What We Ask Of Dancers
This is an essay I wrote as part of my dance memoir. I'm not sure yet where it fits. Maybe it's just a discussion I need to have for myself as I write my story. Maybe it's the start of wider research. In any case, it's got me unpacking my old beliefs and not-so-helpful experiences, and has inspired me to infuse my own practices and teachings with a higher intention.
What We Ask of Dancers
I think one of the oddest and most oppressive paths is the one where dance intersects with money.
There is the dance studio industry: an oft corrupted money machine, that focuses more on the whims of parents and kids before honoring and elevating the art itself. Costumes, the right shoes and practice outfits, and recital particulars pull the focus from the actual practice of dancing and place the majority of importance on image, status, and fee exchange. Sprinkled among the healthier competitive kids are often ruthless, entitled parents and teachers who can poison the dance floor for everyone else. ‘Dance Moms’ was impossible for me to watch—it forced me to reexamine my own traumas and coping mechanisms while glorifying the very real and cutthroat insanity of many ‘top notch’ studios. I looked up the history and premise of the show to be able to reference it in this blog, and just the headlines and screen grabs made me ill (no link today--just Google it if you need to). I will never understand the need to exaggerate and draw out the unhealthy relationships of real people in order to make the masses feel better about their own lives. It is formulaic, manipulative, and unkind.
In the professional world, there is the struggle to create and book paid dance opportunities. Dedicated, multidisciplinary dance artists are often treated as cheap, easily replaceable commodities. A longstanding opportunity drought and a surplus of eager, mostly female dancers creates a lot of heartbreak and strife: an endless cycle of hard lessons in physical endurance, mental health neglect, and financial struggle. Once booked, it seems there is no shortage of abusive choreographers, directors, and producers in both the concert and commercial dance worlds. Dancers are pressured to keep going through illness, injury, and mental exhaustion, with no provisions for nutrition, better sleep tactics, physical therapy, or stress relief. Employment for a dancer should be a win in itself, and we often present it as such on our Instagram profiles, but we still carry a shifting scorecard of our temporary worth from contract to contract—a list of reasons for which we could be cut and replaced, demoted, or just bullied and disenfranchised.
There is also the puzzling paradox of what is asked of dancers in exchange for mostly laughable pay, zero job security, adverse living conditions and flimsy (if any) benefits:
We ask dancers for limitless physical stamina and mental discipline. If you're breathing too heavily from the cardio you just learned or you look like you aren’t keeping up with the (often merciless) learning pace, you will not be hired, on principle.
We ask dancers to endlessly cross train and to deliver natural looking (or just ‘well-faked’) execution of every genre we throw at them. This is highlighted by enduring formats like So You Think You Can Dance, which place more value on cross genre training and fast performance turnaround, than on deeper clarification or specialization within one style. We want our performers to arrive as perfectly trained, humble package deals, not experimental learners, still in process.
We ask dancers for full out performance without providing structured recovery and self care.
We focus on mimicry and image, not individual body awareness and feeling.
We teach kids to compare bodies in the mirror and we, knowingly or not, foster a habit of competitive self shaming. We expect dancers to know their bodies inside and out, and maintain diet and fitness to sustain their performance, but we don't make it mandatory to educate ourselves and our kids on such things. I was lucky to have a healthy ass mom--but I still remember having sugary coffee slushes and honey crullers or Mcdonald's breakfast every week before long class/rehearsal days. Nowadays I feel the way sugary, overly processed foods affect my energy, mood, sleep, skin, and recovery time. Kids are resilient, especially when engaged in so much physical activity, but starting kids on more nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory options would make the transition into adulthood a lot easier, especially as addictive things like alcohol and coffee are worked in.
We put dancers through every possible audition and performance scenario, without setting much of a universal standard for safety and wellness. We expect dancers to pick up choreography through counts, no counts, videos, varying dialects and genre terminologies, even nonverbal means. No matter what technique or teaching style a choreographer has, the onus is on dancers to interpret both what is laid down and how to translate it on their own body. Auditions can be one big ego trip for the choreographers and producers.
Dancers must shine on command, make their hard work look effortless as fast as possible, and otherwise exude unquestioning obedience to the production hierarchy. As such dancers are often abused and taken advantage of in subtle and overt ways.
We take advantage of how good it feels to dance and perform. We create a standard of dancers needing to work for free or less than minimum wage, or just a 'resume credit'. To this day I do not understand how an unpaid credit could be good for a professional resume. Dancers do not have a union but they are often fighting for better pay and conditions on stages and in music videos.
I can only speak to my personal experience through the lens of a half contemporary, half theatrical, ballet-trained, flat-footed female dancer working in the US and Canada. But the more I grow into self acceptance and embrace the stories of the artists around me, the more I realize that we could be supporting and lifting this enduring art form in so many more ways than we tend to. We could teach dancers so much more than technique. We could plant some awareness and accountability in the harsh industry tundra, and cultivate a thriving ecosystem that sustains itself. We could change the dialogue around dance opportunity and dancer recognition. We could equip dancers with tools for mental health, body awareness, and physical longevity. We could change the stigma around injuries and promote true recovery. We could pay dancers what they're worth and treat them like human beings trying to make a living, not easily replaceable cogs in a machine.