My Response to “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?”

I am writing from Washington, D.C., as I am fortunate to have the pleasure to perform again with Gesel Mason Performance Projects. It is my first time performing at the Dance Place, D.C.’s hub for dance, and I am deeply enamored by it. What is particularly intriguing about it is the business model of combining local, national and international presentation with community support. This is accomplished in a way so genuine it makes me consider the idea of having a space when I never have before. Very smartly, they also have housing for visiting artists and interns. Within my amazement at their business model, I question this; the large staff of temporary workers. On the Dance Place website, information about the internship program notes the following benefit:

  • “Transition into a job. Some interns have continued to work full or part time at Dance Place!”

How often do they go on to work with the organization? Just like any small non-profit, the staff is small. While it must be true that some interns have gone on to work for the organization, it is likely an infrequent occurrence. This thought connects me to my own take of recent Dance/USA ‘Green Room’ blog post “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?” At the heart of my thoughts, I believe terming the discussion with “pyramid scheme” is an incomplete way to describe the topic. As many responses to this article have acknowledged, the ‘facts’ the author provides are not only true, but are not news to anyone deeply engaged in the field of dance. It was the opinion element of the article that I feel compelled to address.

After reading many articulate and seemingly well-thought out responses to this article, I am feeling pressure to write a perfect reply of my own. As giving in to this pressure would keep me from providing my thoughts while they are fresh and the original article is too, I’m just going to get it all out with minimal editing and hope that it contributes to the conversation in a beneficial way. Here I go.

In a way, I am RELIEVED that the author put forth these ideas: I do think there is an amount of coercion of young aspiring dancers at the hand of university dance programs. But who can blame them?! When operating in a system where enrollment number is the MOST important of only a handful of measurements of success and funding decision, of course university dance faculty and staff are trying to get their numbers up. The line of questioning brought up by this article should really consider how they go about this. To suggest that ALL recruitment works to lure in additional students for the purpose of profit, with no promise of personal gain, is short-sighted. To suggest that ALL recruitment is innocently based in embellishing liberal education while offering complete transparency about the current state of the dance world in the United States is also short-sighted. It seems to me that both of these are true, and that it is indeed difficult to measure how often the approach is the former or the later.

As a product of this system myself, I do find myself troubled even by my own use of the word ‘system.’ Yes, there is an amount of choice in the fact that we put ourselves into it. Yes, the amount of other choices also seems to be shrinking. There’s truth in these statements. There is also truth to Tere O’Connor’s response to the article that notes the author’s binary thinking as “intrinsically belligerent.” I’ll call it dangerous. It is a danger to creative thinking to suggest that choosing a career in art means a person is limited to either winning or losing within an old model of thinking about success. The author suggests that to “win” is to land a job in a modern dance company, and that to “lose” is to not land a job in a modern dance company. Is that all there is?

As a dancer who proclaims herself to land “somewhere between jazz hands and postmodern stare” on the continuum of concert dance, I find myself questioning this simplistic understanding of success within the field (and reductive definition of it, in alluding to all concert dance outside ballet and calling it simply ‘modern’). I often feel as though I am wedged between an aesthetic rock and a hard place, uninterested in the spectacle of commercial and Broadway dance, yet uninterested in the ways contemporary-postmodern-avantegarde-callitwhatyouwant dance can be so inaccessible to the populous. While it would be much easier to let this rock and a hard place pin me down into wishing for a full-time performance or choreography job in concert dance, I’ve instead decided to think creatively about how to become fluid, dripping through this place to explore new crevices of the American presentational concert (and social) dance landscape(s).

I’ve chosen this career path not because I think the world owes it to me, but because I think I can offer something back to the world (or whatever parts of it I can manage to touch) through dance, regardless of how many prestigious grants I receive or Martha Graham dancers I train. Some of the most poignant experiences I have had as a dancer have been teaching youth and adults alike who do not go on to ‘dance professionally,’ but certainly hold their dance experiences dear as a part of what allows them success in thinking critically. For aspiring dancers headed to university to think that their programs owe them a full-time performance job in a modern dance company is an entitled and also short-sighted way of thinking.

By exploring, defining and following my own interests in accessibility, musicality and social connection, I’ve developed my own projects like Rhythmically Speaking, which support both me and the work of other choreographers. Do these endeavors completely support me financially? No. Do I wish they did? Perhaps. Am I grateful that this has pushed me to become a well-rounded, many-hat-wearing artist who can not only make and perform a dance, but also write, organize, manage, teach and analyze with passionate fury? Without a doubt ABSOLUTELY. Having to be a choreographer-performer-teacher-scholar-coordinator has taught me that my time is worth anything from schmoozing with a funder down to scrubbing a toilet. I believe that this has made my life more interesting than it might have been just performing someone else’s work or even just creating my own choreography (which, in themselves, are very challenging and interesting pursuits).

I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge there was a piece of me going into college, and now still, that would LOVE to have a life like that (i.e. performing or choreographing full-time for a company). I’d be doing what I know, and it might feel easier. The great majority of me knows that being able to wear so many different hats with confidence has likely been much more fulfilling for me. While I have indeed followed the track that “Pyramid Scheme” has laid out (BFA, MFA, college teaching), being an instructor in a university program is just one piece of the many moving parts that make up my professional career in dance. I acknowledge that I am very fortunate to have found this kind of work, and also the volatility of such opportunities. That said, like most others who make this choice, this is just a piece of my professional interests and financial puzzle. ‘The hustle’ of continually looking for various kinds of dance work has become somewhat normal. While I am admittedly sometimes resentful of this, considering the reasoning above, I am more so grateful.

Coming full circle, I’ll return to my questioning of the large intern program at the Dance Place. With all of the above considered, I’ll land on this opportunity being smart for their business model and a good opportunity for aspiring dancers and arts administrators. What is actually questionable in this and like situations is whether or not those applying for and accepting such opportunities have complete understandings of the world they are entering. Dance programs and organizations do not owe jobs. Aspiring dancers owe it to themselves to gather as much information as they can, just as much as their educators owe them honesty as they seek to make informed choices about their futures.

I’d like to acknowledge that, much like the original article I am referencing, nothing I am saying here is news to anyone in the trenches of the dance world. I am simply offering, having felt honestly compelled to do so, my own perspective to the conversation. Regardless of the issue, multiple perspectives are always better than singular ones. In this particular instance, I think the article would have benefited greatly from simply acknowledging that people go teaching in the university system for many reasons. While a more stable financial situation is certainly one of the reasons, another is true belief in the benefits of the liberal arts educational model. Both of these are reasons for me, and I am sure there are many other folks who could offer many more reasons. Roll-call?