My 2014 Highlights - Best in a Year of a Gypsy Dancer

This year FLEW by!!!
This year has been a very fascinating year for me. I have had some really high high's and some really low low's. From experimenting with what it would feel like beyond my performing years to living like a gypsy in, sometimes, frightening situations, it has been a wild year that has shaped and formed me into the person that I am today. As 2014 comes to an end, I surely have grown by leaps and bounds and am very different than I was when it started. Instead of looking back at the times that challenged me, I'd like to remember the moments of greatest growth, change, and achievement. I hope you enjoy and that you are looking forward to another year in the Life of a Freelance Dancer in 2015.

In costume for Company C's gala performance
1. My year in dance began quickly and abruptly. After spending the first few weeks of 2014 worrying that I wasn't going to find any freelancing work, I got an emergency phone call from Company C Contemporary Ballet. They needed a principal caliber dancer to replace a company member that was injured earlier that day. If they couldn't find a replacement, they were considering cancelling their shows. After four different connections had suggested they reach out to me, I received the call to fly out almost immediately, learn two ballets in 4 days, and have my San Francisco debut at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It was quick, exciting, and quite rewarding.

2. After spending a week with Company C in Walnut Creek and another week in San Francisco, I found myself traveling quite a bit. Between January and December, I spent at least 24 hours (and up to 3 1/2 months) in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Fort Wayne, Lafayette, New Orleans, Baltimore, Oakland, Los Angeles, Irvine, New York City, Anchorage, and am now flying as I write on my way to Seattle to close out the year. It has been a crazy year to say the least. When I look through my Instagram page, I'm still amazed at the multitude of places I visited this year.

3.  One of the most rewarding performances I had this year was dancing the role of Romeo with Fort Wayne Ballet. I only had a week to learn the entire three act ballet, which at times felt like an impossibility. Luckily, I had a great partner that I instantly connected with and we turned out a miracle of a performance in an extremely short period of time. I also found a new level of emotion in my dancing, as I was able to tap into places that I didn't even know I had. I never thought I would have the ability to genuinely cry onstage.

Fort Wayne Ballet's Romeo and Juliet w/ Lucia Rogers (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
4. While I don't always end up living in the most ideal of conditions while traveling for work, every year I have the pleasure of meeting some really fantastic people that open their doors for me to live with them. Another reason that Fort Wayne was also so rewarding was because I got to spend two weeks with my hosts, the Possemato family. Not only did they provide a beautiful home. They treated me like family and made sure that I was more comfortable there than I would be even in my own home. Also, right prior to that, I got to spend a few days in San Francisco with my host mother from my time in Los Angeles with Barak Ballet.
Swamp tour w/friend and former colleague William Lin-Yee

5. One of my favorite gigs this year was dancing with Lafayette Ballet Theatre in Louisiana. While I have reconnected with a great many past friends since I began freelancing, I haven't had the opportunity to dance with any of my former colleagues from Pacific Northwest Ballet. Through the kindness of my friend Lindsi Dec, PNB Principal, I was connected and given the opportunity to dance besides three friends that I haven't seen since leaving Seattle.

Touring a New Orleans cemetery
6. To sweeten the deal in Lafayette, I was able to extend my trip and fly out of New Orleans. I had never been to this gem of a city before and, let me tell you, did it catch me off guard. I lived on the edge a lot last year and visiting New Orleans was probably one of the most daring trips I took. I jumped on a Greyhound bus for 2 1/2 hours and booked my hotel while wheeling my bag through the downtown area as I walked towards the French Quarter. Before I was in my hotel room (which was right in the heart of Bourbon Street), I already had a hand-grenade in hand. I had been traveling and working so much, that I didn't plan one part of the trip or do any research. I just showed up and let the magic of this musical city haunt me and take my breath away. I can't wait to go back and experience the magic that this city has to offer!

At Company C gala w/former SAB peer, Chantelle Pianetta
 7. One very special part of this past year was the fact that so many of my friends and colleagues supported me in my efforts to obtain work this year. As I stated above, four people suggested me as a replacement to dance with Company C in San Francisco. I also obtained work through the kindness and trust of friends in Louisiana, Oakland, and Anchorage. As I've stated in past posts, it is your connections and your network of friends that carry you through this unique career. I am so grateful to those friends!

