at the professional level, it behooves us to take a look at our “whys” and reassess the way dance is created, funded, supported and presented. Dances are often created in a spirit of collaboration. We as an entire dance community can embrace that collective spirit to work together and forge a sustainable future. Within the context of this 75-minute roundtable, we failed to solve all of the problems we face – or to really pin down whether or not dance is, in fact, a field in danger – but as one participant said, “We are constantly creating from nothing … it’s what we do best. Apply it to life!”

Blogging as a forum to grow our audience and continue the discussion
In the end, as my colleague dance writer Zac Whittenburg said, “It’s all about the dialogue.” We create dances as a means to communicate that which cannot be expressed in words … and either because of or in spite of this it’s a medium that isn’t always accessible to the outside world. Homans’ supposition that dance is ”understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture” might not be specific to ballet. What we do is not inherently understood, which might be why I see so many familiar faces at every dance concert I attend.

To paraphrase Nichelle (paraphrasing keynote speaker Simon Sinek), the “why” is something that is innate and beyond the realm of verbal communication. It’s not WHAT we do, but WHY that truly reaches people. So long as we create authentically from our “why,” we have the ability to touch people at their very core. That is an awesome and uncomfortable place to be as an artist AND an audience member.

The question remains: How can the concept of “WHY” help us transcend the culture barrier that has us facing a serious cash flow problem? 

In order to sustain ourselves, we have to find another way to reach audiences and increase the value that society places on dance. Words are a form of communication that is often more easily understood. Not to brag, but platforms like Dance Advantage are a great medium for accessing a larger community of people who might not ordinarily chose dance. The ability to articulate your work in words cannot be underestimated. By the same token, we can continue to address problems among ourselves that can’t possibly be solved in a four day conference comprised of a small percentage of the dance community. Being comfortable with words, I personally feel some level of accountability for continuing this work, but it requires that we all converse together.

So, what do you think? We’ll take your comments below.
•    Is dance on the verge of failure?
•    How do we create and/or reinterpret successful and sustainable jobs in dance-related professions that make dance a viable career choice?
•    Does the way dance is portrayed by the media help or hinder dance as an art form?


* Read a bit of the discourse from Dance: A Field in Danger by checking out the live tweets (mostly mine) at #fieldindanger.

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance dance writer based in Chicago, IL. She regularly contributes to danceadvantage.net and 4dancers.org, in addition to her own writing pursuits at artintercepts.org and craftylauren.com. Lauren has been producing, choreographing, and teaching ballet, modern dance, and musical theater since 2003. She holds degrees in Dance (BA, ’03) and Kinesiology (MS, ’09) and is currently a visiting instructor for the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a certified ballet teacher through the Cecchetti Counsel of America’s Midwest Counsel and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine.

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Tags: 2012 Annual Conference · Commentary · Diversity

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bailey Ahles // Jul 16, 2012 at 8:18 PM

    Is dance on the verge of failure? My answer is simple, No. Dance is happening everywhere, it's being created, commissioned, preserved and resurrected. The question being will this continue to keep happening? Yes, as long as the importance and joy of dance is still being taught. My question is while arts programs are continuously being cut from schools and parents having to go elsewhere to provide some type of experience in the arts field, will we see an increase in the numbers of people paying attention to dance or are we going to see our numbers dwindling? Or, with the increase in diabetes and other forms of health issues, will we see growth in the dance field?
  • 2 Cassandra Powers // Jul 16, 2012 at 8:26 PM

    Yes, dance is on the verge of failure! I've actually offered to people to come to my performances, and they replied, "Oh, I don't support ballet." I didn't ask why and I didn't want to turn into a crazy advocate yelling about how important and wonderful dance is .... but I couldn't help but think, Why?

    I've also run into "normal" people and if I mention that I'm a professional ballet dancer the response is, "Oh, I used to dance" or "My sister used to do all those competitions." They also don't know there is a professional ballet company in their town ... or they don't even know what a "professional company" means, for that matter. I think audiences have a hard time distinguishing between a concert-dance performance and a recital. There are so many big-budget commercial dance studios that put on recitals. I've even had a hard time finding jobs teaching at these studios because I don't have much competition experience. I came from a non-profit performance based studio and danced with a non-profit company.

    I do think the media has done good and bad for dance. TV shows have brought in all forms of dance right into our living rooms. I think that has made dance quite popular. I know a lot of studios are offering all kinds of dance. If you offer what is 'hot' and 'popular' on TV, you'll make money!

