Money, Money, Money, Moooonnneeeyyy: Dancer v. Donald Trump

In college it was easier for me.  I knew if I worked hard and did my best at x, y, and z then I would be rewarded.  There was a linear pathway where I could easily see the rewards my efforts would reap.  Nothing seemed to prepare me adequately for life outside of college as a dancer.  Suddenly, Denise Vale wasn’t peering over me while in the midst of a deep contraction during the infamous Graham 16 bounces at 8:30am. Now instead of having classes guaranteed to me 5 days a week – nothing was guaranteed.  The structure of school, which was entirely comforting for me, was gone.  No one warned me that even once you begin to work with a company, the sense of a consistent work period remains ambiguous.  Now with the economic recession looming over the arts and non-profit sectors, dance companies across the board seem to suffer having adequate rehearsal periods and performance opportunities.  With the inconsistency of work as a dancer, how do you maintain the life style, health, and mindset of a performer?  Where’s the how-to-guide artist survival guide?  Believe me, Barnes & Noble doesn’t have it because if they did I would have at least 20 copies of it and knowing me they would all be highlighted and doggie-eared galore (thank you Dad for my anal-retentive qualities, that is all you shining through).

So survival out in this concrete jungle means the basics – shelter, food, and clothing and for the dancer this list extends to include the oh-so-necessary class.   Beyond the basics, everyone has a personal list of lifestyle requirements to uphold and maintain a feeling of normalcy and contentment.  For me this has been a process of trial and error.  I now know I prefer to live in Manhattan rather than in a borough; it may have taken a U-haul, 50 boxes, lots of sweat, 4 months in BK, 50 more boxes, select curse words, and a moving company but its about the journey, right?  I prefer to eat organic, but I definitely make sacrifices for the sake of affordability.  I feel sane and in optimal health with my yoga membership in my neighborhood so when I can’t make it to class one day I know I can do something physical and stimulating.  If I take Zvi Gothermier’s ballet class I work well on improving my technique and have fun doing it.  Seeing and experiencing art and performances is a necessary part of my routine.  Last but not least, when I am not actively working with a company, I need to be creating something of my own or learning a new form of dance.  These “needs” are what allows me to feel personally content and connected to my career as a dancer even when I am not immediately employed with a project.  Why it seems to have taken so much time to figure out this ideal equation is beyond me.  Once again, patience is something I need to work on!

So the catch – how do you afford these personal requirements?  Also, how do you juggle the job and these necessities so you feel you retain the lifestyle of an artist rather than an office manager?  The biggest news flash for me after graduating and obtaining my immediate goal of getting into a dance company was that it simply wasn’t enough financially.  The most fantastic dream job comes around, and the money woes are still there.  Whether the way you earn a living is through a dance-related field or not, everything you do informs the other.  The skill set and relationships you learn and develop while in an office advance your dancing and your dancing mind and devotion readily enhance the work you do in any other profession.

There is no scientific equation to finding the optimal parallel/intermediary job, I can only share what has worked for me.  In addition to dancing, I have made a living as an office manager with Cornfield Dance, occasionally guest teaching/choreographing, and bartending/waitressing at sister restaurants Bounce sports bar and Vero wine bar on the UES.  The administrative work I do enjoy because I am constantly learning about the inner workings of a dance company alongside people who understand and appreciate dancers.  I see what works and what doesn’t within the company and since having one of my own is something I long to embark on in the next chapter of my life this information is endlessly valuable.  The guest teaching and choreographing are ideal opportunities, but at the moment these gigs are few and in between.

