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Letter and Apology to Dancers About To Enter the Dance World

May 13, 2013 · 15 Comments

By Sydney Skybetter

So! Congratulations are in order. You’re about to graduate from your dance program and enter into the real world! I hope you’re feeling amply prepared, totally comfortable and at ease with the mammoth transition to come.

Guys? … Oh. You’re freaking out? You feel like you don’t have a clue what you’re getting into? How you’ll get paid / afford rent / find a place to make work / find auditions / get a job / afford insurance / pay off your historically huge student loans?

Okay. First, you should know that graduating will very likely not kill you, and that you’re not alone. The average college dance program has more in common with its 18th century ancestors than the contemporary worldThe average college dance program has more in common with its 18th century ancestors than the contemporary world we live in., and likely hasn’t done much to help explain to your family that, A) being a dancer isn’t the same as being a Rockette, B) it would be awesome to be on “You Think You Can Dance?” but that’s not really the point, and C) just because your younger brother is a badass at the “Just Dance 4” video game doesn’t mean he’s a better dancer than you.

Let’s start with the bad news. Remember the plot from every dance movie ever, where the protagonist overcomes adversity to get a starring role in a major dance company? (See Fame and its inevitable remake, Staying Alive, Center Stage, Center Stage: Turn It Up, Billy Elliot, Black Swan, The Turning Point, among thousands of others.) It turns out there aren’t many of those jobs any more. Sure, there are a few gigs that come with juicy solo parts and health insurance, but they’re pretty hard to find, and as institutional companies fold or devolve into chaos one by one (Cunningham, Brown, et al) they’re getting rarer and rarer.

Oh. And you know how you’re such a fierce dancer? How you can do, like, 11 pirouettes while kicking your head from behind or whatever? Well there are dozens of dance departments pumping out hundreds of fierce dancers every year. Everyone is a fierce #$@&% dancer. And they all want the same jobs you do.

In summary: Everything is terrible.

But here’s the good news. There have never been more people interested in dance in this country. Period. Look at the insane and out-of-the-blue success of Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, which sold a billion copies while also being a dry-as-toast history of the Western ballet tradition. Or, take for example, the fact that we now have 12 nationally syndicated TV shows with dance as their organizing principle? Or that the Bolshoi Ballet live streams its performances, reaching millions of people internationally through its (highly profitable) media division? Or that the video game series “Just Dance” has nearly 30,000,000 copies? Sure, the National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t give money out like it used to. Now we have Kickstarter. Sure, we have fewer dance venues than we used to. Now we have the Internet. Sure, your education probably didn’t prepare you for the volatility of today’s world. Fortunately, we have Fractured U, Udacity, Audible, Twitter, Clay Shirky, Bill Bragin, Nancy Wozny, Adam Huttler, and Nina Simon. Follow these folks to stay in the loop.
 
This all points to a dance world in flux, not a dance world that is dying. The possibilities for work in dance are getting broader and broader, even though they may not be what you expect. For example, look at Celia Rowlson-Hall (the Yvonne Rainer of our era), who went from being a Bessie award winning dancer/choreographer to a dancerly filmmaker who works with everyone from Lee Jeans to Kate Spade. There’s also choreographer Chase Brock, whose company was hired to bring the wii video game “Broadway Dance” to life, and Trey McIntyre and John-Michael Schert, who have almost single handedly wrested ballet from the doldrums of audience engagement and in Boise, Idaho, no less. There are plenty of opportunities to be had, but only when you embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of our era, and leave the conservative grips of our past behind.

So on behalf of the dance world, permit me to apologize for the mess you’re entering into. It’s insane. But it’s *incredibly* exciting. So on behalf of the dance world, permit me to apologize for the mess you’re entering into. It’s insane. But it’s *incredibly* exciting. The world you thought you were entering into is long dead, and none of the old (anti-intellectual, super-sexist, super-classist and SUPER-racist) rules of dance history need hold true for you. So go forth. The search for new ways of moving, dancing and sustaining a career is ON. Read some books. Eat your Wheaties. Learn your dance history, and get out there and make our shared dance future.

