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Dancer: What I do and how much I make

Michael Novak, a dancer at the Paul Taylor Dance Company, shares his life as a professional dancer. He talks about his rigorous training, performances, recovery routines, and promotional duties. Despite the challenges and low pay, he loves his job for its creativity and variety. However, he acknowledges the career's short lifespan due to physical demands.

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Video transcript

My name is Michael Novak. I'm 34 years old and I'm a dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York City. The Paul Taylor Dance Company was founded in 1954 and it has since become one of the most famous and iconic modern dance companies in the history of dance. Every year, and our year goes from August to July, kind of like a school year, we have about 20 pieces of the 146 that are in active rotation, which basically means that they're out of the vault, we are working on them constantly and we perform any number of those 20 throughout the entire year. Put that all together, it basically means every year I'm responsible for 24 to 36 parts within a season and that changes every year. So there's a lot to do. There's a lot to learn. So as part of a touring company, we're on the road roughly third to half of the year. I think we average about 16 cities within the span of the years and since joining the company in 2010, I have traveled to 146 cities in 15 countries. When you're traveling internationally and nationally, these are long days, you know. There are some days where we're on the road, it's a 36-hour travel day and you're with your coworkers and you're stuck on the plane or you're stuck at the airport. So you really, you get to know each other really well and you get to actually be creative, especially if you're at an airport, flights delayed and you're stuck for four or five hours, you get really creative as a team of things that you can do. We've even had so much time that we've actually rehearsed things or gone over things at the gate, just to buy time. Some people will nap and stretch, but you're with each other all the time. So as a dancer I have a number of responsibilities to do my job well and to be safe and healthy. I have what I call the recipe, which is something that I've built over a number of years of dancing and it basically consists of five different aspects to my career. The first is a cross training program and that can involve weight lifting, gyrotonics, yoga, some kind of aerobic activity like swimming in the pool, cardio, yoga and that basically sets me up for my day, prevents injuries and it helps undo what dancing can do to your body. For example, in the Paul Taylor repertory, we tend to be a very dominant within our thighs and because we're dominant in our thighs, other muscle groups tend to get weak. So our weight training program that I've been working at with my personal trainer, helps offset the imbalances that I develop from actually dancing, which can help, hopefully, prevent injuries. We also do a lot of lifting in the Paul Taylor Dance Company. So there's also a lot of upper body stabilization exercises that we have to do. I am recovering from a current injury into both shoulders, so the weight training program is not just to gain strength but also to keep my shoulders strong and to prevent injuries from happening again. So that's the first part. Second part is getting ready for the rehearsals and that can range from taking daily technique classes, which can be ballet or modern, going over all the dances that I have to do in a given day, which can range from one dance to six or seven dances. It can also involve me sitting at a coffee shop for a number of hours, going over all the choreography that I'm going to have to be working on for the upcoming rehearsal period. Our daily rehearsals are about five hours a day and how much you're actually active within that day can vary depending on if you're cast in the dances that we're going to be working on. The third one is performances. So a performance day is a bit different because we have what's called a tech rehearsal, where we basically run the entire show before the show. So I tend to not do weight training or any kind of intense physical preparation before a show because it's about the show. I try to save as much energy for the performance, but in a performance day I will go over notes, anything that might be different because of the size theater that we're in, if there are any understudies going on, so you go through those little notes to get ready for the show. The fourth thing is recovery time and this is something that I've been implementing as I get older and as my body you know, starts to change, that recovery time becomes more crucial and that involves a lot of foam rolling, it involves treating certain sites that may have been overworked from the performance that I have just done. It also can involve yoga or something to help reset the entire system before I have to go back and do it again and the fifth category is essentially how we promote the company and as an international touring company, we are the brand and it's our responsibility to promote the brand, not just on stage, but also off. So there's a lot of dinners and parties and events where we have to go and engage with patrons, board members, cultural ambassadors, attachés, and promote the company. So that actually takes time and it takes energy and it does take a fair amount of ability to navigate that kind of a social space because as dancers, we're really more comfortable showing you physically how we feel, so being comfortable verbally and going into a room with hundreds of people and working the room and talking to people and making sure you talk to the people who you should be talking to, to promote the company is also really an important part of the job. So all those things come together, to just be a dancer. I had a rough idea of what the average dancer made when I chose to pursue my dance career and I believe the national average right now is around 24 to 34 thousand dollars a year, as a national average. Now, it's important to know that there are different tiers of dance companies, there are some companies that are smaller, that only work half of the year, where your starting salary might be $500 a week and in the dance community, that's a good job, that's actually, if you secure that, you should be proud of yourself. Then there's another tier of company like the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which is on the highest end of this particular scale, where starting salary, which I didn't know at the time when I auditioned, I knew the Paul Taylor Dance Company was an extremely prestigious company but I didn't know what that number was and in 2010, my starting salary was $750 a week and when I found out what that was, I basically was crying because it's a huge, huge amount of money to be given as a professional dancer, not just on in terms of the weekly salary, but the consistent work and the benefits. You don't go into dance to make money, you can't. You have to love it, because it is so hard and so draining. You go into it because dance is what you were born to do and if you work on your craft and you don't give up, hopefully you get to a point where you can work in a company where you get paid and you make a salary that is able to actually cover all of your expenses, especially in a city like here in New York, but most dancers are juggling four to six jobs at any given time to make ends meet. So dancers need to be extremely disciplined. A lot of work goes into cultivating you and your sense of physical and mental health, so that you can do your job. You have to be adaptable. Again, speaking of travel, you have to be able to dance at 11,000 feet, you have to be able to dance after a 36-hour travel day, small stages, large, large stages, you have to dance through injuries, you know, you have to find a way to make the show go on. So there's a determination there, that I think a lot of dancers have. You also have to be a team player. It's a very, very team driven company that I'm in. You are in it together and you need to trust your colleagues and you need to be fearless with them and these are all things that you cultivate the longer you actually do the job. The other thing that I think is important for dancers, to be as sensitive. I actually think that dance is, it is an aesthetic art form but it's also an art form that can communicate something. He has works that are extremely devastating, tragic, chaotic, and as a performer, you have to be willing to go to those places for the work to be seen that way but he also has these beautiful dances about love and hope and beauty and you have to go there as well. So you kind of have to have access to all of your emotions at any given time. What I love most about my job is that I'm part of a company where the repertoire is so vast, that you don't get bored and we're very fortunate that a number of works are iconic, they really are in the pantheon of phenomenal dance works and like all masterpieces, you want to have time to really dig into them, but there's so much variety too, so the moment you might be starting to get a little, you know, like, okay, this is the 8th show of Esplanade in a row, there's other dances that are coming in, that go away, that keep you engaged. There's always more to do. There's always more to unpack as an artist and because there's so much repertory, we're doing it constantly. But to be honest, the hardest part of the job is that it's short. You know, dancers don't dance, really, into their 40s or 50s. It is a very, it's an underpaid, overworked, short-term career. You have to do it when you're young, because your body starts, you know, to get old. You don't recover as quickly, you can't jump as high, so as a dancer you're kind of rushing to beat the clock, you want to have that career, you want to feel at your apex and explore your artistry in that apex, but you know that beyond that, there is a retirement where you're not going to be able to dance anymore and you're going to choose to leave and when is that moment? And will it be up to me? Because sometimes an injury will happen that can end a career and it's not up to you, your body tells you that it's time and there's a big emotional impact if that happens. So the hardest part of the job is knowing that it's very terminal, it's going to end.