Monday, October 20, 2014

Pros and Cons of Being a Freelance Dancer

Many dancers want to be professionals in a top company, but only some will ever make it into the competitive world of professional dance. However, even if a dancer is not accepted into a company or needs more flexibility than dance companies typically provide, career options still exist. Freelance dancing is one way to earn a living doing what you love.


A freelance dancer usually specializes in one particular style of dance, which can be anything from classical ballet to modern dance to jazz and beyond. He/She is responsible for keeping him/herself in training, whether it is by taking classes at an established institution or dance school, or by practicing on her own each day. When she works for a dance company, she will usually sign on for one particular show, rather than a whole season, though sometimes well-known dancers work as "guest stars" for an established company.

Finding Work

Because freelance dancers are not tied down to one particular company, they have more geographical freedom about where they can dance and may choose to travel to find work, or to go on tour with a company for a limited amount of time. Finding work can be difficult; dancers may do so by searching advertisements and listings for freelance dancers in trade periodicals, although some have agents who arrange temporary placements for them.

Pay and Being Your Own Boss

Because freelance dancers work when and where they are needed, they are not always guaranteed a steady paycheck, making the need to save money while they are working all the more important. Additionally, in contrast with those dancers who work under contract for a company, freelance dancers are responsible for withholding their own income tax and self-employment tax due to the IRS each year. Freelance dancers may be paid by the performance or for the entire run of the show in which they are participating; payment varies by company.

As independent contractors, freelance dancers no longer qualify for unemployment benefits, a safety net many full-time company dancers use during layoff periods. Plus, even when you are working, your income will be wildly inconsistent. Health insurance presents another challenge. Unless you’re under 26 and can remain on your parents’ policy, you’ll have to purchase your own or go without. (I belong to Freelancers Union, which offers affordable rates for PPO plans, but you need a certain amount of freelance work to qualify.)

Taking charge of your career means proactively searching for dance jobs and marketing yourself. Studios usually post audition notices, but it also helps to check company websites or audition sites.

Networking is important for freelancers. That means taking class at popular studios, meeting other dancers, talking to teachers and seeing performances. Workshops and master classes provide excellent opportunities to meet choreographers and explore their styles. “I hear about things through friends,” says freelancer Kelsey Coventry, who counts Complexions, BalletX, Avi Scher & Dancers, the Cincinnati Opera and Neglia Ballet Artists among the companies for which she’s danced. “For instance, a friend might be unavailable for a gig, so she’ll recommend me. Sometimes it’s just about timing, being lucky.” You never know—I was once offered a job after an artistic director spotted me taking class at Steps on Broadway.

Other Opportunities

Because of the irregular nature of freelance dance opportunities, freelance dancers often take on other jobs and short-term gigs to make ends meet between performances. One common opportunity is teaching dance at established dance schools or at local dance, yoga and Pilates studios. Because dance classes often run over the course of several weeks or months, freelance dancers can create a schedule that allows them to continue to perform during part of the year and earn money while they are not on-stage.  Luckily, many studios offer work-study programs where dancers can volunteer administrative services in exchange for classes.

Many freelancers know what their end goal of freelancing is. It can be anything from getting experience to joining a company to spending the final years of their career doing what they want to do. For others,  it isn't that simple. Some dancers aren't sure if they want to continue freelancing forever or if they want to eventually join a company again. A lot of freelancers use their time on the fly as a period of self-exploration.  While side jobs can be stressful, they also serve as opportunities to explore other interests and develop new skills

Difficult But Rewarding

Freelancing is as difficult as it is rewarding. Having any type of commitment in one place can be a challenge. Finances can be hard. On the other hand, dancers are living their dream. They may dance roles that they likely would not have been offered with a big company, traveling the world, and making endless friends and connections along the way. And being your own boss may sound daunting, but it helps to develop independence, the ability to deal with change, to take control over your own self esteem instead of relying on a company's praise to validate you as a good dancer. That might be the best lesson anyone can learn, in dance and in life.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Inspires You?: Tools For Memorable Choreography

What makes a choreographer want to create a particular dance? What inspires you? Most say that they are usually inspired by music. It's a great starting point. When you hear a certain piece of music, do you visualize colors, shapes and movements? If so, that music is a good candidate for choreography.

A basic rule of choreography is that gestures should somehow reflect the music. What sets the successful choreographers apart is that their gestures embody the music beautifully, as if each musical phrase had been written just for them. An example is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. Although different choreographers may have set different steps to this music,nearly all of them have tried to create something appropriately delicate.

Another form of inspiration is the need to tell a story. Dance has always been an excellent vehicle for this. If you want to tell a tale, first decide whether you want to create a complete narrative from beginning to end, or something more complex.

Say, for example, that your theme is the story of Hansel and Gretel. Think of all the ways you could tell that story. You could opt for the linear approach, showing Hansel and Gretel wandering through the forest, dropping bread cumbs, etc. Or you could start at the end of the story, with the 2 kids leaping breathlessly onstage to tell you what they just experienced.

Or your dance could simply focus on character at one point in the story. How does the wicked witch feel when the kids bake her alive? Maybe she could do an interpretive dance to let the audience know.

