From one coast to another, the day-to-day life in a dance career can look vastly different in various major cities. When it comes to auditions, the dance rehearsal process and shows, in addition to transportation, daily living and weather: New York, California and Illinois all present their own dance life trials and tribulations. As a professional dancer, it is important to research which city would fit your needs best. After all, the day-to-day of a place can make you love it or hate it.
As three major states for pursuing a career in dance, we look to three professional dancers who are living their dreams in their respective cities to answer our questions about the similarities and differences of city dance life.
Charlie Munday (he/him): Born in Australia, Charlie is a New York City, New York-based professional performer and choreographer. He has received various nominations for his choreography from Broadway World Pennsylvania, Broadway World Nashville and Nashville's First Night Awards, and more. To date, his favorite choreography credits include 'MAMMA MIA!', 'Elf: The Musical' and 'Godspell.’ Notable performance credits include John Caleo in Holding The Man (NYC premiere), Eddie, "Who's Got The Pain" in Damn Yankees, Rudolpho in Matilda, among others.
Sarah Villacarillo (she/her): Sarah is an Orange County, California-based professional dancer and theater actor, currently working as an entertainment performer at Silverwood Theme Park in northern Idaho. She received her AA in Theater Arts and Dance as well as a Certificate in Musical Theatre from Cypress College. She was most recently seen as the Cook in Clue at Sierra Repertory Theatre, among other productions.
Jake Gerard (he/they): Jake is a queer, Chicago, Illinois-based dancer, choreographer, and educator. Originally from Michigan, he attended Michigan State University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Arts & Humanities with minors in Dance and Arts & Cultural Management. He was Director of Marketing for Orchesis Dance Company and received a CREATE! Micro-Grant for Fractals and Folds, a dance film that addresses the societal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 3 words, how would you describe the dance scene in your city?
Charlie (NYC, NY): Competitive. Vibrant. Diverse.
Sarah (OC, CA): Intimidating. Commercial. Welcoming.
Jake (Chicago, IL): Intersectional. Innovative. Expressive.
How do you think dance training varies from city to city?
Charlie (NYC, NY): I think different cities have different focuses when it comes to dance training. While some cities focus on dancing for the stage, others dance for the camera and if you are lucky enough, some cities are focused on dancing for technical improvement.
Sarah (OC, CA): What I love about dance now is celebrating the individual: from how a person moves to how they interpret choreography through personal expression. The great aspect of social media is that we can see artists who study around the world and learn from each other without even being in the same room. Even throughout history, the culture of dance on the coasts is still taught and talked about - East and West Coast Ballroom Dance look different, Hip Hop styles vary, even Tap terminology depends on where you train.
Jake (Chicago, IL): In terms of the dance training I have had in other cities, I found that most times, choreographers want to see clean and precise reiterations of their choreography.
In your respective city, how would you best describe dance training as a whole?
Charlie (NYC, NY): It's obvious in most places you go to dance in New York that it's geared toward theatrical training with a big emphasis on stage performance, regardless of dance style. Most ballet classes you go to work on theatrical ballet technique, the same goes for hip-hop/commercial jazz classes.
Sarah (OC, CA): A few years ago, I read a tweet from Ian Eastwood regarding how classes are being treated that has stuck with me for the longest time. The camera has been brought in to so many studios that the whole class seems to now be focused on that one take at the end of the session. We’ve somewhat lost the fundamentals of learning from teachers, and instead pre-meditate on what we can capture and share on Instagram. Especially in the LA area, on-camera experience is almost a necessity (over half of my professional dance reel is class footage). Tricks and flips are cool and a bonus, but there’s no need to show off to anyone. I think now, dancers are starting to find authenticity when freestyling and not just trying to get a reaction out of people or vying for attention. There’s a special kind of connection when your expression is appreciated and you’ve actually left everything on the dance floor.
Jake (Chicago, IL): In Chicago particularly, there is an emphasis on individual expression. While getting clean unison moments is important, I have found a lot of choreographers prefer to see dancers make bold choices and showcase their unique movement style. There is a larger emphasis on improvisation, almost every class I have attended incorporates some aspect of improv.
Although every audition is different, please describe a typical dance audition experience in your city.
