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By Meredith Benjamin
Work-study programs reward dancers with training and exposure.
When Sean Bell walked into an audition for the upcoming Broadway musical Dames at Sea, he felt more at ease than the typical auditioner. He was confident that choreographer Randy Skinner, a guest teacher at Steps on Broadway in New York City, would recognize him from the many times Bell had taken his class—not to mention from Bell’s frequent post at Steps’ front desk. “It happens all the time,” says Bell, who has held a work-study position at the studio since 2010. “I’ll walk into an audition and there’s a choreographer I’ve taken class with who knows me by my first name.”
Who you know is a prime factor in auditioning and booking jobs. But let’s face it: Dance classes can be expensive networking opportunities, let alone pricey training tools. So it’s no surprise that work-study programs, which offer free or discounted classes in exchange for administrative work at a studio, are competitive gigs. We spoke to schools with thriving work-study programs to get the inside scoop on how they operate and what you need to know if you’re looking to nab one of the spots.
One of the busiest open studios in the Big Apple, Steps on Broadway has a highly competitive work-study program that puts dancers in command of the front desk, café or boutique. In return, they receive unlimited classes for $4 each, a considerable discount on the standard $18 single-class price. There’s also room for growth: Steps has what they call “promotionary positions,” including front desk assistant manager, phone receptionist and night manager, for which dancers get free classes.
Across the board, work-study programs offer invaluable networking opportunities. Dancers become part of what Steps operations director Matthew Martine calls “a creative home,” which can be a huge benefit to students new to an often-overwhelming city. And the savviest dancers take advantage of the unique position of the front desk job. As AnnMarie Hudson of Los Angeles’ Millennium Dance Complex puts it: “The front desk is a frenetic hub of the L.A. dance scene—choreographers, artists, working dancers and agents all must pass through this portal.”
Perks also lie in gaining administrative experience and learning the daily operations of a large studio. At Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, Washington, for instance, work-study participants do everything from cleaning the studios to helping out at performances. “It’s a great entry point for students to get involved with the Velocity community, either administratively or on a deeper level as a dancer,” says Stefanie Karlin, who supervises the program. And she would know: Karlin started out as a work-study student at Velocity before working her way up to her current position as producing director, where she helps manage the studio and its programming.
Landing the Job
So how can you get a leg up on your competition? For starters, it pays to know the studio to which you’re applying. Claire Bataille, director of the Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago, says she receives emails on a weekly basis from dancers interested in the program, and the candidates that top her list are those who “have been taking class and who are invested in this studio in particular.” She also likes to see resumés that detail nondance work experience, especially in customer service.
Karlin notes that Velocity’s work-study application even asks specifically if dancers have taken class at the studio before, and which classes they frequent. Dancers need a strong work ethic, and she looks for those “who are responsible, and who we can count on to show up and do their tasks.”
At Steps, where roughly 20 new students apply to the program each month, Martine says that one of the first things he asks applicants is what their goals are and how they’ve worked to achieve them. “I definitely look for people who have a sense of who they are and what they’re looking for, because otherwise we can’t really guide them properly.” He offers the dancers he hires twice-weekly “help hours,” where they can come to him for advice on everything from booking jobs and choosing classes to finding apartments and writing resumés.
Make Training Your Priority
Freelance dancer Stefanie Piatkiewicz praises the sense of community she has gained as part of the work-study program at the Lou Conte Dance Studio. It was through those connections that she landed her current teaching job with Mindful Practices, an organization that brings dance and yoga into Chicago schools. But she cautions dancers in work-study positions to not let administrative work become all that brings you to the studio. “Make sure you actually take class,” she says.
At Steps, dancers are given two set shifts a week, which allows them to plan the rest of their schedules ahead of time. Martine encourages dancers to take advantage of Steps’ vast offerings and master teachers: “This is a great way to get yourself up to that New York level and be ready for auditions,” he says. “You can really focus on your training and take 10 classes a week.”
Bataille agrees. “I never want anyone to feel like they’re just volunteering at our front desk,” she says. “They need to be getting the training that they want—that’s the whole point of the program.”
Meredith Benjamin writes about dance in New York.