Sydney Skybetter is a technologist, choreographer, and speaker based in Washington, D.C. Sydney has consulted for a bunch of blue-chip companies – The National Ballet of Canada, the DBNA Group, Sterling Publishing/Barnes & Noble among illustrious others – and lectures on everything from dance history to technology to why you shouldn’t be an idiot on the Internet. He has been brought in to speak by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, New York University, Juilliard, Dance/USA, and Opera America, among others, and is the co-host of #SKYNOVA, an Internet TV show that features culture warriors in their native habitats. He’s also the artistic director of the dance company skybetter and associates, which is fully awesome, and apologizes in advance for the number of adorable baby pictures he puts on the Twitter.

____

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Tags: Commentary

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jaamil Kosoko // May 13, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    What I appreciate about this article is its straight forwardness and ability to engage, while also offering practical solutions at the same time.

    I work with interns and recent graduates quite often and honestly I haven't a clue of advice for them because the nature of the field has changed so drastically since I graduated from university.

    At least now I can send them this article.

    Thanks Syd!
    Jaamil
  • 2 Nora Y // May 13, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    I graduated just about 373 days ago and while all of this still holds true, I see in myself and my peers some wonderful things happening. To the class of 2013: It won't happen overnight, but you'll find your niche, you'll find your way, you will still be dancing, it might not look like what you thought it would look like... but you will be happy.

    Congrats to new grads! :)
  • 3 Kay // May 13, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Why do you say being a dancer isn't the same as being a Rockette?
  • 4 Sydney Skybetter // May 13, 2013 at 7:08 PM

    Thanks for the notes Jaamil and Nora, and that's a great question Kay. To be clear, I'm not saying that Rockettes aren't dancers, or that dancers can't be Rockettes. Some of the best dancers at skybetter and associates have been Rockettes. I'm just trying to point out that while perhaps all Rockettes are dancers, all dancers are not Rockettes. Maybe I'm alone here, but I definitely have relatives and (distant / former) friends who assume that because I'm a dancer, I am therefore a Rockette.
  • 5 Melissa // May 13, 2013 at 8:20 PM

    I'd like to know what you mean by the modern college program having more in common with its 18th century counterparts. Is the suggestion that dance programs are not preparing students for careers in dance? What do you think has to change in order for programs to do so? What about the benefits of a liberal arts education which comes with most dance degrees and which most graduates don't think to utilize. Focus on your communications, marketing, technology and business classes! Though your favorite dance professor might not tell you this, it takes more than heart and talent to succeed and sustain a dance career. It also takes brain power.
  • 6 Jim Tobin // May 13, 2013 at 8:22 PM

    Good article & food for thought, perhaps even for sharing :-) I actually liked the Rockettes comparison -- as I think a lot of folks imagine "dancer" being some highly successful, wonderful looking "Rockette" period. And I would like to add that here in San Francisco, I don't believe we have less venues for dancer ... we may even have more. We have some smaller theaters where dancers can create work in studio for free, then put on a performance whereby the theater keeps part or all of the box office after expenses.(This is how the theater can stay open for the dancers: i.e. The Garage run by SAFEhouse would be a great example). Some dancers come here just for that reason alone. And our city is so wide open for new dance artists to create new works, especially for women. And as in the spirit of what this article is referring to: BayAreaDanceWatch was created on a shoestring to support and encourage these dance artists - young or old.
  • 7 Gregory Nuber // May 13, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    Well said sir!!!
  • 8 Jeremy // May 13, 2013 at 9:08 PM

    That was painful to read with so many hyper-links. Obviously a dancer, not a tasteless journalist that prefers people to scatter their brain in the best attempt to forget what they are reading immediately....
  • 9 Yael // May 13, 2013 at 10:46 PM

