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4/15/01: ABUN-DANCE: Creative Solutions to the Second Job Dilemma

By Anne Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR
Copyright Anne Wennerstrand

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Perhaps it's tax time that causes us all to think more money thoughts. Lately, I've received many letters from dancers trying to cope with the reality of making a living while having a dance life. Many dancers feel that there comes an inevitable choice -- it's either dancing OR making a living and supporting oneself. One dancer who graduated from a well-known dance program writes, "I cannot pay my bills and my part-time jobs have paid so little that I have stopped working altogether because it feels pointless. I know that if I stop my dancing career short I will suffer more in the long run. Unfortunately I have no alternative skills that could bring in money on the side."

Scant attention has been paid to this issue by educators of future dance professionals.

I have wondered why dance programs continue to promote the "success-control myth" (just work hard and WANT to dance enough and you'll succeed) when they could be doing more to prepare students for the realities of a life in the arts and offer shame-free creative employment alternatives that would supplement their dance income and use their creative skills. The success-control myth continues to burn out talented dancers who fall prey to a belief system that simply does not work. These dancers give up and leave the field prematurely, denying themselves and others their full creative expression. Some dancers tend to chronically underestimate their achievements and hold themselves up to unrealistically high expectations, setting up a viscous cycle of self-judgment and despair. The truth is that for many dancers, regardless of talent, there must be a means of financial support besides dancing in order to survive in the field. This reality just goes with being a responsible grown-up dancer and has nothing to do with "making it" or not. In fact, those who have truly "made it" have made peace with this issue and see non-dance work as an inevitable reality. Having a job that one can tolerate (or even enjoy) and making that time rich and valuable helps us let more of the world in and helps us live creatively in new ways.

I'm sharing a letter I received from another dancer who proposes a creative and inspiring solution to this dilemma. New York dancer Gayle Gibbons writes, "By the time I was 29, I had become so depressed that I quit dancing -- I had actually done pretty well up until that point but couldn't see it. I didn't say definitely that I would never dance again, but I said I was only going to do what I wanted every single day until I didn't feel like doing that anymore. At the time I supported myself with a great temp job. I slept until I woke up every day with no alarm clock, I went roller-blading, rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing and camping. I took vacations with no thought of whether such-and-such activity might be "bad" for my body. I realized there is a whole world out there. When I finally came back to dance, I was so full of joy. (Now) I come into class six days a week with a smile on my face, because I know that I'm there because I want to be there and only because of that.

"I think too many dancers are afraid of taking time off when they feel burnt out, (and) that they'll never be able to catch up again. I feel very strongly now, through this experience, that you'll never catch up to begin with if you don't rest your spirit when you need to. I've come to a deeper acceptance of my particular profession -- the fact that there are many aspects that are completely out of my control, and that it has nothing to do with me. I try to purposely look forward to things that are not dance related so that I can climb out of that world of endless comparing and obsessively wondering about the (largely uncontrollable) future. And my attitude in classes has changed.

"Of course, having a great second job has been a key ingredient to this. I've been on a campaign to convince all the dancers around me to focus on setting up a great second job before focusing on the dance. It's a hard concept to get because just like taking time off to recharge, the idea of taking time off to get a good job makes a lot of dancers panic. So often in New York City dancers spend all day dancing and all night working (so they can support themselves), every day and every night -- so they can't get perspective. All work and no play makes us dull in so many horrible ways -- creatively, physically, mentally. I think the American system of funding the arts is horrible, but unless you want to quit dancing and fight that war, at a certain point you just have to acknowledge reality and try to find some sort of balance.

"Dancers need to try to get the highest-paying second job requiring the absolute least amount of effort. But the personality of a dancer is totally contrary to that mentality. We're trained to work hard and not get paid so we feel bad if we're getting paid a lot to do very little. We have to get over that, and fast! I look at it as a grant sometimes. I've been getting a grant for 8 1/2 years from Goldman Sachs (and they can certainly afford it). They buy me dinner, drive me home in a corporate car and give me $28-$36 an hour. Not to say that it's all wine and roses. I certainly sacrificed early on for it and continue to sacrifice in certain ways. Right out of school, I decided to take out a $2,000 loan and for two months I trained on the computer and didn't do much dancing at all. I treated computer training exactly like dance training for that period of time. I went in voluntarily for 4-8 hours a day and worked like crazy. Before that I had no computer experience and could only type 25 words a minute. Afterwards, I had a good job. It's definitely hard, and it definitely requires some sacrifice in the beginning. But I think in the long run, any kind of computer job can be a great second job for a dancer. I had my own company for three years and it was largely funded by working as a temp. On the downside, you have to work with non-artists (bankers) who can be quite difficult at times. But frankly, every job has people that are difficult. You might as well get paid more to deal with them! I always tell my boss to hire dancers because they're incredibly smart, pay great attention to details, work like crazy and will probably need a job for a fairly long period of time."

So: What if grown-up dancers stopped perpetuating "deprivation" mentality (continuing to accept chronically underpaying non-dance work) and started cultivating "abundance" mentality (investing in yourself short-term for a long-term payoff)? What if we all judged ourselves a lot less harshly around money issues in general? What if we anticipate with curiosity the other aspects of our selves that we can cultivate BESIDES our dancing selves?

Anne Wennerstrand has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City and is available for individual, group and organizational consultation. To read more about Anne, please visit the "Contact Us" page.


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