Dancing for dollars, making a creative college major pay

Earning money for college by belly dancingAsk any dancer: Moving your feet is a tough way to make a living. Still, college dance departments are filled with students devoted to their art, and determined to make a go of it.

Performers in the dance industry rarely get paid for the hours of rehearsal put into their art form. Recent college graduate Linnea Schlegel considers herself lucky to receive $50 each month for the long rehearsal hours dedicated to dance, even though $50 doesn't even cover grocery money, let alone rent and student loans.

Schlegel's reimbursement for participating in the acrobatic and aerial dance company Ameba doesn't amount to much. "It can be frustrating," said Schlegel. "You see all your friends with real jobs and they make decent money, enough to say, 'I'm going to go buy a new couch today.' And I'm like, 'Well I'm going to go buy myself a cheeseburger today.'"

Although rare, private party performances, often sponsored by corporate businesses or for weddings, pay the most. According to Schlegel, an Ameba performer earns around $25 per performance, but reimbursements vary depending on the venue.

Laura Riebock, a 2010 Loyola University Chicago graduate with a degree in dance and Spanish, says hookah bars give her about $50 per night. She holds a regular, monthly gig in downtown Chicago, at Tizi Melloul, which provides her with $120 for two 15-minute sets of belly dancing. According to Riebock, in the world of dance her monthly income from the restaurant is higher than average (although Tizi Melloul is closing May 16),
The dramatic lack of income forces most professional dancers to work multiple jobs, struggling to make ends meet. Schlegel, an aerobics instructor at both Loyola University's Halas gym and Bally Total Fitness, also manages the desk, juice bar and works with children at Bally. Additionally, she's a yoga instructor at Yoga Boutique and a children's dance instructor at Ameba. That's five jobs.

Riebock also teaches to help pay the bills. She participates in an art integration program called the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education. Through CAPE, she collaborates with elementary school teachers and instructs students in dance. She feels the only downside to this job lies in working contract to contract. "I don't get benefits," said Riebock. "I don't get any health insurance, which is hard." The lack of health coverage frightens dancers like Riebock because their profession makes them prone to injuries.

Because of these injuries and the physical demands on their bodies, a dancer's career ends long before most workers' retirement age. Many dancers graduate from college with degrees in areas outside of dance to support themselves after their performing careers come to an end. Casey Mang graduated seventh in her high school in Franklin, Tenn., and one month before graduating from Loyola University Chicago, Mang chose to pursue a career in dance rather than use her finance and economics degree. "I figured I'd regret it if I didn't go for it," she said. "And if it doesn't work out, I have a decent Plan B."

Marisha Johnson, a freshman at the University of Iowa, also has a backup plan: a double major of marketing and dance. Although her true passion lies in dance, she knows her parents find relief in her marketing major. "It gives me something to fall back on," she said.

Cruise ships often offer dancers positions, along with providing room and board. Schlegel took a semester off from school to travel with Royal Caribbean Productions, where she first started her career as a professional dancer. Samantha Seipel, a student at California State University Long Beach, auditioned for a position on a cruise ship but turned down a job offer in order to finish a communication studies and dance degree. After graduation she hopes to take advantage of the cruise ship opportunity for a couple of years.

"Room and board are provided for us," said Seipel, who would be performing mostly jazz and musical theater on the ships. "We even get some health care benefits. Plus we get an apartment in Los Angeles while we're learning the choreography, so I really wouldn't be spending very much." Until then, Seipel plans to continue dancing in parades at Disneyland, a job that pays $9.90 an hour.

Of course, the option of pursuing a career in the business side of dance also exists. Mang recently worked as a business administration intern with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and found it utilized both her business and dance studies. After her performing career comes to an end, or if it falls through, Mang hopes to work in arts administration. She also has an interest in teaching dance, but only after her performing career ends as she believes former professional dancers are the most qualified to teach the art form.

While it's tough to make significant amounts of money in the dance industry, it's usually possible to receive free dance lessons, which cuts out a large expense. Mang plans to participate in a work-study program at the Lou Conte Dance Studio, which allows her to participate in classes at no cost.

The artists' pure love of dance keeps them practicing, performing and pursuing their careers, against all odds. Most find ways to earn enough money to avoid becoming a starving artist. Seipel dances because she can't stop moving and the positive release of energy makes her feel at home in her surroundings. Schlegel chose a dance career over pursuing a career in physics because when she dances, she enjoys waking up and going to work each day. Riebock agrees and said, "I started dancing when I was 11 and I never stopped. It became my life. If I didn't dance, I don't know what I would do."

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