Dancers Leap Through Hoops to Sustain Themselves and Their Art

Watch dancers keep their moves sharp during COVID-19 on "Southland Sessions" S1 E4: Dance Break.

As the arts world quickly shifted into a new mode of serving audiences at home, the dance sphere followed closely behind. Both larger and smaller organizations — as well as individual dancers — looked for ways to keep their projects and shows going despite a global pandemic that forbid close contact. The dance world had to pivot quickly — not only on a creative level but a financial one.

According to a survey by Americans for the Arts, 90% of Los Angeles-based performing arts organizations had to cancel events due to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the loss of more than 600,000 attendees (and by extension potential ticket buyers), with a median loss of $40,000 per organization. 

81% of these Los Angeles-based performing arts organizations cited canceled contracts as a major financial concern. 

While she successfully shepherded part one of the Los Angeles Dance Festival and a film festival partnership with Dance Camera West online earlier this summer, longtime L.A. dance veteran and founder of the nonprofit Brockus Project Dance Company, Deborah Brockus, is now more concerned with keeping her dance studio space in the Brewery Art Colony alive rather than just producing video or online content. 

“We’re desperately trying to keep our building,” says Brockus, who usually rents out her studio space north of downtown L.A. to other dancers and performance troupes for rehearsals and classes. “Our landlord is definitely following the L.A. City [rules] of not making us pay rent and not accruing late fees. That time will end. And so we’re trying to see what we can do .… We haven’t had any teaching gigs or performance gigs or renters since the shutdown.”

Over the past few months, the financial impact has been swift. 

“Our income so far this year has been cut in half,” she continues, saying that her overall organization usually brings in about $200,000 a year. “The only thing that’s keeping us alive are the grants I’ve written.” 

Show Box L.A. founder Meg Wolfe’s West Jefferson Boulevard studio, we live in space, shuttered earlier this year. Lincoln Heights performance, workshop and rehearsal space Pieter announced the closure of its current space at the end of June. 

“To be blunt, we are bleeding financially. The rent for the space far exceeds our income,” read a press release sent out by the board of directors.

With urgent need brought on by the pandemic, as well as the challenges of AB5 — the bill that changed the legal definition of who is an independent contractor versus an employee — the dance world is in a precarious position. This has sparked a wave of efforts to try and counteract the effects of an unpredictable time. 

Adjusting to a New Normal

Soon after stay-at-home orders forced UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA) to stop presenting live shows, its Executive and Artistic Director, Kristy Edmunds, leaped into action. Instead of mourning the performances that would not see the stage, Edmunds started commissioning new works — because time was of the essence.     

“Force majeure, which is the act of God clause in most contracts, I knew would create a cash flow crisis for the dance world that would be immediate,” says Edmunds, explaining that dance companies and choreographers typically derive income from creating new work, which can be supported by grants, then generate income through touring and performance. “After you get off stage, that’s when you’re paid.” 

So Edmunds tapped 27 choreographers across the country to work on “micro commissions” ($1,500 each) of choreographic scores — the documents, notes and drawings that dance makers may create in developing or documenting a movement-driven work.    

A series of black and white dance doodles and images were submitted by dancer Ann Carlson as part of UCLA's "The Choreographers’ Scores: 2020" project. | Ann Carlson
A series of black and white dance doodles and images were submitted by dancer Ann Carlson as part of UCLA's "The Choreographers’ Scores: 2020" project. | Ann Carlson

“They’re kind of like a love letter to the future,” says Edmunds, who plans to have these choreographic documents made into fine art prints and exhibited at local art galleries and institutions in the future. Sales of the prints would also support the choreographers.

“It creates a way for the choreographic thinking and compassion and lamentation to fall forward in ways that are generative,” says Edmunds. It also continues the cultural conversation as incomes for presenters and performers stagnate and stage curtains remain drawn.   

Meanwhile, projects already in the works came to a halt, including ones funded by the city. Dancer, choreographer and Founder/Director of Body Weather Laboratory Los Angeles, Roxanne Steinberg, received funds from a COLA Individual Artist Fellowship Program through the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). She initially planned on showcasing her work at Grand Performances but needed to change course after the virus. Steinberg tells “Southland Sessions” that she was asked to complete the project a month early as a video production.

She proposed to the DCA the idea of doing the performance in her home. She teamed up with composer, instrumentalist and sound designer Paul Chavez, also enlisting the help of one of her kids, who was mentored by Chavez. 

“Luckily I could transform my space and just take the furniture out and do an installation within my space,” says Steinberg. “And [I] had very simple know-how. Now with so many bloggers and Instagram, so many people know how to do things at a really high production value on social media. And I really had not had that kind of interest or experience in any way before.” 

