As BFA and MFA programs are becoming increasingly popular, the prospects for employment in the arts have grown exponentially challenging. With a larger pool of well qualified job applicants, a general lack of funding in the arts and regional limitations, young BFA and MFA graduates are faced with the daunting task of making a living as an artist. Compounding this crisis more often than not is a lack of adequate training, curriculum planning and preparation for life after graduation. Earlier last month, Sarah Austin questioned the close-circuit system of the dance field in her controversial article “Is American Modern Dance A Pyramid Scheme?” Austin argues that current dance graduates have no other choices than finding their way back into the academic system to pay off their student loans and make a living.
In a response to Austin’s article, Jennifer Edwards proposed ways to contribute to a change, including developing curriculums that offers dance students skills to face the current economic situation: “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.”
Many programs, including pre-professional and summer intensives, have been offering opportunities to develop some of the skills that Edwards insists are key in preparing dance students for life after graduation. One of these programs is ODC’s teen company, the Dance Jam. Originally started by choreographer KT Nelson in 1996, the Dance Jam provides its members with a variety of experiences, which range from performance to mentoring and fundraising.
The Dance Jam currently consists of 13 members, between 14 and 18 years old, who are selected by audition. “It’s ODC’s highest level of engagement for the young dancers who are passionate about the art form,” explains choreographer and ODC School Director Kimi Okada, who co-directed the Dance Jam with Nelson for many years and is now its sole director. Similar to professional dancers, Dance Jam members have strong requirements. They must take 7 dance classes a week -a combination of ballet, contemporary, and any other training the faculty feels they need, such as composition, global dance, or street dance- and a Pilates class. They also rehearse 3 times a week.
Aside from class and rehearsal, the Dance Jam also produces its own season at ODC each spring. Members of the teen company perform work by Nelson and Okada, and also by commissioned choreographers. The list of past commissioned choreographers includes Robert Dekkers, Kim Epifano, Katie Faulkner, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Erika Chong Shuch, Nol Simonse, Amara Tabor-Smith, Scott Wells and showcases a wide range of aesthetics and styles, to help students develop a variety of skills. This season at ODC, the Dance Jam will perform work by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Sandrine Cassini, Dexandro “D” Montalvo, as well as a piece choreographed by Dance Jam alumni Mia Chong, who is currently a student at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to its season, the Dance Jam also performs throughout the year, including at ODC’s Dance Downtown annual gala, at the fundraising event Fall For Art, and during Uncertain Weather.
But the Dance Jam also offers its members the opportunity to develop skills that will be useful in the dance field and beyond. Members participate in outreach activities, and learn how to mentor. For the sixth year this spring, they spent a day at Berkeley High working with students in the dance studio. They also mentor the younger children for the production of Uncertain Weather. For Nina Guevara, a high school junior who is in her third year in the Jam, “learning how to interact with younger people, who are from our generation, and recognizing what they are growing up with is important.” The community spirit runs within the group. Mahkissa Sano, a high school sophomore trained in West African dance forms, mentions that her biggest challenge when she joined the Dance Jam this year was to acquire the technique that some of her peers had gained from years of studying ballet, jazz or modern. She beams when she talks about other Dance Jam members helping her out: “Watching them do something they love and teach it to you, it’s really great.”
Each of the Dance Jam members is also in charge of managing one specific production task in preparation of its season, ranging from flyer design to press release creation to donation solicitation. All members are asked to fundraise $100 in contributions and $50 in advertisement. They are also asked to introduce themselves to at least three people during Fall For Art. For Okada, “What we give them goes beyond the realm of dance. [Dance Jam members] learn how to be adaptive, to be part of an ensemble, to be a mentor. They also learn how to develop serious discipline and rigor. What they gain by producing their season is a sense of real ownership. Throughout the year, they are our teen ambassadors. It is important for us that they learn how to be in the world and how to be socially adept in certain situations. It is also key that they know how to articulate what is important to them in a way people can understand.”
With skills that go far beyond technique and artistry, Dance Jam members feel that they can embrace a variety of careers. Danae Husary, a high school senior who is in her first year in the Jam, is applying to colleges that have a strong dance department. For her, “coming here gives you a taste of how [college] is going to be. You learn time management. And being a dance major you don’t necessarily have to dance professionally [after graduation]. I could become a teacher, a rehearsal director, a high school dance teacher. You can make it work!” Guevara is planning to continue her training in the hopes of establishing herself as a professional dancer, although her interests are broad. “There are so many other things at school that interest me. Dance becomes this vehicle for learning for me. There are those moments where it makes everything worth it. It is so rewarding in the end!” she explains.
Guevara’s comments point out the benefits of studying dance beyond ‘getting’ a career -benefits that were raised in some of the comments following Austin’s article. Dance develops an embodied knowledge that is beneficial in ways that cannot be measured. As dance scholar Janice Ross said to a group of students last summer: “It is accessing information that is not retrievable or demonstrable in any other way. There is a unique province of expression for dance, for the moving body. It occupies a place that if it were to vanish, we would lose a full series of knowledge and conversations.”