    However, people think that all dance performances are supposed to last 45 seconds. It's also hard with all technology at the touch of our fingers, people don't have to leave the comfort of their own home. When people don't leave their home, they're not buying tickets!

    People don't know that dancing is even a paying job! I tell people I'm a dancer and they think I'm doing it as a hobby. They ask, "No, what do you really do?" I'm a ballet dancer (plus I wait tables on the side).

    I hate to say it, but a dance career is such a struggle, that I'm ready to give up sometimes.
  • 3 Kadidia Doumbia // Jul 16, 2012 at 10:29 PM

    "and speaker Kadidia V. Doumbia (after a somewhat incomprehensible intro) simply posed the question, “Why are there no jobs?”

    I am sorry if I have a heavy French accent and you did not understand what I was saying. The irony is that as a foreign artist I was the only one to give a chance to other dancers to express themselves during this conference.

    There is never a serious discussion about difficult issues in the Dance field. All the conferences are very well organized, people seem happy and go back to their usual business.
    It might be time for us to try very hard to figure out what we're doing wrong to be able to adjust.

    There is no respect for dancers: we are having fun dancing, therefore it is not serious business. A conversation needs to start now. I am not speaking about different organizations speaking individually I am speaking about the entire dance field coming together to be heard. I think it is time.
  • 4 Lauren Warnecke // Jul 16, 2012 at 11:07 PM

    Ms. Doumbia, I apologize if this came across as a criticism of your accent - it wasn't intended as such. What I meant by "incomprehensible" is that I was having difficulty sifting through your personal stories to find the nugget of what the breakout session was actually about. Once you posed the question of "why are there no jobs" we started to focus as a group in a clear direction.

    I respectfully disagree that you were the only person that gave the opportunity for discussion. The panel discussion I led (The Blogosphere) was entirely focused on the needs of the group by allowing the whole session to be comprised of Q & A with the panel. Honestly, I found the most beneficial discussion to come of out my lunch groups and happy hour minglings, once we all had a chance to process everything that had happened. I had hoped that your session might have been more constructive with the group forming realistic solutions on how to solve these very real problems. We couldn't quite get there, so my overall point in this article is that virtual platforms can help continue the discussion instead of things going by the wayside until next year.
  • 5 Kadidia Doumbia // Jul 17, 2012 at 12:27 AM

    If you say so. This is not what I heard from other participants but I do accept your comments.

    I did have good discussions with other people too during breaks.
    I am not trying to say that Dance/USA did not do a good job. But thank you.
  • 6 Lauren Warnecke // Jul 17, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    I think what I'm looking for, going forward, is a more generative and positive conversation to start taking place. We've got problems. It sucks. So what are we going to do about it? That's what I was looking for out of the roundtable, and why I suggest continuing the conversation here, or on another virtual platform so that these thoughts can be carried into dance classrooms and universities all over the country. If your biggest complaint is that dancers can't afford insurance, approach a foundation that might give scholarships; volunteer for one of the advocacy organizations mentioned at the conference; vote for a public option. Over at Dance Advantage Renee, a conference attendee, suggested that it starts with choreographers and company directors promoting understanding and appreciation for dance, which increases its public value.

    We've got to stop the complaining and start doing something about it if we ever want to effect change. That's my take.
  • 7 Gina // Sep 19, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    We need to make ballet more mainstream. More "likeable" more "trendy" without selling out [but] staying true to the art form. We have to do it to draw people in and give them a chance to understand it an appreciate it. It never mattered to me before my daughter got involved. Now I adore it. Shows like "Breaking Pointe" help and media attention to people like Misty Copeland does too. We need to MARKET ballet. Just like industries market anything else (soda, fashion brands, etc). We need attractive and enticing ad campaigns (into mainstream), etc., etc., you get the idea. Support for the arts runs thin so the companies need to band together to market their industry to the masses. The schools do make all the money because, point blank, that is a different business. The percentage of quality and serious dancers produced is a small percentage. But anything to do with kids is a big money draw. Some schools I know, the school funds the company or a good part of it if they are affiliated.

    Ballet is OLD and sometimes we feel we are demeaning it if we jump on the marketing band wagon. It doesn't cheapen ballet. It keeps it alive. This is a different era. And dancers should not feel guilty or self centered for marketing themselves either. We don't have the Olympics to help us grow a fan base, so we have to get it out there ourselves.

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