New York vs. Los Angeles - Where Should You Be?

Hey! It’s me again, Justin Keats, here to chat about how a native Southern Californian dancer like me ended up moving across the country to live in New York City instead of taking the traffic filled drive to Los Angeles. Now, most people would agree that the process to this decision is quite personal and potentially ripe with private feelings about why one metropolis is better than the other. So naturally, I’m going to share it with the internet. Why? *puts on native vocal fry* Because I’m a #Millennial. And because, all joking aside, it was beyond clear to me where I wanted to end up.

Since I was a child, everyone has told me I would one day move to one of these major cities to be in the entertainment business. But here’s the thing - while both provide a ton of opportunities for performers (I say performer because who just dances anymore?), they provide different kinds of opportunities.

Manhattan Bridge, NYC
Manhattan Bridge, NYC

NYC is the mecca of musical theater. Obviously it has Broadway, but it’s not just about the theater district itself. Theaters from all over the nation, including ones located in CA, come to New York to audition talent for their shows. It’s the honest truth when I say I had to move to New York to break into the musical theater scene in CA. Everyone who believes they have the stuff to perform in a Broadway show auditions in New York, so it makes sense that other states would take advantage of that talent pool. It was in NY that I auditioned for La Jolla Playhouse, a major incubator for Broadway shows, (Come From Away, Memphis, Margaritaville, Allegiance) and Sacramento Music Circus, which always has one of the largest turnouts in audition season. The competition to work at these regional houses is high, and even though some of them are required to cast a certain amount of locals, most of their ensemble talent and all of their leads come from NY auditions.

Find Auditions, Get Booked!

Find and submit to hundreds of auditions and casting calls across the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.

Subscribe Today

New York is also, in my post-grad mind (circa 2012), the motherland for concert dance in America. The place is crawling with dance companies of all sizes trying to claim their spot. Some are trying to become the next Ailey, Paul Taylor or Mark Morris; others like Daniel Gwirtzman Dance or Bare Dance Co work as pick-up companies, where dancers work on a project-to-project basis. Still others are creating long running shows like Then She Fell and Sleep No More. I wanted access to all kinds of dance companies creating work in a myriad of styles. At the time of my graduation, LA didn’t have a concert dance scene that was heavily talked about. My professors never talked about it as a place for me to head to have a concert dance career.

LA, however, had (and still has) way more TV/Film, commercial dance and script writing opportunities. Much like you have to be in NY to get into theaters across the country, everyone is auditioning the talent in LA for pilot season and national commercials. Sure, LA has concert dance just like NY has TV film studios; however, it’s not the main focus of the talent pools there (although Saturday Night Live and a few other late night TV shows have kept a few of my friends afloat while they are waiting for their next musical).

The day-to-day of a place can make you love it or hate it.

Now, as a twenty-one year old faced with making this decision, I saw all those commercial dancers and thought, “Yeah I could do that! Be a backup dancer for Britney or Taylor or Celine.” But I was also much more body conscious then, and didn’t think I had the “LA aesthetic.” Little did I know that every performer in NY was going to become a fitness instructor as a side hustle (but we’ll save that for another time). So I decided to use my Dance BFA and move my six foot tall, 130 pound body to NY and attempt to do both musicals and concert dance.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m back in Southern CA working (temporarily) at the La Jolla Playhouse. I can’t help but wonder if I’m being tempted to switch coasts, now that the LA dance scene has begun to grow and is on the verge of potential mass expansion?

I reached out to fellow dancer and friend from college Andrew Pearson to get his take on how LA, and the California performing scene as a whole, has grown. When I moved to NY he had already moved to LA, and has watched the changes in his city while being a part of the concert dance growth there. He has some first-hand perspective on why the concert scene has grown. In his opinion, interest in contemporary movement in music videos and TV/ Film is on the rise, and since the creation of a few (now staple) dance companies in LA (LACDC, BODYTRAFFIC, Diavolo, Invertigo, and Ate9) there are more options for a contemporary concert dancer. Other companies, such as LA Dance Project, have their own residency programs that draw in choreographers from around the nation and world. CalArts, Andrew also mentioned, is becoming more involved again with the LA dance scene; in fact, another classmate of mine, Jay Carlon, recently developed a brand new full length work for them.

This year, USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, run by Jodie Gates, will celebrate its first graduating class of BFA students - it’s safe to say that some of them are going to continue creating lives in LA. My guess is that as time progresses, they will start a new network of dancers and continue to bring a concert dance boom to LA. I recently went to watch their showcase, and there are plenty of companies that would be lucky to have such versatile dancers. But with all this said, there is more to consider than just the opportunities of a place if you hope to last there.

