Originally written for Impact Dance Adjudicators, 2/1/17
This morning, I woke up at 3:00am. After a punishingly early taxi ride to the airport and a long wait at my gate, I was seated next to a gentleman who snored like a chainsaw and refused to share the armrest. I spent the majority of my flight trying to push the man’s arm back to his side of the partition. No such luck.
But now here I am, in your city, and despite my hectic morning, I am really happy to be here. Honestly, I love judging dance competitions.
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I was a competition kid once, and I still remember that heady mix of nerves, confidence and adrenaline that made competing so exhilarating. Like it was yesterday, I recall seeing the judges from the stage, watching their mouths move in the soft glow of the lamps that lit their scoresheets. They were otherworldly to me: professionals, giants, gods. I wanted them to notice me, to like me, to tell me I had potential. Perhaps one day, I thought, could be a god, too.
You can imagine, then, how privileged I feel to be on the other side. Granted, the myth of the judge has faded somewhat (my plane-coiffed hair and gummy eyes don't exactly scream “deity”), but nonetheless, I still heartily respect the position I hold, and the dreams that the position represents. I try not to take it for granted.
Because I know what it's like to be you, I am already rooting for you. As I wait for you to enter the stage I send you some telepathic good-luck messages:
“You got this! Deep breath. Don't let anything hold you back. Be brave. Show me subtlety! Take chances. Enjoy yourself!”
And here you come! Entry #1!
I click “record” on my computer screen and we’re off to the races.
As you walk onstage, I already start to analyze. It's amazing how much you can tell about a dancer by the way they enter the stage. I can instantly gauge your confidence level and, based on the way your muscles extend and contract, I can get a pretty good read of the technical level you’re at. Sometimes I am surprised, but usually my guess is pretty good.
I comment on your costume: great choice. Most importantly, it flatters YOUR body, and it's age appropriate (thank you for being classy). The costume is unique, plus I feel better knowing that you probably spent $30 at H&M and not $500 at some custom creation boutique. No need to waste your pennies when that bargain special looks so good on you!
Your song is great as well: the concept is one that you, at your age, can grasp and express with confidence. I haven't heard the song before and make a mental note to add it to my Spotify playlist.
From here on out, I fall into a stream-of-consciousness style critique, talking about the things I see (good or not-so-good) and offering advice as to how you can improve. If I alight on a complex concept, I focus on it for a while, making sure I'm clear so that you understand my meaning when you listen later. As I give you a technical note, I can hear the judge sitting next to me giving the opposite advice. It's always interesting when this happens and I wonder what my colleague has seen that I haven't. I resolve to ask them about it on our next bathroom break.
You are directing your performance to the balcony. Excellent. This makes you look super confident, not to mention that I can now watch and critique in peace. I must admit, it’s a little distracting when a performer holds a judge’s gaze. If you lock eyes with me, I don't want to be rude, so I won't look away, but then I start thinking about my own expression. Is my concentration face super mean looking? I don't want you to think I'm mean! So then I start to smile at you. But then I begin to wonder if me constantly smiling looks creepy. Am I being creepy? Meanwhile, you’re doing awesome dancing and I'm critiquing none of it because I'm worried about my face.
Needless to say, I'm glad you’re looking up.
I look down to add some points to your score and suddenly the whole crowd erupts into cheers behind me. I look up quickly, hoping to catch the tail end of what you did, but you have already moved on. Rats - I missed it. Ah well. To err is human.
And then, you fall.
It's not a big fall, but it's enough to shake you a bit. To you, I know, it probably seems like the end of the world, but for me, it all depends on what happens next. Do you become so disoriented that you forget your choreography and, in a flush of embarrassment, run offstage? Or do you chuckle internally and improvise your way back into your dance? If it’s the former, I am disappointed. I feel cheated that I didn't get you see you redeem yourself. I will probably take points off. If it’s the latter, you will probably hear me clap for you. Honestly - falls happen! It probably means you were taking a fantastic risk. I can't tell you how many times I've fallen (on my literal derrière, in front of hundreds of people) on a professional stage. C’est la vie! The important part is to keep going. Kinda like life.
