Friday, April 18, 2008

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Jazz Career

In a 21st century dance world bursting at the seams with modern, contemporary, and ballet companies, what’s a jazz dancer to do? What professional-level job opportunities exist for the dancer who wishes to pursue a strictly jazz-oriented career, and what, if any, opportunities are available for long-term contracts with established “jazz” companies? Essentially, what does it mean to be a “professional jazz dancer” in today’s dance world? Jazz dance, while retaining its wide base of popularity in non-professional settings such as dance competitions, seems to have taken a back seat in recent years to the exponentially expanding arena of contemporary dance. In response, many jazz companies and dancers have expanded to include more contemporary dance influences in their work. Certainly the situation for today’s jazz dancer is somewhat different than it would have been, for instance, during the heyday of Bob Fosse, when the very idea and style of jazz dancing was considered to be on the exciting cutting edge of the progression and transformation of dance. Jazz seems to be no longer a primary focus in dancing thought, a trend which seems to be accompanied by the suspicion that jazz dancing is somehow cheap or less demanding professionally, artistically, or technically than other forms of dance which involve more of a continuous strain of specific training and oft-repeated disciplinary measures. Although there is no universally codified jazz “technique,” the extensive versatility this dance form requires is part of what makes jazz dancing so difficult—it takes just as much artistry, work, and tireless training to master as many other contemporary forms.
It takes even more work, however, for the jazz dancer to find a steady job. Although many opportunities, such as contracts for musical theatre productions, are available to those whose work merits them, the temporary nature of such runs provide a dancer with little long-term guarantee for subsequent work, making a jazz dancer’s life an even longer string of auditions than that of a contemporary ballet dancer. Although there are and have been over time a few professional jazz companies which provide their dancers with longer-term contracts, such as the famous Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, these opportunities are too scarce to make them a practical option to be relied on by a jazz dancer looking for a job. Yes, Broadway offers a plethora of job opportunities for jazz dancers, some of which can feature lengthy, relatively well-paid runs and greater security. However, many of these roles are for ensemble work in particular, and many (though certainly not all) require additional special skills, such as singing and acting ability. One developing and growing arena in which jazz dancers may find greater opportunities is in the film and commercial industries. As a quickly changing venue, new opportunities, many of which can be extremely well paid, are opening up in this realm rather rapidly. These too are temporary however, providing the dancer with work only until the relatively short filming process is over. One of today’s most prolific opportunities for film dancing is in the Hip-hop realm, a growing style of dance which is quickly rising in professional esteem. Although not in fact a style of jazz dance, many jazz dancers crossover for the opportunities it can provide.
There are certainly opportunities for professional jazz dancers available, but they are few and far between in proportion to the opportunities available to those wishing to pursue other dance forms, or at least expand, allowing some crossover between jazz and other contemporary styles in their search for satisfactory professional employment. Many dancers already explore these other dance forms, and while they may prefer jazz, would not object to jobs involving more varied styles. In these cases, a dancer’s jazz training may benefit them in securing a job, but that job is perhaps not necessarily one which entails solely jazz emphasis. For a dancer who is looking to live exclusively as a professional jazz dancer, the options are more limited, thus making the competition to obtain them all the more intense. Is a professional jazz career a viable option? Only for a few.

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