8. While I didn't get to perform in the final performances with Oakland Ballet (I did get to dance in the Bay Area Dance Week and Oakland Art Murmur), I did have the wonderful opportunity to work with Robert Moses. Robert really threw me out of my comfort zone during the 5 weeks I got to work with him. He taught choreography in a style that was very challenging for me and at a lightning fast pace (I tend to start learning slow and catch up halfway through). The first few days, I felt very let down, as I was left out of much of the creative process. Then, all of a sudden, Robert had me perform my own interpretation (with improv) of a solo he had taught me. From there, I had a duet that opened the ballet, a few solos, and closed the ballet. Throughout the nearly 20 minutes of his new work, I only left the stage for about 2 minutes and was featured throughout. This was an amazing accomplishment for me, as I felt that I was struggling so greatly that he wouldn't end up using me at all. This was my greatest disappointment in suffering my injury.

One of the houses I stayed in (on left) while couch surfing in San Francisco
9. While my time trying to find a place to lay my head during the challenging period where my housing fell through with Oakland Ballet was the absolute lowlight of 2014 (and perhaps my entire career), the sense of humanity and kindness that I received from pure strangers that let me stay in their homes for periods of time was definitely an important lesson. I would probably be one of the last people to welcome a stranger, let alone letting them sleep in my home. But it was the kindness of the many people that took me in that really restored my faith in people and showed me that there really is so much good in this world.

10. Sometimes, I feel like California is beckoning me to move to the state. I spent a total of three months in the Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland, and Walnut Creek) and Los Angeles this year. I love these cities so much and am so happy that my career brought me to these communities for such extended periods of time this year.

I missed him, especially.
11. After my injury in California, I got to come home to Philly to recover. While it definitely wasn't a highlight to be injured, getting to spend 7 weeks at home was extremely valuable for me and my partner. Not only did I spend this time healing my body, but I used it to heal my mind and reconnect with a more normal lifestyle. This was the longest I had been home since the summer of 2012.

12. Perhaps, the biggest highlight of my year was being selected as one of the four choreographers for the National Choreographers Initiative. I had applied to NCI two times prior to being accepted into this prestigious workshop experience. It was a very humbling honor to be selected besides three amazing choreographers; Philip Neal - former New York City Ballet Principal dancer, Gabrielle Lamb - 2014 Princess Grace Award winner for choreography, and Garrett Smith - a young, prodigious choreographer currently dancing with Norwegian National Ballet. After three weeks of work with some amazing dancers that were hired from ballet companies across the country, I got to present my first nearly full work (I'm waiting for a commission to create the final movement) since I left Seattle in 2011.

Dylan Keane, Jackie McConnell, & Evan Swenson rehearsing my ballet @ NCI
13. While I was at NCI, I got the phone call from Alaska Dance Theatre asking if I was willing to move to Anchorage to be their next Artistic Director. I never applied for the job and I wasn't sure if I wanted to transition out of performing full-time. So, I was lucky that I needed some more time to heal my body and that they were willing to let me take the job on an interim trial. While, in the end, I chose not to stay on full-time as Artistic Director, getting the experience of running the artistic operations of an organization, influencing the community to feel inspired about dance, and training the young, talent of the Last Frontier was truly an invaluable experience that will only push me further on my hopeful path to becoming an international representative of ballet and dance.

14. This year, I achieved a handful of goals that I have been working towards for many years. All the way at the beginning of the year I was featured in an article for Dance Magazine. Twice after that, I was featured in Dance Informa Magazine. I also found myself featured on a major blog with over 60,000 subscribers as one of 49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art. It was an honor to be listed besides names like Daymond John (Shark Tank) and Will Wheaton, among others. I also scored an agent to represent me for choreography after showing at the National Choreographers Initiative.

