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  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

Talented Dancers Looking for Opportunities- Don't Let Anyone Tell You to Wait

I hope that dancers come out of this pandemic either running forward at full throttle or stepping out of the race. 

The most precious thing in a dance career is time, since they’re so short. Each month is more like a quarter. Like how dog years are 7 times longer than human years. We know the end of this is coming quickly, and we are made aware of it in many ways. It weighs on us, even if we don’t feel it all the time. 

This feeling of speed is contrasted with a lot of teachers and directors saying, “just be patient.” We are expected to pay our dues, to complete training and get hazed in second companies. We are told to wait for our opportunity, and to be ready when it comes because it will only come once. Many of my friends and I had teachers who got their jobs going into a role for someone when they got hurt or getting discovered in a class at steps. You never knew when it could happen, apparently, just at some point in the future if you waited long enough.

The current dance world is overcrowded, and with more people looking for opportunities, the less there appear to be. The first step after years of training until age 18 is auditioning. While our predecessors and mentors at this age were getting into the corps de ballet, we get into trainee programs, maybe a second company or maybe another year of training. These are the “opportunities created to support an increase of dancers.” So we complete these extra steps we “need.” I personally did one extra year of training, two years as a trainee, two in a second company, and two as an apprentice. That’s 7 YEARS of training and waiting and staying ready. 

I was always ready. I never miss class, I spend vacations and summers continuing to train, I know all the parts of everyone in the room in case something happened (present tense because this is how I continue to work and how dancers are expected to work). And it did, many times, but those big moments of stepping into roles never resulted in a magical promotion story. In fact, they largely go unacknowledged because that’s just expected of dancers now. I performed in the corps de ballet alongside company members while not getting paid or getting paid a fraction of their salary. I performed in the same exact roles, and was never told my dancing was unsatisfactory. “I could be stronger” and “I could be dancing like *insert soloist or principal here*” but still doing well. Well enough to be in the corps and occasionally featured.

Last season, I was offered another year in my apprentice position. Still doing well, just needed to be stronger. After training for 16 years and working in a professional setting (despite title and pay status- I was always dancing with a company and performing onstage with them at least once a year) for 6, I just needed one more year of patience and understanding that one day someone would grant me an opportunity for some reason. After years of waiting, and the years being longer than years, and all the work I had done in that time, and all the chances I had to prove myself in which I did prove myself to be smart and reliable and proficient, you could see why I just couldn’t wait any longer. 

I wasn’t going to quit, although I know a lot of people who have quit because waiting is either emotionally unbearable or financially not an option. It was a risk to turn down a contract and try to audition again. Everybody, including my parents and director, told me it was. My director was very understanding about the need to take the leap of faith. He had been a dancer, he also understood the risk of waiting for another year, spending time standing in the back as an understudy when I could go in search of an opportunity to be in the cast. 

I ended up in my current job, finally with the "company member" status. Corps de ballet, still performing the roles I have been doing, but getting the respect and the paycheck we should get for that work. As it seemed to be coming together, the pandemic hit.

I think many dancers have this feeling. They were just about to perform or just about to audition or whatever was going to bring them one more step forward in their path. Then we all had to stay home, and that growth pattern had to change. We are all still trying to move forward, but it’s in a new language of progress for our bodies. Strength is coming from at home workouts instead of 6 hours of rehearsal. Feedback is limited. The opportunities are now virtual works we film on our phones or teaching zoom classes. 

This is not the same. We are all staying positive and doing our best and we will be fine but it’s not the same. We are missing opportunities to perform and to work in the way we need to (we need it because we love it and it has defined our lives). 

I turned down my contract last season because I had a deadline to make that decision and I knew I couldn’t risk spending another year missing opportunities to perform because my title was “apprentice” instead of “company dancer.” Later that day I cried on my friend’s couch because I might not get to dance Nutcracker again. The fear of not performing the work I love held my heart for months until I signed a contract. I cried after my first show of Nutcracker this season because I was so happy to be on stage in a position I took the leap of faith for. 

If you are a dancer, and you’re not missing the studio, or are unafraid of not being onstage, you should retire. There are many people in quarantine right now who will come out of this with their hearts on fire in pursuit of the stage and your jobs. They will not wait 7 years, or I hope they won’t. I waited that long because I thought I had to and because I thought it was polite or expected of me. After losing this time during quarantine, I will tell every dancer to not wait. I have been encouraging dancers to stay positive and stick with this because after this, I believe their engines will be revved up and ready to go, and that kind of determination will be rewarded. Where our teachers were handed opportunities, we will fight for them and we will persevere.

This is a conversation I keep having with people and I want to share this message with other dancers feeling frustrated or sad or just desperate to be back onstage.

(Edit- I also don't hate second companies or trainee positions- I just want dancers to be able to stand up for what they need in their professional development, so directors, don't fight with me.)

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