Charlie (NYC, NY): I was recently in for the Book of Mormon tour, which was a pretty typical dance audition experience. They sent a tap combo that I learned and filmed, then I was called in to sing for the creative team, then I made it through to the final dance call. There were 30 of us in the audition room in Pearl Studios learning the "Turn It Off" combo. We zoomed through the choreography in probably 10-15 minutes then we were asked to perform the choreography in groups of three and then one at a time in front of a camera. In this instance that was the end of the call, but other times I have been asked to demonstrate partnering skills, ballet tricks and tumbling tricks I have.
Sarah (OC, CA): Overall, I think we collectively try to get there early to find parking! Depending on what it’s for, we’ll bring our headshot and resume to a check in area. The number you receive coming in will determine what audition group you will be in after choreography is taught. Hopefully there are a few moments to warm up and stretch. Other than that, brief introductions of the judging panel or production team and either the choreographer, assistant choreographer or dance captain will teach the combo before breaking up into smaller groups. If there is time, you’ll perform twice (switching lines) and after each group has gone then they make the first cuts and so on. It’s brutal sometimes because you never know what they are looking for - you just show up and do your best in the moment. At times, they will cut people who do not fit their desired “look.” I’ve had my fill of audition stories but all of them have been vital experiences that I take to the next one.
Jake (Chicago, IL): To my surprise, almost all of the auditions I have "attended" are actually virtual. This involves submitting a resume and dance reel. Further, I have noticed a lot of audition forms also want to see the dancer's personality too, by asking questions about their artistic statement and values within dance. The virtual audition has its pros and cons. You can choose what the casting director sees, however, it's difficult to "read the room" as you can do in an in person audition.
Where are your favorite places to take class in your city?
Charlie (NYC, NY): I grew up learning ballet outside of a theatrical setting, so I personally love taking ballet from Joffrey Ballet School. I like to take my theatrical classes at Steps on Broadway, and one other place I love taking class is Chryssie Whitehead's "SACRED SPACE" classes that allow for a more spiritual experience with journaling, affirmations, and a full conditioning/strengthening section before getting into a combo.
Sarah (OC, CA): The studios closest to where I live that I frequent when I am home are Millennium Dance Complex OC and Offstage by GRV. They hire instructors who have vast experience in the industry and some also teach and choreograph in LA. There was a time where I took a few classes at Snowglobe, but at the time I felt those to be a bit too challenging for the level I was … I have yet to revisit that studio and see where my progress level lies!
Jake (Chicago, IL): There are so many amazing places to take classes in this city. It's difficult to narrow down. Specifically, I am interested and intrigued in working more with Echo Modern Dance Collective, a Chicago nonprofit for dancers focused in collaboration and inclusivity, especially with artists from all disciplines to make expansive projects that move beyond dance.
What is your favorite aspect of dance life in your city?
Charlie (NYC, NY): It's the variety for me - every day of the week there are so many options from K-Pop to Burlesque Jazz to vogueing.
Sarah (LA): I’m mixed into the acting and dance worlds, but I like how much more often I find artists with multiple skill sets. A lot of actors have a background in dance, and dancers dive into the world of acting. Most of my college dance friends ask to take class with me which makes going to either a new or recurring class that much more fun! I love cheering on friends when we’re in groups and hyping up other dancers in class who I admire. Instructors are often open to giving individual feedback after class, and I like going up to peers and telling them that they did a great job.
Jake (Chicago, IL): The emphasis on individualism within dance. It's great to feel celebrated and celebrate other dancers. It's amazing how much you can learn from others when competition isn't the focus. Another thing I have fallen in love with is how FUN the dance here is! Coming from a college dance background, I am used to doing very serious contemporary pieces. However, dance in Chicago truly puts an emphasis on incorporating humor and camp into dance. I'll never forget one of my first classes in the city- the combo was set to "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc. and us dancers had to perform as zombies.
What makes dance life special in your city?
Charlie (NYC, NY): There's an air of ambition in New York that I haven't found anywhere else. In the right class, it feels like everybody is there to reach for the stars and to "make it big.”
