Commercial Work or College?
Degree programs give commercial dancers a leg up.
The commercial dance world can be overwhelming for doe-eyed dancers who move to Los Angeles after high school. They have to get an agent, audition constantly and network, while also finding ways to support themselves financially. High school students may argue that college takes valuable years away from a commercial dancer’s career, but school can provide a stepping-stone for those who may not yet have the life skills for professional work. Many schools offer versatile commercial-minded curriculum and repertoire, networking opportunities and a safe environment for students to mature as artists.
Jim Keith, president of The Movement Talent Agency, says he often sees a difference in college dancers’ professionalism and training. “There’s nothing better than an educated dancer. They seem to be more organized and more likely to follow through. They’re also well-rounded, prepared and punctual.”
Beyond conventions, many young dancers haven’t had a chance to work intimately with dance professionals. Pace University commercial dance BFA director Rhonda Miller says building a network is essential to landing a job in the tight-knit industry. Though the New York City–based program is only in its second year, the faculty includes working artists like Al Blackstone and Joey Dowling, and the school invites top choreographers to teach workshops and stagers to set rep. Recent guests include Mandy Moore, Brian Friedman and Gregg Russell.
At Point Park University in Pittsburgh, dance department chair Susan Stowe invites agents and artistic directors to the school’s senior solo performance. Attendees receive students’ resumés and contact information and spend two days teaching repertory, interviewing students and giving technique classes. This gives dancers a better chance to be seen than at massive cattle-call auditions, and the agents see how a potential hire works in the studio and onstage. Regardless of job outcome, students get an opportunity to workshop material and receive feedback from people in the business. “The best thing I can do for my students is get them in front of people who can cast them or recommend them to other casting directors,” says Stowe. “Several students each year get job opportunities out of it.”
Training for the Biz
In college, students have time to solidify their training and become more versatile dancers. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, there is equal emphasis on ballet, jazz and modern. Chair Patrick Damon Rago says this offers students the rigorous study they need to transform them into complex movers. “What if someone asks you to improvise in an audition?” says Rago, whose students have danced with Cirque du Soleil and on Broadway tours and “Glee.” He says college dancers are better equipped to tackle the surprises thrown at them.
Learning about the industry is as important as honing technique. Point Park has a class in which students learn how to join an artists’ union, read contracts and make dance reels. And Pace students take singing and acting—skills that give them an edge in commercial dance’s broad field. They are also required to take Dance Seminar, a class geared toward learning how to navigate a career in dance. “People usually don’t understand how to deal with casting directors or getting an agent,” says Miller. “The more dancers know, the more employable they are.”
Plus, there is always life outside of dance to consider. How can dancers support themselves financially while they look for the next gig? Pursuing a minor or building other skills gives graduates an edge—they can turn to less physically demanding, steady jobs like administration and marketing, and build skills that will help them succeed once their performance careers end. DT
Photo courtesy of Point Park
Photo courtesy of Pace