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Dancer: How I got my job and where I'm going

Michael Novak, a dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, talks about his education, audition experience, and goals for the future.

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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Demetrice Sheppard
    Are you considering a follow up video for athletic trainers, physical therapists, and orthopedics to support this video for dancers? Careers related to how to keep the body in shape for dance and sports?
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    It can be very difficult for dancer's to secure a steady job. Instead of interviewing, dancers go to auditions. Many dancers have to go to hundreds of auditions before securing a spot in a company or in a show.
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Video transcript

So I started dancing around age 10. And, the story goes that my mom and dad thought it was important for me to have an after school activity. And, I had tried a number of sports things that did not go over quite successfully. And, around age 10, we moved to a new house and there was a dance studio that happened to be nearby. And, I don't know where the desire to start dancing came from, but I remember I just like, oh this could be a fun thing to do after school. So I signed up for jazz and tap classes. And, I enjoyed it. And I was pretty good at it and I liked it. So I kept dancing for a couple years and then around the age of 13 or 14, I started to develop a severe stutter. And, for about a year and a half I was in intense speech therapy to regain my ability to speak. Because I couldn't talk dance became a way for me to communicate and to get out all the frustrations and all the feelings that I had inside that I couldn't get out. So all of a sudden, dance went from a hobby to kind of a outlet. And almost like a crutch, like an emotional support system for, letting go of all the things that I was holding on to. And that's where I started to shift I think, my approach to dancing became like a part of who I was, and how I functioned, and how I communicated. But I wasn't set on being a dancer yet. I started to get involved in musical theater. And, I started to perform more and more and I started to really feel like I had something to offer. And I really enjoyed performing on stage. Especially in things that didn't involve talking. (laughs) And around the age of 18 when you're in high school and you're trying to decide what you want to do next, I thought, I want to go to college and I want to get a degree in dance. I was accepted to the University of The Arts in Philadelphia, on a full-ride scholarship. And, right after high school I went there and I studied there for a year. And when I was there, I was doing a lot of jazz and tap and I loved it. But I never had really done ballet before. And, my ballet technique was not acceptable. Given how good my jazz and tap was. And I really wanted to bring my ballet technique to a level that matched my jazz and tap training. And, I started to realize that in order to do that I would have to focus extensively on ballet. And almost taking other classes in jazz and tap and modern was working against the work that needed to happen to get my ballet technique to a level that I thought was appropriate for a male dancer at the age of 18. So, I dropped out of the University of The Arts. And, I was offered an apprenticeship with the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, which is in Narberth, Pennsylvania. And I studied there for a year and a half. Solely ballet. Only ballet. Twenty four hours a day seven days a week. In an attempt to get that up to the level of where my jazz and tap was. I started to develop shin splints pretty close to when I started taking ballet classes because of improper technique. And, I, as a dancer, just pushed the pain and was like, I'm gonna be fine, I'm gonna persevere and overcome all obstacles, and it will be great. The shin splints kept getting worse and I ended up developing a stress fractures in both shins. Which, is excruciatingly painful. And, the combination of the stress fractures and being on my feet 80 hours a week. And not really making a lot of money, at the time. Was really hard on me emotionally. And, to the point that I burned out. And, I just didn't, I, at one point I loved dance. And at one point, I wanted to do it as a professional. But, at that point, I was in so much pain, and I was making so little money that I quit, I was done. I was really lost. I didn't know what to do with my life. I didn't know what I was gonna do when I wasn't a dancer. But I knew that my lifestyle was not healthy. I knew that I wasn't happy. And I wanted to take the time to reassess and figure out, who is Michael Novak if he's not a dancer. So, I ended up moving to New York, actually, not to become a dancer. I moved to New York to (laughs) do something else. And, I was in New York and I freelanced actually for a window design company who does all the window displays at various luxury boutiques around the city. So construction, like labor-based, but still creative. And I did that for about a year trying to figure out what to do. And I decided that I was gonna go back to school. And I wanted to go to a really good academic institution, so I applied to Columbia University, to the School of General Studies. And I got in. And, at that time, my thought was I'm gonna go to Columbia, I'm gonna get my undergrad and then I'm gonna get my master's degree in Arts Administration. Or, I'm gonna go get my MBA. I'm never gonna dance again. So I went to Columbia (laughs) and, I loved it there. I had a phenomenal time there. I loved school, I loved their curriculum. I loved their approach to