My main gripe stands with my simultaneously wonderful and painful restaurant job.  It does have its perks – good food, free liquor.  How many occupations encourage you to drink on the job?  Counting money at the end of a fuzzy night, being told by my manager, “good job today,” still makes me laugh.  I can enjoy meeting people and working in a relaxed atmosphere and making quick money.  The long, occasionally alcohol-induced hours have brought prioritizing to a whole new level – post-work cocktail versus ballet at 10am?  While in the bar atmosphere, it is the life-style of most employees to stay out late and sleep in until their next shift which typically doesn’t start until late afternoon.  As a dancer, I need to intentionally separate myself from this lifestyle to ensure my main focus doesn’t slip away while in between gigs.  Lately more than ever I’ve been feeling the nagging tug to leave the restaurant industry in the dust and obtain my income through more “adult-like” ways – whatever that means.  The only thing I fear is relinquishing the flexibility of my schedule.  I tested my theory and set up a meeting with a temping agency.  May be another flexible income option, however any line of work not incorporating my art is just another parallel step.  I have a feeling that leaving the bottle opener at home and trading it for pumps and business slacks may only give the illusion of adulthood.  The meaningful work takes place on my time off, further establishing and networking myself as an artist.

Another bizarre phenomenon post-graduation is to look and see how many of your fellow graduates are still dancing.  It is interesting to see the wonderful spins everyone’s lives have taken.  However, if a career in performing is where your heart lies, make sure you can maintain a lifestyle which includes class and auditions.  I often see dancers who have jobs which slowly start to creep in on their dancing and take over their lives.  This is by no means a negative thing.  Rather it is quite wonderful to have a job.  It is only negative if you want to have a job in performing and you find all your time is spent in an office sorting papers and answering phone calls.  Where are you making your connections?  Who are the people you are meeting?  What skills are you honing?  If the answers are geared towards your non-performing job, just take note.  Maybe you quit, open up your schedule and find a job with more flexibly.  Maybe you love it and educate yourself further to advance your new-found skill set.  Any choice you make is ultimately just a choice.  Nothing is permanent or lasts forever, both the life of a performer and the life of an office worker.

Instead of fighting it, which trust me I did plenty of, I’ve learned to accept the less-elating, profitable, non-dance weeks.  My current goal is to generate my income through dance-related work and to wean out my waitressing/bartending/temping positions all together.  Sad as it is, I fear it will be a pay cut and I am concerned about maintaining the lifestyle I have created and become happy with for myself.

You can’t just dance for a living.  However you can make a living submerging yourself in the industry in various capacities.  Those pointed toes can only get you so far.  Your mind and dedication you use to think about your artistry can and is useful in the “real” world.  Tap into your vast intelligence as an artist and apply its practical use to make the most of yourself while not physically dancing.

To Dance or Not to Dance, that is the Question. Coming soon to daytime television.

Just about a few months ago, I was walking down 2nd avenue on my way to my waitressing job (a kind reminder of not being on my way to rehearsal or anything entirely productive), on the phone with my poor mother part-crying, part-laughing demanding, “At what point did we think getting a degree in modern dance was a good idea?!  Really modern dance, couldn’t I have been happy being a doctor and having some sense of a secure-future, a normal life?”   For the full intensity of this dramatic moment, picture the dreary puddle-bound city streets in winter rainfall, me being tangled by leashes all with two-pound chitsues dressed in Louis Vuitton rain coats and matching booties on one end and Jimmy Choos and Prada clad women on the other.  Damn, these dogs were living more pampered lives than I was as I gazed down in self-pity to view my soaking wet ripped jeans hovered under my $5 umbrella that only had the lifespan of five city blocks during even the most trivial rainfalls.

Let me just start with how saintly my mother is for putting up with my antics.  I am notorious for being a true Pisces at times – highly emotional and dramatic, constantly change my ideas about what it is I should be doing in order to achieve something higher.  The ugly low of the on-again-off-again dance career and pathetic title of starving artist was looming over me.  Someone hire me to be on “Days of our Lives,” really or perhaps “The Young and the Restless” might be a better fit.  I believe that week I debated going to school to be a psychologist.  A few weeks before I was planning on being a personal trainer to support my dance career.  Before that it was a yoga instructor.  The list goes on and on.  All these ideas were diversions for me; I was having a hard time dealing with the unemployment aspect of the dance profession and seeking fulfillment in the fanatical ideas of another career or parallel career.

