English dancers looking to combat negative perceptions about ability
Many dancers graduating from performing arts schools wonder where they will be placed amongst the ranks of other dance artists. For English dancers, there seems to be a storm cloud following them as many dance industry insiders perceive them as talented but lazy. Josanta Gray, student journalist at the University of Southern California, investigates
On an average day, the Old Finsbury Town Hall is bustling with young dancers from Urdang Academy who are looking to develop prosperous professional careers in the dance industry. From an open window, those walking by can catch a small glimpse of a world filled with leotards, tights, passion, and perseverance. Those who dare to enter are greeted with much more than they can imagine.
Inside, Urdang Academy is organized chaos. Students are bustling to and from various rooms discussing their classes, auditions, and weekend plans. While some students stop to grab food at the cafe, others are stretching, dancing or engrossed in deep conversations with their instructors. Weaved amongst them all is an overwhelming desire to succeed.
Bruce Aguilar-Rohan, a student at Urdang Academy, tasted a bit of that success. Aguilar-Rohan was a contestant on the BBC’s hit show So You Think You Can Dance. The show, which originally aired in the United States, is a very competitive dance competition that allows dancers to test their ability in front of thousands of viewers. Viewers at home are able to vote on their favorite dancer. After beating out thousands of other dancers in the competition, Aguilar-Rohan made it through to the last 16 contestants before being cut. “It was a really stressful experience. Mentally and physically it’s exhausting. You literally put blood, sweat, and tears into it. In the end, it gave me even more drive.”
Aguilar-Rohan’s new drive may or may not go unseen. Every year there is a new group of talented dancers emerging on to the scene in the UK. According to Dance UK, a not for profit organisation lobbying and advocating for longer dance careers and better dance conditions, there are 22 dance colleges offering professional dance training courses accredited by the Council for Dance Education and Training. There are also 292 university courses with dance as a subject area. As a result, over 1,000 dancers graduate every year from vocational training schools and university dance courses. With each passing year, the competition thickens for dancers like Aguilar-Rohan and his peers at Urdang Academy.
Leonie Urdang created Urdang Academy in 1970, and since then it has become one of the UK’s leading performing arts colleges. However, there are educational institutions all over the UK and the world graduating talented dancers like Aguilar-Rohan each year. Even though the UK may have some of the best colleges and studios, the best can be found elsewhere, no more so than the Juilliard School. Founded in New York City in 1905 the world renowned Juilliard School trains students in dance, drama, and music. With a student application acceptance rate of just approximately 5.5 percent, Juilliard trains around 800 performing arts students each year.
Outside of performing arts schools, there are many dance studios aspiring artists go to in order to develop their craft. Pineapple Dance Studios is one of leading dance studios in the UK. Debbie Moore founded the studio in 1979 in an old pineapple warehouse in Covent Garden, London. The studio teaches over 200 classes a week to around 3,500 members who range in ability from beginner to advanced. The studio is frequently hired by music artists and West End performers for rehearsal space and dancers. Across the pond, Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles, California is the closest rival to Pineapple Dance Studio in terms of success. Founded in 1992, Millennium has become the home for many world renowned choreographers. Pioneers in the industry like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman have worked here. Artists like Britney Spears, Usher, and Janet Jackson come here to take classes, scout talent, and rehearse. It is the place where beginners come to learn and professionals come to be inspired.
Alvin Suglah has been training at Urdang Academy for two years. He originally wanted to be a hairdresser. However with the nickname Alvin Ailey, this hairdresser turned in his cutting shears for a pair of ballet flats. Suglah’s ultimate desire is to dance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Dancers like Aguilar-Rohan and Suglah have goals and aspirations that they hope to attain in the future. The reality of the matter is that there is another dancer with the same goals, aspirations, and training somewhere else in the world. There are only so many jobs for dancers in the industry. There are only so many parts in musicals in the West End or on Broadway. There are only so many spots for a talented dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, or any other dance company. Suglah believes there is a major difference between the dance training in the States versus the UK: “If I was to go to America, as to training here [at Urdang Academy], I would progress a lot more”. However, if this is true, what sets UK and US dancers apart from one another on the street, in class, and during auditions? “I lived in L.A for four years and have worked a lot in the [States]. The talent in London is as good as the States, no doubt,” says Dax O’Callaghan, an instructor at Pineapple Dance Studio. “It is the mind set where we fall far behind. Americans have such a belief in their talent and are open to explore and better their ability by learning and collaborating with others.”
This English mind set never affected O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan began his career very early as a child model, and then began training in a theatre school at the age of ten. While he was in school, he performed as a singer in many lead roles in the West End, toured Europe as a dancer, and made many TV appearances. O’Callaghan has been teaching at Pineapple Dance Studio since he was 16 years old. He is the youngest teacher to ever have a class at the studio. O’Callaghan believes Americans have an open approach to their work. He believes this is exhibited perfectly in the music industry in America and that many of the latest songs and trends originate from the US because of this approach. In his opinion, the few English people who possess this open mentality do not have the talent to back it up. “Americans always believe that they are about to create something special before they even begin. It is a natural characteristic for the English to doubt something first. Unfortunately, this mind set holds back our talent when it comes to creating.”
Others agree with O’Callaghan’s assessment English, but for other reasons. “The mentality of the English in everything, not just dance, is quite lazy,” Aguilar-Rohan says. “I have American friends who dance, and from what I got, dance to a lot of Americans is a sport. It’s a competition. They have much more drive and a lot more focus than the English. The English typically look to take the easy way out.” Clearly, there are exceptions to every rule. Vicki Igbokwe set out to create a dance company, and the process was far from easy. She did not adhere to the stereotypes or perceptions associated with English dancers. Instead, she used them to fuel her drive. Igbokwe created the Uchenna Dance Company in January 2009 after she was awarded a fellowship from the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora (ADAD). The company combines a variety of genres to reflect ‘urban contemporary dance’, her self-proclaimed style, The company fuses contemporary, waacking, vogueing, African, and house to create this eclectic style that celebrates dance at its finest. Igbokwe’s company strives to provide high quality dance experiences for its pupils. She admits sometimes those experiences are inspired by a variety of things. For instance, in a club in central London, a group of Korean dancers inspired her to learn more about a style called house. Igbokwe also admits she goes to the States for inspiration and to take class with the pioneers of various dance styles. “I feel we work hard in London, it’s where I’m from,” Igbokwe says. “However, I do feel like compared to the States there is a different type of determination. There’s a different type of ‘I want to be the best’. I don’t want to say we are lazy in the UK. I know a lot of people, like myself, who work hard. There is just a different intention. I think dancers in the UK and the States want the same thing. It is something about the journey. It’s something about the intensity we put in that is different, and I can feel it when I’m there.”
On the Urdang Academy website, it tells students in order to become a professional dancer you need ‘personality, an incredible determination, musicality, and physical ability’. Despite the differences between dancers from the UK and the US, they both have to overcome the same obstacles in terms of securing jobs and achieving their dreams. Securing jobs depends on a variety of factors that ultimately may not have anything to do with talent or ability.