Dancers face a multitude of challenges when it comes to making it in the industry.

Photo: Farnia Fekri

Breaking into dance

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The dance industry has seen huge growth in the last 30 years, so why is it still so difficult to find a reliable job? In the final instalment of the Breaking In series, Leah Hansen looks into the performance dance program

As third and fourth-year dance students prepare to perform in Ryerson’s annual performance, Ryerson Dances, they’re also preparing for something far more challenging — the prospect of finding a job after they get out of school.

According to the Canada Council for the Arts, the number of people earning a living in the dance industry as dancers or dance instructors has grown from 400 in 1971 to 6,400 in 2001 — a 1,500 per cent increase. Dance has significantly outpaced the growth of most other occupations. So why is it still so difficult for graduates to make their way in an industry that appears to be experiencing huge growth? The issue lies with society’s attitude towards dance and the arts in general, according to Vicki St. Denys, director of the performance dance program at Ryerson.

Much of the stigma from getting a degree in dance comes from the low importance many members of the public place on the profession, she said.

“In Canada, we have a sports culture here,” St. Denys said.

Finding a way in an industry that isn’t always valued by members of society takes a certain kind of person and an ability to insert yourself into a community, she added.

However, when it comes to the looming prospect of finishing school, not all dance graduates are on equal footing. Fourth-year student Justin De Luna has been involved in professional dance work since he was in second year and isn’t scared of the future as much as his less-experienced classmates — though he still has some trepidation about the uncertainty of the industry despite his experience.

“Most of the time I feel like I’m ready,” he said. “I have been already exposed to what’s out there. But at the same time I’m a little bit scared because I’ve always had school to fall back on whenever I’m not doing anything.” Being successful in the industry comes down to knowing the right people, he said.

De Luna has had summers packed with paid dance work mainly because of his connections, despite not planning for the work at the beginning of the summer. Struggling to get that industry experience while in school isn’t the only hurdle dance students have to deal with. According to Ryerson’s statistics, in the 2012 third-year performance dance program, there were 27 female students and two male students.

At first glance, it seems like such a skewed number is advantageous to female dancers — in fact, it’s the opposite.

“Because there are very limited male dancers in the dance program, [they] are put in dances with the fourth-years and the third-years,” De Luna said. “So ever since first year, I was always around older people.”

It has nothing to do with knowledge of theory, charisma or even physical ability – male dancers in the program tend to get more time on stage and opportunities simply because of necessity. Second-year dance student Preston Wilder is performing in Dances this year for exactly that reason — there simply aren’t enough male dancers to go around.

“Third and fourth years are allowed to audition to Dances, but first and second-year males are also allowed to audition just based on if the choreographer wants to work with more males or have more duets or partnerships,” he said. “This year, all males who auditioned made it into Dances, which is a fantastic opportunity for all of us.”

But female dancers in their first and second year of the program rarely get that chance. Standing out from a group of 27 is far different than distinguishing yourself from one other person — making those connections with upper year students early on and establishing relationships with the professional choreographers who work on

Dances can sometimes make the difference between knowing the industry and being unprepared.

“If I talk to any female students, they wouldn’t know most of the people that I talk about from fourth-year or third-year that I’m working with,” Wilder said. “I think that’s a bit of a shame.”

By their fourth year, male dancers tend to have more performance experience than their female counterparts, De Luna said.

Being around older dancers and hearing their stories about what the industry is like is one of the big reasons De Luna said he’s not as worried about graduating as many of his friends in the program are.

“I heard about their stories and their experiences about leaving school and how it is out there,” he said. “I had the time to know what is going on out there and the time to prepare myself for it. That’s why I feel a little bit calmer and not as scared to graduate.”

Given the massive growth in the industry, finding a job may not even be the problem for some recent grads.

Earning a living wage from the performance work you do though is another thing.

According to the Canada Council for the Arts, dancers earn the lowest incomes of all culture workers and their earnings rank in the lowest five per cent of incomes across the board. Graduates from a performance dance program may very well find jobs – but supporting themselves is another issue entirely.

“I can’t take on a part-time job serving or bussing tables or retail because I can’t commit to a schedule like that,” De Luna said. “Working as a freelance dance artist, contracts come up out of the blue, work comes out of the blue, it’s so uncertain.”

Putting a dance career first is important, he said, and that can’t happen if a part-time job requires you to adhere to a set schedule. Despite the worry and the fear of the future, there are still students who are willing to trade uncertainty for a love of what they do.

Jessica Germano, who is currently involved in dances, said that finding a job is her biggest fear but added that she remains optimistic.

“If you love it enough, you’ll find something,” she said.

Each year however, a number of students in the dance program discover that they simply don’t love it enough. According to Ryerson’s most recent statistics, the class of 2012 began with 41 students — 26 of them graduated.

“We’ve had a bunch of people drop out of our year,” Wilder said. “A lot of people see dance as the commercialized TV world of So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars, and coming to a professional dance school is very different than what you’d expect.” The difficulty of the program and the challenges of the industry lead some to choose other careers.

Even the dancers who stick with it are limited in the length of career the degree might bring – 80 per cent of dancers were under 45 in 2001, according to the Canada Council for the Arts, which cited the physical demands of the profession as a reason.

“It’s a different job industry than a lot of other industries,” Wilder said. “It’s definitely fun, but I’m not sure it’s what I want to do for my entire career.”

With files from Alex Heck

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