Dream Job, Nightmare Salary: Make It Work

With irregular cash flow and notoriously low wages, ballet dancers can have a tricky time keeping their bank accounts healthy—especially when they'd much rather focus on what's happening at the barre than what's happening in their checkbook. In Pointe's June/July issue, we broke down the paychecks of four corps members, and asked each dancer how she makes it work on a starting salary. Here, expert Elaine Grogan Luttrull, CPA, who recently wrote Arts & Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Other Members of the Creative Class, offers her tips for dancers.

 

What's the biggest financial issue for young ballet dancers?

Relevance. Many struggle to see the connection between mundane financial tasks and what they really want to be doing: performing. It can also be hard to see the importance of saving for the long term. And easy to forget that income can come at irregular intervals. Many ballet companies have a layoff over the summer, but you still need to pay for rent and utilities.

 

How can dancers deal with inevitable unexpected expenses?

Have a rainy day fund for injuries, last-minute flights, family issues, car repairs, life transitions. Of course, it's easy to advise to “have a fund,” but it's much harder to get one, especially if your income is barely covering your expenses. That’s where a budget comes in handy. If your goal is to save $1,500 during the year, find opportunities for additional income—extra teaching hours, for example, or writing guest articles for a dance publication—or look for ways to curtail your expenses

 

What should a dancer do if she's completely overwhelmed by her financial situation?

Exhale. And then maybe exhale again. Start small, track your progress and focus on what you can improve one step at a time. You also may want to hire a CPA or someone to help with financial planning (or find a volunteer willing to help you for free). “Help” can also be talking to peers and colleagues. Sometimes just talking about our challenges makes the solutions seem more attainable.

 

When you were younger, what was one creative way you cut costs?

Looking at my budget, I found that I was spending a lot on reading material without realizing it. I made a conscious effort to use the library instead, and it helped me save more than I’d like to admit per year. The collection of DVDs helped me eliminate cable and Netflix too!

 

How does Arts & Numbers differ from other personal finance guides?

There are plenty of technically accurate financial guides out there, but I found they weren’t really relevant for creative professionals. What I wanted to do with Arts & Numbers was translate the technical information into a usable format. Arts & Numbers is full of case studies to present the information in a relevant way.


Any additional advice?

Keep doing what you love—it will set you up for long-term success, financially and creatively. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a rainy day fund too!

Pointe Stars
Alana Griffith in "La Sylphide." Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet/

Rising lazily from an armchair, shrugging her shoulders and limply snapping her arms side to side, Alana Griffith imbued the title role in Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland) with the unmistakable boredom and longing of youth. Throughout the performance, her ability to bring personal depth to both the character and to Webre's challenging choreography revealed a special dancer coming into her own as an artist.


Alana Griffith in "ALICE (in wonderland)". Photo by Mark Frohna, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet.

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Screenshot from CNN Style video

While ballet may feel female-dominated in that there are plenty of onstage opportunities for women, key behind-the-scenes roles like choreographer and artistic director are still largely held by men—a point that is increasingly being raised and questioned in the dance world thanks to female choreographers like Crystal Pite and Charlotte Edmonds. Also helping to break that mold is rising female choreographer Kristen McNally, who not only choreographed a recent duet for CNN Style, but also paired two women to bring it to life.

In the short film, which features McNally's choreo and is directed by Andrew Margetson, Royal Ballet first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell and principal Yasmine Naghdi changed the expectations on gender roles in ballet—and the end result is awesome. Nearly identical in appearance, the dancers' movements and lines also mirror each other throughout the piece, even when dancing in canon. Even more impressively, McNally told CNN Style, "The dancers and I did two rehearsals and then we shot the film."

Check out the full duet for yourself, below.


