Working to dance, dancing to live

A look into the not-so-conventional lives of San Francisco's freelance dancers

When she's not dancing on stairwells, Gabby Zucker rests her muscles by working a gig as an author's assistant

DANCE When people ask what I do, I tell them I dance. I don't tell them I work as a receptionist part time, or that I work events in a restaurant. I tell them I dance because, although it's more glorious-sounding than my odd jobs, it's also more important. These side jobs exist merely to facilitate the dance. They are expendable; dancing is not. But while dance fuels me physically and emotionally, it fails me financially. For better or worse, there is a whole community of dancers and choreographers in the Bay Area who share this same conundrum to lesser or greater degrees.

So what do Pilates instructors, nannies, dog walkers, waitresses, and personal assistants have in common? They are all jobs with variability in work scheduling, and they are just a handful of the flexible jobs employing Bay Area freelance dancers. Over the past month I've interviewed about 20 of my fellow dancers and have been heartened at the abounding courage found in the local dance community to pursue alternate lifestyles to continue dancing.

Daria Kaufman has an MFA in Dance from Mills College. She teaches Gyrotonic, works as a receptionist at a yoga studio, and does administrative work for the Subterranean Art House. "One of the major challenges for dancers and choreographers is money — how to afford classes, rehearsal space, and theater rentals, to name a few," Kaufman says. "I've done a lot of work-study over the years to combat the issue of affording dance classes. Most studios have a work-study program — clean for an hour and a half, get a free class, that sort of thing. Some studios offer a similar deal for renting out rehearsal space."

Adaptability is necessary. Schedules vary day to day and month to month according to who's teaching which classes, who's working on what project, and what jobs will work around those opportunities. Often the most flexible jobs can be found in the food industry. Evening shifts allow dancers and choreographers to take morning classes and rehearse through the day, while variability in shifts provides flexibility when it comes to evening performances.

Angela Mazziotta, a dancer with Cali & Co., works at Squat and Gobble Cafe and Crepery in the Marina. "Although I don't work enough to be considered full time, I make enough to pay rent, eat, and dance," Mazziotta says. "There are days that I long to have a 'big girl' job for security, insurance, and more financial cushion. The reality is that those full-time jobs don't offer a lot in terms of flexibility, and the hours of operation coincide with dance classes and rehearsals."

The downside of the restaurant business is the relentless fatigue it piles on a body. Foundry dancer Joy Prendergast discovered that a café job was too taxing and now primarily teaches dance and baby-sits. Project Thrust choreographer Malinda LaVelle also found the strain to be too much. "I stopped working restaurants because the physical aches and pains of dancing were compounded by the strain of standing on my feet until 2 a.m. and then getting up the next morning and dancing again." After working five nights a week, LaVell quit the restaurant scene to walk dogs and pursue receptionist work.

Fitness-related instruction jobs are another popular money-making source. Many dancers are certified in Pilates, Gyrotonic, or yoga as a way to subsidize their income. "Teaching's a great way to make consistent money," says Gyrotonic instructor Andi Clegg. "I've been able to constantly shift my teaching schedule around shows or other dance-related work I am involved in." SF Conservatory of Dance student Emily Jones finds Pilates adaptable to her lifestyle: "I sometimes wish that I had a job where I could just turn off my brain and go on autopilot. But then I think about all the people I know who have café jobs and how they wish they could do something a little less numbing."


You guys should be high school tutors. It's sedentary, flexible, fun, and if you produce results, you can charge up to $100 per hour. While exercising your already sharp minds, it pads the pocketbook. San Francisco has no shortage of wealthy people with children. Just sayin'

Also, good article. It's very readable, and that's how a journalist's article should be. The beginning, middle, and end are tidy and connect well. The flow from word to word is smooth and predictable. Nice craft :-)

Posted by Parmesan on Jan. 26, 2011 @ 10:58 pm

I am a big big fan of Ms Wiederholt's dance writing, both her articles and her dance blog! "Working to Dance" is another great example of her work. Great insight too, on one of the critical aspects of our local dancers lives.

One of America's best symphony conductors once said, "...I conduct so I can compose. I compose so I can live..."

I have pursured my passion for dance and dance writing for the past couple of years now. I work so I can pursure that passion for dance. I pursure that passion, my passion, so I may live...

Thank you again, Emmaly, for a great dance article!

Posted by Jim Tobin on Jan. 26, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

Ok, but let's play devils advocate here, I mean I appreciate the fact that dancers are so motivated, but where does the responsibility start when it comes to making a change in finances? As directors and choreographers we should be paying our dancers to work, even if it is what they love. We all need to stop saying yes to working for next to nothing as dancers and as choreographers we need to start writing more grants, doing more fundraisers, support each other in the theater when work is produced, whatever it takes to break this cycle. Our dance jobs are worth just as much as any other job out there and it our responsibility to make that change, no one is going to do it for us.

Posted by guest on Jan. 28, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

Very hard to do, but a very good point!

Posted by Guest on Jan. 28, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

I think sharing figures of income comparing the earnings of someone with a typical full time job or entry level position with the earnings a performing artist (or any striving educated & talented artist) holding the multiple part-time jobs would present a whole new reality to those who may not get the picture still. The sacrifice we artists make financially is so extreme when numbers come into play. Yes, it's of course worth those moments we experience onstage that you can't recreate or ever imagine go paycheck to paycheck, but it's also a very scary place to put ourselves in. What happens if I'm seriously injured when I have little to no health insurance? Or what can I have for dinner tonight besides rice & beans?

If more people knew that we're making less than half the annual income of many average working citizens with little to no savings to speak of, I think we may see more support. We work hard so we can share ourselves and our potential with the world...such a priceless commodity....

Posted by another starving artist on Jan. 29, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

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