Using Your Imagination as Inspiration

Choreographers almost always talk about their "vision" of their work, imagining what they would like to see.  A choreographer literally creates an image of the dance in his/her mind before attacking the details. The overall "look" of the dance is set, then from there, steps are chosen that best fit that vision. Choreographers then write down their ideas using dance notation or simply dance it and put it on videotape.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech "I have a Dream" could  be interpreted through  by phrases from the speech, the rhythm, phrasing of the words, emotional content and the time it which the speech was made.

Using Props - Think about the Texture, Shape, Size, Movement, Meaning, Mood, Character, Sound


The chair in British choreographer Christopher Bruce's Swansong has many uses. It represents a shield, a weapon, a safe haven, a burden, prison bars and shackles. The prisoners relationship to the chair changes throughout the dance, giving the audience an idea of his state of mind as the dance progresses.

An Everyday Activity, Current or Historic Event - Think about Human behavior, Groupings, Formations, Interactions, Mood

People at work, rest or play
Places where people gather
Routines or rituals
News Items
Events that changed the world

Christopher Bruce  has frequently stated that he uses a number of sources for any work he creates. He has stated that there are two basic inspirations from which Swansong sprung. The first influence revolved from Amnesty International where Bruce felt compelled to say something about the situation of the prisoner of conscience. The other main inspiration was a more personal message. Bruce has stated that he felt the need to say good-bye to something and to him; it was saying good-bye to dancing.

The first section of Falaci’s A Man describes the torture of the hero, Alexander Panagoulis, condemned to death in 1968 for the attempted assassination of the Greek dictator George Papadopoulos. Saved from death he spends three and a half years in a cell with almost invisible windows. In the novel Falaci describes the process of torture and interrogation as if it was a theatrical production.

The title, Swansong, is highly appropriate for the dance and has two meanings.

A person’s last work or act before death or retirement.
A song fabled to be sung by a dying swan.

The importance of a swan’s song is the belief that a swan sings only at the point of death. In this sense Christopher Bruce’s Swansong has a parallel theme to Michel Fokine’s famous and more literal solo, popularised by Anna Pavlova, The Dying Swan (originally called The Swan). It is an image that has attracted artists in numerous disciplines.

Many teachers  use Swansong as an inspiration for choreography, performances and greater dance understanding. It is clear that although Swansong can be easily watched and understood by many there is a dark undertone to the work that must be explored. Swansong has an ambiguity to its content and topic and has proved to be still relevant today.

Developing a Vocabulary for the Dance

The same basic step can be danced in many different ways. When you choreograph a dance, you have a nearly infinite number of steps to choose from. The vocabulary of the dance refers to the particular gestures and movements that you choose to use - the ones that seem to reflect your own character and make up your own personal style.

The order in which you put the steps is important. The steps should flow from one to the next. After you experiment with various sequences, you're likely to find some that feel just right for you. You then can repeat those sequences again and again, creating a vocabulary that is your own. George Balanchine, for example, was famous for following an arabesque with a jete. that was his trademark, just as Bob Fosse made a name for himself with bowler hats and turned-in legs.

Using Your Full Space

Another rule for choreography is to use the full amount of space that's available. By the end of the dance, every area of the stage should have been stepped on at least once.

Consider using non traditional areas - Staircases, hallways, even puddles(as Gene Kelly discovered) The unexpeted is often where the most inspiration lies.

In covering space, try vaying the shape of your dance. If you begin with a move on a diagonal, try using adding a circular pattern later or vice versa. Stretch your imagination and keep your audience on their toes.

Ending As You Began

One way to make a dance feel atistically whole is to "come full circle." And one way to accomplish this is by starting and ending the dance with the very same pose.

A more advanced version of this technique is to end in a slightly "evolved" version of the starting position. For example, if the dance is a duet, try switching the parts at the end, so that one person ends where the other began and vice versa. This gives the dance a feeling of completion, and it can often be very poignant and moving.

Learning from Others

All choreographers have been inspired and influenced by certain favorites of theirs. There's no better way than to learn by example. However, your aim should be to learn, not imitate. For you to become known, you have to find your own style, your own voice. Eventually, you'll be heard.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

On the Spot - Basics of Improvised Dance

Imagine haring music and being told to crate your own dance to it, on the spot. Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of movement. This means that you are inventing the movement as you do it. When you hear a song you like and begin to move to it, you are improvising. Playing, letting go, acting on impulse, listening, and trusting yourself are all part of the improvisation process.  It is also often used as a way to generate movement to be used in choreography.

Moving From Visual Images

Photographs, paintings, sculptures, and videos can inspire movement creation. Pick an image that resonates with you or with the idea you want to make a dance about. If there is a spatial pattern evident in the visual art you have selected, begin to move in the space in that same pattern. Allow yourself many repetitions of the pattern and see how the movement naturally alters or adapts as you move. Perhaps there is a central figure or object in the image. Embody the shape of that figure or object. Allow yourself to respond to the position your body is in. Unfold the position, move one body part, or try the position standing, seated, lying on the floor, or traveling through space. Make a list of emotions that the art evokes for you. Move to each of these emotional states using the patterns or shapes you found in the artwork.

