This story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Pointe.
New York City Ballet principal dancer Lauren Lovette, a prolific user of
Instagram, discovered she had an eager following of aspiring ballerinas while guest teaching at Manhattan Youth Ballet and other summer intensives. “They would come up to me and say, 'I follow you,' " she says. “I realized early on the kind of influence I have on younger girls. Now I like to cater my Instagram that way."
Almost by accident, Lovette had built a "brand"—a successful ballerina whose lively photos, sparkling personality and keen fashion sense speak directly to a target audience. While "dancer as brand" may sound strange or distasteful, it has permeated the ballet world: Think of how American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland has built her empire through social media, a shrewd publicist, television appearances, film and touring with rock star Prince. Now, more dancers are finding ways to market themselves by finding and promoting their unique qualities.
It's something that Rachel S. Moore, president and CEO of The Music Center in Los Angeles and former CEO of ABT, advocates in her book The Artist's Compass: The Complete Guide to Building a Life and a Living in the Performing Arts. Moore, a former ABT corps member, details how dancers can negotiate the ballet business and survive in the current economic climate in the arts. Rather than assume that talent is all one needs, dancers must also realize that ballet is a competitive business. Cultivating a personal brand matters. Being able to articulate what is special about your approach, Moore says, will enable you to build a brand which will help you find professional opportunities.
“Your brand needs to grow out of what your voice is as an artist, how you define yourself in the field and what you think is special that you can bring," says Moore. “It's an outgrowth of that—not simply the tools of social media or something that's superficial. It's how you present yourself to the world."
So, how do you create a personal brand? One way is to ask what sets you apart from other dancers. “What do people think of when they hear your name?" Moore asks in her book. “Why would they come to see you as opposed to some other dancer…Not everyone is going to prefer you to some other brand, but the more people there are who recognize and choose you, the more likely you are to become a leader in your category." Curating personal websites and YouTube channels; posting regularly and wisely on social media; cross-promoting with other media and corporations; and engaging through personal connections are some of the best ways to promote your brand.
BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang, who was a soloist at NYCB before launching a successful choreographic career, understands from experience how important it is for dancers to market themselves through videos, social media, resumés and photos. On social media, he says, “You have to tell a real story with heart, and it measures 30 seconds for Facebook and 15 seconds for Instagram. Anytime you put anything out there, you need to understand who's watching a video and what the demographics are."
Creating a brand, however, doesn't necessarily mean pushing for superstar status. Moore stresses that it's about curating an authentic uniqueness, which can take many different forms. “Success isn't narrowly defined as being the next Gelsey Kirkland."
Can Branding Get You a Job?
Interestingly, Lovette notes that her social media branding has primarily generated modeling work for Chacott, Danskin and Freed of London pointe shoes rather than her recent promotion to principal dancer. “My boss is from a different generation," she says of ballet master in chief Peter Martins. “I don't think he looks at social media that much."
Liang loves smart dancers who know how to promote themselves and thinks it can even benefit their company. But would he hire them simply on the basis of their branding? In a word, no. No matter how brilliant your branding efforts might be, if you can't execute a double pirouette or quickly learn a combination at an audition, you won't get the job.
Authenticity Is Key
Branding can work against you if it's disingenuous. “It's a problem if dancers try to squeeze themselves into something they're not," says Moore. “It's fine as long as they understand that whatever they're doing is authentic to who they are at that moment—which can change."
To that end, she recommends never exaggerating or lying about your work experience; speaking about your work passionately; forgoing contrived mannerisms; avoiding arrogance or gossip mongering; understanding your target audience; and staying consistent with your brand in interviews and auditions.
But are some dancers so wrapped up in self-promotion that they fail to become team players? “There's always a danger of narcissism," says Liang. “I try to help my dancers understand the broader strokes of how big the industry is and what the ramifications are. There's nothing more dangerous than a big fish in a very small pond."
Despite any negatives, Lovette looks at the positive influences of branding on the profession. “I think it's done wonders for the ballet world," she says. “Our audiences are getting older and now younger audiences are coming in." She even sees a symbiosis happening between fashion and dance and likes that brands such as Cole Haan are using NYCB dancers in their marketing. "It's bringing ballet back to life."
Social Media Dos and Don'ts
Social media is one of the easiest ways to build brand visibility and brand identity. Moore offers these guidelines for curating your accounts.
1. Watch what you post, "like" and link. Once something's out there, you lose control over it. "Post only statements you would feel comfortable sharing with employers, potential employers, patrons or clients," Moore writes. Keep messages positive; avoid controversial topics, overtly sexual photos or commentary, and gossip.
2. Create two accounts, one for friends and one for business. However, your personal page can easily become public, so be careful what you post.
3. Be genuine and gracious about your successes. No one likes a braggart. Be excited, but remember to thank those who've helped you and to compliment others.
4. Your photos should be compelling, carefully selected and reflect your brand. Avoid pictures that are unflattering, unprofessional or show you engaging in risky behavior. If your photo was taken by a professional photographer, credit them in the post.