[Disclaimer: If your pointe shoe ribbon has come untied or you start to feel physically ill - PLEASE LEAVE THE STAGE! We care way too much about your safety to let you try and stick it out. It's nerve-wracking to watch and I spend more time worrying about your health than I do critiquing. So, the rule of thumb is, “Ego in danger, please be brave! Body in danger, leave the stage!” I give you full permission to put this on a poster with an inspirational sunset in the background. By all means, hang it on the wall at your studio.]
But you keep on dancing. Hooray! I add some points for your professionalism.
You play up the humor in your song and I sigh with relief. It's super refreshing to see something comedic once in awhile. In an entire day of competition, I will see maybe 3 numbers that make me laugh. Most other dances concern serious subject matter, and the ones that don't are usually populated with dancers taking themselves very seriously, worrying more about their technique than their own enjoyment.
Well, here’s a little judge’s secret: WE LIKE TO HAVE FUN, TOO!
If you enjoy yourself, I enjoy myself. If I enjoy myself, you get more points. It's a pretty simple equation, actually. Trust that your technique is there, and have more fun! The world is full of so many things that aren't fun. Dancing should not be one of those things.
But you are having fun. I’m so relieved! I thank you for this and add a few more points to your score.
Truly, anything that makes you stand out from the crowd is a good thing. As a young competition dancer, I remember worrying that I was different. My solo lacked the popular tricks and turn sequences that all the “cool kids” had, and I assumed that the judges thought I was an amateur.
Here’s what I didn't understand at the time.
By the time you enter the stage, the judges have already seen a hundred ariels, a thousand tilts and a million turns in second. Believe you me, if I never see another turn in second in my entire life, it will be too soon. We’ve seen all the tricks already, and guess what? We’re pretty bored of them.
So, how do you stand out?
Number one: give us clean technique. You’d be surprised how infrequently judges witness this. I would rather see a perfectly executed double pirouette than 20 mediocre fouettés. I would rather listen to a flawlessly clean cramproll than a fast sequence of wings and toe stands where the sounds and rhythms are unclear. Good technique never goes out of style.
Number two: Think about it. What is the one thing you have that is completely unique to you?
Why, YOUR PERSONALITY, of course!
I have seen a lot of dancing in my life, but I've never seen YOU dance. Bring your own, individual personality (complete with its quirks, flaws and weakness) to your performance because that is what makes you stand out! Be unapologetic about who you are because we want to see how YOU interpret the movement. I’ve never met you before and I'm infinitely curious.
And then, as suddenly as it started, your performance is over. You bow and walk offstage.
I score you as fairly as I can. Based on my training and my experiences, I give you the numbers that I think you deserve right now. Please note: this is not a judgement on your entire life, nor is it a judgement on the person you will be a year from now. I give you the score that I saw today, in the hopes that you will take my critiques and apply them to your training so that you can be better tomorrow.
As you retreat into the darkness of the wings, I wish you love, luck and strength for your journey. I hope you understand that I believe in you, even if I've only known you for three minutes.
Next up, entry #2!
Only 700 more to go.
About a year ago, I had a quiet birthday party at my apartment. Well, it was a quiet birthday party until the party was crashed by 75 freshman from the nearby conservatory. Instead of immediately ordering them out, I , the gracious birthday girl, decided to let them stay and continue their merry-making (which would prove to be a terrible judgement call on my part, but I digress...)
When the hoard of screaming teenagers became to much for my late-twenty-something psyche, I retreated to my rooftop, only to find that several of the teenagers had already infiltrated that sanctuary. Before long I found myself in conversation with a young man who informed me that he was a dance major at the afore-mentioned conservatory (in a tone that told me that I should be impressed by such a fact). Keeping things amicable, I mentioned that I was a professional dancer who had earned a B.F.A. herself. He asked who I danced for and I went on to list the choreographers I was working with and the various projects I was involved in. He looked at me with some disdain and said,
"So, you're a freelancer?"
I answered in the affirmative.
"Oh," he said, "well, I'm not going to be a freelancer, that's for sure."
