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?