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Flash Advice, 7-19: How to Turn That Dance Background into Big Bucks
(Or at least enough to live on 'til that dream gig comes through)
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK -- The young man had spikey hair and a spaced-out voice and was sitting in Mesha's roommate's room when I swung by her Stuyvesant Street pad. He said he was the brother of a friend of Mesha's roommate, who wasn't there. "You can't stay here when we go," Mesha told him. Jesse headed towards St. Mark's; I expected him to join the ranks of the city's homeless, strung-out teens.
"Remember Jesse?" Mesha phoned me a week later. "Well, the next day, we started getting messages for him from MTV. He'd just come to New York to audition to be V.J. for the day. Now he's got a big contract, and women stop him on St. Mark's to ask him to autograph their arms."
Most would-be performers, especially dancers, are not so lucky as Jesse Camp. Chances are they'll need to support themselves with a second job -- perhaps for most of their dance careers. But there are jobs that tap into a dance background, as dancers Lisa Wheeler, Laura Colby, Marijeanne Liederbach, and Ellen Sirot discovered. What follows are their stories.
"I was waiting tables and a friend of mine was teaching aerobics, and said, 'Let me get you a job (at the gym) as a receptionist so you can work out for free,'" recalls Lisa Wheeler, a dancer with Ben Munisteri. "Working as a receptionist and watching everyone else make three times the money I was making, I said, 'I can do that.'" Wheeler isn't the only dancer to discover personal training, but she is one of the few who has parlayed her performance and personal training skills into hosting a fitness show, The Method, on the Health Network. "We film about 60 shows a year, with four rotating hosts. It's hard work, but compressed into a short amount of time with a lot of money. The downside... is sometimes it conflicts with my dancing schedule."
Choreographers usually work around her schedule, but she recalls one time when she missed having a solo because she was not available for rehearsal. "I wanted to cry like a baby. But I have to accept that if I'm making the choice to have this as a career as well, there may be times I have to make sacrifices."
In the long run, the job leaves her with more time for dancing, because it takes less time to earn more money than, say, working at the Gap. Personal trainers can earn up to $100 an hour if they take private clients. Wheeler charges slightly less, taking into account that she occasionally has to ask her clients to be flexible when she needs to rehearse or perform. "The main thing is to find the most amount of money in the least amount of time, with a flexible schedule."
While her acute awareness of her body is an asset, Wheeler also had to train to be a personal trainer. "There was a year I stopped dancing and focused on fitness, so I took myself to another level."
Laura Colby started training to be an agent in 1985, while dancing with Mark Haim. "I was totally invested in Mark," says Colby, who soon created a database and mailing list, fund-raised, and arranged bookings.
In 1987, Rachel Harms offered Colby her first job as a manager. "She said, 'I can pay you $10 an hour, I have a season at Danspace and a $50,000 NEA grant,' and I said, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' She said, 'You'll figure it out.'" Colby had just gotten into the Limon Dance Company. "Before I got into administration, my income was waiting tables," she says. She had also just had her first child. "This was a good way to work at home and make money at something I was good at."
Today, Colby's company, Elsie Management, works with Brian Brooks Moving Company, Jane Comfort and Company, Noche Flamenca, Shapiro & Smith, and others in dance and theater.
Is there room for more in the field? "My phone rings off the hook from choreographers," she says. "Everybody is desperate for management, let alone agent representation."
Colby did not have to stop dancing, performing with companies including Sean Curran's at the same time she pursued and grew her business. "I have to balance life as a single mother and businesswoman, but women are capable of multi-tasking, and I enjoy it."
Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, was set for a career in dancing when, on scholarship at the Cunningham school one summer, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing football with her brothers. In recent years, doctors have been able to treat ACL injuries. In 1978, however, dance medicine was in its infancy, and sports medicine was new. "The advice I was given was to consider another career; (that) I wouldn't be able to jump again. I was devastated."
Liederbach was also interested in physiology from "the body and medical side of it." A wrestler boyfriend introduced her to an athletic trainer, someone who treated and triaged injuries on the spot. "I thought, 'This is just what the dance world needs.'"
She designed a curriculum for a Master's in physical education at Virginia Commonwealth University, getting her hours working with athletes as well as the dancers she was performing with. "By that time I had movement capability."
