Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a jack-of-all-trades as “a person who can do passable work at various tasks; a handy versatile person,” so this Jack character was obviously a professional dancer in his lifetime. Versatile? Come on.
Across the performance industry, we know that it takes a professional level of perseverance, agility, mobility, stamina, and drive to pursue dance as a career. Where some careers rely on technology to advance their work, dancers continually train and rely on their bodies to serve them in various stylistic, sometimes incredibly physically demanding movement genres. Attending fitness classes and daily workout regimes are essential to staying in shape. Sprains, twists, bruises, and broken toes are considered normal after nine show weeks full of leaps, turns, kicks, and passion.
But is dancing all that a dancer does? Considering the recent shift from in-person to virtual auditions: professional dancers have been forced to adapt to the industry before them, taking on many more responsibilities than merely dancing, or even performance related.
Professional dancers have been promoted to music and video editors, makeup and hairdressers, wardrobe designers, film experts and more, without any of the technical training to do so. The age of self-tapes and filming from home has required dancers to master these responsibilities rather than merely moving their bodies to music (as if that is ALL we did before anyway...). With this in mind, one would think that dancers are being compensated for their adaptability and willingness to go the extra mile. Unfortunately, despite the countless responsibilities and skills that dancers have acquired along the way, we are still being offered incredibly low wages for the amount of work that the industry requires.
Someone needs to call Jack and ask him how he managed. Maybe the answer lies in knowing your worth and speaking up for yourself?
While video submissions have been around for years, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has called for dancers to change and adapt to a new world of auditioning for potential jobs: the digital age of dance submissions. Nowadays, dancers are submitting their carefully crafted dance reels as well as various dance combinations through a means of self-tapes. Instead of attending in-person auditions in major cities across the country, self-tapes have replaced the initial round of getting to know how a dancer moves and grooves. Instead, dancers spend HOURS learning combinations and recording tape after tape after tape, followed by meticulously critiquing themselves until they are satisfied enough with their performance to submit it. It is a new era of stress, allowing a dancer’s perfectionism to set in trying to get the “perfect take,” whereas in-person auditions only allow one chance to perform a combination and get it right. Additionally, many audition listings require dancers to film multiple combinations (usually consisting of a ballet/technique-based, jazz/upbeat, specialty/tap/tumbling variation). What could have only taken one morning at an in-person audition before could take a dancer days to learn, perfect, film, and edit.
After we film our subjectively “perfect take,” we have adapted and learned to be our own video editors. While using phone editing software and many up-to-date video editing apps makes it quite foolproof, video editing is still no small feat for those not specifically trained in it. Editing clips down to the millisecond to cut out ambient noise or cropping to the perfect closing music beat takes careful precision. Additionally, most submissions call for slates, or a dancer’s introduction before they launch into a dance combination, which needs to be edited with transition effects and checked for sound quality.
On top of self-filming and editing videos, dancers have been expected to master many cosmetic skills on top of the normal day-to-day job. From a young age, many dancers have been self-applying stage makeup and high buns for performances and competitions, but self-tape make-up and hair is a different beast altogether. Submitting dance auditions requires a keen eye for a balanced face of makeup and versatile hairstyle techniques. After a dancer sets a full face of highlight and contour, the “perfect take” could be easily ruined if a fly away hair decided to poke out of a perfectly straightened high ponytail. Experience in style hair is no small feat, especially considering the different methods expected: curling/straightening, braiding, twists, updos, and more. These beauty tips and skills transfer directly to the industry needs, as many jobs now require dancers to be self-sufficient in hair/makeup skills, especially in drag, dance competitions, and concert work.
Similarly, the age of digital auditions has called for dancers to acquire a vast wardrobe of different leotards, unitards, and athletic clothes, all at a moment’s notice. While these various options were needed before auditions were readily available online, casting directors sometimes only give dancers 1-2 days to film 5-10 minutes’ worth of audition material, sometimes needing wardrobe changes throughout the takes. Dancers are left to choose which brightly colored leotards make their eyes pop best and which pair of heeled boots suits the jazz combination style. These clothing options are essential to standing out among the hundreds of other dancer submissions.
What does this mean for professional dancers?
Simply put, professional dancers are working OVERTIME, taking on many new skills to stay afloat in the everchanging industry. As dancers have acquired this dancer-of-all-trades skillset, we need to demand respect for our talent and work, and in turn be compensated fairly. However, unfortunately, this feat seems to be far from simple.
Professional dancers are severely underpaid across the industry and it’s time for a new call to action: know your worth as an artist and advocate for it. In comparison to singers and actors on cruise ships, dancers make significantly less money for the same amount of work (sometimes more work, especially physically). Professional, profitable, worldwide events like the SuperBowl have asked dancers to volunteer their time rather than pay them a livable wage for their work and artistry. Mastering these new skills outside of their original craft calls for paying dancers a respectable wage, plus acknowledging dance not only as an artistry but as a true, full-time profession. Is that too much to ask for? I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.