Pursuing Dance After Graduation – by Stephanie Lilley
Students and studio owners often ask me what dancers should do if they want to pursue the art after high school. There are some great options available but the most important message I try to deliver is that you are responsible for creating your own opportunities. This blog entry will focus on my dance career thus far and how I have been able to survive as a dancer in Edmonton. Although not exhaustive, the five main options to dancers after high school are:
· further dance training,
· pre professional and professional company work,
· teacher training or teaching,
· post secondary dance and performing arts programs, and
· cruise ship contracts and industry work.
It is important to note that these are not mutually exclusive options. There are also many complimentary activities such as teaching fitness or yoga and performing in other disciplines. After training at a competitive studio in Edmonton for my teenage years, I switched to a more technically focused studio after I graduated (100 years ago…). I continued to train and to teach as I studied General Arts at the University of Alberta. When I was 19, I was offered a cruise ship contract which was to last 9 months and travel the Caribbean. I obtained this contract through video audition but it is very important for dancers to attend live auditions as well. I took a break from university to pursue this opportunity and also received my group fitness teaching certification while abroad.
Upon returning home (and changing majors and faculties), I continued my studies while still training and teaching. I discovered the dance group on university campus and supplemented my training by taking Orchesis classes. Also, around this time, I got serious about cross training and also took up running and yoga. These proved to be hugely helpful for my dancing. I found that the more classes and workshops I could take with different teachers and styles, the richer my dance education was.
Through Orchesis, I met one of my dance mentors, Laura Krewski. Not only did she get me involved with teaching at the university but she also invited me to work on a project with her company, Freefall. This was my first company experience and I was thrilled to be dancing modern jazz under such a strong role model. The project was short termed but it wet my appetite for further company experience. As I grew as a performer, I began to take on more roles dancing in fashion shows, fundraisers, conventions and the like. These industry shows were project based but often led to valuable networking and ultimately further projects. I found that my personal interactions with directors and employers were as critical to my success as my dancing. Like most dancers in Edmonton, I have always been self managed and not used an agent. This means I have had to sell myself and be own ambassador. Many very talented dancers have not succeeded because they have ignored the business side of their careers.
When I was 22, I decided to take a second cruise ship contract. I negotiated with my professors at university and was able to finish 2 courses by correspondence while abroad. The cruise ship world is not for everyone. I was very homesick (the downside to falling in love) and was not interested in the party lifestyle aboard the ship. I ended my contract early and came home to start the 6th (and final!!!) year of my undergraduate degree. I continued to train, teach and perform in industry shows while going to school.
When I was 25, I started my master’s degree in business and got engaged, all the while I kept dancing! Once I got married, I was starting to look for different performance opportunities in Edmonton and because of my husband’s Ukrainian background, I became interested in the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers. Having never danced or trained in the genre before, I relied heavily on my previous ballet training and was invited to join the artistic and management teams as well. Shumka provided me with such a fruitful experience. I toured across Canada and China, learnt a new genre of dance, gained invaluable directing experience, and honoured a family tradition. I was fortunate enough to perform roughly 200 times over 5 years with Shumka. At the same time I started with Shumka, I also danced with Citie Ballet. Although a wonderful experience, I was spread too thinly and did not return for a second season.
My true passion is in contemporary, modern and jazz dance and although Shumka offered many performance opportunities, I was not able to connect to Ukrainian dance the way I was with the aforementioned genres. The highlight of my dance career has been running my own contemporary dance company. I started Viva Dance Company in 2012 so that I could finally put a name to all of the freelance and industry jobs I was performing in. I recruited the most talented and dedicated dancers I knew and dove in head first. We have performed in over 100 shows including Fringe festivals across Canada and in Orlando, Florida. We are the resident dance company for Western Canada Fashion Week in Edmonton. We have performed at many fundraisers, corporate events, festivals (Nextfest, Feats Fest, Skirt Afire Festival, Kaleido Festival, Festival Hatzafon, etc.), industry shows and open houses. I was the dance coordinator and hired Viva to dance in this season’s Singing Christmas Tree. All this and I simultaneously grew 1½ babies (I am currently 15 weeks pregnant).
Although unorthodox, a professional dance career in Edmonton is possible. It is not true that you have to stop dancing after high school. It is not true that you have to stop dancing when you get married. And, it is not true that you have to stop dancing once you start a family. My most heartfelt advice to my beloved students at Vimy is
- · take as many classes from as many different teachers as you can,
- · remain humble and receptive,
- · go to as many auditions as you can,
- · always dance hard, you never know who is watching,
- · give attention to the soft skills around managing your career, and
- · most importantly: CREATE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES!