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Jennifer Edwards Headshot

Dance and Money: A Response to Lightsey Darst

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Dance, a visual art; dance, a performing art; an experiential, theatrical, dying art; and now, dance, the poorest art -- it seems, perhaps, the elephant in the room may be: "dance, the art with a huge brand-management problem." Or, "dance, the art form undergoing an identity crisis." Most pointedly, dance -- the art form that does not value its crafts-people, its practitioners, its roots, or the human bodies that practice it -- is not valued by society at large. I hate to say it, but this makes perfect sense to me.

Once upon a time, dance served vital purposes in the fabric of our societies: it brought rain, helped crops grow, made women fertile, brought victory to kings, solved international squabbles, brought people together, and solidified marriage vows. As new tools and rituals formed -- irrigation for crops, drones for wars, TV night for couples, IVF for reproduction -- dance, instead of innovating, instead of staking its claim, became the separatist art form: the one "no one understands," the one that still wishes "things would just go back(ward) to how they used to be." And we wonder why we are the poorest? We've made something, told people they won't understand it, sequestered ourselves indoors, and complain that no one buys tickets or makes hefty donations. There's a marketing model in there somewhere, but I'm pretty sure it's not a good one. Now, I am of course speaking of the field in general -- there are empowered, clearly focused, dance-makers out there, who are doing well and effecting change.

This brings us to the question: can dancers be more like entrepreneurs? An idea that is popping up in various corners of the country -- New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and Boise, to name a few. But we have not yet addressed what this means, how it might work, and what has to happen in order for this to be more than another name for DYI-struggling-debt-ridden-artists. Most entrepreneurs are not not-for-profit, yet most dance-makers start a company by applying for non-profit fiscal sponsorship, perhaps signaling that from the start there is an expectation that this venture will not be financially successful/sustainable. A recently released Dance NYC report entitled, "Dance Workforce Census: Earnings Among Individuals, Ages 21-35" revealed the following:

"Nearly 75% of the NYC dance jobs reported are unsalaried. Freelance work is predominant, representing nearly half of the jobs. For 26% of all jobs reported, including internship and barter relationships, respondents indicate no earnings in dollars."

When writing a piece on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company last fall, I had a conversation with Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center. He spoke about the hard work that goes into inviting an audience into a creative work. This is a process of opening space for a dialogue to take shape. Note that this is not traditional "arts education," wherein people are treated as though they need to be told how to experience art -- that they are too uneducated to "get it" if they are not indoctrinated into cultured society. For audience members to feel like insiders there needs to be a willingness to allow people in and to trust that, just as we dancers and choreographers have things to share, our audience has ideas and information of equal value (beyond money) to share with us. It's important to note that this same type of audience engagement and inclusion is at play at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and at the Works and Process series at the Guggenheim -- along with a handful of other contemporary venues around the U.S.

The bottom line is that dance is no different from any other industry -- we must innovate or we will fade away. One potential model, which is certainly not the answer, might be to grow our brand as kinesthetic intellectuals -- something that this country desperately needs. Applied-physical-awareness would help leaders command respect, school children focus, laborers and health care workers to work physically with less injuries. If dancers owned their skills -- if we built a program and marketed healthy, body-centered, self-awareness practices that grew organically from dance -- then we could do our work, make our art, grow students/clients and audience simultaneously. All while growing generations that naturally understood and appreciated dance -- we could once again have value within the social sphere. However, we would first have to value ourselves and believe in the value our craft.