The Back-Up Plan
Being a dancer has never really been a choice for me. I like to say that dancing is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes - it’s what I was born with, and what I’ve embraced as an integral part of my being. When I was 3, my mom put me in ballet class because that’s what every little girl does, right? And apparently I looked really cute in a little pink leotard and wispy bun. From then on is history. When we were asked at school what we wanted to be when we grew up I’d get really confused and just answer, “Well I’m a dancer.” I didn’t understand that a kindergartener who took ballet and tap classes wasn’t technically a professional dancer. Needless to say, I always knew this was what I wanted to do.
Dancing became my passion at an early age, and my self-proclaimed “job” shortly thereafter. I joined my studio’s dance company when I was 9, so that I could do all performances the studio had to offer each year. I started doing competitions when I was a little older, and when my studio decided they were worth doing. My mom used to drive me 3 hours each way to Atlanta and back in a day just so I could take classes at a studio that specialized in hip hop. I took every master class I could find, went to a third studio for ballet intensives, and went to conventions on my own to get more experience with more choreographers. I couldn’t WAIT to get out of high school and up to New York City; I knew that was where I had to be.
After much back and forth with my parents as to whether or not I would even go to college, we settled on a plan. I would graduate high school a semester early, and take a few college courses at the community college while we figured out what to do next. I was hell-bent on going to NYC (with no plan, mind you, just thought that if I got there it would all work out just fine), and they were stern in their dream for me to go to college - I graduated with a 4.125 GPA after all! That last year and a half of high school was pretty stressful on my relationship with my family because I could only see things in black or white - college to me meant dance career over.
During my semester at the local college, my mom took me to the Pulse on Tour. Now this was during the 4th season of SYTYCD when it was a huge hit, especially for young budding dancers like me. It was the first thing I had seen besides old movie musicals that had people like me on the big screen. At this convention, choreographers from the show that I more or less worshipped would be teaching me THEIR choreography. I would get to dance some of the most incredible movement I’d ever seen for a whole weekend of nothing but dance. Dreams were coming true for me, and it was all happening on the day of my 18th birthday.
As I was dancing my butt off, my mom went to a seminar for parents with kids like me - crazy ones! Kidding. But it was for parents of kids who wanted to pursue dance as a profession, but didn’t really know where to start. That’s where she found out about the Broadway Dance Center Internship program. The speaker offered some great advice as far as the college question went, and basically said that moving to New York, or any big city without a plan is a bad idea. College may not be the right answer for everyone, but having something to be accountable for, and people looking out for you are important parts of making the transition into a performance career. So after a long day of dancing, my mom and I had a chat that would forever change my life. We decided that I would apply to this internship, and if I got in I could move to NYC for the 5 month duration. And then we would go from there.
Long story longer, I got in. I had also been awarded a scholarship from Regal Cinemas that I used to cover most of the cost to start the internship, and next thing I knew my mom and I were on a plane to NYC. I spent the 5 months of the internship taking on average 14 dance classes a week, auditioning, attending seminars, and living my absolute dream. By the time it was over I knew I was in my new home, and had to stay. I made a deal with my parents that I would go to college, and still audition and take class, trying to live a double life. I would concentrate on finishing my general education courses, as with my dual-enrollment classes in high school and few courses in community college, I was almost done with those. Then I would continue on to a graphic communications degree. That lasted about 3 months until I booked my first professional job out of town.
I guess the plan was to return to school when I got back, but I decided to try my hand at just doing the dancer life. And honestly, it’s mostly a NON-dancer life. I made most of my money babysitting, working at a gym, and crossing my fingers that my parents wouldn’t ACTUALLY cut me off anytime soon. I was truly blessed to have parents that had saved money for my college education, but saw that I was getting what I needed out of New York City itself, and continued to help fund my career - head shots, groceries, voice lessons, man those were the DAYS! Not many people have that luxury, and I know I was quite privileged to have that kind of support.
At the end of the summer 2011, I booked the national tour of In the Heights, and set off on 9 months of life lessons. It was my first time doing the show that would be pivotal in my career. I was independent on tour, and in charge of my own finances. Definitely didn’t make the best choices there, but I sure lived my life across the country. After tour, I had gained about 20 pounds, hadn’t saved a dime, and needed ankle surgery. I spent that summer at home healing and staying in Tennessee with my family. Once I moved back in August, I was financially on my own, still limping from surgery, and broke with no job. Now what? I could hardly walk, let alone dance, and no one needed a babysitter in the summer time. What was I going to do?
This is the part where you’re expecting me to say “I should have finished college and gotten a degree to get a real job,” right? That would have made things easier, maybe, but that was never my journey. The time I would have spent in school was time I needed to discover who I was and what I wanted in my own way. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m STILL playing catch-up when it comes to singing and acting, as I never got that training in a class setting. I may have gone to conservatory if I wasn’t in my black or white, college or dance brain during my last years of high school. But my choices have lead me down a pretty special path of amazing highs and through some dark lows. My support system of friends and family are the most important part of whatever successes and failures I happen upon, and I wouldn’t have most of them had I not chosen this life.
I will say that I wish I would have paid attention to the concept of a “back up plan” to some degree. At least in the way of cultivating other hobbies and skills to get me by in between. Not only would it have made my life financially easier early on to have other sources of income, but it would have taken a lot of the stress out of dancing as a career. When your job is your passion, you can get burnt out very quickly if you aren’t careful. Most performing jobs are out of your control to obtain, no matter how talented and ready you may be. There are so many factors that go into casting a show, you can’t hold the burden for not booking a job. You can, however find other ways to be happy and fulfilled, and other ways to make a living in between jobs. Very few people go from show to show to show. And really, those of us who haven’t stayed booked our entire careers may be more well-rounded as humans. Don’t look at a “back up plan” as a plan if you fail or get burnt out, or an alternative to a dance career. Look at it as a plan to give you more control over your life, finances, and mental wellness.