From Campus to Professional Life
After four years of hard work, you’ve graduated, and now you’re ready to take the professional dance world by storm. But do you have a plan? What companies will you audition for? Should you take the first job that comes along? Will you be able to support yourself on a dancer’s salary?
Before you panic and move back home to your parents’ basement, take a deep breath. With preparation, perseverance and patience, you can find the job that’s right for you—and hopefully work with interesting teachers and choreographers along the way. Here are some suggestions from college professors and dance major alums to help ease the transition into the professional dance world.
1: Don’t wait until you graduate to start looking for a job. “Use your senior year as your branch to the real world, so that when you graduate, you’ve already begun narrowing down where you want to be,” says Jaime Santora Kopec, director of the arts at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts in NYC. Part of this process is researching where you want to go; in addition to U.S. dance centers like NYC, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A., many college grads are now heading to Europe in search of jobs. Speak to your faculty advisor about your plans and, if possible, begin auditioning—many schools will allow seniors a certain number of days to travel to auditions, but even if yours doesn’t, try to job search on the weekends.
2: Use college resources. Your dance department will provide you with invaluable contacts in the dance world, so take advantage of them! Talk to faculty and alums who danced professionally or are currently performing with companies, and make a point to meet and get advice and feedback from guest artists who teach master classes and set pieces at your school. Also, don’t sever ties with your school after you graduate: You can still hear about jobs and make contacts through the alumni network.
3: Cultivate other skills. “It used to be about technique and being a great performer, and that was enough, but it doesn’t work that way anymore,” says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at New World School of the Arts in Miami. While you should be versed in different dance techniques, studying choreography, dance history, writing and criticism, arts administration and other academic disciplines can make you more attractive to prospective companies, because you bring more skills to the table than just dance ability. At NWSA, seniors take a course in which they learn how to write resumés, create a promotional DVD, budget for productions, apply for fundraising, and more. If your school didn’t offer such coursework, check in your city for artists’ organizations that offer classes in administration, grantwriting and other skills that can help you enhance your professional portfolio.
4: Jump right in. It’s tempting to take extra time to get settled after graduation, especially if you’re trying to adjust to a new city, but you should add regular dance class to your routine as soon as possible. “Make sure that dance stays your priority after college. People get caught up in moving [locations] and making money to survive, and their dancing suffers,” says Melissa Toogood, a 2004 NWSA grad who’s now performing with Merce Cunningham’s Repertory Understudy Group in NYC.
5: Get yourself seen. “I know few people who have gotten a job from an audition where they didn’t already know the [auditioners] in some capacity,” says Becky Radway, a 2002 graduate of Baltimore’s Goucher College who has danced in NYC with Incidents Physical Theater, the Kevin Wynn Collection, and Daniel Caldwell and the Leverage Group. The best way for dance professionals to get to know you is in class. Find out if choreographers, directors or members of companies you’re interested in working with teach anywhere locally or, if possible, take open classes at a company’s affiliated school. That way, when you do audition, the decision makers are already familiar with your movement quality and personality.
6: Find the right side job. In general, dancing isn’t lucrative, and even if you aren’t performing, you have to pay for classes—not to mention expenses such as rent, food and college loans. Find a side job you can rely on, where your superiors know and trust you and are willing to accommodate your busy schedule of auditions, rehearsals and performances.
Consider a job that will keep you connected to the arts, teach you new skills and allow you to make contacts in the arts world. Radway has worked in administration at several NYC-area theaters, including the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, and now has an interest in eventually owning and operating her own performance space. NWSA has a program where BFA students can become certified to substitute teach dance in the public school system. Many dancers are also choosing to teach Pilates, which often pays well, has flexible hours and can help you stay in shape. (See Dance Spirit’s 2006-2007 NYC Guide for more side job ideas.)
7: Keep your options open. In your quest to get into a certain company, don’t blind yourself to other dance gigs. “If you’re offered a job, take it,” Lewis says. “The bigger your resumé, the easier it is to land the next job.” You may even find that working with a variety of choreographers and companies improves your dancing, making it more likely that you’ll eventually get the job of your dreams.
8: Create your own opportunities. You don’t have to work with one company full-time in order to perform. After finding limited venues to showcase their own choreography, Radway and several friends formed Collective Dance NY, which performed for the first time in April. They produced the show in about four months; Radway was able to draw on her administrative experience, and learned more tricks of the trade as she went. On her checklist: booking theater and rehearsal space, finding ways to advertise the show and organizing the box office. Her hard work paid off—both nights sold out, and as of presstime, CDNY is planning its second performance for November.
Keep in mind that producing a dance show is expensive; studio rental costs alone can really add up. To save money, enlist friends and family to help for free. (In CDNY’s case, a friend designed the lighting, and Radway’s father took photos for a website and promotional postcards, which were created by a choreographer’s boyfriend.) Additionally, don’t hesitate to announce your upcoming show in your dance classes, as word-of-mouth is often the best—and cheapest—form of advertising.