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A response to Sarah Austin’s ‘Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?’
By Jennifer Edwards
Sarah Austin’s recent controversial piece, “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?” is a symptom of a larger cultural, socio-economic shift that continues to affect both the arts and education. This is a shift in the perceived and broadcasted value of learning, experience, and critical thinking. Austin’s article arrived on the heals of related pieces about writing and theater programs. Clearly there is work to be done inside of arts programs, on the parts of students, administrators, and faculty, but there are larger issues at play. I may not agree with all of Austin’s points, but I applaud her bravery in stepping on a hornets’ nest and stirring us all to swarm. A lively dialogue happened on Facebook here, here, and I’m sure on many other “walls” as well.
Over the past several years, I have taught and counseled BA, BFA, and MFA soon-to-be graduates and alumni, in all disciplines of the arts. My students are frustrated. They feel unprepared, like a secret formula for success is out there but no one bothered to teach them. Some feel cheated and bitter. This is a problem in dance as it is in many other fields as well. A college degree does not equal a job, whether that degree is in dance or international marketing, and that is causing a lot of anxiety. Add to this the high cost of tuition and the predominant focus on linear thinking, e.g., one starts at the beginning and progresses to a predetermined outcome. Graduates who don’t follow that track are set up to feel that they have failed. But they were failed by a system that goes far beyond dance, college, or the arts and cultural sector. While I realize that it’s convenient to fault a long-established overarching system, I think it’s important to acknowledge the macrocosm [watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Bring on the learning revolution”] before honing in on the very insular microcosm of dance [see this film “Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter” or read her biography.
If a college is a conduit of learning, providing access to masters in a given field, does the college actually have a responsibility to do anything else for its students? Historically speaking, I believe no, it did not. However in 2015, beyond educators, part of the access that colleges provide is financial. Loans to study dance at a professional training school are rare, but student loan packages for college tuition are abundant, and sometimes government subsidized. New cultural expectations plus added financial burdens upon graduation have altered our relationship to higher education. People now see college as a path toward a career, not a path toward greater learning. Learning is not as practical, society maintains, as a job that pays the bills. From this vantage point, I see three areas of inquiry and potential change.
The Personal: A call for dancer empowerment
So, why do students choose to go to college? What is the purpose of a degree? What is the motivation? And what do people expect to gain by earning a degree, specifically in dance? It would behoove young dancers to answer such questions before entering college as it would help colleges to understand and address students’ expectations.
When I think of the early and mid-20th century founders of American modern dance, I see an outspoken, left-leaning, radicalized group of free-loving, rugged individuals, who queered the idea of making and performing dance. Their focus was not on owning a house, having children, or building a legacy, per se. Those things may have come along for some, but the focus of their artistic pursuits, as it’s related in their biographies, was to make art. Making a living and making a life was another thing entirely. Many of today’s college-aged dance students are far more conservative. The most common question I’m asked by students is, “How can I make a living as a dancer?” They look to me expectantly for an answer. This question, along with Austin’s article, is the product of an all-or-nothing mindset that seems to permeate the arts. In a world of slash careers, where we easily understand the lawyer/journalist or physician/entrepreneur, why are we dancers or something else? Why would someone be thought of as a failure if they are a dancer/college professor or a strategic planner/choreographer? If they are happy, who is anyone to judge? Our foremothers and forefathers in the field were teachers/dancers/choreographers. Why are we trying to make excuses for the very inner-workings of the field?
It is time to own what being a dancer or a choreographer is. Dancers/dance-makers need entrepreneurial skills more than nearly anyone because there is no product to take to market and passively sell to consumers. Dancers need to know how their specific skill sets translate to other fields and what those skills are worth. Dance must be brought into the light — as a mind set, as a tool set, as a training ground for multiple applications. Choreographic practice can translate to non-movement work like user experience (UX), body-language translation, stress management, public presentation, communications, human resources, but it is up to individuals to understand and communicate their utility, passions, and strengths.
