Commercial Work or College?

Degree programs give commercial dancers a leg up.

Point Park invites agents and directors to concerts to help students book jobs.

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.”

Making Connections

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.

Rhonda Miller (center) with Pace dancers

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

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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