Sunset along the Seward Highway outside Anchorage
15. One thing that I haven't really shared on this blog is that while I love the work that I do, there is an insane amount of pressure and stress involved in being a traveling dancer. The lack of familiarity, having to prove myself immediately upon arrival, not having the comfort of home to return to, the instability of regular income, the hustle of finding work, constantly learning choreography at breakneck speed, and much more can be wildly stressful. Over the last year, I developed severe anxiety and stress symptoms, to the point where I had a lump in my throat (for nearly 6 months), stress palpitations, and severe insomnia. Having the stability of nearly four months of work in Alaska gave me the break that I needed to relax a bit and relieve my stress. Getting to return to the same home every day and not wondering where the next paycheck would come from really helped me find my way back to a healthier place. Also having a roommate that I really bonded with and easy access to breathtaking, healing natural beauty helped. Three years of non-stop travel definitely requires extended breaks in one place here and there (even if it isn't home).

16. Lastly, I feel like this is a highlight of every year for me. I got to reconnect with so many friends that I haven't seen since my training days. As a national freelancer, moving from company to company, it is amazing to see so many friends that I trained beside who have become incredible, talented artists. This dance world is so small and it is so rewarding to revisit past memories and create new ones through art. Beyond this, getting to meet and dance with so many new artists is equally gratifying. Now, I can add them to my tight knit network and continue this cyclical ballet pattern.

Going away party at Alaska Dance Theatre
I can have a tendency to focus on the negative or on items that I feel need to be fixed. I feel it is only natural for most dancers to think this way, as it is how many of us were trained to achieve the feats that we have accomplished. Looking back on this list of my 2014 highlights, even with the challenges that I faced,  I really must say that this was a pretty damn successful year. Cheers to even greater successes in 2015! Happy New Year!


12 Reasons Dance is My Religion

For some reason, the holidays always put me in the mood to make lists. Best and worst lists of the past year, lists of things I'm thankful for, and lists of my hopes and wishes for the coming year. Well, I'm not going to resist that urge this Christmas. I am a Jew living in heavily Christian country, so I tend to love celebrating both holidays. And since Chanukkah is officially over on this here Christmas morning, I have decided to create a list in honor of the 12 days of Christmas. Since I am not really religious at all, and I appreciate celebrating all types of holidays, I have decided to create a list with a twist. With all of that said, I bestow upon you the 12 reasons dance is my religion.

1. Dance has been a part of my life since I was a very young age. When I was 2 years old, I kept running into my sister's dance class. After a few frustrating interruptions, the instructor of the class saw an opportunity. Instead of reprimanding the parent of the child, she invited me to stay in class if I could behave. And I did. From that young day of my life on, I have been immersed in the ways and the morals of dance.

This little boy couldn't stay out of his sister's dance class
2. Walking into a dance studio every day is like walking into a place of prayer. Every morning, I begin my morning ritual of plies, tendus, jetes, and beyond. Or, in a non-religious sense, plies are like my morning coffee and the rest of barre is like my breakfast.

3. Even my every day activities are ruled by dance. I think before anything that I do, "How will these activities affect my dancing." Exercise, risky activities (skiing, rollerskating, horseback riding, etc.), drinking with friends, sleep, etc.

Maria Chapman - So inspiring
4. Those people that I hold in highest esteem are my mentors and fellow colleagues that are professional dancers. I don't worship these people, per se, but I have more respect for them, their work ethic, and their inspiration than most anybody else.

R&J (Lucia Rogers) w/Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
5. When going through a difficult experience, I turn to dance to express myself, heal my wounds, and fill myself with joy.

6. While many religions learn the basis of their faith from ancient scripture, a great deal of learning is taught through oral tradition that has been passed on through the generations. Dance, like religion, is one of the last traditions that is almost completely passed on orally and ritually from generation to generation.

7. I give all my glory to my art!

8. No place on earth is more sacred than a stage or a studio.

9. Just like the holiday season brings families together in the name of religious events, ballet brings dancers together for something special every time they begin preparing for a performance. I have always felt a warm holiday-like bond by the end of a performance series.