The systemic: A call for curricular overhaul
Changes in curriculum could begin the process of empowering dancers and build a cadre of graduates poised to make needed changes to the field. We are, after all the sum of our parts. A recent article in The Washington Post calls for more liberal arts training for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students. The very same reasoning applies to dance majors. Critical thinking is a vital skill in any field, but particularly in the arts. University of Southern California’s new Kaufman School of Dance has designed its new program requiring every dancer to carry a minor. Many other programs have developed similar stipulations. This is a great way to ensure that their graduates have additional skills and, perhaps, have a core of liberal arts training. However, students will not naturally build correlations between, say an English composition class and writing an artist statement, grant proposal, or project description. This work must happen within the dance department and within the context of dance composition and choreography classes. Students should leave a program with the tools and understanding that making dance includes written research, a marketing plan, a budget, marketing materials, a strategic roadmap for presenting the piece, and a rehearsed pitch and talking points. These skills also translate to interviewing for a job, building a business with its requisite business plan, or working with companies who leverage their dancers toward marketing the company.
We cling to old habits of training the body and mind in relationship to movement and not in the fine art of translation. Choreographers need to translate the value of their work to a multitude of audiences — dancers, collaborators, ticket-buyers, critics, funders, employers, presenters, and the general public. Dancers need to know their personal and human value in society. As a lecturer in dance programs, I’ve given this type of “values and vision” talk far too often to students, just weeks before they graduate. The response is always the same, “This is so important — why is it happening right before I graduate?”
If we do nothing else as educators, we must start students thinking and writing about their futures from freshman year, on. The simple fact is that the current training model is based on career preparation for a system that the majority of graduates will not enter into. Some programs are addressing this with courses in entrepreneurship and business administration, however such courses are offered as electives. Many programs offer Saturday morning seminars or six-week workshops on grant writing, budgeting, or administration skills. We are ghettoizing a core component of student training. Understanding how the field actually works while researching, defining, defending, and articulating their artistic work, are experiences that should take precedence over working with one more guest artist or established choreographer. It is time for faculty and administrators to work toward integrating mandatory entrepreneurial curriculum into their programs.
The Public Relations: A call to stop taking it personally and tell the truth
I believe in the power of dance. That is why I am passionate about a system that simultaneously unearths and feeds the fires within young dancers. This is also why I’m, compelled to call out everyone on all sides of this issue.
To the educators: It’s not your fault. Stop acting from a defensive place and begin to build responsive curricula. I work with institutions and know this takes time but beyond everything else, you are creatives and collaborators. Figure it out. Broadcast your solutions.
To the degree-holding-dancers: Stop playing the victim — no one maliciously orchestrated the lack of jobs in the field. If you are feeling ham-strung, you’ve trained your whole life to build flexibility and resilience. It’s time to apply your skills to every aspect of your life, inside and outside the studio. Broadcast what you learn.
To choreographers: Stop blaming the system and your lack of funding for the way you choose to do your work. You are creative. Make something new — a system that works for you, pays the bills and pays your dancers. Own your slash careers. Broadcast your journeys and self-defined successes.
To every reader: Talk about the value of dance and dance training as it applies to your work and your life. Stop blaming the government and romanticizing a time when the arts were better funded — it’s unproductive. Own what dance means to you.
Lastly, I propose we build this next chapter of r/evolution in modern dance on words penned at the Forum on American Modern Dance, The Bennington School of the Dance, 1935: “The modern dance … represents a point of view rather than a system”; “The modern dance belongs to its period: it emerges as an expression of something vital in the life of the times.”*
* Mansfield Soares, Janet (2009) Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance, Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press).
Jennifer Edwards’ choreographic work has been shown in venues including Joe’s Pub, PS122, The Labyrinth Theater, The West End Theater, and Governors Island, as well as a variety of unlikely places like Martha Stewart's Whole Living website, the streets of Shanghai, and an iPhone app. She teaches entrepreneurial skills to artists through Skidmore College, The Juilliard School, and NYU. Known for her work in both dance and spoken word, Edwards has earned titles including Sister Spit Slam Champion, a Fresh Fruit award for best short play of the year, and her spoken word album “exposed” won an Indy Girl Music award and was nominated for Just Plain Folks and Outmusic awards. Her writing appears in the International Museum of Women, Dance Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Jennifer holds an MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, is the founder of JenEd Productions and co-founder of Edwards and Skybetter LLC, a consulting firm focused on facilitation and strategy.
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