Moving From Words

Language can be a powerful force in motivating dance. You can work from a list of words - perhaps ones that suggest action, such as a list of words with - ing endings - or a text such as a poem or a monologue. Listen to the language as you read the text out loud. If it contains a rhythm, begin to move to the rhythm of the words. Try putting this rhythm in just one part of your body, such as your legs. Shift the rhythm to your arms or your hips as you continue to improvise. Make a list of the images in the text. Let these images guide your movements as you did with visual art images. Find the most meaningful words in the text. Describe the quality that these words have for you in movement terms. In other words, do these words suggest moving sharply, slowly, or low to the ground? Use these as qualities or guidelines for inventing movement.


Improvisation can also be based on a specific task or assignment. For example, move from one corner of the space to the opposite corner of the space beginning low and ending as high up from the floor as you can. Or move in a circular pattern in the space, but begin movements only with your left foot. Perhaps select a body part from which to begin traveling in the space. If you want to change direction, you must begin with a different body part. A common improvisational task requires dancers to move on a grid pattern on the floor, making only 90-degree turns in the space. Any task like this can lead you to moving in new ways that you haven’t tried before and help you to develop movement ideas.


People experience life through the five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Pick any one of these senses as a motivation for improvisation. Eat a bit of sweet chocolate. Respond with movement to the sensation. Now eat a bitter piece of dark chocolate. See if your body responds with movement in the same way. Smell perfume wafting in the air. Let this inspire your movement. Feel an ice cube and respond to the cold using your torso. Sensory experiences are rich with the possibility of bodily response.

Responding to Someone Else

Improvisation does not need to be done solo. In fact, it is quite often a group activity. You can respond to the movement of others in the space with you. You can alternate moving with another dancer, for example, as if you are in dialogue with him. Just like a conversation with words, your movement response is shaped by how your partner moves. If he moves toward you, you can respond by coming even closer or moving away. You can learn a movement from another dancer and change it by adding to it or deleting from it. You can sculpt the shape of another dancer’s body and move in the negative spaces created by your partner’s position.

Improv can be used as an exploration of yourself, a tool for choreography, a fun activity for class, or an emotional exercise. Whatever the purpose is, it is beneficial for dancers to practice moving in their own way. Improv should flow and come naturally. At first you may have to think about it before you get into the swing of things, but the more you do it, the easier it will become. Improv is a way to express yourself, and when you know yourself as a dancer, your dancing in class and on stage is organic and genuine.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ballroom Musicality: Learning to Develop and Express It

There is so much more to music than just rhythm and tempo, more than the sound. All music, is a perfect blend of notes that tells a story, even without any lyrics. Not everyone may be able to hear the story behind the music. Not everyone is receptive to the mood of certain sounds, or has the knowledge of musical concepts like rhythm and tempo that enables you to comprehend the spirit of certain musical phrasing. In order to achieve any measure of success within the realm of competitive ballroom dancing, a dancer must have this gift of musical receptivity.

Why is it necessary to hear the story behind the music? Why isn't it enough to possess flawless technique, to execute the proper steps of the dance? The reason is that the dancers who achieve the pinnacle of success at ballroom dance championship events are those who possess strong musicality.

So what exactly is musicality? It’s how a dancer expresses music in his or her body. “Musicality is understanding music on a technical level, and then dropping all of that knowledge so you can sit deep inside the music,” says choreographer and “So You Think You Can Dance” regular Wade Robson. “It’s dancing inside the music, as opposed to floating on top of it.”

A well-developed sense of musicality makes you enjoyable to watch—and it’s a more rewarding way to dance Here are some ways to hone your ear and make inspired music and movement choices of your own.

Mastering Musicality

Put a musical dancer and a non musical dancer side by side and you’ll see why it’s so important to be attuned to the rhythm, melody and mood of a song. Dancers without a keen connection to the music might seem stiff or disconnected—often, they’re hard to watch. “They’re unable to transmit the emotion the musical notes are giving,  A strong but non musical dancer is like a painting without any colors.

Musical dancers, on the other hand, never disregard the music to fit in more tricks. “You can see the effort in a non musical dancer—they are often step-driven.  Musical dancers don’t just turn until they stop. They turn until they have to move on to the next point in the music. Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.

It’s important to understand that musicality comes in many forms, and there is no right or wrong way to interpret a score. Some choreographers create entire dances before they choose the music, while others may start with a piece of music before they create a single step. As a dancer, you must be ready for any approach they use.

Phrasing Philosophies

If you’ve ever discussed musicality with a teacher or other dancers, you’ve probably heard a lot about “phrasing.” But do you know what it is? Musical phrasing is the way music is organized within measures. Where are the syncopations? The cadences? The accents? Choreographic phrasing is similar—it’s how steps are organized within a musical phrase. Which steps hit on the beat, and which move through the rhythm? Should one step be performed quickly so another can be stretched out?

Sometimes choreographers will specify the way their steps should be phrased, but when it’s allowed, experimenting with phrasing can give you multiple ways to dance a piece. In fact, the better you know a score or song, the more you’ll be able to play with the dynamics and timing of the steps—instead of always dancing right on a square beat, which can make you look repetitive and boring.

To see how this works, watch two ballerinas dancing the same classical role (like Kitri in Don Quixote or Odette/Odile in Swan Lake). Even though the choreography and music are identical, each dancer will have her own unique way to fit the two together. It's the same with ballroom dancers.

