Working to dance, dancing to live

A look into the not-so-conventional lives of San Francisco's freelance dancers

When she's not dancing on stairwells, Gabby Zucker rests her muscles by working a gig as an author's assistant

DANCE When people ask what I do, I tell them I dance. I don't tell them I work as a receptionist part time, or that I work events in a restaurant. I tell them I dance because, although it's more glorious-sounding than my odd jobs, it's also more important. These side jobs exist merely to facilitate the dance. They are expendable; dancing is not. But while dance fuels me physically and emotionally, it fails me financially. For better or worse, there is a whole community of dancers and choreographers in the Bay Area who share this same conundrum to lesser or greater degrees.

So what do Pilates instructors, nannies, dog walkers, waitresses, and personal assistants have in common? They are all jobs with variability in work scheduling, and they are just a handful of the flexible jobs employing Bay Area freelance dancers. Over the past month I've interviewed about 20 of my fellow dancers and have been heartened at the abounding courage found in the local dance community to pursue alternate lifestyles to continue dancing.

Daria Kaufman has an MFA in Dance from Mills College. She teaches Gyrotonic, works as a receptionist at a yoga studio, and does administrative work for the Subterranean Art House. "One of the major challenges for dancers and choreographers is money — how to afford classes, rehearsal space, and theater rentals, to name a few," Kaufman says. "I've done a lot of work-study over the years to combat the issue of affording dance classes. Most studios have a work-study program — clean for an hour and a half, get a free class, that sort of thing. Some studios offer a similar deal for renting out rehearsal space."

Adaptability is necessary. Schedules vary day to day and month to month according to who's teaching which classes, who's working on what project, and what jobs will work around those opportunities. Often the most flexible jobs can be found in the food industry. Evening shifts allow dancers and choreographers to take morning classes and rehearse through the day, while variability in shifts provides flexibility when it comes to evening performances.

Angela Mazziotta, a dancer with Cali & Co., works at Squat and Gobble Cafe and Crepery in the Marina. "Although I don't work enough to be considered full time, I make enough to pay rent, eat, and dance," Mazziotta says. "There are days that I long to have a 'big girl' job for security, insurance, and more financial cushion. The reality is that those full-time jobs don't offer a lot in terms of flexibility, and the hours of operation coincide with dance classes and rehearsals."

The downside of the restaurant business is the relentless fatigue it piles on a body. Foundry dancer Joy Prendergast discovered that a café job was too taxing and now primarily teaches dance and baby-sits. Project Thrust choreographer Malinda LaVelle also found the strain to be too much. "I stopped working restaurants because the physical aches and pains of dancing were compounded by the strain of standing on my feet until 2 a.m. and then getting up the next morning and dancing again." After working five nights a week, LaVell quit the restaurant scene to walk dogs and pursue receptionist work.

Fitness-related instruction jobs are another popular money-making source. Many dancers are certified in Pilates, Gyrotonic, or yoga as a way to subsidize their income. "Teaching's a great way to make consistent money," says Gyrotonic instructor Andi Clegg. "I've been able to constantly shift my teaching schedule around shows or other dance-related work I am involved in." SF Conservatory of Dance student Emily Jones finds Pilates adaptable to her lifestyle: "I sometimes wish that I had a job where I could just turn off my brain and go on autopilot. But then I think about all the people I know who have café jobs and how they wish they could do something a little less numbing."

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