Beyond Labels: Seven Dancers Share Lessons From Their Careers
Moving beyond the labels of emerging, mid-career, and/or established, dancers investigate their trajectories and share lessons learned along the way.
“You will always reckon with the ephemerality of dance,” says Annie-B Parson, the Artistic Director of Big Dance Theater, and NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Choreography ‘00, 06, and ‘13. Not unlike the medium’s ephemerality, there exist other unique challenges and opportunities that span across generations of audiences and dance workers.
To build a greater understanding of how dancers evolve in their lives and careers, Dance/NYC gathered a panel of dance professionals—including Parson—together to share their experiences in the field. We’re sharing key insights and advice from the discussion, which was presented at Dance/NYC’s 2022 Digital Symposium and featured:
- Adia Whitaker, Founder & Artistic Director of Àṣẹ Dance Theatre Collective
- Annie-B Parson, Artistic Director, Big Dance Theater
- Carmen Caceres, Dance Artist, Choreographer, and Educator
- Mike Esperanza, Artistic Director, BARE Dance Company
- Nicky Paraiso, Director of Programming, The Club at La MaMa; Festival Curator, La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival
- Sarah Chien, Independent Dance Artist
- Maya Simone Z., (moderator), Interdisciplinary Artist & Advocate, Dance/NYC Junior Committee
The Art of Being Resourceful
While a number of arts organizations work hard to provide support, education, and grants to performing artists nationally and internationally, there can be gaps between the kind of support dancers seek and what’s available at any given time. Discouraged by an immediate lack of resources, a creative might choose to hone in on personal solutions, which can take the shape of siloing one’s work. Faced with obstacles, we might isolate ourselves from external challenges and, instead, hone in on personal solutions. While there is never a one-size-fits-all strategy for creating opportunities, in moments like these, it’s important to remember that building a strong community is a resource in and of itself.
Don’t miss the chance to share successes and frustrations with each other—it’s out of these conversations that opportunities are born. Armed with diverse, unique expertise, we often have the option to collaborate in a way that turns obstacles into new, unexpected visions. Sarah Chien shared a memory of needing help filming a Kickstarter video for her solo dance project. Carmen Caceres had a lot of fundraising experience and was able to share her expertise, resulting in Chien’s successful Kickstarter campaign. On the flipside, later on in her career, Cacares used the guidance from Chien’s practical advice book How To Build a Dance Floor to build one for her own dance company.
See limitations as opportunities for growth and creativity.-Carmen Caceres
This is just one story that shows how together, we can come up with creative ways to exchange knowledge and implement our visions, regardless of obstacles we encounter along the way.
Bring Your Life and History into Dance
Looking back to the wisdom and practices of our ancestors, dance has always been a way to heal ourselves and others, to communicate emotions, to celebrate, and to commemorate.
A few decades ago, Annie-B Parson shared, dancers were encouraged to leave sadness, grief, and any inner turmoil outside the studio door. Now, this is changing, she says.
It can be difficult and often counterintuitive to separate your personal feelings from the energy you emanate on the dance floor. After all, everything is connected—your legacy, history, life experience, and it’s valuable to combine and express these in movement.
Adia Whitaker talks about the “hustle puzzle” of life—your strategies to adapt to and survive in this world. These tactics are valid and often necessary, but they don’t always make up the honest, true story of you. She encourages us to tune into the intangible yet magical melange of ancestry, healing, and personal story.
The hustle puzzle of the survival masquerade is real. Believe in things you can’t see, you know?-Adia Whitaker
In a similar vein, several dancers note that performing for the masses can make us forget how to create for ourselves, with the simple goal of feeding our souls. Remind yourselves of the true reason for why you dance—instead of constantly focusing on the product of a sequence of choreographed movements. Try to rediscover joy, risk, and danger in your movement. Let life guide your dance practice.
You have to find your own soulfulness in order to give [your practice] a big hug and find that love again.-Mike Esperanza
While there might be less opportunities for young choreographers today than there were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there are now a lot more spaces to exhibit and share, as well as to learn from others. Social media completely changed the dance landscape—for better or for worse.
It’s a lot less insular world.-Annie-B Parson
The key advice is to adapt and embrace this change by benefiting from what it has to offer. For tips on how to make the most of the ever-evolving online world, check out our How to Monetize and Build Online Performance Projects and Digital Marketing for Artists blog posts.
Learn to Fundraise
We all want to be part of an ecosystem that supports dancers on many levels, especially financially. Being able to benefit from resources means doing the legwork of navigating the grant landscape, learning to monetize projects, and exploring different application strategies.
The below NYFA resources are a great starting point:
- Navigating the Grant Application Process as a Performance Artist
- Strategies for Submitting A Strong Performing Arts Application
- Professional Resources for Dancers from NYFA Source
Combining Interests as a Source of Inspiration
Establishing yourself as an artist can be an uphill battle, especially if you are dealing with financial difficulties or are facing a lack of family support. It might be tempting to employ a kind of tunnel vision to finally become a “100% dancer,” to be able to say you made it.
While it is honorable to focus on your goal, it is also crucial to remember that our external interests enrich our artistic practice. It’s best to embrace that diversity, not shy away from it.
I’m constantly on a search for integration.-Sarah Chien, whose passion for gardening inspires her movement.
Similarly, Mike Esperanza shares that photography and design have solidified his practice by providing time and space away from dance. Many dancers worldwide use dance as an outlet for activism.
Try to find and observe these connections to let the day-to-day inspire your movement.
Death and Rebirth
Something needs to decompose to fertilize whatever comes next.-Maya Simone Z.
Maintaining a practice while you have to do other things—and also, want to do other things—is always a balancing act. Sometimes, a departure from art-making could really mean a rebirth. Your career, your passion is always being transformed and will often find its full circle.
Other times, a life chapter is over and you need to make room for whatever comes next. There is a richness and maturity in allowing this process to unfold instead of fighting it.
–Compiled by Anna Sorokina, Communications/Design Officer
These insights are brought to you as part of Dance/NYC Symposium 2022: Life cycles. Livelihoods. Legacies., which focused on uncovering the generational continuum of lives in dance. Sessions explored career and life navigation, underscoring dance and artistic practice as core human needs while building understanding across generations of audiences and dance workers.
You can find more articles on arts career topics by visiting the Business of Art section of NYFA’s website. Sign up for NYFA News and receive artist resources and upcoming events straight to your inbox.