Counting on Counts

When you’re breaking down a piece of music, do you find yourself counting it out or just listening to the general flow of the song? Dancers often have strong feelings about counting, and they don’t always agree. Sometimes counting is necessary, especially when working with complicated scores. But fixating on counts can make your dancing seem mechanical.

Some choreographers may not count at all. If you find yourself struggling not to count, look for other musical cues to help guide you. For example, does a turn finish at the height of a crescendo? Does the choreography follow the bass line instead of the melody?

The more comfortable you become with the music, the easier it will be not to count, so make it your goal to learn the music well enough to stop counting. And that will give you freedom to interpret, because you aren’t just following the beat or the melody.”

Not only does a champion ballroom dancer require the ability to understand the story behind the music, but he or she must also possess musical creativity. A competitive ballroom dancer must have the artistry to interpret the accompanying music with dynamics of movement that translate the underlying story. Musicality is the performance aspect of ballroom dancing, and good musicality requires both musical receptivity and musical artistry.

As one of the key elements of the judging in competitive ballroom dancing, musicality is a concept that must be embraced and developed in order to achieve any measure of success. Musicality is dancing with feeling, when the dancers are on the ballroom floor and their movements match the rhythm of the dance to the energy, melody and mood of that particular song. Strong musicality is the ability to listen to a piece of music, identify the qualities that comprise the story, and express those qualities within the movements of the dance.

For example, one beautiful song for dancing the Waltz is The Magic of Love performed by Russell Watson & Lionel Ritchie. The dreamy, romantic tempo of this music can be expressed by ballroom dancing partners throughout the closed hold with a loving embrace, and graceful, lilting steps. The Spanish Gypsy Dance is passionately expressive music for dancing the Paso Doble, and its story can be expressed with forceful and precise steps, snappy arm motions and dramatic movements. The music of Chica Chica Boom Chic performed by Bebel Gilbreto makes a lively and cheerful Samba, with flirty kicks and steps.True musicality can only be expressed once technique is automatic.Competitive ballroom dancers must first have practiced the exact choreography and figures until they no longer need to concentrate on performing each precise movement of their dance. Technique must flow naturally in order to allow dancers the freedom to concentrate on feeling the music. Exhibiting clear story lines and expressing emotional honesty in conjunction with your musical accompaniment is the ultimate display of musicality.

Part of musical expression is a certain concept of movement that is sometimes referred to as the "light and shade" of dancing. The characteristics of the music can be expressed as a response to the accents and phrases of the song with movements such as in the foxtrot, stealing time from one step in order to allow the next step to hover. A quick speed of a turn in an otherwise slow Rumba can express a flash of emotion, as can the sudden snap of the head in a Tango that suddenly freezes, then melts into a languid slowness to express the range of emotion in a passionately romantic song.

Tempo can of course strongly affect the musicality of a dance. Slower music can give the dancers more time for stylish expression and variations of movement. However, faster music forces dancers to either think of more creative and quick ways to apply their style, or do so with more simple and basic movements. The upbeat tempo of the song Hacha y Machete has a lot of detailed instrumentation, and a pair of Salsa dancers can showcase the detail with body movements that match the percussion rhythm, executing fast stops and turns on a dime. This kind of musicality is a key element of swing dancing like the Lindy Hop, where lively steps fall with the beat of the music, and the size and scope of movements match the volume and soar of the music.

In ballroom dance as well as in any other performance involving music, the ability to express the full range of emotions and the elements of a story are the very foundation of artistry. Musicality is the creative aspect of ballroom dancing, and the gift of musicality greatly enhances the experience of ballroom dance for the dancers as much as for the audience. Musicality is what transforms an ordinary ballroom dance into an extraordinarily artistic ballroom dancing performance.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Red Shoe Syndrome: What Dance Can Teach Us About Life

Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life. – Irving Stone

Why does the movie The Red Shoes(1946) continue to enchant viewers after so many years? I decided to retrace this timeless story to find an answer.

One of the major themes of The Red Shoes is, of course, its great ballet dancing. But equally as strong is another related theme which the shoes symbolize and which many dancers and others are unfortunately familiar with - sacrificing your family, friends, your life for your work, art, or dream.  The red shoes are a reminder that you can’t have it all and that if you are a dancer and are serious about your art, there is little room for anything else other than your chosen pursuit.

In the film, young ingĂ©nue Victoria Page (played by prima ballerina Moira Shearer) is forced to choose between the chance to be a “great dancer” under the wing of impresario Boris Lermentov (played with breathtaking intensity by Anton Walbrook) and her life with her beloved husband, former musical director of the Lermentov company, Julian Craster (played by Marius Goring) in a parallel to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes, in which the magical shoes of the title take over a young girl and force her to dance endlessly until she dies.

Achieving the pinnacle of success in many fields of human endeavor requires an almost superhuman devotion that would seem to rule out any other pursuits, including love. Think of training for an Olympic gold medal; achieving fame in film, theater, or music; or becoming an world-renowned writer, artist, or intellectual, all of which require exceptional dedication and focus.

The movie is a study in psychology, human nature and obsessions. The same sort of relationships exist on football fields, in institutions of higher learning, in prisons, in boardrooms, offices, corporations, religious hierarchies and governments, as well as in families and social situations. People comprise all these "playing" fields, playing the roles in them. In order to successfully navigate any of them, understanding people with clarity is essential, especially oneself.

