Charlotte Curtis

Dancers on Where They Draw the Line

In this writing, dance artist Evvie Allison responds to Dance Magazine's article What's Not Okay to Ask a Dancer to Do Evvie, who was "struck by the fact that only choreographers were interviewed on the subject of dancers' boundaries", took it upon herself to conduct interviews on the subject within the dance community. The dancers responded to how they've navigated their limits in rehearsal and how they've learned to hold space for themselves in ways that serve them best. Dance Magazine's depiction of this subject lacks sophistication in it's breadth of scope and holds onto hierarchies that are oppressive and dominant. Evvie's collection of responses voice progressive and invaluable truths. 

--Mariana Valencia, co-editor

I recently came across an article in Dance Magazine titled “What’s Not Okay to Ask a Dancer to Do.” I wasn’t surprised by the premise. As a choreographer and dancer, I think a lot about the balance between manifesting an artistic vision and maintaining a safe, ethical workspace. I call it rehearsal culture, a term that for me encompasses how we make what we make, including all the negotiations and agreements—spoken and unspoken—that get made along the way. What surprised me about the online article was that only choreographers—no dancers—were interviewed.

When I reached out to the editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, she assured me that dancers had been interviewed for the full print article. The dancers’ perspectives, however, were not available for free online. And although dancers were included in the print article, choreographers still outnumbered them by more than 2 to 1. In addition to raising questions of privilege and access in an already elitist field, this imbalance unmistakably situates choreographers in the position of power.

The fact that choreographers were privileged in a story about dancers’ boundaries speaks to a persistent problem in the dance field. While in some respects we’ve come a long way, the premise of a hierarchy in dance-making has lingered: choreographers at the top, dancers at the bottom. We’ve come to expect it; the idea is so pervasive that an omission like this one can go largely unnoticed.

I want us—and our dance writers—to stop reinforcing this hierarchy. It’s unimaginative at best and dangerous at worst, and in my experience, it doesn’t represent the way most dances are really made.

So I interviewed some of my fellow dancers to get their perspective. I asked them to speak about how they navigate their limits in the rehearsal room. When do they say no— and how? Below are excerpts from their responses.

“I learned after several minor injuries that I had to use my voice, to speak up when I knew that I needed rest and that my limits were being pushed beyond what my body was capable of sustaining. It was difficult to accept, though ultimately imperative, that on these days/weeks, I might let others around me down, in particular the choreographer, who needs the dancer dancing in order to realize their vision. But part of a good collaboration is honest communication, which cannot be one-directional. I also think that an unintended byproduct of this was that I felt my worth, not only as a dancer, but as a person, and this helped me more fully embrace and trust my whole self as an artist, and eventually deliver richer, more genuine performances.”
—Melissa, former corps de ballet member with American Ballet Theatre, NYC

“Being in a creation process is always a negotiation. If I feel resistant to an idea, I'll ask myself why: maybe I'm at a growing edge, maybe it's a concept I'm not familiar with, maybe this is something I need to give a few days to see from a different perspective.

‘No’ is not my first step. I want to approach artistic processes and collaborations with openness. However, if my body is put in danger or my identity is being exploited for the work, we need to have a conversation. And that's how I approach it: having a conversation with the choreographer I'm working with. It's helpful for both of us to understand where we're coming from—both what their artistic impetus is and what the sticky point is for me. Knowing this can help us adjust as needed and continue to build work together.”
—Kim, dancer with Third Rail Projects, NYC

“I have some very clear boundaries around performance of gender: I don't wear make-up, I won't wear costumes that feel objectifying, and I don't shave. I have intentionally migrated my dance career into the more experimental tracts of the dance world, in part because these spaces tend to consider identity within performance from the start. I am rarely asked to do something that is in conflict with my identity, often because I am usually performing a version of myself and not a character. However, I have been faced
with requests to wear make-up or shave or wear a low-cut top. Out of fear that these boundaries could be a deal-breaker, I often let directors and choreographers know of this boundary very early on. I will take them aside for a personal conversation before or after rehearsal or during a break. Appealing to the humanity of the choreographer in a non-public way has yielded the best results for me.”                                                                                                —Lindsay, freelance performer and choreographer, NYC

“I've been a performer, a choreographer, and a producer. In every situation, I've noticed that dancers are really not trained to say no to anyone. I think this goes back to old-school training. Especially for female dancers who are classically trained, there's a ‘work as hard as you can, keep your head down, don't complain, and accept what you can get’ mentality that's been pervasive for years.