LA River, Los Angeles
LA River, Los Angeles

Lifestyle is a huge factor! The day-to-day of a place can make you love it or hate it. For example, can you see yourself stuck in LA traffic constantly, or would you prefer to be tweeting about how badly the MTA sucks as you’re running late? Do you wanna have seasons? I know lots of people who moved to LA who say they miss having all four seasons, but I was slapped in the face by winter when I first moved to NYC. Not to digress, but during my first full winter it was under ten degrees, I arrived to the room I was staying in and it only had a mattress on the floor, the radiator had leaked and the window was left open, so when I sat on the actual frozen mattress the sheet of ice under it cracked.

All this is to say that you have to be able to adjust to the climate of a place. I’ve found that the pressure of NYC is much higher. It’s a fast paced, unforgiving city that can eat you up. Now, I haven’t lived in LA proper, but I always think that even on your worst day you could still go walk the beach and it’s probably warm enough to have an iced coffee without making the papers. To be honest, every time I come back to CA, I question why I left such a cool place. I mean, in LA I have a car to sing in without bothering anyone, continuous sunshine to keep me from being vitamin D deficient, and a Disney park within driving range. But I think that the potential rewards for me in NYC are still greater and worth dealing with the MTA and polar vortexes of NYC. Although, I will say that I DID NOT appreciate CA this much until I moved away.

It takes five years for a city to know you exist and ten for it to care.

At this point, you may be thinking that both places sound equally awesome and also equally rough, and perhaps I should try to be Bicoastal after a few years of digging into one place. Well, I’m glad you too are having that thought - but I have some thoughts on why it’s harder to do that than you’d hope. UCI Professor Sharon Wray told me this in my second year of living in NYC: “It takes five years for a city to know you exist and ten for it to care.” So, OK, it takes a ten year commitment for potential return on invested energies. That’s not terrible - but now double it. Ten years for each city to care about you - that’s twenty years. And I’m not clear on the minutia of her statement, but I think the years have to be consecutive for them to count. You have to be calling that city your home base and building a community of friends and colleagues there.

As my new cast mate and friend Roe Hartrampf has recently discovered as he has begun trying to be “Coastal-fluid”  (I hope you all laughed at this as hard as I did), the momentum from one place doesn’t carry over as much to the second. Your network in your first established city sees you as having left. They write you off for smaller jobs or opportunities I assume because they don’t think it’s worth you flying back for. And the new place has no idea who you are. Maybe if you have enough celebrity/notoriety, the momentum of one place would transfer to the next - but even the highly followed on social media or smaller celebrities, in my opinion, have an adjustment period where the city forces you to prove yourself. While working on Margaritaville, even Jimmy Buffett mentioned that New York is a hard place to break into. I think it’s because it is such a hard place to live; people want to make sure you understand the struggle before they support you. It’s twisted but true. When I first moved to NYC, I noticed people didn’t want to invest in me because they weren’t sure I’d last. I countered this by telling people I had been there for three years, and they were much more interested in connecting with me. In their eyes, I had survived long enough to prove I was worth getting to know. I can only assume something similar happens in LA - although I haven’t experienced it myself. All of this rambling is to say that while it’s not (in my opinion) the most viable career choice right now, I hope becoming bicoastal is an easier thing to do someday (perhaps when they open the hyper-loop train!). Until then, we are forced to choose coasts and the competitive comradely of those who live in both places will continue.

So if you find yourself unsure of where you might wanna land, I recommend making pro/con lists (like the one below!) and Venn diagrams to see what place suits you better. Then hunker down. Build a community of friends and figure out how to make it to the point where the city not only knows you, but cares about you and would be devastated if you left for longer than a contract. And remember - if a place doesn’t have the kinds of dancing or performing you want, you can always be the pioneer and create a path for yourself. For me though, I’ll be in NYC for a while still; I have at least four years until it cares about me and I can’t wait to know what that feels like.

  New York City Los Angeles
Type of work Concert, Theater Film / TV, Commercial
Weather 4 seasons, cold winters Mild year round
Cost of living High rent, Metro card, expensive to go out High rent, car expenses & insurance
Transportation Public (subways) Cars/Freeways
Commute time Subway delays Traffic
Lifestyle Cramped city, fast-paced Spread out city, more laid back
Culture Theater, museums, Central Park Museums, nature, beach

main photo: Austin Censor, Yogendra Singh, Lukas Kloeppel

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.