The Freelance Zone

Nine dancers discuss life as independent teachers.

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.

Wildish’s advanced adult beginner class for The Ailey Extension draws professionals and recreational dancers alike.

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.

Jennifer Archibald,

New York City

Weekly schedule: eight classes

Genre/Levels:

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.

Portier is second from right

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

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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