8.07.2014

Should Artists be Shamed into Taking "Normal" Jobs?

At the beginning of 2014, I posted an article on Facebook about the hotly debated emergency extension of unemployment benefits. My intention was to use this platform to put a face to a statistic for people who are connected to me through this social media site. Instead of getting the chance to inform some of my friends, an acquaintance I had met only a few times nastily and judgmentally brought an unexpected wave of wrath onto my page. This person, who barely knew me, was judging my use of unemployment without even hearing how I ended up on the assistance program or how I had been desperately searching for a full-time job in my field. I had spent a great deal of time trying to find solid employment in the dance world. But instead of asking for facts, she berated me by stating that I was abusing the system and should just go ahead and get a restaurant job or work as a barista. She felt that it was my duty to take whatever menial job necessary to get off of unemployment. After spending months and months executing well beyond the 3 required weekly work searches (3 being the minimum), I was being reprimanded by someone who wasn't informed in the least about my situation. Little did she know that I was barely collecting benefits as it was because of my freelance work and part-time teaching job with Koresh Dance Company. While it was uncomfortable having this woman awkwardly attack me on a public forum, she also got me thinking about what was considered an appropriate job for not just myself, but all professional dancers and artists.

I wouldn't necessarily say I've ever had a normal job. When I was 14, I would help my mom out at her Dollar Store. But I was so young and dedicated to dance that it didn't last long before I was at the studio daily. In fact, I can't even remember if she paid me. My first full-time job was working as an apprentice with Houston Ballet at the ripe age of 19. I have spent 12 years cultivating my career as a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, and an advocate for the arts. When I found out that the benefit of unemployment (my safety net and right after being unrightfully fired for an on the job injury) wouldn't be extended, I panicked. I was already employed part-time and collecting a small amount of salary each week teaching at Koresh. I had also obtained about 12 weeks of dance work through the end of Spring. I wouldn't end up receiving unemployment during those weeks that I was dancing and received a reduced rate when I was off due to my part-time compensation. Unemployment was just a safety net for me until I could find a regular place to dance and call home. But all of a sudden, I found myself questioning if I was a bad citizen and whether or not I should desperately take any minimum wage job I could find, which I would have had no experience in and probably wouldn't provide anything sufficient enough to pay all of my bills.

I have many freelancing friends that take restaurant, barista, and other random jobs just to make ends meet. They often miss class and stand on their feet for hours before and after working those very feet in a rehearsal studio. Not only is this exhausting, but it can heighten one's chance of injury and accelerate the process of burnout. When I started looking into getting a normal non-dance related job, I found myself living in fear and anxiety. Will I have to give up my dance career? Will I suffer from depression? Will the quality of my dancing go downhill? How can I go from making $1000 per show to minimum wage plus tips? Beyond that, can my eccentric artist personality coexist in a non-artistic workspace? I had so many questions that came up when I considered this as an option.

The woman that chose to publicly criticize me stated that she had to get a restaurant job while trying to make ends meet while striving to make a career for herself as a ballet student going through finishing school. She, unfortunately, never made a professional career as a dancer and moved on to other work. When I read this information, it made a little more sense. At one point in this person's time as a dance student, she had to step outside of her art to make ends meet in order to keep reaching for her goal of dancing professionally. While she had the heart of an artist, it wasn't her career. Since then, she has cultivated a successful career beyond her dancing years. Without experiencing our career, people often assume that a professional artist's art isn't actually a career. When she argued that unemployment wasn't an end to a means for me to continue practicing my art, it all began to make sense to me. It also made me very sad about the way that most people, including a former hopeful dancer, looked at artists. It is so very often that people forget that art is a legitimate job. If you work in marketing, you should look for jobs in the marketing field. Not McDonalds. But if you are an artist, you are expected to look for a job in the field of "what-the-fuck-ever-I-can-get." It is greatly unfortunate that this double-standard exists. But a great percentage of our society feels this way, even those that once aspired to be just like me and my artist friends.

So, the question is, should I have just taken any menial job outside of my profession that seemed below my standards because I am a professional artist? I don't know. But even without one of those jobs, I have found ways to make ends meet (even if, at times, tightly so). And because I held out and resisted the temptation of this localized socio-cultural bullying, I was able to obtain a full-time job in my field that appropriately represents the professional artist that I am and rewards me as such. Yes, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. But professional artists need to remember that art is their job. Not some fun, child-like hobby that we are too stubborn to let go of.

A desperate moment in my new work, Distinct Perceptions (Dancers: Shira Lanyi & Allen Abrams - Photo: Dave Friedman)


11 comments:

  1. Beautifully written! I wouldn't mind helping you! That woman is awful and try to put it behind you! I have a young son that is a dancer and worry that he may not be able to support himself one day. Hold you head high and keep reaching for your dreams!

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  2. Yes yes and yes! Omg needed ro read this!!! :) thank you.

