One of the things I like best about what I do is that it connects me with people of all ages, experiences, and relationships to dance. I especially like becoming a fixture in certain circles so that my observation and understanding of certain groups increases and I am better able to relate to these people with each subsequent meeting.
Not long ago, I met with a young woman I first worked with when I was a guest choreographer at Michigan State University. MSU offers a phenomonal dance minor completely developed and executed by one Sherrie Barr. This young woman with whom I met, wanted to pick my brain and my impressions of the dance world and procure any advice I could muster. After doing my best to satisfy her request, I left thinking about the advice I had been granted when I was in her shoes and I realized that I failed to mention perhaps the most important and most impossible piece I have ever received:
Find your own niche.
As a twenty-something, I not only found this daunting but nearly debilitating. How does one actively find their niche?! Sure, I could come up with things I did well and things I thought set me apart in one setting only to find in another, they were not at all individual or distinguishing. I also kept rehashing the possibilities for this elusive niche in the same cliché pathway, performance; as if it were all that existed in Dance.
As a thirty-something, I think it is has finally hit me. My niche is not in any of the areas I expected, or rather hoped it would be. It is in teaching. On top of this, it is not even with the type of student nor the kind of environment I projected myself to be most adept at working. It is with students of all ages and backgrounds that are looking at dance to serve a role OTHER than that which would lead to a typical performance or choreography job. Probably, this is because it is what I need dance to do, too.
My students tend to need dance to lead to something greater. Movement may be their first language and thus their best method to develop critical thinking and other skills. Dance may serve as a therapy in ways more profound than the mere release of endorphins or adrenaline. Their understanding of the business side of dance may lead to a profession in which both sides of their brain are engaged. And all of this could have a trickle effect, impacting more people in innovative and interesting ways. Great. But then what?
When I was directing a dance minor program at a small liberal arts college here in Michigan, I told a colleague from another institution about my program and my philosophy. I included that several of my dance minors were not dancers in the typical sense, performing terrified them, but more, they were interested in the field of dance; the theories existing in and relating to dance, and linking those ideas to their “other” areas of academic interest. They were interested in thinking outside the box –well multiple boxes, if you consider that they were viewing dance as well as their majors in ways completely new to them. When my colleague laughed and likened this to being an astronaut but not wanting to go into space, I realized this person was not interested in thinking outside the box. It surprised me and yet, I think this mentality is the norm rather than the exception.
So, where do these underdogs go? Where does one send a dance minor that is a lovely mover but with less contact hours in technique than a dance major to find their niche, particularly when dance industries prize physicality (and by extension, professional clout) first and intellectualism second? Is there room for entry-level, non-performing dance artists? Where do they go in the time between the lightbulb moment that dance is more than dancing and heavy-hitting dance scholar status? How do we advise the dance minds that our field depends on…the John Martins, the Margaret H’Doublers, the Lincoln Kirsteins? Surely, if we leave all of Dance up to the dancers, we will crumble in 5,6,7,8.
Maybe I am wondering this for my own journey, as well. I trust that an entire career must contain multiple niches and I always like to think ahead. Maybe some, even much, of my pondering stems from the doors that have been closed to me which ultimately guided me to those that have been open, thus prompting me in unexpected directions.
At the close of our meeting, this young woman said she was envious of my professional and personal timeline; that it seemed things had worked out perfectly. They have. Certainly different from how I had planned them, however. She also remarked that it appeared things had fallen into place for me, almost by chance. I replied with, “No, by hard work.” I suppose from a distance it might appear opportunities have just come to me. But, upon closer examination, they have all stemmed from trying my best at whatever I was doing at the time. The people that witnessed that kept me in mind when they heard of opportunities, and the professional game of “telephone” has led to successes. Maybe instead of chalking it up to “who you know” it really should be “who you impress.”
Ultimately, I have decided “niches” are not destinations you can set out to find but must stumble upon through reflection.
So, twenty-somethings, ready to take on the world:
work hard, be flexible, and look back to project forward.
The rest of us underdogs are here for you when you need us.