Working to dance, dancing to live

Pub date January 25, 2011

DANCE When people ask what I do, I tell them I dance. I don’t tell them I work as a receptionist part time, or that I work events in a restaurant. I tell them I dance because, although it’s more glorious-sounding than my odd jobs, it’s also more important. These side jobs exist merely to facilitate the dance. They are expendable; dancing is not. But while dance fuels me physically and emotionally, it fails me financially. For better or worse, there is a whole community of dancers and choreographers in the Bay Area who share this same conundrum to lesser or greater degrees.

So what do Pilates instructors, nannies, dog walkers, waitresses, and personal assistants have in common? They are all jobs with variability in work scheduling, and they are just a handful of the flexible jobs employing Bay Area freelance dancers. Over the past month I’ve interviewed about 20 of my fellow dancers and have been heartened at the abounding courage found in the local dance community to pursue alternate lifestyles to continue dancing.

Daria Kaufman has an MFA in Dance from Mills College. She teaches Gyrotonic, works as a receptionist at a yoga studio, and does administrative work for the Subterranean Art House. “One of the major challenges for dancers and choreographers is money — how to afford classes, rehearsal space, and theater rentals, to name a few,” Kaufman says. “I’ve done a lot of work-study over the years to combat the issue of affording dance classes. Most studios have a work-study program — clean for an hour and a half, get a free class, that sort of thing. Some studios offer a similar deal for renting out rehearsal space.”

Adaptability is necessary. Schedules vary day to day and month to month according to who’s teaching which classes, who’s working on what project, and what jobs will work around those opportunities. Often the most flexible jobs can be found in the food industry. Evening shifts allow dancers and choreographers to take morning classes and rehearse through the day, while variability in shifts provides flexibility when it comes to evening performances.

Angela Mazziotta, a dancer with Cali & Co., works at Squat and Gobble Cafe and Crepery in the Marina. “Although I don’t work enough to be considered full time, I make enough to pay rent, eat, and dance,” Mazziotta says. “There are days that I long to have a ‘big girl’ job for security, insurance, and more financial cushion. The reality is that those full-time jobs don’t offer a lot in terms of flexibility, and the hours of operation coincide with dance classes and rehearsals.”

The downside of the restaurant business is the relentless fatigue it piles on a body. Foundry dancer Joy Prendergast discovered that a café job was too taxing and now primarily teaches dance and baby-sits. Project Thrust choreographer Malinda LaVelle also found the strain to be too much. “I stopped working restaurants because the physical aches and pains of dancing were compounded by the strain of standing on my feet until 2 a.m. and then getting up the next morning and dancing again.” After working five nights a week, LaVell quit the restaurant scene to walk dogs and pursue receptionist work.

Fitness-related instruction jobs are another popular money-making source. Many dancers are certified in Pilates, Gyrotonic, or yoga as a way to subsidize their income. “Teaching’s a great way to make consistent money,” says Gyrotonic instructor Andi Clegg. “I’ve been able to constantly shift my teaching schedule around shows or other dance-related work I am involved in.” SF Conservatory of Dance student Emily Jones finds Pilates adaptable to her lifestyle: “I sometimes wish that I had a job where I could just turn off my brain and go on autopilot. But then I think about all the people I know who have café jobs and how they wish they could do something a little less numbing.”

Perhaps the most obvious way for a dancer to make money is to teach dance. Gretchen Garnett, director and choreographer of Gretchen Garnett and Dancers, taught dance 25 hours a week at three different studios around the Bay Area when she first moved here. Since getting married, she has been able to teach a more reasonable 14 hours a week at two dance studios and dedicate more time to her company. Whitney Stevenson, who moved to SF within the past year to dance, enjoys teaching gymnastics to children because she gets to be active.

Although an active job like teaching classes or working in a restaurant might seem perfect for someone physically inclined, many dancers find it essential to sit down and rest their bodies while working. Gabby Zucker does transcription and reads drafts for author and music critic Jeff Chang. “It may sound silly, but I prefer desk jobs to waiting tables or working retail because I feel it’s important to rest my body when I’m not dancing,” Zucker says.

A more common sedentary line of work for dancers is administration. Maggie Stack works as the administrative assistant for the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, and for her, the support and promotion of dance goes hand-in-hand with the medium. But for Julia Hollas, dancer and administrator for Dandelion Dance Theater, the realm of arts administration also became a bane. “There is always too much work, not enough funding, and the incredibly good people who stay in the field consistently take on more than they can comfortably handle,” says Hollas, who is currently seeking Pilates certification. “There is something quite noble about that fact, and I will always feel admiration for anyone who works as an administrator in the dance world. But what I was beginning to see in myself was a consistent state of burnout that took away from the inspiration I needed to pursue my art as I wanted.”

There are also those who take on jobs that are out of the ordinary. Darya Chernova moved here from Russia and was amazed by all the dance opportunities and classes available. Luckily, she found a job to facilitate that interest. “I have been working at the farmers market for an apple orchard farm for five years,” Chernova says. “Farmers market work is great but tiring. It can be very physical and socially exhausting. But I love fruit and being outside.”

Kaitlin Parks, who worked as an EMT before the job became too overwhelming, is another example. “Lights, sirens, and the glory of helping fellow humans are great, but the 10-hour shifts and the physical and emotional demands were dipping into my energy and attention for dance,” she says. “I currently dance with Alyce Finwall Dance Theater, the courage group, baby-sit for six different families, teach young children’s dance classes, and teach both EMT skills and CPR.”

When it comes down to it, making a life in dance is often an act of creativity in itself. Rachel Dichter helps organize people’s closets. Tyson Miller works room service at the Mandarin Oriental. Ri Molnar models for art classes, gardens, and assists people with disabilities. Paul Laurey lives in a theater basement with low rent to redirect time and financial resources to dance. While some may respond to his living situation with pity or concern, for him the luxury of pursuing dance outweighs any sacrifice in creature comforts.

Of course, pursuing dance becomes a whole different story when a family is involved. InkBoat dancer Dana Iova-Koga found that having a life in dance took on new meaning with a daughter. “Now that I am a mother, I’ve had to get more intentional with dancing,” Iova-Koga says. “It’s much harder to find the time to do it, and it has to be very planned out. But now, when I get to perform, it feels more essential and I appreciate being there in a whole new way.”

“Until recently, the key to making dance possible in my life was seeking out alternative lifestyles that allowed me to step aside from the money equation for the most part,” she continued. “This was much simpler to do as a single person, before becoming a family. We are still figuring out how we can keep the dance growing and maintain a sense of stability for our daughter.”

Although it’s a difficult balance to maintain, Bay Area dancers are more than up to the challenge of cultivating a life around a physically demanding art form with few monetary payoffs. Though it may demand fortitude, creativity, and a willingness to diverge from a more conventional lifestyle, the personal rewards of a life filled with inspiration and love-filled work are indeed great.