When I first started dancing, I was convinced I was going to become a back-up dancer for Britney Spears. I had only been dancing for a few years and had little knowledge of the dance industry at large, but with music videos and other commercial dance styles far more accessible to me than dance company work, I figured it couldn’t get much better than Britney. Within just a few years, this perspective would expand as the conservatory-style BFA program I attended introduced me to concert dance. While I never lost my pop-star sensibilities, my first dance contract out of college was for a small modern dance company in Montana. The company had commissioned 4 New York-based choreographers over the course of 4 years and this would be the full premier of what was called the Montana Suite. Being a born and bred California boy I was equally excited and terrified for this opportunity. Excited to have the chance to work with artists from New York! Terrified because I would be leaving sunny Los Angeles to spend 2 months in Montana during the dead of winter. So, with a suitcase full of long-johns, snow boots, and puffy coats, along with my years of Modern Dance training, I thought I was more than prepared for the January rehearsal process. What I couldn’t have prepared for was to have my entire sense of dancer-identity put into question by the end of the contract.
“Oh, so you’re a commercial dancer.”
This comment — practically an accusation — was made by one of the choreographers during a lunch break upon learning I lived in LA. It was true that back home I was represented by an agent who sent me out on auditions for TV, popular music artists, and musical theater, but, in that moment, I was performing on contract with a concert dance company. Couldn’t I be both a concert dancer and commercial dancer? Or better yet, couldn’t I be simply a dancer?
Fueled by the injury of feeling wrongfully identified, I felt the pressure to prove myself as a concert dancer. Thankfully, this drive led me to my most formative position with Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company (LACDC) - a company that, from its inception, embraced the commercial aspects of the city we represented while maintaining a mission to present concert dance works to the community. The company has commissioned works from commercial successes like Ryan Heffington (Sia, Florence and the Machine) and Nina McNeely (Rihanna, Nick Jonas) alongside dance company directors including Micaela Taylor (TL Collective) and Stephanie Zaletal (Szalt) in addition to always supporting company members when they booked projects with the likes of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Paul McCartney, to name a few.
Our identities are intrinsically linked to our artistic craft and the identity of “dancer” can feel especially ephemeral.
With this company as my model, I almost forgot about the deeply drawn line in the sand until I attended the 2018 Dance USA Conference here in Los Angeles, which included a talk entitled “Bridging the Gap Between Concert and Commercial Dance.” With a title that inherently suggests polarization, it’s no wonder this panel became one of the most contentious of the entire conference. Value judgements led to finger pointing, which led to a room of defensive dance-makers operating more on passion than on objective criticism. Issues surrounding the use of social media in dance, the inherent differences between nonprofit and for-profit models of dance-making, and the responsibility of audience engagement versus audience education seemed to leave little to agree on. It somehow felt significantly more divisive than the talks on hot-button issues such as race and sexual harassment. So much so, the topic was revisited during the closing ceremony, still leaving many firmly standing in their own corners.
Now, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I am definitely not the first (and will likely not be the last) to write about this subject. In her 2013 MFA thesis, Mapping: The Relationship Between Concert and Commercial Dance for State University New York, Brockport, Nicole Kaplan proposed a non-hierarchical distinction in which the difference between concert and commercial dance is based purely on context, rather than value. Publications such as DanceNetworkTV, Dance Informa, and Dance Spirit have also posted articles outlining differences in the forms without placing one higher than the other. Most recently, Dance Magazine published an article by Suzannah Friscia titled “Is the Line Between Concert and Commercial Dance Finally Fading?” in which Friscia wonders “how necessary it is to draw distinctions between concert and commercial at all.” Through conversations with dancers Stephanie Crousillat and Denna Thomsen, two strong examples of “crossover” dancers, the article explores how and why this line is fading, with both dancers affirming “I don’t like the idea of limiting myself” (Crousillat) and “I never think anyone should put themselves in a box” (Thomsen).
This is the type of impartial view that allows the two worlds to not only harmoniously coincide, but also promotes a symbiotic growth for the dance industry at large. This, in turn, brings up an even more profound exploration of identity and the role of dance in our current ecosystem. When I think back to that heated DanceUSA debate in 2018, even as an artist who had been actively supporting the intersection of concert and commercial approaches to dance-making, I remember feeling the need to choose a side. Our identities are intrinsically linked to our artistic craft and the identity of “dancer” can feel especially ephemeral. This is evidenced in the still heavily referenced quote by Martha Graham, “a dancer dies twice” and explored again recently in the New York Times article “A Ballerina’s Nightmare: Am I More Than Just a Dancer?” profiling the injury of ballet star, Tiler Peck. So, when we’re forced to see labels or classifications as two ends of a spectrum, our egos go into self-preservation mode. We have to negate the “other” to justify ourselves. We have to believe, even when our career is less than ideal, “well, at least I’m not one of them.”
Career-fluid dancers are already putting an end to previous practices of polarization.
Jump to present day, a mere two years later, and the 2020 DanceUSA Conference spoke nothing of commercial vs. concert dance and focused mostly on racial, social, and disability justice. Conference panelists, made up of Black, Trans, Multi-Racial, Disabled, and Gender-Nonconforming leaders in the dance industry, urged us to move past “diversity” and “inclusion” (concepts that by their very nature suggest there is a “standard” to be included into) and instead work toward not only equity, but justice. Something specific that stuck with me from this year’s conference was a concept introduced by panelist Laurel Lawson. She suggested a container for equity that is fluid and malleable providing the flexibility needed to center the artists and communities most in need at any given time. A flexible framework that allows us to shine light on one group (for example, the Black Lives Matter movement) AND equally supports marginalized and oppressed non-black groups. It’s the “and” in this concept that’s important - it’s not an either/or position.
So with increased conversation on intersectionality, gender-fluidity, and the aesthetics of disability, it’s clear our societal understanding of the nuance of identity is greatly expanding. As evidenced by the above mentioned Dance Magazine article, career-fluid dancers are already putting an end to previous practices of polarization.
With a recognition that there is much work to be done in the fight for justice, could the dismantling of the concert-commercial dance binary be a step toward a more equitable era of dance?