Another challenge: finding a way to make the piece a reflection of her work and artistic style. 

Silhouette of an L.A. Dance Project dancer in "12 Variations." | Screenshot from 12 Variations."
Silhouette of an L.A. Dance Project dancer in "12 Variations." | Still from "12 Variations."

“Having to kind of completely explore this new medium with so many other artists and at the same time do something that was uniquely my own ... was a big challenge.”

For the recorded performance, Steinberg allowed herself to pick and choose which spoken parts she wanted to deliver almost at random. She purposefully “left a lot of loose ends” and didn’t spend too much time on thinking about high production value. The result was an online performance, “Openwork,” which debuted in June. 

But then there are the dancers who have lost their jobs in other areas, the organizations who need just basic operational costs covered and a landscape where many artists are in need. 

The Financial Landscape

While the J. Paul Getty Trust made attention-grabbing headlines for making $10 million available to Los Angeles-based visual arts organizations for COVID-19 relief, the landscape for dance-specific grants in Los Angeles and Southern California at large is harder to navigate.         

A list of COVID-related emergency grants and funding from the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, for example, only includes one dance-specific link, to an emergency fund by the Dance Resource Center (DRC). Another resource of funding recommendations from Dance USA includes opportunities primarily for organizations, not individual dancers. And a roundup from the California Arts Council has no dance-specific listings.

Other grants might support the arts in general, such as the much publicized Artist Relief fund, but that means dancers have to compete with artists from a variety of disciplines for a limited amount of funds. Many of these are also on a national scale, making them incredibly competitive. 

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With few avenues to turn to, and an immediate loss of revenue, dancers need to look for help wherever they can find it. Anticipating this need, the DRC created the LA Dance Emergency Fund, announced March 18, with applications opening March 23. The initial funds came from individual donations as well as the DCA. 

DRC Executive Director, Raélle Dorfan, tells “Southland Sessions” that within four weeks the organization raised around $38,000. Funds began to be distributed about six to eight weeks after the fundraiser kicked off. Our sources report receiving anywhere between $100 and $600. 

According to Joe Smoke, DCA’s grants administration director, the DCA “funded 136 professional dancers with COVID-19 relief through [a] mini-grant program that ranged from $100 to $400 to compensate for lost wages.” For the 2020-2021 fiscal year, 8.9% of the DCA’s grant portfolio of $3,755,500 went to dance organizations, a total of 41 contracts to 35 different groups, according to information the DCA shared with “Southland Sessions.” The data shows a slight increase from the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which indicates 8.3% of the grant portfolio going to 32 different organizations. DCA also launched the COVID-19 Artists Emergency Relief Fund (AER) on March 25, which after two rounds of funding gave “$258,000 to 645 solo artists or members of small ensembles.” 

Smoke said the AER would reopen in September “with a new approach to COVID-19 recovery, offering mini-grants to commission thematic new works to be presented online for the general public.” 

But Smoke explains that the funding situation right now is multilayered.

“Both government budgets and private foundation budgets are now squeezed because of the layered emergencies of COVID-19, economic and health disparities and historic inequities,” says Smoke. “The stock market hasn’t soared, and neither has government revenues (fees or taxes).”

In the meantime, Smoke suggests that dance organizations “go back to the funders who have funded them before,” especially since “some funders can switch and add more general operating funds or more salary reimbursements, etcetera.”

Beth Pickens, Los Angeles arts consultant and author of “Your Art Will Save Your Life,” says that she’s been encouraging artists to apply as quickly as possible to emergency grants when they’re announced.

“Several times, I've seen rolling deadlines cut short or funders closing the application well before the stated deadline because of an 'overwhelming demand,’” says Pickens. “The artists who need the emergency funds the most are often too late to even apply for these scant funds.” 

A small booklet of sheet music with accompanying dance notations by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker forms part of UCLA's "The Choreographers’ Scores: 2020" project. | Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
A small booklet of sheet music with accompanying dance notations by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker forms part of UCLA's "The Choreographers’ Scores: 2020" project. | Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

The DCA recently, for example, put out a call for applications for individual artists with grants ranging from $500 to $1,500. The fund was going to be open until September 1 or until 600 applications were received; the later happened first, causing it to close. 

Pickens says she’s seen a “lack of response” for dancers and performance-based artists, because she hasn’t noticed “enough of a coordinated, large-scale effort to support dance organizations and dance makers.”

