As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."
Not every dance teacher imagines their name on the front door. Running a school can take time away from actually teaching, never mind the constraints of teaching in one place. Freelance teaching has always been an option for dancers—an elastic schedule can work well to complement their performance careers. But it takes a special entrepreneurial mind-set to fill independent classes and create a distinctive brand that will keep them full. DT spoke with nine teachers about how (and why) they make the freelance life work.
Kat Wildish, New York City
Weekly schedule: 14 open classes, 10 privates
Genre/Levels: ballet, pointe, partnering, audition prep, competition prep; all ages
Studio 6B of The Ailey Studios is packed on a Wednesday morning for Kat Wildish’s advanced beginner ballet class. Lined up at the barre are people of all ages. Some have ballet-trained bodies—a few are working professionals, and some are retired and take the class to stay in shape—but most are recreational adult enthusiasts. One woman says she’s 74 and had been retired from modern dance for 50 years before joining the class two years ago.
There isn’t a ballet class quite like this in all of New York City. “I am able to teach to different ages and levels, all within the same class, such that a Broadway dancer can be in the same class as a beginner,” says Wildish. She’s developed a devoted following, and it’s easy to see why. Her classes are a mix of rigor and wit. (She gives her adagios names like “Three-Toed Sloth” and “Kale and Lime Juice.”) And regardless of who is in the class, rank beginner or aging enthusiast, she treats them all like professionals.
Today is “Fouetté Wednesday,” and Wildish begins with an hour-long barre designed not only to warm up thoroughly but to build the body. She’s been teaching since she was 15 and is now certified in the ABT National Training Curriculum, Primary through Level 7 (the highest). Wildish has a unique performance background, having danced with both New York City Ballet (under Balanchine himself) and American Ballet Theatre under Baryshnikov. Though she retired from the stage in 2007, the buff blonde keeps herself in shape. “I walk the walk and look the part,” she says. “I get up early to go to the gym or yoga. There’s no slouching.”
“She’s the go-to class for Broadway people. She gets you up on your leg—your leg,” says Alfie Parker, Jr., who has performed with Pilobolus and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and whose Broadway credits include the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. “The first time I came, I thought, ‘This woman’s crazy; this isn’t for me.’ And then the next day I was sore.” He realized how well-rounded Wildish’s workout had been. “I’ve been coming ever since.”
“My following follows me everywhere,” says Wildish. “After they go on tour with a show for four years, they return to my class. It’s home for them.” On holidays, when The Ailey Studios close, she rents space at City Center. “Holiday classes are packed. It’s when adults are available.”
She demonstrates briskly. Execution varies wildly. She quietly moves through the room, making gentle corrections. When the class groans about a grand plié, she concedes with, “OK, maybe a demi-plié.” But after an adagio that includes going upside down on one arm, she doesn’t let them off the hook. “Shall we do it on the other side?” she says. The group is not enthusiastic. “No? We’re adults, right? We can change the rules.” Not. She gives an impish grin and leads them into the left side.
And on three weekends each year, Wildish makes latent dreams come true: Her adult students perform onstage in New York City at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Cost to participate is $165, which covers costumes and rehearsal expenses. Leading up to the show (which typically sells out), the group rehearses three weeks for a total of 12 hours.
“We do actual ballets,” she says. “I have to adjust some things. They’re not perfect arabesques. The legs don’t go up all the way—but maybe they go up 45 degrees. We do a lot of drilling in 12 hours,” she says. “At every performance, I cry. I just know how far they’ve come.”
Courtney D. Jones, Houston, Texas
Weekly schedule: six classes
Genre/Level: modern, beginner to professional level; musical theater dance, beginner to advanced; composition
I find guest teaching appropriate and manageable for my schedule. I’m at my best being part of a program like The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I enjoy coming together with other educators and finding new ways to be a part of a young dancer’s progress. I enjoy going in and teaching right before or after I’ve performed, and sharing moments with students where I literally had to apply what we talk about in the classroom to the stage.
