As artists, we often get flack about the practical usage of the skills we spend so much time developing. “OK, so you’re skilled in [dance, poetry, music], sure,” people often say, “But how does that help in the real world?” At university, I double-majored in English and Dance, with a minor in Educational Studies. The time spent studying English and education people were normally able to accept without much criticism, but when I mentioned Dance I would watch people’s respect for me decline as they immediately rebranded me as either a cheerleader or a hopeless hippie. As I grew accustomed, as most artists are, to the cries of “But what will you do with your life?” and “How is that practical?” I became skilled at defending my decision to study dance. Here I will present some of the ways in which my dance training, experience, and practice have helped me in professional pursuits, and next week I’ll be publishing a similar post about how performing slam poetry has assisted me in professional work.
I feel the need to issue a slight disclaimer. I am privileged to have had the ability to study the arts, to follow my passion into a field with unstable job prospects and limited funding opportunities. I respect the perspectives of those who don’t understand the desire to undergo professional study in these fields. However, I believe that once one has committed to the decision to train in the arts, that choice should be respected. Their peers should understand that the arts and “professional fields” are not polar opposites. Rather, training in the arts gives skills that can be directly applied to other (perhaps more lucrative) pursuits if the artist desires to shift fields; if they do not, their decision to work in the arts is entirely valid. I also seek to counteract the image we too often promote of the lazy, disorganized, “wait ’til the Muse strikes” artist, for my experience directly counters that idea: most artists are diligent in our crafts. So, now to present some of the ways my dance training and experience have directly aided me in many aspects of my life, including academic and professional pursuits.
Being a dancer requires discipline in every aspect of one’s life. As with athletics, it requires the dancer to consider how her daily activities will impact her craft on every level: what she eats, when she sleeps, what she wears, how she avoids injury. It requires dedication to taking regular classes and to organizing her life around them, to being punctual for these classes and fully engaged while in them. It necessitates diligent practice and rehearsal: the dancer understands that her skill is contingent on consistent practice, otherwise muscles will weaken and flexibility will slip. All of these skills—diligence, punctuality, practice—are vital in any career. Training in dance from a young age enforced in me these skills, particularly that of persistence and the necessity of consistently working towards a goal rather than taking shortcuts. I attribute the work ethic I have today to the rigorous dance training schedule I had throughout school, for it taught me effective time management skills and the importance of consistently following a routine.
Being a choreographer requires even more skills essential to most professions. Most obviously, choreographers need the ability to innovate, to be creative, to make new work in a field practiced for thousands of years in cultures across the globe. They need to be conscious of the history of their field and able to build upon (or subvert) the traditions and practices within it. Choreographing, then, requires not only contextualizing through research but also an awareness of how to utilize that research to inform new work: essential skills in academia and in professional development in most professions.
When it comes to actually making the dance, choreographing and producing a group piece are very useful training for effective leadership. The choreographer must manage a team of dancers, using their strengths, challenging them, and helping them to understand and perform his/her vision. Keeping energy high at rehearsals and understanding how to draw the best work from one’s dancers requires effective team management skills. It is the very definition of thinking on one’s feet and requires real-time innovation and flexibility in the face of challenges: when two dancers in your piece break their toes three days before opening night (true story), how do you adjust the material and costuming while maintaining your vision for the work? (Ace bandages, ice, shifting the choreography, and prayer…)
In addition to choreographing the movements, the choreographer is also in charge of many other artistic decisions: the costuming, lighting, stage setting, makeup, music, etc. Managing these decisions teaches one the importance of making work within a context and developing skills in related forms to assist with one’s own. For example, a choreographer who can only choreograph is not as valuable as a choreographer who can also design lighting, hang lights, design costumes, sew costumes, compose music, run a soundboard, etc. The Dance department at Bates (my undergraduate college) required majors to undergo training in all of these areas and taught me the value of being a well-rounded figure within my field capable of asserting control over multiple aspects of producing a piece while also being open to collaboration with others.
Finally, to be an artist, especially an artist in the outset of his/her career, requires an understanding of effective self-promotion: of the business aspect of art. Especially these days, to get work funded, produced, and seen requires skills in networking and promotion through multiple avenues, including fluency in social media technologies. It is not enough anymore (if it ever was) to make a brilliant piece of art: the artist must also understand how to get that art to its audience, and (if they want to make money) how to market it.
So, training in dance makes one more disciplined, creative, effective at leadership, collaborative, and business-savvy, among other benefits. And, of course, there’s the joy in the art! I certainly didn’t begin dancing to obtain “effective team management skills,” but they have been a happy by-product of training in the art that enriches my life in so many ways.
Dancers: What aspects of your dance training and practice have aided you in professional pursuits? Have you often had to defend your decision to study dance, and how do you justify that decision to others?