    Sydney,
    I cannot agree more with what you are reporting. I graduated a year ago come this Sunday and although a good hand full of my classmates got into dance companies or got a great dance job, the majority of us didn't and are inching our way through the dance world, myself included. I came from a dance conservatory that is second to Juilliard in the New York City and surrounding area, talk about fierce dancers (I have no idea how I made it out of there alive!).
    I had an inkling that this drastic period of flux in the dance world was happening back in 2009 when Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham passed. Those are three immensely influential people in the vast world of dance (obviously not in just concert dance either). I knew that it was up to my generation of dancers to begin innovating.
    Now that I am living in the city and am a self-sufficient adult, I can honestly say that the thought of being an innovator and actually pursuing that role are two vastly different (and scary) things. I, personally, still have a very hard time with the idea that as a dancer newly out of college I am expected to do every dance project I am involved in for free. I respect myself and my training enough to know that that is not fair and I want to reform that stigma (sooner rather than later), but that in itself is a daunting and astronomical task.
    On the other hand, something I doggedly believe in is exactly what you said, DANCERS SHOULD, NO MUST, EMBRACE THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT. Only in this day and age can we mix our own music, edit our own dance videos, market ourselves on our own, fund and present our own work thanks to technology and the internet. The time is now for dancers to seize their own futures and create their own dance careers.
    In the past, dancers would audition for dance companies and begin their careers that way -- by being discovered. Power to the dancers that can still do that today, but for the most part there are so many of us struggling dancers and so few companies that to try to stand out amongst an enormous crowd takes a lot and the only way to do that is to find a new way to present ourselves in a different way. Therefore, it's only natural for those who are sick and tired of being overlooked to find a new way to express ourselves and I am so very excited to witness and be a part of this evolutionary change in this art form that I love.
    Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. I wholeheartedly agree and believe that the time has well come for the next generation of dancers to start making their own dance jobs instead of waiting for someone to give it to them. It might be difficult at first, but for me, personally, I would find it FAR more rewarding to be a part of the generation that changed the dance world for the better.
    -Yael
  • 10 Craig // May 14, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    The most important thing I figured out after college is that every individual's dance career will be different. And your own dance career may be very different than you pictured while in the bliss of a college dance program. In my experience dance professors don't always paint a proper picture that your life may be divided amongst several careers because you've got to make money to live. I think this is because dance professors are usually blessed with being able to spend most of their time with dance. So, unfortunately, this hugely important reality is put off until graduation. But for most people it's wise to figure out something else you can do to make a living that provides enough free time to pursue your passion for dance. It's best not to compare your dance career with your peers. Sometimes I feel bad if I compare my accomplishments with those of my graduating peers. But when I look objectively at my career, I realize that ten years after graduating from college I'm still dancing, teaching, and choreographing. Most people I graduated with are not. So it's all objective. Stay the course and keep doing what you love. Progress always happens much slower than you feel it should.
  • 11 Alisa Rasera // May 15, 2013 at 5:18 PM

    Nice article. I graduated from my grad program in dance 17 years ago today and have had a rich career thus far. However, I navigated it pre-Internet and with little "real world" learning from both institutions I attended for my BFA & MFA. I still hope that will change for dance grads down the pike.
    The good news is there are many wonderful dance education organizations out there, including the one I work for now, Luna Dance Institute, who are working to broaden the dance lens and bring up the next generation of young choreographers to fulfill their dreams AND be good stewards of what dance can be.
    Dance may be reaching living rooms more but I do not believe it has reached its full potential yet. Lets use our mentors who have had long careers and witnessed the many decades of change. Many of them are still making work ... ask them how they did it and what has kept them going?
    It is not a straight path (is anything?) so enjoy the twisty, curvy and zigzagging pathways that you may encounter in this wild dance world!
  • 12 Steven Woodruff // May 15, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    While we can all celebrate the fact that more opportunities for dance exist now than 10 years ago that information is hardly startling or new. Most university departments do a decent job of giving their students a realistic view of dance via training and models for what to expect from today's dance landscape. I can't think what models are actually dead. In fact, iconic companies and many academic institutions still form the backbone of dance in any country, whether it's here in the US or elsewhere. The existence of those models is still what has driven the proliferation of a host of regional companies and collectives in American cities and unlikely locations like Boise, Louisville, Tulsa, Memphis, Yuma and elsewhere. The list is long and growing.