Puzzled by his response, I inquired whether it was his intention to join a ballet company, or one of the few (see: 2) modern companies that I knew kept dancers as full-time, salaried employees.
"Oh, ballet's not really my thing. I just find it so rigid, you know?" the youth explained condescendingly, "and those modern companies are so old school! No - I intend to work with..." and he went on to list several choreographers that my freelancer friends danced for.
I thought about telling him. I really did. As a more experienced dancer to a less-experienced one, I wanted to help him out, despite his rudeness, because I know how rough our business can be (and I also wanted to knock him down a few pegs). But, as I watched him drink his drink a little too quickly, I remembered that I had a legion of liabilities in my apartment and went to make sure they weren't wrecking the place.
Despite the vivid memories I have of that night (including, but not limited to the time a teen-aged door-keeper tried to charge me a $10 cover to get back into my own apartment, and the time when one of the kids discovered my age and remarked, with 0% irony, "Oh, but don't worry! You still look hot for being that old!"), it was my conversation with the boy on the rooftop that popped into my head as I read Sarah Anne Austin 's beautifully articulated piece "Is American Modern Dance A Pyramid Scheme?", which has been making its rounds on the internet.
If you haven't read the article, I advise that you do, here: Is American Modern Dance A Pyramid Scheme?, but for purposes of this response, I will summarize as succinctly as I know how.
Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?
Yes, Austin confirms. Yes it is.
Because there are so few opportunities to earn a living wage as a modern dancer or dance-maker (what with so few steady, salaried positions out there), most performers end up teaching at the university level, training more dancers, who end up teaching at the university level. Who train more dancers who end up teaching at the university level.....
You see where this is going? This system as it currently exists, falls under the definition of "Pyramid Scheme" as it is defined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (a program in which “participants attempt to make money solely by recruiting new participants into the program").
If Pyramid Schemes are deemed ILLEGAL and ACTIONABLE by the U.S. Government, then how can we fault rooftop boy for assuming that he can make a living wage outside of such a system? If we cannot fault him, then perhaps we can no longer regard him as the pretentious [unprintable name] we once thought he was.
"But shouldn't he be better informed?" you ask. "Even if the system is flawed, shouldn't he be better educated about the business he is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to be educated in?"
And the answer is, yes. Yes he should.
But he's not.
Why is he not?
He's not informed because (as far as I know, and please correct me if I'm wrong) very few, if any, B.F.A. programs teach students about the practical aspects of living life as a working dancer, freelance or otherwise.
We are taught technique and performance skills (in fact, until these things are coming out of ours ears), we are taught theory (dance history and choreographic theory and music theory and anatomy and nutrition), but what we are not taught is HOW the business of dance works. And that, I would argue, is the most important thing we need to know.
The problem, as I see it, is that the education our university students are currently receiving assumes that there are jobs to be had. To secure these jobs (the university system seems to say), one must only perfect technique, study theory, and be a smart, self-tending employee. But that is, unfortunately, not how our business works, especially in this day and age. In this day and age, we freelance. We ALL freelance (even the lucky people who posses those steady jobs). And the university system does nothing to prepare us for this.
So, what's to be done?
Well, if you asked me, I would propose that the education that our students receive (which they are putting themselves into crippling debt to receive) be geared towards helping them succeed in the current market, by which I mean,
We need to teach students about personal brand management.
We need to teach them about marketing.
We need to teach them about non-profits, for-profits, unions, representation, fundraising, grant writing, team building, project management and financial planning.
If we teach these skills, then the next generation of American modern dancers and dance-makers will have the ability to become, not only the consumers of dance (as Austin hopes for) but the PRODUCERS OF NEW DANCE JOBS! If we trained our young dancers to become successful dance-business-people and sound dance-employers, they would have the know-how and financial support to put more dance jobs out there (which is the thing we lack in the first place)! It would jump start the whole system!
I'm getting excited just thinking about it!
But, before we start teaching our students to be successful dance-business-people, we need to understand, ourselves, that this IS a business, regardless of the passion we have for it or the fun we have doing it. It is an unpopular view, I know, to regard what we do as cold, hard business and not "free artistic creation", but the fact is that the cold, hard stuff exists, and it is much better that we understand and control that aspect, rather letting ourselves get swept along in its current, without any agency or information.