There are some challenges. For example, when teaching a master class or guest teaching, it’s more difficult to connect with the students you don’t see consistently. If there are things that you want to fix, you only have so much time. It can also feel a bit like a blind date, where you’re not sure what you are walking into. You can arrive prepared to teach an advanced level class, and after one glance realize you’re going to have to adjust your class level on the spot. I have learned to overprepare in that regard.
New York City
Weekly schedule: eight classes
contemporary, hip hop; intermediate to advanced, pre-professional
In August, I was told Dance New Amsterdam was closing its doors on September 1. I had four hours to take my clientele to other major studios before I left the city for two weeks to work on commissions. It was like I was back hustling the way I did 10 years ago when I first came to NYC. I had taught at DNA for 10 years, eight classes a week, while building my name as a choreographer and master teacher.
Life as a freelance teacher is based on numbers, reputation and word of mouth. You have to be OK with having two to three people in your class and be ready to build it. You have to love to teach and keep yourself relevant, and that’s not easy. My schedule does change a lot, because I travel often, but my following is used to it. I have also developed 30-second YouTube commercials that show my combinations. That’s been a force behind my classes’ reputation. I am a free spirit and do not want to adhere to a strict curriculum. I teach a new combination in every single class. I choreograph really quickly and on the spot, so students need to be ready to pick it up.
Peter Chu, Las Vegas, Nevada
Weekly schedule: four classes Genre/Level: contemporary; beginner to professional
Freelancing not only gives me the opportunity to focus on my company, chuthis, but it also affords me the pleasure of working with various levels of students and developing artists. It’s inspiring to teach such a huge breadth of dancers. When working with younger dancers, I try to create consistency. By returning periodically throughout a season, I can help them navigate the work safely, and in the process this helps me become a better teacher. Freelancing also allows me the flexibility to be a collaborator in other projects (I am still in love with performing), while continuing my personal studies in movement analysis and body maintenance. I do have help. Laura Murray Public Relations manages my marketing, publicity, scheduling, booking flights, negotiating contracts and securing teaching and choreographic opportunities.
Amy O’Neal, Seattle, Washington
Weekly schedule: three classes
Genre/Levels: hip hop, house, contemporary; ages 14–60
I have a home base at Velocity Dance Center, and I fill in teaching at other places around town and travel for residencies. I like the freedom. I like being my own boss and not being responsible for all people and places. I feel responsible for my own choreography, and that feels like enough.
I prefer being the guest teacher who comes in, shakes things up, then leaves. I appreciate that the students are hungry, and there’s a different vibe when I’m the new teacher. I like dealing with less bureaucracy, too. There can be some stress in the freelance life, but I am learning to tell people what I need and to trust my instincts.
I do spend a lot of time building connections in the communities that I want to work in, and that means travel and meeting face-to-face. I have made a real effort to do that, and thanks to an Artist Trust Fellowship [grant for Washington State artists], I have been able to travel more.
Duncan Cooper, San Francisco, California
Weekly schedule: four to five classes
Genre/Levels: classical and contemporary ballet; all levels for children 9 and older and adults
I have always admired the dance teacher who stays in the same place, but for me, as soon as I get used to one group of kids, I move to the next location and meet a whole new group. It keeps things fresh and new for me. There’s such a variety of dance going on and I really get to see what’s happening nationally. I also have to learn to be flexible on my feet because levels vary from studio to studio.
I am my own agent and have developed a network of teachers and studio owners all over the country. I am my own press person and tax person. Joe Lanteri was a huge mentor to me and inspiration. He opened my eyes to what’s possible as a businessperson and an artist.
Helen Rea, Silver Spring, Maryland
Weekly schedule: four classes
Genre/Levels: adult intermediate modern; movement improvement, all levels, post-professionals
I have been freelancing since I left my position as the director of the Dance Exchange school in 1981. I started teaching at other studios in town and never stopped. I like the variety, and during the years I was raising children, the flexibility worked well. I can teach as much or as little as I want. I’m a very organized person, so the task of setting things up comes easy for me.