“As a performer, I was once hit in the head during a show—my partner accidentally spun me into a shelving unit—and suffered a concussion. I finished the show and was planning to do the second show of the night because my counterpart wasn't available to cover for me. This was my first contracted performance job, there was lots of press and attention, and I was especially interested in making a good impression. Additionally, we were paid
per show, and it was income I was relying on heavily. I was worried that if I had an injury that took me out for a while, and if I didn't perform, I wouldn't be paid. This was an unfounded fear since the company had worker's comp and a policy for sick pay, but at the time I didn't know about it—the policies were outlined in my contract, but being new to contracted dance work, I just didn’t expect them. In the end, the stage management and the artistic director stepped in to make sure I didn’t perform in the second show with a concussion that night—stage management was actually furious that I didn’t say something until after the show.”
—Kate, freelance dancer, choreographer, and producer, NYC

“I think my biggest struggle as a dancer has been with choreographers who privilege aesthetics over the health of my body. Most of the time I really couldn't care less about dance moves. They are arbitrary and meaningless in most contexts, and if those moves compromise my body, I'm going to speak up. Now, does this work? The stakes have always felt extremely high. That's probably not an accurate assessment of how fragile the situation is (would I actually get fired for saying no?), but I haven't been willing to push it hard. So, now I only work with a choreographer who from the very beginning has made it clear that saying no is part of our working agreement. She does this by explicitly saying so, but also by example. If she needs to take a break, that's what we do. If we need to take a break, that's what we do. And in that environment, I'm willing to do things that I would not have been able to justify doing for other choreographers.”                                                                   —Freelance dancer, NYC

“I think describing the instances of feeling uncomfortable in rehearsal because of something I am being asked to do is where the juice of the matter lives. Speaking up or not, changing the material quietly or on my own without ‘permission,’ or deciding to reframe the situation in my head, if not in my body, are all possible adjustments that I work out for myself as a dancer. Sometimes they include the choreographer, sometimes they don't. There is power in that.”
—Choreographer and performer, Chicago

“If you’re working with a choreographer who is interested in limits, you as a dancer probably are too. In each project I work on, I ask myself, ‘Am I interested in pushing myself in the way the choreographer is interested in pushing me?’ I have to remember that my boundaries will not be the same as other dancers’ boundaries, and my own boundaries will change from day to day. Sometimes I will even try on another dancer’s approach to the choreography as a way to learn about my own values. It’s important to learn that to say no—to reach a limit and stop—can be as brave as continuing on or
pushing through. That way, the edge—and the conversation about where limits are—can inform the work.”
—Rachel, freelance dancer, NYC

“The only times I can think of when I said no have had to do with compensation. There was one case when I knew the choreographer couldn’t pay any of the dancers, which I decided was fine because I was asked to join the project by someone I feel inspired by, and the commitment seemed low. When I gave my availability, though, I was surprised by how many rehearsals the choreographer had put me down for since it was a ‘come if you can’ agreement. I sent the choreographer an email saying that although I was
available, I wasn't expecting to spend that much time in rehearsal for the project because of the lack of compensation. The choreographer was very understanding and agreed that I would come to fewer rehearsals and perform in only one out of several pieces. In the end, all the performers were paid a small honorarium.”
—Alex, freelance performer and choreographer, NYC

“I’ll speak up if a choreographer is asking a dancer inappropriate questions. For example, if a choreographer in front of a roomful of dancers says to someone, ‘Why can’t you make rehearsal next week? Oh, you’re working with another choreographer? Who?’ In a moment like that, that’s when I would say, ‘That’s so totally inappropriate,’ and I would tell the dancer, ‘You don’t have to answer that.’ When you’re freelancing, you tell the choreographer when you’re free, and that’s it. And hopefully the choreographer is inspiring enough that you set some time aside for that person. And hopefully they’re paying you enough that you’re able to. And if they’re not paying you enough in money,hopefully they’re paying you enough in other ways, like helping you to learn something new or giving you free class. There are other forms of exchange that we have at our fingertips as artists.”                                        —Troy, freelance dancer, NYC

“One example of a situation that’s led to me bow out of a dance project is when I’ve realized that I’m being asked to make the dance for the choreographer. For example, in rehearsal when the choreographer says, ‘Go away and make a phrase,’ with no other guidelines, that says to me that the choreographer doesn’t know how to direct or isn’t prepared. But when I’m improvising in rehearsal to make more material and the choreographer is super strong about the decisions they’re making, and they’re like, ‘No, change that, do it that way,’ that’s different. Then the piece is really choreographed by
that person, and I’m dancing in it.”
—Freelance dancer, NYC

"If I feel the need to say no when I'm working, then I ask myself why. As a rule, I try to be open, generous, and supportive in my work, and I choose to say no or ask questions when, over time, choreographic propositions seem worthy of a pause, a conversation, or an alternative. That said, when time, resources, or tension get in the way of finding time to talk, I make a point to wait and then create time when everyone is available and willing to listen. I've also found that body language is a powerful tool at our disposal as dancers, and whether we know it or not, we (can) express our doubt, excitement, belief, or disagreement by when, where, and how we move."
—Kevin, freelance dancer, Brussels, Belgium

“I was raised in dance traditions that viewed the use of dancers as solely body-based— it was about what you could do, not what you thought about that doing. I never even knew ‘no’ was an option until many years into my professional career, when I came to work for choreographers who openly valued my intellectual, emotional, and discursive contributions in tandem with the physical. I was fortunate to get permission to say no from many fellow dancers who knew what I didn't: saying no is a necessary part of the collaborative, creative process. The moments where I have felt I can say no—whether to a shortened warm-up time before a performance, a costume option, or a performative choice—have always been the start of a dialogue, not the end of it.”
—Tara, freelance dancer and dance writer, NYC

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Evvie Allison

Evvie Allison is a dance artist, writer, and artist advocate whose research engages questions about how we make what we make. Her co-mentorship initiative FREE ADVICE, co-founded with Alice MacDonald ...
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