Dance is a business now (at least, until the American government starts supporting the arts more fully, the way many European governments do) and we have accept this, so that we are ahead of the curve, so that we have control over the art we want to create. We need to accept this for ourselves, and then we have to impart this to the next generation. That will be the greatest hurdle, I think.
But once we pass that hurdle, think of the possibilities! There could be jobs for all of the 75 freshman at my birthday party! Perhaps, rooftop boy and I could have had a mutually-informed conversation! Perhaps, even, we could become friends!
Or perhaps arts conservatory freshman will always be terrible and pretentious.
Probably the latter.
But shouldn't we find out for sure?
There has been, of late, a paradigm shift in my life.
A week before I went into rehearsal for my last show, my father died. It was not entirely abrupt, but when it happened, I was changed. My whole life tilted on its axis, and when I went into rehearsals everything seemed frivolous and unimportant. Near the end of the contract, a friend of mine also died. She was my age at the time, and the news struck a part of me that I never knew was there.
The show I was doing was Mary Poppins and in the show, George Banks has a line where he says, "I have rediscovered the human race...and I do not apologize for understanding that there are more important things in life than making money."
The audience usually applauded. I usually rolled my eyes.
We all know this. Hallmark tells us. Movies tell us. At this point, saying so is almost cliche.
But then, one day, it clicked. Exchange the word "money" for "great performance" and I am on the other side of the divide.
Ever since I was a kid, I put my dedication to performance first. For the sake of my training, I gave up birthday parties and school trips. I often passed on sweets and celebrations. I gave up sleep. When I became a professional, I gave up a steady paycheck. I gave up living in one place for any amount of time. I gave up relationships and friendships. I gave up being with my family when they needed me, or maybe just wanted me. Whether or not I gave up my sanity is arguable.
But, since this shift, I have been re-evaluating this philosophy, and I no longer think it is healthy.
I'm not saying that we should give up on great performances. I'm not saying that we should not aspire to great art. I'm not saying that you should drop our careers every time our sibling has the flu. I don't even advocate working less: the shift is much more subtle, and much more incisive.
The difference is this:
I now want my art to be an expression of my human life, not my life to be an expression of the art I make. This is an important distinction because it makes me human first, and an artist second. In other words, I want my "Hello! My name is.." tag to read "Ashley (person with various loves and passions)" as opposed to "Artist (who makes beautiful work and does human-like things when convenient)".
My younger self would see this shift in priority as a proclamation of blasphemy (even writing it down now feels like heresy), but I now I know that "human first" is truly what I am, and perhaps, have grown to be.
And don't you know, I still think that I am becoming the artist I meant to be all along. I simply think that this realization is the next step in my process of maturation, and unfortunately, I don't think it is a step that every artist has the pleasure of experiencing. I am aware enough to be grateful for this, despite the circumstances that led me here.
So today I propose a toast, to full people, dense people. People who see and live and experience horror, love, terror, joy and fright. This one is for the humans, and especially the humans who, through their lives and creations, make their more enlightening experiences accessible to many more.
To all of the complex human beings, who happen speak of their vibrant lives in the language of art, we salute you.
I am a performer. My boyfriend has a 9 to 5.
I often tell friends that I am dating a muggle.
When I told him this, however, he was not exactly ecstatic.
"What makes you the wizards?" he inquired, with a slight hint of "I'm-sort-of-not-joking" in his voice. "Maybe we are the wizards and you are the muggles." To me, this reply was so ludicrous that I laughed heartily, wiped a tear from my eye and went back to stir-frying. When I looked back at him, however, he was still awaiting my answer.
It got me thinking.
After spending time ruminating on the subject, I realized (with some shock and horror) that I operate, psychologically, within an "us and them" worldview.
Let me explain.
The "us/wizards" are my clan and I: the hard-working, underpaid, misunderstood but extremely talented performing artists of NYC (and sometimes LA, Chicago, D.C. and the European cities we deem worthy). They are the people I turn to for community, for solidarity and for understanding. They are the people that comprehend why I want to take class all the time, why weekends don't happen every week and why I have cried more in a theater than I have cried anywhere else in my life.
