The Professional Class-taker; or, How to Get out of That Rut

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I want to get a conversation going about class. As a project-based choreographer and dancer, I take class often—especially lately, since I’m trying to meet more people out West—but there is definitely a balancing act about the whole thing. As dancers, taking class is our daily bread. And if you’re in New York (or, I’m learning, L.A.), then classes for professional dancers are a dime-a-dozen, availability-wise–but more like $150/10, expense-wise. That expense can be a burden on the one hand, and the potential for community-building and opportunity to dance are a boon on the other. If you are between projects and looking for your next gig, class can be just the place to find something. Still, for the “project-to-project,” “freelance,” “recently relocated,” “auditioning,” or “taking class…” artist, the class routine can, and does, become tedious.

 

Obviously, the routine of showing up–in rain, shine, or knee-deep snow–is invariably worth it for many dancers. Advanced and pro-level classes are packed, studios continue to exist, if not thrive, and teachers with strong followings make livings. I was brought up in the school of “If you can’t make it to class, then dance is not for you,” and for the student I agree with this advice. But, can attending class every day become a professional dancer’s Achilles’ heel? I went to college for dance and graduated into a world where the ratio of dancers to hiring companies was laughable; not much has changed since then. There’s something to be said for persistence, but as a means to its own end, rather than with a works- or performance-based focus, class can turn into a disabling comfort-zone, even a rut. Consider the title phrase “Professional Class-Taker.” Are we diehard class-goers just dancers who have learned how to be students?

Enter the DIY experience.

Dance is a pursuit of passion, making us a group of overwhelmingly determined, conscientious, resourceful, driven people. We can and do get more done than just get to class. Most of my friends consider themselves not only dancers but also choreographers, producers, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, costume designers, lighting designers, production designers, ad infinitum. In New York, I self-produced work; in L.A., I’ve been introduced to a dance world described as “build-your-own-adventure.” I’m interpreting this as: dancers and dancemakers are coming together to get projects off the ground in a grassroots kind of way. Which brings us back to class. How do you use class to start a collaborative relationship? Or, does class, tight-lipped as it can be, prevent you from engaging in such project-oriented exchanges? Lastly, where have you taken an open class that strongly encouraged community? (Leave a response in the comments below.) In my opinion, focusing on community–in a word, networking–will lead to more productivity among dancers as we strive to create our own opportunities beyond the barre.

At the end of the day (or, perhaps more appropriately, at the beginning), class has its place. As with anything, a dance career is what you make of it; as a starting point, our foundation, the class habit is invaluable. In fact, I’m writing this now on my way home from a particularly revitalizing ballet class given by Reid Olson at Dance Arts Academy in L.A., where I’m beginning to feel a real sense of community and possibility. Today I was reminded that class is an open and relatively low-cost space where a dancer is free to explore, to be inspired, to take risks, and to say hello. The Playground in NYC is another space for contemporary dance exploration–i.e., class–that provides a strong sense of community at a low cost ($5). This Friday, I’m headed to Backhausdance’s donation-based open company class in Orange County, CA. From one class-taker to another, these are welcome, and apparently sustainable, initiatives.

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Showing 3 comments
  • heather
    Reply

    I actually just took class at Westside Ballet, my old go-to studio, but I’ve always wanted to head east and check out Dance Arts. I have the hardest time motivating myself to go to class though. I posted a rant about it on my personal blog just last week in fact: http://lilaclace.blogspot.com/2012/10/ballet-class-conundrums.html But as much as I hate going to class, I know that everything in my life is better when I go…It sort of gives me balance, metaphorically and physically!

  • stephanie
    Reply

    I took Reid’s class while I was in LA and had a similar experience. I think the trick is finding the locale and teacher that works for you, giving you a sense of furthering your technique and artistry as well as establishing community. Now that I’m back in the full time company swing of life–with company class every morning–I can’t imagine not starting my day with class. That hour and a half feels crucial for warming up my body and preparing myself mentally for the day. But as a freelance dancer in NYC, class was a very different experience for me. I found some wonderful teachers–Deborah Wingert at MMAC and Pam Probisco at Steps to name a few–but there were many times in which I forked over as much as $18 and left feeling neither warm nor fulfilled as a dancer/artist. This daily gamble made it difficult to motivate myself to take everyday. Class can be a place to be seen, thus leading to employment. But some ‘class-takers’ bring a hostile, competitive vibe to the dance studio. I recommend dancers ‘shop’ around and find which studios and teachers fulfill their needs, both physically and emotionally. It may take awhile, but there’s a class out there for every dancer. Good luck with your hunting in LA.

  • Rebecca Hadley
    Reply

    Thank you for this! Really struck a chord with me.

    “How do you use class to start a collaborative relationship? Or, does class, tight-lipped as it can be, prevent you from engaging in such project-oriented exchanges? Lastly, where have you taken an open class that strongly encouraged community? (Leave a response in the comments below.)”

    I’ll have to get back to you on that. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of this.
    Stephanie, I liked that you used the word “gamble”–sometimes it’s hard for me to go and try new classes, because it can be such an expense, and I don’t know if I’ll like it!

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