When Did It All Change?
For over fifty years I have been a dancer, choreographer and teacher. I don't feel my age until I talk to many younger dancers. My dance career started after the Great Depression and World War II. Because of my late start as a dancer, I was taking as many dance classes as my money would dictate. Dancers at the time made their love of dance a top priority; they didn't let other activities deter them from class. When did it all change?
In the late '40s America was recovering from the Depression and the War, and our parents couldn't finance our dreams of becoming dancers. An individual had to make sacrifices to find the resources to make their love of movement a life's work. Many dancers worked as waiters or in temporary jobs to pay th eir rent and their classes. Our dance training included all the disciplines: ballet, modern, tap, ethnic, and what was known as "theater dance" (now cal led jazz).
As a teacher of many very talented students, they often tell me they only want certain dance jobs - for example, American Ballet Theatre, or the New York City Ballet. They will not go to auditions for Broadway or lesser-known companies. Then I try to explain to them that every job is a learning process. When I ask "How do you survive"?, some of their answers shock me. "My parents are sending me money to cover my expenses."
Recently I was doing research on Robert Lindgren and his wife Sonja Tyven for my website. Their combined careers are like a history of dance, from the '30s to the present. They danced for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, concert companies, Broadway and television. This is what was and still is available for today's dancers - and they are foolish if they don't take advantage of the opportunities offered to them.
When Robert Lindgren started to dance, he was one of the first Canadian-Americans to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which made yearly tours to North America in 1933. Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo didn't make New York City their home until World War II, because it was impossible to travel back to Monte Carlo.
Ballet Theatre (American Ballet Theatre) was a continuation of the much smaller Mikhail Mordkin Ballet Company. Mikhail Mordkin was a defector from Serg ei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. Ballet Theatre made its debut at the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center in 1940. And The New York City Ballet started in 1947, although they had several names before: The America Ballet, Ballet Caravan, Ballet Society, and finally, the New York City Ballet Company. Robert Lindgren and Sonja Tyven were there through all the changes. Robert is still involved in dance, while Sonja, after 42 years of dance, has retired to her garden.
Prior to the War, Broadway musicals were mostly tap, show-girls and high kicks. Modern Dance was trying to get its foot in the door to be considered professional theatre. We can thank Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris, Jack Cole, Agnes de Mille and many others for making modern dance acceptable to a wider audience. Many of the modern dancers were mainly trained in ballet . When I was at the Katherine Dunham School the dancers took ballet and were beautiful ballet dancers, but few, because of their color, could find work in a ballet company -- talented dancers such as Louis Johnson and Janet Collins, to name a few. Sadly, it is not much better now.
One of the recent changes is the attitude of younger dancers -- their lack of knowledge and their indifference to the pioneers who made it possible for dance to become popular in America. I find it disturbing that they have a lack of respect for their teachers or older dancers. Being disrespectful to such master teachers as Antony Tudor or Anatole Oboukhoff would have been unheard of in my day. If you didn't like a teacher's class you just stayed to the end and never went back. Walking out of a class before it was over was, and still is, downright rude. Discipline is part of the tradition of dance classes. Also, not being dressed in the proper attire was a no -no. Today some students dress any way they want.
Illness was not an excuse from performance. Everyone believed "the show must go on," for fear you would be replaced -- a chance no one was willing to take.
Earlier, besides ballet companies and Broadway, there were many concert companies that would tour small towns and universities.
Today, unless you are in Las Vegas or other gambling casinos, dancing in night-clubs is almost non-existent. But when I was dancing, I remember dancing in a club and having my dressing room be a corner of the kitchen.
Summer Stock in the early '50's was a great way to get your Equity card. You would perform 10 to 14 shows a season. You would learn one show while you performed another. What a wonderful learning experience. Summer stock helped dancers, financially, to get through until another job came along.
The dance world is much larger now than it was when I became a professional. Dance companies are springing up all over the country, giving dancers many chances to work. Still there is not enough work for all the talented performers.
Change is good -- as long as you don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
(First published January 2004)