Karen Chuang was a freshman at University of California, Los Angeles, when she was
given the opportunity to dance in a K-pop music video being filmed in L.A. “I took all my books with me and studied during any downtime I could find,” says Chuang. She went on to book jobs with Brian Friedman and “Glee,” and to lead UCLA’s hip-hop team, NSU Modern, before graduating summa cum laude with a degree in business economics.
The whole point of getting strong dance training is to work toward a dance career—but sometimes, jobs come along before you’re done with college, or even high school. While balancing homework and dance commitments with an apprenticeship or auditions can be challenging, it’s not impossible. “The lifestyle isn’t for everyone,” Chuang says. “But if you get an opportunity you can’t pass up, take the leap.” Here’s how to make it work.
Karen Chuang (top, far left) on a music video set for K-pop star Ava in 2009 (photo courtesy Karen Chuang)
Communicate respectfully, early and often.
Since scheduling conflicts are inevitable, talk with your teachers and directors as soon as you’re presented with an outside opportunity. “Be humble and as detailed as possible about upcoming conflicts with classes or rehearsals,” says Joseph Giordano, who was offered a contract with Liz Gerring Dance Company during his final semester at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Be sure to follow up with your teachers over the course of the job. “Professors will be so much more lenient if you keep them in the loop,” Chuang says. And if you speak with them early enough, your outside work can be even more beneficial: Some directors, like Cathy Young at The Boston Conservatory, make it possible for dancers to receive credit for professional projects that take them away from school for a semester or more.
Make a schedule—and follow it.
“I map out my complete Monday-through-Friday schedule on Mac Pages and set it as the background image on my phone,” Giordano says. Chuang had a similarly detailed plan. “My days were completely structured, with slots for commuting, exercising and homework,” she says. But no matter how organized you are, Young adds, “someone completely overextended isn’t valuable to a choreographer.” Make sure you have the time before you commit to a gig.
Get your Z’s.
With the strain of additional hours of dancing, part of your agenda should be devoted to rest, says Giordano. “I try to get at least six hours of sleep, stay hydrated and monitor aches and pains,” he says. Irineo Cabreros, who apprenticed with Gallim Dance in NYC during his first semester in a PhD program at Princeton University, advises prioritizing sleep. “The few times I went into rehearsal dead tired, I realized I was getting the short end of both sticks—I wasn’t performing well and I wasn’t getting the most out of my education, either,” he says.
Learn to say “no.”
Doing it all comes with tough choices. “I often had to sacrifice my social life to
balance it all,” Chuang says. Other times, you might have to pass up a job. Don’t get discouraged, though: Sometimes opportunities will resurface at more convenient times. “Once, I couldn’t audition for Lady Gaga because I had a final exam,” Chuang remembers. “I was bummed, but the opportunity came around again.”
You only have a few years to immerse yourself in your education, so if it comes down to missing too much school for a job, Young advises dancers to choose school. “Sometimes you have to jump when those opportunities come along, but the idea that your career clock is ticking is a dated one. The more info you get in school, the more likely you’ll be working into your 60s.”