critiquing works and masterpieces and literature and it was. I really enjoyed and sucked the marrow out of that experience, you might say. But while I was at Columbia I started to get this itch to dance again. And, it kind of was annoying at first because I was, we went through this already. The industry hurt you. It doesn't pay well. You don't want to work multiple jobs. You know, where is this coming from? And, as I was at Columbia I used to have a lot of dance history, dance theory, dance criticism. And I was reminded of how much I loved the dance field, and the industry. And especially its history. And what legendary choreographers did, and when they did it, and how they evolved the art form and pushed it forward. And I think that passion that understanding for the history of dance, really kind of rekindled the flame to actually have a dance career. And towards the end of my college career I decided, you know what, I'm gonna give it one more shot. I'm gonna see if I can actually make this happen. I started dancing at the Taylor School at in 2008. And, I auditioned in 2008. And, there were about 80, or so men at the audition. And this was for the main company. And, I was, I got down to the final seven, I believe. First audition, I was very excited. Then he told me that the timing isn't right, but try not to go anywhere. So of course I was disappointed, I didn't get the job. But I was elated that I'd made it that far and he recognized me, and told me not to go anywhere. But there's very low turnover in the company. So the next time there could be an opening might be five years, six years. You don't know. It's outside of your hands. So, I kept taking classes at the Taylor School. And, I also realized that I don't know when the next audition's gonna be. And, it's I need to open up other opportunities. I need to audition for other companies. And, this was in 2008. So we're talking right at the beginning of the economic recession. Which, hit the dance community extremely hard. A lot of companies laid off dancers. Some companies almost folded. Other companies took a massive hit in terms of the number of weeks that they were offering dancers. Auditions were canceled. So, I graduated college right at this moment where there's no work. So finding auditions was tricky. And, I started to get creative, and I have I have to I have to figure out a plan B. Like, what is the plan B? And, I started thinking, there's no work here in concert dance. I'm gonna go commercial. And I'm gonna go back to my jazz musical theater roots. And then I had some contacts in LA. And I was like, I'm gonna move to LA. Don't know what's gonna happen, but I have some friends out there and I'm gonna see if I can make that work. 'Cause the dance scene in New York was struggling so bad at that point. And, I was making plans to go to LA and I got a phone call from a friend of mine who said that, (mumbling) was having an audition. And this was March 2010. And, I said, well, okay, it's this or LA. This, I'm gonna give this man my last this is my last shot at the (mumbling) dream. And if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. So, the audition was in May. And, I was the third one to sign up. And, I walked to the studio that day. And our studios are down on Grand Street on the lower east side here in New York. And, I was hysterical (laughs) as I was walking to the audition because I felt like this wasn't up to me. He was gonna decide what I was doing for the rest of my life. And it felt really vulnerable. And I think I had been auditioning for all these different companies, and I was trying to be the kind of dancer that I thought they wanted. And I was so exhausted from trying to be someone else and I just, I walked to that audition and I was just like, you're either buying what I'm selling, or you're not. I can't I can't be not be me. I'm too tired. So either it's this and here it is. Do what you will with it. So I went to the audition, it sounds so dramatic. So I went to the audition and there are about 60 men who showed up. We danced for maybe an hour and a half and then he reduced the group to maybe 20 people. And he had made up his mind. So there was 20 of us in a line. And, you all have numbers when you audition. And I was number 303. And he said to his assistant, it's the the three 30 what? Like, is it 331, or 332, you know. And I'd heard that. And I thought it's done, that's it, dream is over. I'm going to LA. Okay, it was good. And then she said, "It's 303." And I kind of heard it but it was having my own inner dialog and my self pity moment and I was like, wait, what? And then at this audition a lot of the company members were actually there. And the company members cheered and stood up and started screaming. And I was shocked because I just full on had the moment of, I'm never I'm never gonna have this dream. And kind of letting that sink in and then all of a sudden I just got the job. And, my life changed forever. So most dance careers, I would say, if you're lucky you dance probably between until you're 35, to 40? I'm kind of at the apex of my career. Most dancers, when they retire from performing do anything they want. Some go into teaching, some go into choreographing. I have friends who have become lawyers, become doctors. Have families. The world really is your oyster. But what I will say is that the discipline that you have as a dancer the team work, all those skill sets that you have worked on unconsciously within the dance career are often extremely utilized once you get out. Communication, adapting quickly. The show must go on as a perspective, that is applicable in all industries. Not just dancing. So there are opportunities out there you just have to find what makes you happy and where you think your skill sets off the stage, are gonna be best utilized.