I’ve always preferred studio teaching as opposed to academia. In a private studio, students are choosing to be there, to take my class. I have an incredibly loyal following, and they have followed me from place to place when I have switched studios, which has not been often. I’m very consistent, rarely use subs, and when I do, they are extremely familiar with my style. I arrive fully prepared and never choreograph on the spot. I spend an hour and a half preparing for each class. I love preparing, because it’s the way that I keep myself dancing. I also prepare specific music for each part of the class, and my students really appreciate that. The downside is that sometimes I do not have control of the situation. For example, at CityDance, my class goes away during the summer to make room for the more lucrative kids classes.
Kendra Portier, New York City
Weekly schedule: four classes
Genre/Levels: modern-contemporary, a post-downtown release–based contemporary; advanced
Class size, studio size, location, the weather—there are so many variables to establishing a consistent base for class takers. I’m demanding of myself in how much energy I expect to put forth in every class, and occasionally it is difficult to be as full-on as I desire, due to illness, injury or fatigue. Bodies need rest and recuperation, and sometimes these things are casualties of freelancing.
I will never underestimate the power of word of mouth. With the vast amount of cyber communications, it’s difficult to sort the information, and I’m grateful to the many friends who have championed my class by bringing guests and sending out their own info about classes.
I spend a lot of time creating play-lists. Sound really facilitates atmosphere and motivation. The right playlist can propel you through creative, emotional or physical lethargy. Occasionally, I will host BIGmusicLOUDdance class, which to me is simply a late-evening blowout of sweaty dance with live music.
Kiki Lucas, Houston, Texas
Weekly schedule: 12 classes
Genre/Levels: jazz, lyrical, contemporary; beginner to advanced
The biggest perk of freelancing is that instead of always concerning myself with numbers or paperwork, I get to keep the creative process as number-one in my life. I’ve always been a bit of a gypsy at heart, so being able to travel constantly, set work and teach at different colleges, studios and companies suits me well. Freelancing keeps me on my toes. I’m never bored, and I’m constantly being challenged and introduced to new people, places, things and ideas. This allows me to keep my material fresh, because I never stop learning.
Since my schedule is so demanding, finding a little downtime or social life has been tough at times. I don’t really worry about how many students are in my classes. I enjoy teaching a class either small or convention size. Each one forces me to bring something new to the table. Even though I teach all over the place, I never forget a face. I take the time to soak in as many faces staring back at me as I can.
Getting Out the Word
Social media has now surpassed e-mail as the preferred way to announce classes and location changes, and to share photos and videos. “I used to not friend my students on Facebook, but then too many of them don’t check their e-mail,” says Amy O’Neal. “I taught a class at Broadway Dance Center recently, and all the students came because of Twitter and Facebook notices.”
Kat Wildish updates her Facebook status daily and personally responds to comments. Duncan Cooper likes to post photos and even videos of his workshops. And as Peter Chu points out, the more channels you use, the better. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram each give him quick access to a different group of people.
It does take time to nurture a following. It’s one thing to post the daily location of class, but if you’re also running a company and managing out-of-town gigs, it’s wise to get help. Chu uses an agent and Jennifer Archibald has a budget dedicated to marketing and social-media advertising. She gets help from a member of her Arch Dance Company team.
Some freelancers are more comfortable with social media than others. “Self-promotion stresses me out, and every time I post something I have a slight heart attack,” says Courtney D. Jones. “In the past two years, I have made some great connections with people via my social-media presence, and I’m grateful for that. Even if it’s difficult for me, I feel it paying off in small and large rewards. I love when someone e-mails or calls and says, ‘I’ve been following your page, and I’d like to invite you to teach.’
Note: We’re not suggesting you dump your e-mail list just yet, but do consider the efficiency of a monthly newsletter. Apps like Constant Contact and MailChimp are convenient to use.
Photos by (top to bottom) Kyle Froman; Lynn Lane, courtesy of Jones; courtesy of Archibald; Graciela Federico, courtesy of Chu; Kyle Beckley, courtesy of O’Neal; Gina Downing, courtesy of Cooper; Robert Sugar, courtesy of Rea; Michael Abbatiello, courtesy of Portier; Ben Doyle, courtesy of Lucas