My dream job as a dancer always included dripping sweat, diving blindly head-first further into movement than ever thought possible day in and day out, hitting the stage feeling the lights and eyes of the audience on my every move, all while traveling the world and experiencing different cultures.  Right?  Youthful naivety is bliss.  Pinch me, please.  Those are the highs that make it all worth it.  No one mentions that even when you have a dance job this kind of glory comes few and in between, particularly in this economy when dance companies are struggling to have performance seasons and lengthy rehearsal processes (I’ll save the drama of the lack of rehearsals for another episode of this overly dramatized daytime television).  My point being, all careers have their pitfalls.

A few days later (the timing of this is rather hysterical), I went to my friend’s apartment for her boyfriend’s birthday.  She is in graduate school for psychology and I was chatting with some new friends only to hear these soon-to-be psychologists had the same exact woes I had as a dancer.  Sinking deeper in student loans by the semester, having the desire to start a private practice of their own one day but not having the funds or networking quite yet to make it happen and feeling overwhelmed.   I may be a financially struggling artist now, but nothing lasts forever and I won’t be my whole life – take that pessimism!  I am simply a normal 24-year-old with dreams ahead of me, wondering how the pieces of the puzzle are going to fit together and create this career as a performer/choreographer in a lifestyle that makes me comfortable.

How do you stay happy when you feel you have put in the time and still no new windows of opportunity are opening?  I feared a one-dimensional dance career, and was craving change – professionally – although perhaps a new boyfriend would have solved some of those emotional woes.  Auditions for paid, functional dance companies were rarely being posted and I was investing all this time, energy, and money into a career wondering if it would ever pay me back.  It was completely logical for me to inquire about other career paths; ones with some return on investment.  However, no matter how many ideas I tried on for size – and trust me, every week I tried on something new – it felt as if I was denying what made me tick entirely.  I am sure I could live a very happy life as a psychologist because 1) I find the field entirely fascinating and 2) Dr. Christina Ilisije M.D. has a nice ring to it.  But toying with the idea of a career shift seemed like a cop-out.  There is so much in terms of dance I am striving to achieve and haven’t even touched upon yet.  For others a career change or new parallel career may be the necessary kick in the pants life needs.  I’m grateful to have questioned my career choice as an artist; I can recognize it as a choice I make daily rather than an obligation with no way out.  Who knows, if one day I feel I have accomplished my goals as an artist and I find a new challenge to conquer in another career – bring it on.  That day has not come yet, and my recent frustrations stemmed from not achieving them rather than needing a get away car.

So instead of feeling stagnant and bored with my current state, I went Obama and actively introduced change and some new interests into my weekly repertoire.  Either actively do something about feeling uninspired and bummed about lack of rehearsals, or start feeling positive about where you are presently.  Simple concept, but when feeling less than positive doing anything can seem like a huge chore.  Since I couldn’t find the positivity in having lots of free time – I wish I was one of those people – I took up salsa dancing (thank you Shelly for introducing me to your vivacious world!), took a capoeira class for the first time (thank you Aldy!), booked some rehearsal space for my own work (thank you Rebe!), and set a new choreographic commission at my performing arts HS in Howell, NJ.  All these activities were entirely fulfilling yet I didn’t have the luxury of doing them while under the rigors of performing.   Some of them even helped financially to fill in the gaps between dance gigs and lead to more job opportunities in the future.  Funnier yet is as soon as I dove head first with dance and stopped with my crazy delusions and side-tracked thoughts, opportunities came my way.

I do believe a profitable career is possible in any field as long as you have passion and wits to back you up.  Modern dance may not be Hollywood, but there are people who love it and keep it’s engine going.  Keep your head in the game and stay inspired and happy along the way and positive things will come.  If dance is what makes you tick, there is something to be said about constantly going to class, auditions, and shows.  The relationships you build with people now may surprisingly help you in the future. Where you put your energy, things will happen. So take dance classes that make your soul sing.  Stick with friends who share your passion and duke it out together during the down times.  Keep yourself productive.  What do you need to do to feel like you are a part of the dance community, even when you are not actively performing?  See more performances, write, read, and one of my personal favorites, drink vino and talk shop with fabulous company!  So go do what you love and stop worrying about ending up poor and unemployed.  And while I don’t have it in my heart to completely knock a pair of beautifully crafted, over priced Jimmy Choos and those who wear them, I don’t need to be walking my dog in them to be happy.