While there are many artists who do have both family and career….how much energy can one devote to both and how long is this sustainable? Ultimately, the message of the film is that you will be forced to choose.

The Red Shoes shows us the ultimate sacrifice - suicide - but it need not be that extreme to be just as tragic. Think of the athlete who spends almost every waking moment training, the composer hunched over the keyboard throughout the night, the academic ignoring his or her family to get one more article out. All of them are wearing the red shoes of Andersen’s story, and if they don’t take them off, they’ll pay the price. The character Boris Lermontov says it perfectly in the film,

"At the end of the evening she is tired, and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired."

One’s passion, desire and love for dance never tires

The dancer in the ballet who wears the shoes and inevitably dies from exhaustion is symbolic of the human body, time and mortality. It’s something that every dancer no matter whether they are professionals or not have to face and it is something that no body on this planet can defy and that is the laws of time and how one day, despite all the drive in the world and the will and want to do it - the body will not keep up. The ballet of The Red Shoes symbolizes a dancers spirit - forever yearning to keep dancing, but the body will not go on forever.

I don't mean to speak against pursuing dreams or goals which can be an important source of meaning and joy in life. And it can seem at times that that particular meaning or joy can be achieved with nothing less than ultimate devotion. But few of us will be satisfied with just that one type of meaning or joy. For instance, successes are often the sweetest when shared, but there will be no one to share them with if you shun all human relationships in pursuit of your dream. Your work matters. But so does your health, your relationships, your happiness. In the end, you are in charge. If it feels like your life is being dictated by your work, or that your work has become your entire life, you need to pull back.

Maybe the key is to not to abandon your dreams but to broaden them. The Olympic hopeful may be dreaming of that gold medal, the dancer in the corps de ballet becoming a principal dancer, but is he/she also dreaming of having no friends or lovers to experience that joy and pride with? What does that success mean to him/her? Will it make him/her happy, even given the extreme costs? I think the lesson is that we can pursue our dreams wholeheartedly only if our dreams themselves incorporate balance, balance between all good things life has to offer, rather than just success in our chosen fields. We can dream of success and people to share it with, which for most of us would be immensely more joyful and meaningful, and then we can pursue that “composite” dream with focus and dedication.

Victoria Page couldn’t find that balance, and she suffered the consequences. From her and the movie, we should lean to take control of our own “red shoes” before they take control of us.

Video Discussing the Making of the film

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Right Touch: Being a Dance Manager
Jim Keith has a job most people probably haven’t heard of: he’s a dance manager.

After working as a dance agent in Los Angeles for six years, sending clients on auditions, negotiating fees, and drawing up contracts, he felt a growing dissatisfaction that forced him to rethink his job. “It wasn’t fulfilling me and seemed very non-dance at times—the deals and the pitching,” says Keith.

What he wanted, he realized, was to make the commercial more personal. One important mental light bulb later, he reinvented himself into a new model for the dance industry—a dance manager. His management company, The Movement, now focuses primarily on shepherding dance educators and choreographers through their careers.

“The design for a dance manager never existed before,” says Keith. “I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I kind of feel like a pioneer in the field. And it’s because there is a need for it—more personal attention.” One reason for that is choreographers’ and dance teachers’ expansion into completely new yet related fields and mini-enterprises, such as having shoe or clothing lines, books, websites, workshops, and DVDs. “No structure ever existed before to support all the other aspects of a dance educator’s or choreographer’s career to be cultivated,” he says.

The Movement

The Movement, founded by Keith in L.A. in April 2010, is a management company committed to representing outstanding (and often overlooked) choreographers and dance teachers. That means providing them with personalized attention, career guidance, and industry connections to help them meet their goals. The choreography division represents choreographers and directors for TV, film, reality genres, commercials, Broadway, concert tours, and music videos. The education division represents master teachers who offer master classes and workshops in venues such as conventions, competitions, and studios. Apart from a few clients who are old friends, Keith doesn’t handle dancers.

One of his clients is Robert Schultz, a choreographer and master teacher who created the delightfully funny flash mob dance sequence (set to En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”) in an episode of this season’s ABC sitcom Modern Family. “I knew Jim as a dancer,” says Schultz on a break from teaching master classes at Hollywood Connection Dance Convention in Chicago. “That’s one of the great things about being with The Movement. He’s an artist too. Jim is always finding new venues for choreographers and master teachers. He’s always developing projects. He acts as a cheerleader. As artists we can be insecure. But when you have someone out there pushing for you, it makes you want to work harder.”

Schultz stresses that Keith is constantly nudging his clients to move to the next level of their careers. “The older choreographers have been doing this for a long time, so everybody always goes to them first for jobs. When I did Modern Family, [Keith] put it all over the social networking sites.”

Keith’s dance roots

An L.A. native, Keith says that dance saved his life, and he means it. He came from a poor family—his father was a horse trainer for the Hollywood Park racetrack and part-time mechanic and his mother was a housewife. His family, including Keith’s two brothers, depended on food stamps and public assistance to get by.