Returning to Rochester City Ballet's Jessie Tretter for Nutcracker 2013 (Photo: Josephine Cardin)
10. I have an ongoing joke that I am going to create a religion called, "Exercism," or the religion of exercise. It would be a glorious religion! It makes you feel good, it treats your body and soul well, it inspires people to do good, and makes us all-around better people. Cheers to Exercism!!!! (I joke)

11. Just like there are multiple sects of religions, there are multiple sects of dance. Ballet has classical, neo-classical (Balanchine), and contemporary ballet. You can even break down these forms into smaller denominations; like Vaganova, Cecchetti, Bournonville, French school, Royal Academy of Dance, etc. Non-ballet sects have spanned from modern to post-modern, tap, jazz, contemporary, and beyond. While some followers of these sects of dance only hold values for their one form of dance, dancers display the most inspirational openness to joining and sharing in other forms of dance. In the spirit of collaboration, exploration, and growing one's idea of dance, most dancers are open to crossing into other belief systems of dance. If only we could experience this in religions across the world...

12. Even if I turned my back on dance, it will always be there waiting to accept me back with open arms.

Guesting in my home dance school's Nutcracker last year (Photo: Marla Kaine)
I'd like to wish all of my readers a happiest of holiday seasons!


Using Teaching to Supplement Your Salary

Teaching a contemporary class
Most dancers that identify themselves as independent dance artists need to have some type of backup plan to sustain themselves during off times, supplement their income, or throw some extra spending money in their pockets. While a handful of dancers choose to make some of their income working at a restaurant, as a barista, and at other non-dance jobs, I wouldn't be afraid to make the claim that a majority of freelancers use teaching dance classes to supplement their dancer salary.

Some dancers teach because it seems like the most obvious and practical way to work in their field when they aren't dancing in a studio themselves. Whether they are or aren't passionate about passing on our art, it is much more lucrative to teach an hour and a half dance class than it often is to work in other fields. Luckily, for me, teaching has never been an unfortunate necessity to help supplement my income. I have always known that I wanted to teach and freelancing has only allowed me to incorporate this aspect of dance into my schedule.

My interest in teaching didn't come naturally. In my earlier training years, I was more focused on the number of pirouettes I could execute than sharing my knowledge of dance with those younger than me. It wasn't until the age of 16 that I really took notice in the importance of having a passionate, caring instructor. Kimberly Martin, or Ms. Kim, was the first teacher that I had that went way out of her way to help me along my path towards becoming a professional dancer. I had many instructors that worked their asses off to get me to where I did, but Ms. Kim was a bit different. When she realized how passionate I was about dancing, she took me under her wing, coached me, inspired me, and even let me live with her on the weekends to extend my training as far as she could. Beyond that, I had incredible experiences with Claudio Munoz during my summers at the Houston Ballet Academy, Jock Soto and Peter Boal at the School of American Ballet, Paul Gibson as a Ballet Master with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Bob Rizzo of Riz-Biz Productions. As teachers and mentors, these people showed me how giving and unselfish the art of teaching can be. Existing in the somewhat selfish profession of ballet, where you spend countless hours staring in the mirror and working on yourself, I knew I had to find a way to pull myself out of the narcissism involved in self-correcting and instruct those that had similar dreams.

The first time I tried to gain teaching experience was when Peter Boal took over PNB. Sitting in my first evaluation with my new boss and former teacher, I vocalized my interest in developing my chops as an instructor. I assumed that we would quickly bond over this since his teaching had inspired me only a few years prior. It was a bit surprising when he responded, "I think you should really focus on your dancing right now." Nearly, a decade later, I don't necessarily disagree with his opinion. But I still wish that he had given me the opportunity to develop my skills under his tutelage.

It wasn't until a summer layoff a handful of years into my career that I got my first true opportunity to conduct a classroom. I was visiting home for a few weeks between seasons when the director of my home studio called to see if I wanted to teach a few ballet classes for their week-long intensive. I jumped at the chance and nervously developed a lesson plan for the class. Secretly, I hoped that I would show up, leave the paper sitting in the corner, and prove the genius of a teacher that I was on my first try. But in reality, having a written lesson plan helped me out a great deal, as I was no prodigy. Where I think I lacked in experience, I made up for in blind passion.

