A Downtown Modern Dancer's First Year in NYC

I carve out some space in the studio at 890 Broadway to learn the across-the-floor combination in Christine Wright’s 12 p.m. ballet class. The floor groans under the weight of dancers marking the combination. The room is stuffy and I wish that someone would open the windows to let in the crisp October air, but I feel too new to class to do it myself. Just when I have the turn down, I see the reflection of the girl next to me in the mirror. She’s in pointe shoes and reed thin. She completes a triple turn, looks bored and adjusts her bobby pins in the mirror. I am red-faced and sweaty. I remind myself that this class is full of modern dancers like me and that I shouldn’t compare myself to the professional ballerinas. Still I feel hopeless and wonder why I let my friend Nicole drag me here. By grande allegro I feel elated but exhausted. After class, Nicole and I stretch and hurry off to the subway that will carry each of us toward our restaurant jobs. It is my first year out of college and I have moved to NYC to be a dancer.

I graduated with a B.A. from Wesleyan University, where I double majored in dance and psychology. I knew that since I hadn’t gone to a conservatory program, my technique was behind most of my peers. But I hoped to take class, find a choreographer to work with, and eventually, make my own work.

The first few months out of school were miserable. I enrolled in the Doug Varone Summer Workshop at SUNY Purchase, but dropped out after two weeks because I had a fever that wouldn’t go away. I had a tonsillectomy in late July and spent the rest of the summer recovering and planning my next move.

My best friends tried to cheer me up with plans to apartment hunt. We thought we’d find a cozy place in Brooklyn, but this was no easy task. Liza (an editorial assistant), Ariel (a dancer/social worker) and I spent every spare moment for two weeks looking in Williamsburg, home to many artists and people on tight budgets. We saw apartments with rat problems and spaces that had closets posing as bedrooms. We finally signed a lease for a three-bedroom right next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway—a highway. I bought an air purifier and kept it running all night, but could still hear the booming of trucks. When a construction crew started work on our particular stretch of road, we worried that they would see into our apartment. But soon we were so used to them we would actually wave in the morning and felt comforted by their presence at night.

Our neighborhood was filled with a youthful, creative vitality; there were even a few dance studios near our apartment. I loved walking to class, as I had in college, even though this route was a little different: I walked under the highway, dodging cars, trucks and homeless people.

I knew that dancing would not immediately—if ever—pay my rent, so, like my most of my friends, I found a restaurant job. I had gotten my bartending certificate after an older dancer told me I could make more money tending bar than waitressing.

My first job was at a theater district restaurant called Le Madeleine. For my first day of work I had to borrow my uniform—a white shirt and tie—from my father. Working the pre-show dinner rush was a lesson in multi-tasking. From 6:30-8 p.m. I made drinks and operated the espresso machine for all the tables while serving the people at the bar. Every customer was trying to make an 8 p.m. curtain and would feel the need to tell me this, even though I, of course, knew! During one such evening I spilled boiling hot milk from the cappuccino machine all over my hands and singed the skin off. In my frustration, I wondered why I’d even bothered going to college. This was harder than anything I’d done there.

After a while, I got used to the mad rush and the boredom that set in when things were slow, but I didn’t get used to standing up for long hours. Most NYC dancers are nursing sore calves, feet and shoulders, not from dancing but from restaurant work! But despite the difficulties—and how challenging it was to get to a 10 a.m. class after working a late shift—I always came back to the restaurant business because of the flexible hours and the money. In NYC, time is money. If you’re not making money, you’re probably spending it!

What got me out of bed were the choreographers teaching at Movement Research and at Dance Space (now called Dance New Amsterdam). I took class with David Dorfman, Gwen Welliver, Jeanine Durning, Doug Elkins and many more. Movement Research held morning class in the sanctuary at St. Mark’s Church, a 200-year-old space in the East Village with beautiful stained glass windows, a domed ceiling and no mirrors! The classes were always an adventure since the teaching artists had the freedom to explore. We danced complicated full-bodied phrases, improvised and did alignment explorations on the floor, which would leave my joints feeling mobile and connected after pounding them the previous night at work.

I also started practicing yoga at OM Yoga Center, and found myself in good company. Katherine Crockett of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Heather McArdle of David Dorfman Dance and Jonah Bokaer of the Merce Cunningham Company were just a few of the dancers attending class there at the time. Yoga helped me realize that I frequently held my breath when I moved and was holding unnecessary tension in my muscles and mind. After class I would walk slowly and peacefully down 14th St., as people rushed by. I thought that if I felt like this all the time, maybe I wouldn’t get so derailed by restaurant customers with attitudes, or by the dancer next to me who had a better attitude turn. I signed up for OM’s work/study program, folding schedules and cleaning piles of yoga mats at the laundromat around the corner to pay for extra classes.

One of the most nerve-racking parts of my year was auditioning. The number of women who would show up at open calls was astonishing. I tried out for Trisha Brown, Ellis Wood, Jane Comfort, Stephan Koplowitz, Carolyn Dorfman and Donna Uchizono. While it felt horrible to get cut immediately, at least I could get on with my day! When I got called back over and over again, I would become more hopeful and then devastated while waiting for a phone call that never came, or came bearing bad news. I’ll never forget a voicemail I got after an audition I thought I had rocked. The message explained that no one was hired from the audition, including me, and that my stomach muscles weren’t strong enough. This was true, but why would anyone think that I didn’t know that already, and that I should be told over voicemail?

That experience taught me to enjoy the audition no matter what the outcome. I wanted to walk away knowing that I tried my hardest. I also became more discriminating about what companies I auditioned for. Now, eight years later, I can attend smaller auditions because choreographers recommend me for specific projects. They don’t always work out, but it doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.

Neither does restaurant work, because four years ago I finally stopped tending bar and turned my passion for yoga into a fulfilling job as a yoga teacher. I love helping people come to know and love their bodies. I have performed in NYC, the Northeast, Canada and Colombia. I now have the incredible honor of working with former Twyla Tharp dancer Sara Rudner (who heads the Sarah Lawrence dance department) and have also danced for Juliana F. May for the past six years.

But these things didn’t all take eight years. At the end of that first year, I was asked to perform a duet that I had choreographed with my best friend and roommate Ariel at Jacob’s Pillow. (We made it in a studio near the highway.) So one year after being incapacitated with tonsillitis, depressed and scared about dancing in NYC, I was trying to find my balance on the slanted white Marley of the Jacob’s Pillow outdoor stage.

Dancer to Dancer
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers by clicking on their names here:

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