I have spent most of my life in a dance studio––or more appropriately––everywhere I go becomes a dance studio. I’m certain many professional dancers can relate to this. Following a scholarship program and a short apprenticeship, I became a company dancer with Giordano Dance Chicago. Touring the United States and Europe for three years I performed in breathtaking venues; explored new works by innovative choreographers; and took acting and vocal classes during my time off from the company. While I devoured my time on stage dancing the artistically rewarding and inspired pieces of choreography, I recognized quickly that I identified more with Donald O’Connor than I did Paul Taylor.
Both men were extraordinary dancers with brilliant careers. Where Mr. Taylor’s audience was savoring the live, layered movement, athletically sweeping transitions, and electrically charged emotion on stage; Mr. O’Connor’s audience was entertained through a lens that captured moving pictures, nuanced transitions, and textured emotion. I was ready for my close up!
Every exceptional dancer knows, your preparation is the key to a soaring jeté. Thankfully, and before the advent of MySpace, Facebook, or whatever other app you’re thinking about whilst reading this article, I stayed in touch with the contacts that I’d met during my time working corporate industrials and musical theater jobs. I LOVE Broadwaaaaaay, too! (The word “Broadway” should always be sung.)
Prior to moving back to Los Angeles, I reached out to an agent whom I met during one of the aforementioned side gigs. My reputation as a versatile, trained concert dancer who could pick up material quickly, helped me find a home with representation that understood the universe I had come from and where I hoped to go with my career. Together, we carved a path.
I started taking classes with choreographers who were working on television to familiarize myself with their styles and establish a collaborative bond. The television process moves quickly. In addition to understanding the medium, I wanted to ensure a connection with the choreographer, their method, and the emotion of the choreography swiftly, so that I could thrive at auditions and shine on set. I invested in my training as an actor safeguarding my confidence for any circumstance that presented itself. Oh, and I relied heavily on the wisdom of my friends.
Speaking of which, I’d like to introduce a talented new character into the scene.
Samuel Lee Roberts has been dancing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 10 years. In just three weeks he will take the stage for his final performance with the company––a decision that Mr. Robert’s has been planning for several years with specific targets in mind.
“I think my work as a seasoned performer gives me the tools to make choices in a split second, work efficiently, stay clam in stressful circumstances and the confidence to know I am capable.” These are precisely the skills you’ll need to work on set, where every day brings a new series of demands: learning new blocking and choreography on the spot, delivering a consistent performance take after take, and conveying the intention of the scene.
When asked what he looks forward to most about making the switch, Samuel revealed, “I look forward to using my mind and body in a different way. I realize a majority of the vocabulary will be the same, but in my summation, the execution will be different.”
Again, Mr. Robert’s is correct.
Next, I turned to Artistic Director, Tracie Stanfield. Over the years her New York City based touring company SynthesisDANCE has experienced several cycles of dancers ready to piqué in a new direction. Her outlook remains generous and fresh, “The quality I love the most about commercial dancers, is in their ability to quickly jump into the movement and bring it to life. No time is wasted. Company dancers typically have more time to let the work develop, as the rehearsal process (in my experience) is longer. I love a dancer with experience in both worlds: they can explore and express, but they also get to the heart of the idea quickly.
Lisa Lindholm is the Vice President and senior agent at Go 2 Talent Agency in Los Angeles, CA. With more than 15 years as an agent, and former dancer herself, her insight is invaluable. “Knowing which skills to bring to the table will help your transition. You have to adjust your performance from stage to camera. It’s definitely a learned skill from practice on camera.”
Ms. Lindholm and Ms. Stanfield are prompt to affirm that both a concert dance and commercial career offer valuable experiences, and success is defined by each artist personally. Tracie expands, “I say dance is dance, work is work, and paying the rent as a performer is an honor. There are many paths to a rewarding performing career, take every path and detour that reveals itself to you. In both worlds, relationships are the key to success.”
Interestingly enough, I started this article thinking I was going to help a concert dancer find their way into the commercial market. There was a time when you had to stay in your lane. Now, in large part thanks to social media and shows like, So You Think You Can Dance, concert dancers take center frame, on camera! Where once there were only a few “Baryshnikov’s” that could cross over from classical success to commercial fame, the Misty Copeland’s of the world are proving Tracie Stanfield’s point: “. . .. dance is dance.” The creative process and delivery of the performance may vary depending on the perspective of the audience, but the emotional connection, discipline, passion, and relationships you build along your journey are the same. The residual payment that you’ll earn from a television show you shot four years ago is just the icing on the cake!
Matthew Shaffer wrote, directed, and starred in his first production when he was seven years old and has been entertaining family members (and audiences) ever since. When Matthew isn’t busy performing on stage and screen, he spends his time traveling the globe as a master teacher and choreographer, and collaborating and creating work with his husband, Jeff Payton and their production company, A Group Production, in Los Angeles, California. Shaffer is the author of the Amazon #1 New Release, So You Want To Be A Dancer and Dancing Out of the Closet, available Fall 2019.
Featured image: Matthew Shaffer performing with Giordano Dance Chicago – Photo by Mike Canale