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Photo by Lambtron, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you superglue your vamp? I am new to pointe and don't know where to apply it. —Amanda

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The tambourine variation from La Esmeralda is a competition favorite, but the full pas de deux isn't seen as often. That's a shame, because it contains some of the most technically challenging classical choreography to be found. In this video, Yuan Yuan Tan and Felipe Diaz take on this balletic feat with amazing power and ease.

Tan, who was awarded a permanent contract with San Francisco Ballet after performing this role as a guest artist in 1995, is a youthful but commanding presence. Her extensions crawl right up to her ear, and she rises from deep lunges en pointe to arabesque without ever seeming to get tired. After an endless series of promenades (4:00), Tan again lunges low to the floor and then teasingly runs away from Diaz, inviting him to follow her. In her variation, she oozes gypsy spunk, enticing the audience with dramatic details. She takes the variation at a quick pace, blending each movement smoothly into the next.

Diaz, who was a soloist with SFB and is now a ballet master for the company, shines in his own right. The adagio reveals his partnering prowess. From 2:15—2:35, Diaz supports Tan almost continuously in a string of carries and lifts–and his variation is chock full of bravura. All the way through the coda, the technical fireworks in this pas de deux never stop coming. We can't get enough! Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

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Tanaquil Le Clercq at the 1967 book signing. Reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine.

Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been known for her long-limbed dancing and versatile grace, but it turns out that her renown didn't end there. In 1967 the former New York City Ballet star published The Ballet Cook Book, a mix of ballet history, food stories and the pièce de résistance: recipes collected from over 90 famous NYCB dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine (her then husband), Jacques d'Amboise, Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent.

Why bring this up now? This year marks the 50th anniversary of her book's publication, and in celebration, food scholar Meryl Rosofsky is curating a program exploring the context of the book. Held on November 5 and 6 at the Guggenheim Museum, the program will include live performance excerpts with roles originated by Ballet Cook Book contributors including Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Bugaku, Stars and Stripes and Western Symphony as well as a panel conversation with d'Amboise and Kent (both of whom were at the original book signing) as well as current NYCB principals Jared Angle and Adrian Danchig-Waring, both talented cooks.That certainly seems like plenty of excitement to us, but attendees can also stop into the Guggneheim's Wright Restaurant to taste select dishes from The Ballet Cook Book including Le Clercq's Chicken Vermouth, Balanchine's Slow Beet Borschok, Hayden's Potato Latkes and Kent's Walnut Apple Cake.

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Studio to Street

Don't expect to catch Simone Messmer wearing a leotard—at least, not for company class. “Ballet class is for me," she says. “It happens every day, so it turns into a major part of how you set yourself up for the day and how you're feeling. I think it's really important to take control of that." In class, the Miami City Ballet principal prefers comfortable separates with clean lines and long sleeves. When it's time for rehearsal, she'll bring out her leotards and tights. “And I tend to bring the skirt or tutu that's appropriate for the role. I try to start right away, to get a feeling for it," she says.

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The Wortham Theater Center, where Houston Ballet performs, after Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy Nancy Wozny.

After Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's facilities and damaged its home theater, the Wortham Center, the company wasted no time finding temporary rehearsal space and rescheduling its first two programs of the season at the nearby Hobby Center. But today, the Texas company faced another major blow: The Wortham Center announced that it will be closed for repairs until at least mid-May. That means Houston Ballet now needs to reschedule more than half of its season—including 34 performances of Nutcracker.


A scene from Stanton Welch's "Nutcracker. Photo via Facebook.

As everyone in the dance world knows, Nutcracker is a major financial lifeline for American ballet companies. Houston's production, choreographed by artistic director Stanton Welch with sets and costumes by Tim Goodchild, was brand-new last year. (Fortunately, the company moved its sets and costumes to a safe location during the storm.) Finding space for a month-long run will surely not be easy, and the Hobby Center looks booked. While there's no news of a backup plan yet, here's hoping Houston Ballet will receive some Nutcracker magic—and be able to find a new home for this year's production. We'll keep you posted once they do.

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