Sarah (OC, CA): We’re in the heart of the film industry so it’s very commercial, and if that’s what your goal is in your career, then it’s ideal. People generally are pretty chill when it comes to interacting - if you’re there just to dance and leave, it’s all good. If you want to make friends and find a second family, you’ll be able to connect with other artists. Also, everyone is creating all the time so you’ll have opportunities to work with and reach out to friends to collaborate with. There’s a strong sense of community and support in LA because we all understand the artist's struggle of trying to “make it.”
Jake (Chicago, IL): The sense of community is amazing. It's the opposite of "cut throat". We are all truly rooting for each other.
What makes dancing in your city difficult? Are there any hardships?
Charlie (NYC, NY): Even after years of dancing, I can feel insecure in dance classes in New York. There is such a high caliber of talent that it often feels like you'll never be as good as the person next to you. The biggest lesson I had to learn was that comparison is the thief of joy and you should only strive to be better than yourself with each class.
Sarah (OC, CA): When you take any class in LA, everyone is going to be really good. Personally, I constantly find I’m comparing myself to others. It’s my subconscious telling me that I don’t belong there, I can never catch up to their level, and they all see how terrible I am even in the back. What’s important to remember is that you are there to learn, progress, and challenge yourself in a safe environment. Those people you see dancing on Instagram (who may show up in your class) had to start somewhere and continue training to get to where they are now - called out for a solo and filmed! Jokes aside, the goal is not to be brought out by the teacher to show off in the center. Not to mention the physical standard I put on myself in classes! When you struggle with your appearance and you’re training for an industry that relies greatly on how you look, that can really tank your mental health. It’s been difficult for me to get back into classes after being away on a contract for some time, and judging myself in the mirror before I’ve even done any movement.
Jake (Chicago, IL): I think the emphasis on individualism and improvisation can be intimidating to some who come from a regimented dance background.
Would you recommend your city to a young performer looking to relocate?
Charlie (NYC, NY): I would say yes! Depending on how young you are and your financial situation, I would say save up your money and try out the Broadway Dance Center professional semester - a four month intensive where you get to train and see if you like the classes/the environment. Or, try getting a hotel or AirBNB for a week and go take a bunch of different classes at Steps, BDC, Joffrey etc.
Sarah (OC, CA): If you can afford the housing prices in California, come on down! Don’t be surprised to see so many others that may look and move like you, but also don’t forget that there is only one of you who can bring what YOU have to the table. That is a gift. Also, the industry networking isn’t bad either if you can find a crowd. Find what you excel in but also don’t limit yourself - that’s what classes are for! Personally, I’ve been told that I have great energy, personality, and storytelling but I know I lack technique in comparison. I’m on a journey to blend both without sacrificing one or the other.
Jake (Chicago, IL): Yes absolutely. Chicago offers something for every dancer. Dance in Chicago is also great for those working full-time jobs but also wish to pursue their passion for dance. Like myself, I work full time but still am able to attend classes and auditions.
How does your respective city inspire you to keep dancing?
Charlie (NYC, NY): The sheer level of talent is inspiring - I had a low point last year after getting back to New York from a contract where I hadn't been to class in a month or two. I went to see Only Gold, a dance musical off Broadway at MCC, with Ryan Steele as the lead. Watching the dancers connect with the piece and with each other was enough to get me out of my rut and back into training.
Sarah (OC, CA): Honestly, the majority of the time, I take class after a rough day or during a tough week just to decompress and focus on moving my body. I’ll dance in my room to whatever song I come across and feel that day. LA can be stressful so I guess the environment itself keeps bringing me back! After any audition, getting into a class lets me forget about what the outcome could be and continue training for the next job or contract.
Jake (Chicago, IL): Being included in a loving community of dance definitely keeps me dancing. You not only look forward to class but also to see everyone's beautiful smiles while they're dancing.
On the surface, dance on the east coast, west coast, and midwest all have innate similarities: audition processes, expensive living conditions while pursuing your dream, etc. However, when examined closely, dance life across cities in these states all really have rather nuanced differences. Thus, looking at each individual city’s values and expectations can be insightful if you are deciding to move to further your dance life.
While dance careers are important, reminding yourself that you have to enjoy where you’re living is just as important as the dance rehearsals/dance life at stake. After all, the place you choose to base yourself has to offer you more than merely a job to truly make you feel at home.