“The arts saved me and allowed me to fully express myself. Dance gave me a tool and a skill to save myself psychologically and artistically,” says Keith, who studied the performing arts at Hollywood High School. At 17 and six-foot-three, he weighed almost 300 pounds; he lost 150 pounds to become a dancer. “I lost it quickly because my passion for dance was so great.”

Even though Keith had no ballet training and only basic tap skills, Joe Tremaine gave the young man a scholarship to his school, Joe Tremaine Dance Center, that allowed him to take 22 classes a week. Soon Keith was working in the industry and teaching and assisting at Tremaine Dance Conventions. While taking a jazz class with Tremaine teacher Desiree Robbins (now one of his clients), he dislocated his knee. After four months of healing, he dislocated it again. “I had a real love for dance, but I needed to transition [out of it],” says Keith. “I started to teach at a few studios and workshops and, to be blunt, I hated it. My training was so rigorous and disciplined, and a lot of the kids were doing it as a hobby or for recreation.”

Keith started judging competitions and later became an assistant talent agent at DDO Artists Agency in L.A. After two years, he became director of the dance department, focusing on choreography, and opened additional offices in Miami, Las Vegas, and Nashville. “My feeling was, ‘Why don’t I put myself in a position where I can actually help these people fight for their rights and employ them and take care of them?’ I wouldn’t be a talent agent for actors or models—I had to be in dance,” says Keith about his work as an agent.

A Manager’s Role

Keith is well aware that most people can’t differentiate between a manager and an agent. “A dance agent finds audition opportunities for you, notifies you of auditions, sends you out, books you on the job, and makes sure that you are paid on time, paid what you’re worth, and properly credited,” says Keith, who reps roughly 40 clients. “A manager is more involved with networking, cultivating, making sure clients get seen, helping them get an agent if they don’t have one, and working with the agent as a team.”

Because he is treading new territory as a manager, Keith sometimes acts as an agent for his clients as well, submitting them for jobs. He says that 35 percent of his clients have an agent. Others choose not to have one. “A lot of my clients don’t want to deal with a talent agency,” he says. “Some of [the agencies] represent more than 150 choreographers and hundreds of dancers. You are going to get lost in the shuffle. My clients want personalized attention as opposed to just being called when there is an audition.”

“Jim is always finding ways to create new venues for choreographers and master teachers. He’s always developing projects. He acts as a cheerleader. . . . [W]hen you have someone out there pushing for you, it makes you want to work harder.” —choreographer and teacher Robert Schultz

When you are with an agency, “you could be one out of 1,000,” says Schultz. “There is more personal attention with a manager. With agents, you’re kind of a number. Managers care about you because they represent a limited number of people. Their job is to work for you. With a manager, it’s really about that personal touch and having them guide you more as a mentor, on where to move your career and where you need to go with it. Jim knows my personality and knows I’m great at working with people on TV shows. He constantly shows my work to people.”

With Choreographers

Keith explains that choreographers who work in film and TV need management because they don’t have the same union protection as those employed in the theater. “Every time a choreographer choreographs for a TV show or a film, that choreographer gets a one-time fee only and never receives residuals,” says Keith.

Everyone else involved in those projects—makeup artists, costume designers, writers, directors, and dancers—receives residual income. Because choreographers do not, they have to create additional streams of income, most of which come from teaching master classes. Some choreographers feel compelled to put themselves into a project as a performer just to get proper compensation, which Keith thinks is unnecessary and often detrimental to the task of choreographing.

With Teachers

Dance educators too can gain a competitive edge by working with a manager. One of Keith’s first clients was TOKYO, a popular teacher who has utilized his background in martial arts to develop his teaching style.

“I do a lot of teaching and choreography around the U.S. and the world—I’m in two to six cities a week,” says TOKYO, just before heading to Helsinki and Paris to teach master classes. “Normally I would contact my booking stops about my flight info, whether I needed my assistant, and my rates. I just can’t respond to all the calls and emails in an appropriate amount of time. I was getting overloaded and couldn’t be as on top of my responses as I wanted to. Jim is helping me to stay a lot more organized now. He knows what I want to do and what I don’t want to do.”

Keith in Action

When conventions or competitions approach Keith about hiring one of his clients, he says, “they know that I have already prescreened everyone and that they’re getting someone who is qualified and dedicated to teaching dance.” Sometimes convention organizers need substitute teachers at the last minute and Keith helps them hire appropriate people. Among the conventions that utilize Keith’s clients are L.A. DanceMagic, Wild Dance Intensive, and iHollywood Dance Convention.

“Jim is fantastic about networking and getting your name out there,” says TOKYO. “He knows the dance teaching world because he has been involved in judging dance competitions and going to dance studios. He is informed about what is going on in dance studios, which is beyond important.” He says Keith is working with him to put together a DVD of his training syllabus. “For dance teachers [a DVD] is a really great way for them to get exposure—to get workshops and master classes,” says TOKYO.

Keith explains how he chooses his clients, who include Emmy Award–winner (and High School Musical choreographer) Bonnie Story, director/choreographer Liz Imperio, and renowned teacher Paula Morgan: “I have to believe in them. I’m not a huge conglomerate like the dance agencies, so I can be selective and small.”