    I am less bullish on dance for TV. LA Ballet did what it could recently to sell programs of SYTYCD choreographers working in the concert dance arena, which proved underpowered and dull. That group of choreographers never seemed able to make the transition from three minute pop music pieces to 30-minute works with bigger statements and smarter content. You can't argue with the fact that it produced jobs, but still, you might have expected much more.

    I like the emphasis on compact, more locally based companies doing new work as a model for more opportunities. I just reviewed Ballet BC in just such a program. The status quo doesn't have to disappear, be downgraded, or even change for new ensembles to be successful, proliferate or become more widely known.

    Least appealing here was the flip, chaotic writing, which seemed barely a step above texting. It's not going to win admirers or convince anyone, except the already converted.

    P.S.: My mother was an actual Rockette and also danced with the Denham era Ballet Russe. That was 1946.
  • 13 Prof J // May 15, 2013 at 7:13 PM

    Dear Sydney et al,
    I have been teaching modern dance in a college environ for forty yrs -- and danced professionally in NYC. There is nothing more comprehensive, 3D, mind-probing, demanding and beautiful than continuing to perform or train or teach in the art form of dance. I laud all ye grads, undergrad and grads from grad programs. Have Heart! You will find ways to apply your incredible intelligence!
    Keep moving all of you!
  • 14 Sandra // May 17, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    Dear Sydney,

    Thanks for cracking open an issue that is too often swept under the marley! As these students are "adults" now, I would like to say this to them.

    I think it is also important for you to seriously consider whether you went through the last four years because you love DANCE or are just in it for the personal gratification — the applause — that may or may not happen at the end of what you consider to be the hottest performance you've ever given. If you love dance then there are so many other ways you can contribute to or be a part of the larger dance community. In fact, being a behind-the-scenes-mover-and-shaker may afford a person/dancer an even greater opportunity to change the field for future generations than being on the stage. Administrative jobs, including fund-raising, PR, and marketing, are vital to the success of any company. What about the production side — the people that make you look good such as lighting and costume designers? There are also the multitudes of people supporting the designers who make the lights and costumes happen such as stagehands and wardrobe. What company can survive without the professionals that take care of dancers such as physical therapists? There is also the artistic side of production — choreographers, teachers, rehearsal directors, coaches, Labanotators, musicians. Remember, even a solo performer needs a village behind him! Don't get frustrated if you can't get your "dream job." Dreams change, and in the change they don't negate a prior dream. Always keep your eye on the bigger stage, think outside of your box, always be aware of what is going on around you, and never stop learning.
  • 15 Michael Foley // May 19, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    Hi Sydney!

    It's been a lot of fun seeing this article get so much attention on Facebook. I've read it several times and I keep coming away with the same feeling: the dance world is evolving away from the New York-centric, sole artistic director-based company form that so many post-BA/BFA dancers have been conditioned (trained?) to believe still exists. As a New Yorker yourself, I don't have to remind you that there is a HUGE dance community outside those five (OK, maybe two) boroughs that "think" they are the harbingers of new dance trends, when in fact, they are more often than not, recycling old trends (didn't they do that back in the Judson era?) or badly imitating the Europeans (oh my gosh, text and video!... abstract concepts!... and, um, stillness on stage!).

    As a college professor, I feel like my occupation is now akin to teaching courses in professional development (get that resume, CV, website, etc. done asap, kids!) and the hyper-technical modern dance class that tries to expose/explore/embody (blah, blah, blah), where in essence, I want students to be less infantilized and be more pro-active: what makes you happy? what feels useful? how can you add to the conversation? and for gosh sakes: listen more, talk less and do some dancing.

    (steps down off pedestal)

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