Dance-focused interdisciplinary artists collective, homeLA, which specializes in presenting salon-style performances in private spaces for the public, credits their own fundraising efforts earlier this year and receiving a Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts Artist Project Grant for keeping the company in a position to produce dance-based work through 2021. The $45,000  award to homeLA is notable in that MKFA grants are “designed to support visual arts organizations,” read eligibility guidelines from the foundation’s website, but do consider “organizations with a history of interdisciplinary work” on a “case-by-case basis, at the Foundation’s discretion.”  

homeLA’s Executive Director and curator, Chloë Flores, observes that as a multidisciplinary arts group, the organization has the advantage of applying for both dance and arts-based grants, but being a “dance-centered” group with a “mélange of disciplines” can also “hinder us from getting or actually applying for certain things, too.”

“Sometimes it works in our favor … and at other times, I feel like it works against us,” says Flores. “It’s a blessing and a curse.” 

She feels that the dance world in Los Angeles could benefit from the creation of a Mike Kelley-like foundation specifically designed for supporting dance — especially smaller, more experimental troupes.

“If they can do that, then you would see so many more opportunities happening in the city around dance,” Flores says. 

Dorfan echoes the sentiments of many of the people “Southland Sessions” spoke with for this story in that dance has been especially underfunded since before the pandemic. In her recent experience, some funders have been figuring out ways to distribute resources more quickly; they’re also rethinking prerequisites and eligibility for funding. Many grants, she says, have historically focused on being project-specific, but that’s starting to change. 

“A lot of these branches are recognizing that general operating is really where focus needs to be,” Dorfan says. “It has needed to be there for a while.”

Unlike project-based grants, operational or organizational grants, like those offered by the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture, allow recipients to pay for unglamorous overhead costs such as an artistic director, studio costs and an administrative team. However, such government-based funds often come with limitations that often cause cash flow problems for small nonprofits like those of Brockus. Due to the “match” nature of such city and county grants, Brockus often finds herself fronting the money to pay for projects with personal credit cards and any other funds she can secure while she waits on payment of the grant to follow. 

“We're always chasing our tail,” she says.

Versa-Style dancers perform "Powers That Be." | Still from "Powers That Be"

“You have the chicken and egg issue,” says David Mack, executive director of Invertigo Dance Theatre, who’s also served as a consultant to several L.A.-based dance groups. ‘It’s like, ‘Okay, I've got to get funding from funder A to get funding from funder B, but I've got to get funding from funder B to get funding from funder A.”

Mack says that “the pandemic, the fight for racial justice, the economic devastation, the end of all live events for the foreseeable future” have only revealed inequities in the grant-based funding system “that already existed.” 

“More so than creating some crisis that didn't exist before, I think it just made the preexisting crisis more apparent,” Mack says. “It's like someone has put a spotlight in some places that have been dark for many people for a while now.”

A 2017 research study by Helicon Collaborative found that cultural organizations with budgets of more than $5 million receive the lion’s share of funding (defined here as gifts, grants and contributions). That means, reportedly, that 2% of institutions receive around 58% of funds. This landscape often excludes organizations of color (and “their audiences remain predominantly white and upper income,” the report explains).

“The conversations that should have been taking place a while ago are now happening,” adds Dorfan. “And that's in regards to both this emergency funding and general operating support and also racial justice and equality and inclusion. The cultural arts sector has been pushing for this for a while now.” 

A young man in a red shirt performing a dance on Black Lives Matter, one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young man in a red shirt performing a dance on Black Lives Matter, one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo

Five months into the pandemic’s effects on the city, the efforts to help fund arts organizations continue. 

On August 5, the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture announced that it received $10 million from the CARES Act  (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), officially allocated for the county to give grants to 501 (c)(3) nonprofit arts organizations “suffering from business interruption due to COVID-19-related business closures.” The initiative will also prioritize organizations with an operating budget of $15 million or less, with funds distributed by December 30.

In addition, on August 12, additional grant awards were announced for the 2020-21 fiscal year. More than $4 million will go to 214 nonprofit arts organizations through the existing Organizational Grant Program and $750,000 will be distributed through the Community Impact Arts Grants (CIAG).  The grants are for two years and one year, respectively, ensuring some funding for the near future — whatever that might look like.  

Yet Brockus worries about the future of dance in Los Angeles if its architectural and economic infrastructure is not supported during the pandemic and as part of the city’s recovery. She observes that Los Angeles’ dance economic ecosystem was already weakened by AB5, which limited the ways in which dancers could work legally in Los Angeles, and then COVID came and “kicked us in the teeth.” 

Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts, echoes this sentiment. Dance was "already a hard business model," she tells “Southland Sessions,” but the combination of AB5 plus coronavirus made things even more difficult. 

She explains that AB5 “essentially meant that every person that worked — if they’re doing work that is the primary work of that business, has to be an employee.”  In addition, “if you’re an arts organization and your main business is to present dance and you’re hiring someone to be a dancer, it's going to be pretty hard for you to justify that they should be independent contractors.”

For many arts organizations, this resulted in a “30 to40% increase in expenses to transition people from independent contractors to employees.”

Yet Baker emphasizes that there’s also a need to continue “fighting for arts and culture workers and artists to be compensated fairly.”

“But if the money’s not there, how do you do it?" she says.

For many dancers, simply filing for unemployment is more easily said than done. Like many gig workers and other types of artists who generate income from multiple sources inside and outside the arts, dancers can face difficulty filing for pandemic-related unemployment benefits. Despite the good intentions of the CARES Act, there’s still a confusing and labyrinthine system for so-called “hybrid workers” to navigate, a category that dancers with several jobs could easily fall into.  

Because of a mix of jobs and a catch for workers who receive a certain amount of W-2 income alongside their 1099 contract work, gig workers in this category have reported being shut out of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Program — which was designed to provide unemployment benefits for independent contractors — completely, and consequently seen their state UI benefits significantly reduced

Brockus says some of her dancers received PUA, while others simply “gave up.”

“Most dancers work a number of different jobs as freelancers. Or even if they're working as employees, they work in teaching dance at studios. They work in restaurants and in bars, and they work in gyms,” explains Brockus. “When you claim unemployment, you only get unemployment from one of your multiple jobs. So it's kind of harsh.” 

Moreover, as Brockus points out, jobs that dancers have traditionally relied upon to supplement their incomes have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to the 2014-2015 Dance Map LA survey conducted out of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, almost 48% of those surveyed said they made less than $5,000 of their annual income directly from dance related activities, indicating many dancers rely on other sources of income to survive. A little over 19% said they generated income from bodywork and fitness related activities, while 8% said they had paid work through the restaurant/hospitality industries. Since February, Los Angeles has lost over 50,000 jobs in the accommodation and food service industry and over 13,000 jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation, according to a report by L.A. Controller Ron Galperin. 

Even for dance makers who have secured unemployment benefits, time may feel like it’s running out as $600 per week bonus relief checks ended in July. The most optimistic of timelines don’t anticipate a full-blown return of live (indoor) performance until January 2021

Dancer Jay Carlon poses in a white shirt and mustard cap near some potted plants at Bangkok 1899. | Matthieu Lunard
Choreographer Jay Carlon poses in a gray shirt and mustard cap near some potted plants at Bangkok 1899. | Matthieu Lunard

“I'm a project-based company, and because I have no projects … I have no income,” said choreographer Jay Carlon, artistic director of the L.A.-based contemporary dance troupe CARLON, at the end of July. “You know, I was lucky enough to collect the unemployment and the additional stimulus. And that ends this week. Now when August comes along, I really have to start thinking about making income.” 

Brockus has observed about a quarter of the 20 and 30-something dancers she knows leave the city. 

“It’s going to be a vastly different art scene unless people step up because you’re losing your spaces,” Brockus says. “Artists are moving out of town .... They’re giving up apartments rapidly and leaving because they don’t have the income to sustain them.”

There are other challenges as well, namely for those organizations that don’t quite fit the mold of a traditional business — the type that’s eligible for pandemic-related aid. 

Jackie Lopez and Leigh Foaad, founders of the hip-hop dance troupe Versa-Style, say their nonprofit dance organization has lost “easily” over $50,000 from canceled performance contracts in 2020 alone. Moreover, because the group transitioned its workers from independent contractors to employees in March — just two weeks before COVID-19 hit L.A. — to comply with AB5, the group did not qualify for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, which asks borrowers to calculate payroll costs from the previous year, or in the case of new businesses or nonprofits, from January 1 to February 29, 2020, according to an FAQ on the Small Business Administration’s website. 

Versastyle Playground still | Image from "Southland Sessions" E4: Dance Break
Versastyle Playground still | Image from "Southland Sessions" E4: Dance Break

“The reason we didn't qualify for any PPP loans, any relief loans, [was] because [the government] wants your income base from the year prior or starting in January. And we didn't shift till March so there's no proof to show that we had those employees,” says Lopez. 

Mack tells “Southland Sessions” that this process also highlights another deep inequity.