The "them/muggles" are people with 9 to 5 jobs. They are the semi-soulless drones who have given up on imagination, who never had the guts to follow their dreams and who have never [insert inspirational but flowery phrase here].
Of course I am being facetious. Sort of. And therein lies the problem.
What started out as a joke is now injuring our perception. As artists, we have fallen into the trap of "us and them" because, I believe, we feel insecurity. Even in this era of the "lauded artist", when actors and singers make more money than doctors or government officials, the fact is we still think of ourselves and second-class citizens, as circus freaks who have to prove, to our families and to society, that we have made the right choice, that we weren't crazy to have done what we did and do. Deep down, we want to attest that our lives are valid and our seemingly frivolous undertakings have worth.
The problem is that we did this by overcompensating, by insisting that we are magical, different, even extraordinary. We have played into the stereotype of the circus freak, but to the extreme, and we now believe (buried deep underneath all of that social nicety) that we are better. We did the noble thing when others gave up, and by doing this, we have isolated ourselves, creating an (at times, pretentious) artist bubble, which is warm and comforting and "special".
Exacerbating the problem is the seemingly harmless "do what you love" fallacy. This phrase is bandied about by self-help gurus, high school guidance counselors and by your well-meaning Aunt Marge. It's so pervasive, in fact, that we don't bother to stop and question it's validity. But it deserves to be questioned because if everyone simply "did what they loved," a great number of people would starve to death. Admit it: even those of us who "do what we love" end up doing things we hate in order to do the things we love. No matter what you do for your life's work, there is always a trade off. The demi-sucky always pays for the moments of wonderful.
Case in point, my muggle is a brilliant writer and musician but does both of these things in his downtime (which is a decent amount of time, actually, when you work 9 to 5). However, it surprises both his friends and I that he does not pursue creative work full time, and we often ask why he does not.
The answer he gives is an insightful one. He says that he hopes to publish someday, but that he enjoys creative work more when it is not tied up with money making. When he doesn't have to worry about surviving off of his creative labors, the process is much more fun, and way less stressful.
So, in light of these various ponderings, I want to propose that the phrase "do what you love" be amended. I think it should instead be "do what you love and are good at and you believe has value and is sustainable for your life". Not as easy to put on a poster with a sunset in the background, but probably more useful.
Does this mean that I am unhappy living my life as a gypsy? Not at all. In fact, I believe that my work and life fulfill the criteria of the amended "do what you love" admonition. Therefore, I have no desire find a 9 to 5.
However, I think it is valuable to realize that this particular "us and them" prejudice does exist. With all prejudices, it is dangerous because it makes us discount people before getting to know them. It makes us dismiss their good ideas and their sometimes groundbreaking contributions before ever having heard them. Thinking "us and them"/"wizard and muggle" is a habit, akin to saying "JK" in conversation: it was once a joke, but it has slowly become part of the way we talk, and thus, the way we think.
It is time to pop the bubble, it is time to own our own validity without having to give ourselves airs and, for goodness sake, let's give the muggles a chance. Sometimes, they say the darnedest things.
Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom called New York, in a castle off of 8th Avenue, I was gearing up to take a dance class. As I was warming up, I spotted someone I knew, who was also taking the class. I had worked with him ten years previously, back when I was a teenager, but had not seen him since. I promptly reintroduced myself (shyness is not a personal quality I often broker) and we got to talking about our lives and what we had been doing over the past decade. He commented that I looked more mature, and we laughed about how naive I had been as a teenager.
The whole conversation got me thinking about my last ten years and the scars I had to show for it. Physical and mental, debilitating and skin deep, there were many.
The doors opened and we went into class.
Later, I was watching my prodigal friend dance. It was a fun, sensual and almost silly combination and he was clearly enjoying himself, lost in a moment here, lost in a moment there. Then, something hit me.
