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Behind the Curtain Blog

27Jul

More Than Meaning

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Jennifer Seigle, Residential Dance Faculty and Program Director for Dance at Mesa Community College. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

What are the missing competencies when it comes to creating a sustainable career in dance? About a year ago I was in a Zoom meeting with dance colleagues from around the country excitedly sharing ideas and visions for a safe return to the classroom and the stage. During our meeting, I mentioned that I was working on a new project with the goal of opening up the discussion around the nuts and bolts of how we earn money in dance. One of the participants on the call smiled warmly at me and said: “We don’t need to make money. We make meaning.”

I was stunned, but not surprised. I earned my MFA in dance in 2003, and by the time I graduated I was fully indoctrinated with the idea that we must make “art for art's sake,” and that any artist who raised the specter of getting paid was not a true artist. Artists, apparently, should be content to be rewarded in meaning, not money.

If you are shaking your head as you read this it is likely because, like me, you are keenly aware that you cannot pay your rent (or your student loans) with meaning. Money, it turns out, really does make the world go ‘round.1 I know this as an educator, and my students know it too. I have spent most of my career as a dance educator teaching in some amazing community college dance programs - first in California and now in Arizona. During my time as an educator I am hard pressed to think of a single student who was not balancing at least one job while pursuing their studies. My students face housing challenges and food insecurity. They worry about student loan debt. They support families. They avoid going to the doctor for fear of the cost. My students make incredible art, but they need more than meaning if they are going to stay in the dance field.

My goal in writing this blog post is not to propose that we radically reform our dance curricula to focus on economic realities, nor that we become finance experts. My goal is simply to ask how we might better prepare our students to simultaneously make meaning and earn a living in this field. What if we removed the stigma that surrounds the idea that dance majors, like most degree-seeking college students, want to know that there are options on the other side that will sustain them both financially and creatively?

In thinking about this issue, I began by thinking about my own arts education. I hold a B.A. in Theatre and an M.F.A. in Dance. In total, I devoted seven years to earning these degrees, both from exceptional public universities. After seven years, I was steeped in dance theory, theatre history, stagecraft, choreography, directing, performing, and dance technique. I even passed a graduate level pointe class despite the fact that there was absolutely no chance that I would ever use that particular skill professionally. I produced an M.F.A. concert of which I was (and remain) incredibly proud. I found my voice as an artist.

And yet, despite seven years of learning, I did not know the first thing about writing a successful grant, seeking fiscal sponsorship, incorporating a dance company, or drafting a curriculum vitae should I wish to pursue opportunities in higher education. My fellow students and I had engaged in robust discussions about a wide array of theories and methods for looking at dance, but I did not understand the difference between being engaged as an independent contractor and being employed by a company. I had never considered whether I might need professional liability insurance or how I might pay my taxes. It took me many years of trial and error to figure out the answers to these questions (or at least begin to approach answers), and it took me many more years to figure out how to really earn a living in my art.

Graduate school felt like a utopia to me. The realities of life in dance after graduation - less so. Like many dance graduates, I ultimately left the field for a handful of years. I know that I am not alone. Many of my colleagues have also stepped away for a period of time, frustrated not by their inability to make meaning, but by the need to figure out the money.

Now, many years later, I find myself in a position to consider how I might help the next generation of dance artists graduate better prepared not only to make meaning, but also to make a living. This Spring, I will teach a Career Preparation course for graduating dance majors, and I am excited about this opportunity to help my students envision not only their future creative lives, but also their future bank accounts. It’s not glamorous, but it is crucial.

And so, esteemed colleagues, I write this post seeking your input. If you have been successful in adding business and job skills to your dance curriculum, what worked for you? Has your dance program engaged in an honest conversation about the economics and opportunities in our field? If so, what did you learn? What if we thought about business education in dance not only as an important competency, but also as a step toward a more diverse and equitable field? I wonder, does our reticence to discuss the financial aspects of a life in dance make our field less inclusive? Could we make it more inclusive by talking about how we get paid?

I hope that, like me, my students will find their artistic voices and graduate ready to fill the world with moving art for art’s sake. But I hope to give them a little more. I hope to prepare them for a whole life in dance - money, meaning, and all.

1 Kander, John and Fred Ebb. The Complete Cabaret Collection (“Money, Money”). 1972. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999. Print.

Jennifer Seigle is Residential Faculty in Dance and Dance Program Director at Mesa Community College, as well as a current member of the NDEO Advocacy Committee. She holds B.A. in Theatre (California State University, Northridge) and an M.F.A. in Dance (University of Colorado, Boulder). She also holds a J.D., summa cum laude, from Southwestern Law School where she was a Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Scholar. Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect the views of my current, or any former, institution.

Photo Credits: Featured photo by Ted Sowers, Headshot by Sara Corwin

Comments

Hello! My name is Jazmine R. Freeman, B.A., MFA graduate from Mills College. I graduated a little over a year ago, and I agree with every statement above. It has become incredible difficult to navigate where I belong in the arts (especially in dance), but also has become tedious to find a job and/or company that can use my expertise. Aside from teaching in my own business and at local studios, I have had opportunities come and go, I have been appreciative of the ones I do receive. Living in Atlanta, a place that is mostly commercial based it can be difficult. What if that is not the route I want to take? I do not need anyone to hold my hand, but I appreciate this blog post and the raising the discussion.
8/1/2022 9:18:23 AM |
Jennifer, Great blog post and so necessary. I agree with you 100%. We are doing a disservice to our students and ourselves by not preparing, discussing and acknowledging this aspect of a dance career. Good luck with your course! Thanks for putting this conversation out there.
7/29/2022 1:01:50 PM |
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