“You needed to have access to a bank in order to get access to those funds,” says Mack. “In addition to that, you needed to have a certain number of employees, obviously, you needed to have paychecks to protect. So you need to have employees on payroll in order to get access to those forgivable loans. That cuts out many artists and arts organizations that are working in oppressed communities, representing oppressed communities that don't have access to those banks and don't have access to those employee infrastructures.”

Gema Sandoval has similarly struggled with getting traditional forms of business aid and other forms of financial support for her nonprofit dance company and community arts organization, Danza Floricanto/USA.  

“You have no idea how many times I've applied for everything COVID under the sun. And how many times I don't even get a response because I don't qualify as a quote-unquote ‘business,’” says Sandoval. “We did get an SBA loan, but not grants … The loan was about $40,000. So it's got a due date. $40,000 goes pretty quick.” 

The loan pays for an administrator and dance teachers for the organization’s online lessons, but not the company’s dancers who can only get paid if they perform. 

A young woman dances with a desert backdrop for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young woman dances with a desert backdrop for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo

Meanwhile, Versa-Style has been thankful to receive relief grants “here and there” from organizations such as the DRC and the DCA to create short films and virtual performances. But they’re very “small” and “minimal,” says Lopez, compared to the earnings the group expected through hosting its annual hip-hop festival in East LA. With the cancellation of that festival due to COVID, co-founder Leigh Foaad estimates that their contract losses hover around $75,000.

This year would have been Versa-Style’s 15th anniversary celebration or “quinceañera,” says Lopez, but despite COVID-19 affecting them in different ways, she’s still optimistic about the group’s future. 

“We've been going 15 years strong and I say strong more than ever now because COVID has definitely shifted what that looks like,” says Lopez, “but we're still pushing and trying to find innovative ways to sustain and [keep] our artistry and love for hip hop dance as a whole going.”

The Financial Future

For arts leaders like Edmunds, “the job becomes how do we sustain our cultural infrastructure as places of shared belonging for a public and for our visionary makers?” 

That could be repurposing CAP’s architectural or financial infrastructure to support longer and more developmental rehearsal periods for artists, create a robust “digital stage” for the public or transform Royce Hall into a platform for streaming to viewers or filming in front of small socially distanced audiences.    

“We have to be super creative, we have to be super humble, and we have to really authentically do everything we can for these artists who work in ephemeral forms,” she says. 

For Mack, a more equitable financial future for dance would mean a complete inversion of the way grants are dispensed to grant-seeking nonprofit institutions.  

“I would not tie grants to budget size,” says Mack, explaining that foundations typically allocate grants based on a percentage of a nonprofit’s annual budget and never give more than 100% of a nonprofit’s annual budget. “I would invert the entire spectrum of how I distribute funding, so I would … allocate the largest grants to the organizations that have the smallest budget size.” 

Grant allocation would not be determined by the size of an organization’s bank account, but by its cultural impact. 

“If you can find a way to demonstrate that the art that you are producing is deeply impacting the audience that's seeing it and that audience is actually authentically from the communities they are serving, that would be the high score,” says Mack.

A young African American woman with a turban dances for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo
A young African American woman with a turban dances for one of Invertigo's Dance Care Package performances | Courtesy of Invertigo

For others, like Brockus, dance’s future in Los Angeles would be assured by the creation of a program that subsidizes studio space à la Dance/NYC’s Dance Rehearsal Subsidy Space Program in New York City and finally the establishment of a Joyce-like theater for dance to call home once we’re all able to gather again. 

“It's a great time to build one. By the time we come out of COVID, we'll be ready for it,” she says. “I have 300 theater seats sitting in a storage unit waiting ... It would pull everything together. It would pull the funding [and] funders to realize there is dance happening here.”

But one thing all our sources could agree on is that dance makers need to be funded not only to support their own livelihoods, but our entire economic and cultural ecosystem. 

“When the government takes a look at how do we recover, putting the arts and its infrastructure into the creation of cultural activity that multiple kinds of businesses and individuals can derive benefit from, is a strategy that is crucial,” says Edmunds, noting how dancers’ “multiple lives” as teachers, Pilates instructors, caterers and more have a ripple effect beyond “what they do on stage.” 

“It's time for an infrastructure capacity that involves culture to help rejuvenate our ways of being and our economy. That’s a 21st century WPA (Works Progress Administration),” she continues. “And I totally know that dancers are going to be part of that equation.

“We have to look after the bottom line, but we have to look at the bottom line of culture,” she emphasizes. “Artists need to be compensated in order to support their livelihoods so that they can create work for culture.”

Top Image: Silhouette of an L.A. Dance Project dancer in "12 Variations." | Screenshot from 12 Variations."

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