I didn't have many opportunities to teach outside of, maybe, three more individual classes at home until I began working as a freelancer. The closest I got to working with students would be the three years I choreographed new works on the Professional Division students for PNB's annual Next Step Choreographer's Showcase. While I didn't get to work with this young talent in a classroom setting, I still had the gratification of helping these kids along their path.

Once I started freelancing, I realized how important it was that I find ways to supplement my income. I googled Philadelphia Ballet School, came up with a contact list of training facilities in the region, and started sending my information out in search for work. Only a few schools responded and, of those, only one ended up working out. I was extremely excited to get in the studio, but I was also a bit nervous for my classes. My nerves had gotten the best of me and when the school director asked how much teaching experience I had, I lied and told them that I had three years. The honest truth was that the number three was just a little less than the number of classes I had taught. My untruth meant that I would have to show up with undeniable confidence and avoid any errors in instruction. Luckily, things worked out well. Perhaps, I was kind of a natural.

Adv. Ballet class w/Alaska Dance Theatre (My Students & Pianist)
Over the past 3 1/2 years, I have taught everywhere from local schools to pre-professional training academies and for companies that hold drop-in classes. Recently, I have added professional dancers to the mix; teaching company class for Eugene Ballet, the National Choreographers Initiative, and Koresh Dance Company. All of these have been incredible, but the most rewarding experience I have had in my short teaching career has been working for nearly four months as Interim Artistic Director for Alaska Dance Theatre.

Getting to spend so much time working with my students at ADT, I was able to see the fruits of our labor in working towards perfection. In almost four months of classes, the students that I worked with had exploded technically and grew a great deal as artists. My passion for dance and their trust in my instruction created this incredible atmosphere where you could feel a tingling energy the moment that each class started.

One of my students at Alaska Dance Theatre - When I arrived, her leg was at 90 degrees, knee was bent, & foot wasn't fully extended. This was taken two months later.
I always knew in my heart that I had talent as a teacher. Dance isn't just my vocation. It is my ultimate passion. I immerse nearly every moment of my day in the dance world. My approach to teaching is essentially my own version of (and a way better version than) No Child Left Behind. No matter talent, body-type, or level, I always try my best to make sure that every student receives a handful of corrections throughout class. The schools that I have taught at have ranged from recreational dance schools to academies that only work to train professional dancers. Here and there, I have heard recreational school owners tell me that the kids just want to have fun. My instant reaction to this is, "Dancing is a lot more fun when you can do it well." I am tough, but I am honest and I don't let dancers get away with wanting anything less than the best for themselves.

It is very sad that I will not be returning to Alaska for the upcoming semester (though I will be returning to teach at their summer intensive in June). But lost opportunities can lead to new ones, sometimes instantly. The last few weeks I was in Alaska, I learned that the famous Millennium Dance Complex franchise was opening a new school in Philadelphia. Not only is this institution bringing commercial dance classes to my city, it opened its' doors a block away from my apartment. It seemed too good to be true. So, I sent my information to the owners, was hired on the spot, and solidified my place on the faculty at Millennium. After returning home from Alaska to a week of Nutcracker and another week to adjust to being home, this Saturday I begin teaching an Advanced/Professional Ballet class and an Advanced Contemporary class at this renowned institution. I am very excited to have the opportunity to continue having a regular place to continue teaching and look forward to gaining more teaching opportunities in the near future! Cheers!


Dance Informa Magazine Interview - Dancing Multiple Nutcracker Gigs

Performing as Cavalier w/Ballet Nova in 2012 (Photo: Ruth Judson)

After spending four months directing Alaska Dance Theatre and nursing myself back to full health, I will be returning to the stage at my home dance school, Chester Valley Dance Academy. In honor of my one and only performance weekend of Nutcraker this season, I am sharing this article that I was recently interviewed for in this month's Dance Informa. Enjoy!

Dancing Multiple Nutcracker Gigs - Dance Informa