He points out that the teachers he manages are educators first, not flash-in-the-pan stars. “Just because you are a top-20 dancer on So You Think You Can Dance and making $3,000 to teach a master class doesn’t mean you are a good teacher,” says Keith. “The clients I have care about teaching. I don’t think tricks should be rewarded over technique. I want to supply quality dance education.”

Among the choreographer gigs Keith has booked for his clients are the Ricky Martin tour, the Latin Grammys, The People’s Choice Awards, America’s Got Talent, and Your Chance to Dance. He has also pitched ideas for 30 articles about his clients that have appeared in publications in the United States, Canada, and Australia, in addition to getting his teachers booked at various conventions and workshops in this country and abroad.

For his fee, Keith takes 10 percent of each client’s salary, similar to a talent agency. “I don’t want to shock anyone,” he says. “Some managers [in other industries] take 15 to 30 percent. I wanted to keep it at 10 percent because trust is the most important thing you can build. Since [dance managing] is a new design, naturally people will be cautious.”

Above all, Schultz says, it’s advantageous to have a manager who was a dancer and knows what it’s like to do what choreographers, teachers, and dancers do. “[Keith] is very passionate about repping his clients,” says Schultz. “I am a very passionate person and I want to work with someone who has that same drive.”

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Dancing After Retirement: Story of Two Entreprenuers

 Starting at the advanced beginner level, students learn simple routines that give them the confidence to perform.  All photos courtesy The Blade.

By Lois Burch O’Brian

At Off Broadway Dance Company, owners Pat Balderas and Geri Messer, both 66, are having as much fun as their students. That’s not unheard of. But what’s unusual at this Toledo-based studio, now in its third year, is the fact that these two women, neither of whom had thought about owning a dance school, came out of retirement to do just that.

Balderas, who retired from her job as a court administrator in May 2010, had planned to spend her retirement years traveling, spending time with her granddaughter, and helping her husband, Joe Balderas, at the nonprofit cultural center he directs. Messer, a nurse, found retirement unfulfilling, too lacking in activities and organizational challenges. She was the catalyst Balderas needed to make the transition into a second career.

Not everyone would be comfortable using retirement funds to start a new business, but Messer and Balderas had reason to think they would recoup their investment in a reasonable time.

To launch the school, the two women tapped into their retirement funds. That might sound crazy, but after two and a half years, they are making a profit and have already expanded by renting extra space.
How it began

Balderas started studying tap 20 years ago, at the studio she now co-owns. Ten years ago she started teaching beginner classes and working closely with the owner on the business end. She had observed that the owner could have been more proactive about growing the business and securing its finances. She thought about buying the studio in order to implement those changes, but she wasn’t ready.

Messer arrived in Toledo in 2004, a New Jersey transplant, and signed up for tap classes three years later; Balderas was her teacher. Forty-one years had elapsed since Messer had last danced (semi-professionally, in her teens). Being relatively new to the area, she had a fresh outlook that wasn’t enmeshed in how things had been done previously.

Quickly, the teacher/student relationship became a friendship. One Saturday night, after hearing a rumor that the school’s owner might be interested in selling (she had recently taken on a full-time job), Messer said to Balderas, “Want to buy a studio?” in the same spirit in which Mickey Rooney proposed putting on a show in Babes in Arms. And the answer was yes.

In February 2011, Balderas and Messer offered to buy the school; they signed the contract on October 1. Balderas’ husband said she should have done this a long time ago. He knew how she loved the studio and thought she was putting too much time and energy into someone else’s business.

Messer’s husband, Alan Messer, was equally supportive. He knew that since their move to Toledo, his wife needed more to do. She had worked in her husband’s software business doing bookkeeping, sales, staff management, advertising, and marketing for nine years. As a nurse, she had managed a holistic center for integrative medicine, and later managed the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at what was then Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. So when Alan Messer heard the studio might be for sale, he said, “Go for it!”

The two women did, setting out immediately to make good on their goal for their students: tap dancing through middle age and beyond, including performing, regardless of previous experience. Ranging in age from early 20s to mid-80s, most of the students are in their 50s and 60s.
Confident planning

The months before the contract was signed were spent planning. Messer’s husband, a SCORE volunteer, suggested that she and Balderas contact the organization, which provides resources that include volunteer mentors who help people start small businesses.

Pat Balderas and Geri Messer (front line, first and second from left) came out of retirement to purchase a Toledo, Ohio, dance studio they renamed Off Broadway Dance Company.

SCORE is a nonprofit with 348 chapters throughout the United States, which also provides services through email, live workshops, online workshops/webinars, and online templates and tools. The Toledo chapter assigned a retired accountant to work with Balderas and Messer. With input from the current owner, they looked at the state of the business; as Balderas expected, there were problems. After assisting with the evaluation, the SCORE mentor advised them what to pay for the business.

The two owners-to-be then hired a lawyer, who suggested they change the studio’s name and logo. To create a website, they hired a young designer whom they met through their membership in the chamber of commerce. Not everyone would be comfortable using retirement funds to start a new business, but Messer and Balderas had reason to think they would recoup their investment in a reasonable time. First, they had committed clients who considered the studio a large part of their lives and identity. Second, they knew how much income the school generated. And third, they felt confident they could provide the kind of experience the students wanted. In addition, “the rent for the space was reasonable,” Messer says. “We were very realistic about who the market is and how to reach them, and we are fiscally conservative.”