Over the past ten years, my friend had probably accumulated the same amount of scars as I had, if not more. Yet, here he was, living his life to its extent. Despite my scars, there I was, enjoying myself just as much. In this realization, I stumbled upon a truism I had never before put into words.
Though our lives often seem silly or even frivolous (at this moment, for example, I was literally watching my friend shake his ass), there is serious grit underneath the glitter. There is serious heartache underneath the fun, but that's what makes the fun important, mesmerizing and even worth watching. Glitter, after all, is actually composed of tiny shards of shaved metal or hard plastic (true story - look it up). If you stand back far enough, it may look delicate or trivial, but it wouldn't look the way it does if it wasn't made of something hard enough to endure assault, or even make scars of its own.
There is serious sadness in what we do. Serious rejection. Serious struggle. Also, life happens. Friends die, families fall apart, injuries sap our determination and we find ourselves broke or broken or both.
But that is why the glitter is beautiful, and, dare I say, important. It is made up of serious, threatening things, that are then redirected into something silly, something joyous and perhaps, something trivial. When we turn shards of metal into glitter we effectively heal ourselves. When we turn shards of metal into glitter, we remind others that they have the same capability.
And so the two prodigal friends shook their asses. They shook them hard and with abandon. And, for a moment at least, they lived the happiest happy ever after there ever was.
A wise person once told me something a wise person once told him. The saying goes, "Being a working artist means that you are trying to get your work seen. After that, the job is the vacation."
I agree. Having just celebrated my 20-year audition anniversary, (audishiversary, if you will) I have done a lot of "working".
SIDE NOTE: Yes, I was one of those kids you see at auditions. My first audition was for an Edy's Ice Cream Commercial. We did the moonwalk on camera. They went with a toddler instead. My second audition was for the Music Man revival. I met Lea Michelle, we were best friends for a day, but neither of us booked it.
Living in NYC is a whirlwind. We all know that (and if you didn't, there are umpteen magazine articles waiting to tell you), but especially as an artist in this city, it often feels as if you are the infantry, slogging through the mud, lugging your heavy physical (and metaphysical) gear, continuously being made to wait in the trenches.
Now, everyone's trenches look a little different. Your trench might be the crowded acting class that you wanted to take, even if you manage to get in. They can be the hoops you have to jump through every time you try to get funding for a project. They might be circuitous route you have to take to get to a gig, trying to get your double bass past that large woman on the subway because your client doesn't have enough money to pay for your cab. No matter the circumstance, trenches are always crowded, psychologically hellish, too hot, too cold or simply unbearable.
Then why do we do it? For the vacation package, naturally. I've had some beautiful "vacations" (or, "won some battles" depending on which metaphor you prefer), and each one justifies the "work" (/"time spent in the trenches").
So what do we do in the meantime? If we want the payoff, how can we make the trenches more bearable?
I'm not pretending that I have all the answers, but I do believe that the solution comes in the form a question:
Who are we fighting?
It's a good question, but before we talk about who we are fighting, let's talk about who we are not fighting.
We are not fighting our fellow trench-mates. The people in the mud next to you are on the same team. Likely, they will be the difference between your success and your failure, your symbolic life and death. Remember: no man ever won a infantry charge by himself (David of "David and Goliath" fame does not count, I'm sorry). You don't have to like your fellow soldiers, though it's much more enjoyable if you do (laughing in the trenches is the best way to stave off melancholy), but you do have work with them. Without help, we will remain individually stuck in the mud. With a leg up over the embankment, we all eventually end up on higher ground, a million strong, ready to engage the enemy.
But who is the enemy?
The enemy is not necessarily "the establishment" or even the people on the other side of the table. The enemy is mediocrity. The enemy is bad work and unintentionally recycled ideas and the "let's do it because it's easy" sentiment. We all enlisted because we were inspired by something great. So we need to keep pushing forward - we need to be the new great.
But battles are not always the best way to do this. Sometimes you have fewer soldiers, or less ammo, or less political clout. Sometimes, the best course of action is not to retreat, but to desert.
Don't like either of the opposing sides? Grab some trench-mates and escape. Make your own world. Build a third party. Fight the enemy with creation, rather than destruction.
That's what I think.
But that's just me.