Job or Career Part 3 - Let's hear it for performing arts

28 September 2017 | Careers Advice | Thomas Peacock

Continuing our series of interviews, I had the pleasure of talking with an ex-dancer, Drue Green. Her journey to professionalism started in the UK in the late 1960s and took her to Spain and America. Now working in America as a paralegal, Drue discusses her joys and the pitfalls associated with having pursued her passion.

What advice would you give to people who are considering a career in the arts?

There is nothing wrong or unrealistic with the idea of having a career in the arts. However, you have to know that you can’t dance forever. You need to have more than just stage presence. You have to take the time to learn the craft and science of dancing. Actors go on to direct. Dancers become choreographers and, in some cases such as Fred Astaire, Gregory Hines, and Doris Day, actors and actresses. Like boxers and athletes, some of the best dance teachers and choreographers were once really good dancers. As an artist, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You have to diversify.

How did you begin your career as a dancer?

I am told that I was born dancing, literally. At birth the first thing most babies do is cry, apparently, I danced. If there was music I would find a rhythm and dance. As soon as I was old enough, about 10 or so I started taking lessons. There really wasn’t anything else that I was interested in. Of course, back in the 60s’, being black meant that lots of opportunities were closed off to me. Not because I wasn't good enough. Choreographers and directors would tell me that I was the best of the bunch, but I “wasn’t what they were looking for”. I was too dark, even to pass under the stage lights. But, I didn’t quit because dancing was all I wanted to do.

Since I was going to dance, I figured I might as well find a way to get paid for it. And one day, on a whim, I saw an open audition. I don’t even think I had my shoes with me at the time. I danced barefoot. And surprisingly, they called me back. That was how it started for me. Years and years of focus and effort, without giving up, until my moment came. Then I grabbed it.

Not all artists had formal training, would you recommend that aspiring artists pursue formal training or a degree in fine arts?

The performing arts are kinda cool because it matters less where you studied and more what you can do. Artists from Juilliard still have to have an impressive portfolio. If you never spent a day in somebody’s dance school, but you can move, you can still get the job. However, studying will give you a foundation. You will not only gain the preparatory skills, but you will understand the history and better appreciate the range of support skills. Students at these schools get exposed to artists and opportunities that you normally wouldn’t get to encounter. So yes, there are real benefits to formal training. You also learn how to avoid a lot of mistakes that self-taught artists struggle with.

How do they prepare for instability in their career?

The American actress Taraji Henson told her manager that she wants to have something on her schedule every week day. Even if it's a small part, she wants to stay busy. Unless you are very lucky you will have moments of boom and probably more busts. Despite this roller coaster, you need to have at least one steady form of income. Some people teach. Others do dinner theatre. Harrison Ford was a carpenter. Find something that you can consistently do, even if the pay isn’t the best, and stick with it to help you get through the lean periods.

When is it time to do the pragmatic thing and get a “real job”?

Immediately! I joke. An impossible question to answer. You are really asking me, when should you give up on your dream. Dancing, acting, performing are real jobs; they just have interesting career structures.

How do you know whether or not you have what it takes?

You have to be willing to take risks. I got my chance in Spain, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and frankly, it didn’t occur to me that it might be a problem until I arrived. Step outside of your comfort zone, push yourself. If, at the end of every day you can honestly say, “even if I don’t get paid I would still do it”, then you are determined. You just have to be willing to sacrifice and take risks to find out how far your talent, combined with getting the break will take you.

What about the subject of compromising? How much is too much and which compromises should you make?

Never do anything that you’re afraid to admit in public. If you feel ashamed or embarrassed by what you are doing or being asked to do, then you’ve gone too far. If you have to harm or humiliate somebody else then, for me that is much too far. And as people are discovering here in America, if you have to sit quietly and watch others being harmed, then that too is too far.

Drue, thank you for your insightful and motivational responses.

28th September 2017

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