After college, Liederbach hooked up with James Nicholas, a doctor for the New York Jets who had just started a pioneering sports medicine clinic. Nicholas was looking for someone like her. "There was a huge need for therapeutic care for the dancer population," she says. "Most injuries had to do with overuse or chronic problems, but didn't need surgery. There was no one specialized in that to understand the psyche and occupational stressors of dance, and address it holistically."
Her second day on the job, the doctor sent her a patient named Nancy Zeckendorf, who was on the board of directors of American Ballet Theatre. "I told her about my interest, and she said, 'This is fantastic.... The ballet world totally needs you.'" Zeckendorf introduced her to Robert Joffrey. Working with Lenox Hill Hospital, she went on to develop a 10-year relationship with the Joffrey Ballet. "I pretty much lived there at City Center with them during the season."
Liederbach found it difficult to continue dancing and choreographing, so she left in 1990 "to see if I could work as a choreographer. I had worked really hard for ten years building this area, and didn't spare myself enough time for making artwork. My soul needed to get some balance back."
She got the balance back, and was able to make a living at her art. Then she got a call from Donald Rose. The orthopedist was looking for someone to replace Mindy Foreman, a physical therapist who, together with Rose and Theodore Bartwink, had started the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. Liederbach at first demurred. The more Rose talked, detailing Harkness's goal to not to have to turn away dancers for lack of finances, the more she realized that "this was a hand in glove situation if I ever found one. I would know how to work with this program and the dance community, knowing so intimately the needs of that community." She took the job, knowing it would leave her less time to choreograph.
It has been hard to remain as faithful to her art as to her clients. "It's a challenge to find the energy to give what the art form needs -- time for exploration, experimentation, and building relationships between choreographer and dancer." But she has been able to do it non-stop. "I have a passion to do this, so it's not acceptable to say it's too hard. It's a passion I can't not do."
Ellen Sirot's other job has, she says, "allowed me to be a dancer." More people have seen her in that occupation than will ever see her dance -- or at least her hands. Dubbed "the Cindy Crawford of hand models," Sirot has hired out her hands for ads for everything from Avon to Doritos to book jackets. She's done TV commercials in which her hands demonstrate household cleaning products -- even though, to protect her hands, Sirot doesn't actually do housework. Meet her at a party, and the hand she extends will be gloved.
"Hand modeling is a lot like dancing," Sirot explains. "You go in, are taught a movement, do the movement lots of times, and at the end they say thank you and applaud. My hands convey a lot of character; a lot of times I go in and they say 'Your hands are supposed to be really happy and having a great time,' so you have to be able to convey that."
It all started with a casting call. "I was working with Rita Jarislow, and someone on her board was looking for ballerinas for a Converse commercial. I made so much money in one day, it was great." Later, at a photo shoot, the photographer, impressed by her legs, suggested parts modeling. "Parts modeling is good for dancers because you can have good legs, a good abdomen, a good back, good arms," Sirot explains. "It's not going to support you doing just abdomens; the trick is to (combine regular) commercial work and parts work. You don't need acting experience, just to be poised and move well; they love dancers on those jobs."
With modeling producing two-thirds of her income -- the rest comes from dancing, principally for Peter Pucci -- Sirot wears gloves every moment except when she's performing. In rehearsal or class, she cuts the fingers off, so she can partner. She asks her partners to keep their nails short so they won't scratch her.
Scheduling is the hard part. "When you're needed for a modeling job, you have to drop everything, because if you don't there's someone behind you who can. You might work one day a week for two years, but you have to be flexible. Someone in the Paul Taylor company is not going to be available to do this. But perhaps there are other companies that would be a little more understanding. The money's good, so it's worth it if you can get out of rehearsal for a couple of hours. You might be making $10 an hour for rehearsal, and $200 an hour at a modeling job. You have to decide; you don't want to risk what's most important to you, your dance job." She has turned down modeling assignments for performances and rehearsals close to performance. "You have to talk to the choreographer or employer and decide when it's acceptable for you not to be there. Some choreographers would not be open to this at all. I was lucky in that I had a little bit of flexibility.
"I think it changed the way my career went, but I felt I needed something with more security. It didn't give me as much time and freedom for other dance situations, but I am pleased with the dancing I've done. It might not be the right choice for everyone, people who want to be dancing full-time and are not interested in anything preventing that. At some point you have to say, 'I'm a dancer and I'm going to dance this.' Dancing is still the most important thing to me. I don't think I would have aspired to be a hand model if I hadn't wanted to be a dancer; it made dancing possible."
This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in the October 1999 print issue of the Dance Insider. It is posted online today for the first time.