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  3. Thank you both for commenting! It took me about 6 months to finally sit down and address this incident. I wanted to make sure that I understood and digested what happened. Anyway, I'm glad that you guys enjoyed and appreciated the article! :-D

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  4. Very well written and soo soo true for so many people

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  5. "If you work in marketing, you should look for jobs in the marketing field. Not McDonalds. But if you are an artist, you are expected to look for a job in the field of "what-the-fuck-ever-I-can-get"
    Wrong. and I think this may be why you have been encountering some hostility--you seem pretty naive about how the job search works for people who are not special ballet dancers. People with graduate degrees in law, architecture, science, you name it, are taking jobs that are outside their field and way below what could be considered their education level, so that they can support themselves, pay their rent, and not take an undeserved handout from the government. If you can get a job, take it. Period. That's how most people think--that you think ballet dancers should be immune from this, because you are special artists and not "normal" people is unfortunately typical of the mindset I see in a lot of dancers and former dancers. I don't mean to be harsh, and from reading previous entries of your blog it sounds as though you are extremely hard working, which I have always admired. But this post really comes across as arrogant, spoiled and entitled. And I wouldn't necessarily listen to a commenter whose son is also a ballet dancer as I'm pretty sure she is inclined to be over-indulgent as I imagine she has been over-indulgent to her son.
    Again, I'm not trying to publicly criticize you as I don't know the details of your situation and as I said, you sound like you work like crazy, from what I've read on this blog. But just commenting on what you've described in this post: ballet dancers should look for work, and if they're lucky enough to find it, take it and shut up about it as the rest of working-class America does. And it's probably better for one's character not to think of oneself as a special Artiste who can't take a "normal" job.

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    1. I do appreciate your reply. Though, I do wish that you were not so aggressive in your response. Also, it would be more respectful to not do so anonymously. If you notice, I didn't claim to know what was right or wrong. What I did was state my opinion and leave it open.

      I do disagree with you, though, on multiple points. Most graduate degree professionals may take lower level work, but it is uncommon for them to even obtain minimum wage level jobs (as I can attest to with my partner experiencing being overqualified with a master's degree and spending 6 months unemployed before giving up and starting his own business). Also, unemployment is not undeserved if an employee paid into unemployment insurance for years working for a company. This is a benefit of being employed. You can't collect unemployment if you weren't employed in the first place. Lastly, I write about artists. We are special. That doesn't mean that I think we deserve different treatment. Though, if you have ever interacted with a professional dance artist, you will know that many of them have a naturally different approach to life. We are lucky to do what we love and are passionate about. Those who haven't had such luck shouldn't take that out on artists.

      Lastly, I will offer a request to not write aggressive responses to other commentors. She is entitled to her opinion as you are yours. Let's keep this a friendly place to interact. I'm glad this post inspired a passionate response.

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  6. -I'm sorry you felt it was aggressive. Reading it again, I don't think it is aggressive, but people have different perceptions.
    -If you think "professional dance artists" are "special" and shouldn't be held to the same standard "normal" people are held to, then we have nothing more to say to each other. Your lack of perspective on this is disappointing. maybe in a few years you'll grow out of that view, perhaps when you interact with more "normal" people.
    -If you read my response again, you'll notice I didn't write a response to any other person, aggressive or otherwise, my response was only addressed to you. I was commenting on the fact that if a person's son is a dancer, that person will naturally hold a view biased toward dancers. We all have our biases, and those of us who are honest try to identify those biases when we formulate opinions.
    -Diana Chen

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  7. This response reads better, whether the previous one meant to be aggressive or not.

    As for dance artists being special, I do think we are special. I never said we shouldn't be held to normal standards (and I don't see working as a barista a normal standard for a highly skilled professional in any field who is seeking another job through unemployment). Though, dancers/artists do tend to approach the world/life differently than non-artists. But in all reality, anybody can be special for multiple reasons, not just dance.

    As for the discussion about another poster. Assuming that somebody is overindulgent based off of 4 sentences of information seems a bit harsh. What you wrote above, I agree with.

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  8. And fortunatly you didn't give up and found a way to live by what you love doing: dancing. :D I think I will be lucky if I get to be a dancer because I'm used to manage dance with many different things just as part-time job (tutoring, call centers...) and college! I'm 19 years old now and I would like to be a freelance dancer as well, that's why I'm reading your blog and I'm enjoying very much! (:

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  9. Destination DANZ10/4/15, 5:35 PM

    As an ex professional dancer I had to pay my way through my training, worked various jobs and contracts not necessarily related to my profession in order to survive and pay bills. Without the luxury of having someone weather it be a partner, family to fall back on when contracts were few, I am grateful for the exposure I have had in my working life as it has provided and taught me a large number of both key skills as well as transferable skills that I have been able to use, to step into a rewarding career outside performing on a stage and allowing me to give back my knowledge to others. I have never been busier than I am today when it comes to spreading my love and knowledge of dance and choreography, and at the top of my list of educating others in the field of dance, I greatly encourage individuals to gain experience beyond the stage because you just never know when the tables will turn and you can no longer grand jeté across a stage or even simply stand on demi point. My journey certainly made me a much more appreciative artist than I would have been if I had not had these experiences.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Destination DANZ. Every dancer has such a unique path and I am glad that all of your experience has added depth and value to your journey :-)

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