Once Off Broadway Dance Company opened, a SCORE volunteer and former businessman told the new owners they were doing everything right in terms of advertising. They supplemented the simplest marketing device—a sign in the front yard—with budget-conscious yet focused marketing tools. With the help of their students, Messer and Balderas put flyers anywhere they were allowed, focusing on senior centers, churches, coffee shops, and libraries. Because of their work with a national veterans’ organization, Honor Flight, they were allowed to post flyers in businesses like Starbucks that normally give permission only to nonprofits. They placed ads in neighborhood papers, and students asked local businesses to buy advertising space in the program for the school’s annual showcase.

Messer and Balderas’ marketing goals matched their growth goal: to grow the studio by 10 percent each year. It sounded realistic to them. “If we had 40 students, we could get four new ones without overreaching,” says Messer.
The market

As the former owner had done, Balderas and Messer targeted the niche market of adult tappers, specifically women. They had good reasons to: they knew and enjoyed the clientele and felt confident in their ability to manage an adult-centered studio. (A population of young students would have been unfamiliar to them.) They focused on empty nesters, women in their 40s and 50s and beyond, marketing tap as a fun way to exercise the mind as well as the body (an alternative to working out at a gym), while offering the chance to perform. They also brought back a very popular teacher, Brenda Michalak, who teaches Broadway Tappers, a class designed, as the website describes it, “for the more mature dancer.”

Balderas and Messer say the studio’s students, most of whom are retired, are committed; they love to perform and are proud of being dancers. The sense of accomplishment and camaraderie they feel as a result of performing—strengthened by socializing after performances—serves as a draw for potential new clients.
The program

Balderas now teaches the basic and intermediate classes, while three other teachers (ages 60, 65, and 70) handle the intermediate/advanced to advanced classes. Three assistant teachers (ages 65, 66, and the “baby” of the bunch, a 30-something) work on a barter system, receiving classes in exchange for their work. Messer, who kept the books for her husband’s business, does the bookkeeping herself.

The studio has open enrollment, so no student is ever turned away. Class placement is determined in a mandatory beginning tap class taught by Balderas. Students are given a list of basic steps that must be mastered before they can move to a more advanced class. Some students remain in this class for a full year; others, who have dance experience, for one lesson.

Starting at the advanced beginner level, students learn simple routines that give them the confidence that they can do a dance, and, hence, perform. The chance to perform is the carrot that brings the students back. All students may perform at the annual showcase in October, and nearly all of them do.
Beyond the classroom

The school’s large community outreach program, the Traveling Taps, has turned into a successful marketing tool. The dancers perform regularly at 15 nursing homes each year, doing springtime shows in May and June and holiday programs in November and December that include simple steps and sentimental music. The shows are put together by assistant teacher Sue Morgenroth and student Karen Knoblauch, and 8 to 10 dancers participate.

SoLong2Studio dancers also welcome veterans home from Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio trips to Washington, DC, where—sponsored by the national organization, Honor Flight Network—veterans visit monuments built to honor their service. The dances for Honor Flights are performed by dancers wearing sparkling vests, to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and a medley of military anthems. Any dancer who has mastered the steps may participate; those who are not yet ready to perform (usually a handful) come along to greet the veterans.

This project, which began two years before Balderas and Messer bought the studio, was Knoblauch’s brainchild. She read a newspaper article about Honor Flight and realized that these veterans—part of her father’s generation—deserved recognition.

The studio raises funds for Honor Flight at the annual showcase, which draws 500 to 700 spectators. The dancers perform to the medley of military anthems while flags from all branches of the military are marched in. Veterans who were on the Honor Flights are given free admission, and their relatives pay half price, $5 per ticket. Fifty percent of funds raised at a 50/50 raffle and 10 percent of the admissions fees are donated to Honor Flight; during the show, a check is presented to an Honor Flight representative.

The school also performs at organizations such as the Red Hat Society and Ladies’ Oriental Shrine by request, presenting what Messer calls “showcase pieces.” There is no charge for the performances, but Balderas and Messer suggest an honorarium to be used toward the studio’s needs, such as the new floor they recently put in, the sound system, or the Traveling Taps. No one receives a salary for these performances.

Upcoming events include a mother/daughter church banquet, a performance for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team, and, pending approval of the studio’s application, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
For the love of dance

Each August the studio’s students and teachers attend Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s tap festival, Rhythm World, which offers classes suitable for adult novice tappers. In addition, Balderas and Messer bring in master teachers each year, such as dancers in the touring companies of Jersey Boys and Mary Poppins and CHRP’s Lane Alexander.

Unlike studios that include children, Alexander says, at Off Broadway “everyone who is there wants to be there. That changes the energy of the whole enterprise. Pat and Geri exemplify that ethos: we want to dance because we love to dance.”

In December 2012, 18 Off Broadway dancers traveled to Washington, DC, to attend “JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance,” a program honoring tap dance as an American art form. The trip included a tour of the city, including the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials—important to them because of the school’s involvement with Honor Flight. A bonus was seeing the White House decorated for Christmas.

What do these formerly retired school owners think about their new careers? Balderas says, “Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop learning or improving.”

What they’re doing, Messer says, is “a labor of love and resilience.”

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