From Passion to Profession: Advice for Aspiring Dancers

By Rathimalar Govindarajoo

Rathimalar Govindarajoo with Divya Nayar in Panjara. Photo Courtesy: Nithya Kuthiah

Dance is an inherent part of any culture. Classical, folk, and modern/contemporary are three main forms prevalent today. In Malaysia, we are seeing a growing interest in dance, with an increasing number of young students seriously pursuing their craft. At some point, these dancers may find themselves at a crossroad: Passion or Profession? Should they choose a stable, secure profession for the sake of security, or should they follow their dreams, risking their lives in the process, to pursue an inner passion that could easily turn into a pipe dream? Moreover, what defines success for a dancer, especially in Malaysia where the performing arts are still not a priority? Is it popularity and achievements through the number of VIP performances? Or is it simply the promotion of Malaysia’s culture to the world? This question remains unanswered even today. Speaking from personal experience, single-minded dedication is required to take up dance as a career. Nowadays, there are many options for individuals interested in pursuing dance professionally: performance, teaching, choreographing, and writing are some of the many avenues available. Dance is a rare choice, but for those who have the perseverance, it can be a very satisfying and fulfilling decision.

Success in the field of the performing arts is determined more by the interest and aptitude of the individual. While anyone can be admitted to a dance class, only those with an inherent determination and devotion will be able to carve a niche for themselves in the field. Ideally a dancer should have the following traits: A charismatic personality, resilience, intuitiveness, adaptability to work with anyone under various conditions, a strong constitution, complete dedication, creativity, versatility, sense of rhythm, appreciation of drama and music, openness to criticism, and an inherent ability to be expressive.

Training at an early age is critical. Serious dance training ideally should begin by the age of ten. A dancer also needs to understand the nuances of music. A comprehensive training program to include the basics of music, rhythm, instruments, history and evolution of dance, various dance forms, etc. will allow for a more evolved dancer. In Malaysia, there are various dance institutions throughout the country that regularly conduct examinations at various levels. Dancers should participate in such examinations from time to time to test the depth of their knowledge. Adequate care should be taken so that the examination that one appears for is officially recognized. Academics are also very crucial for a dancer’s success, and so dance training and academics should run in parallel.

Financial stability is also a serious concern for professionals. Just with dancing alone, there are some that have managed to have a lavish, or at least comfortable life with generous funds and grants, some with grand sponsors and some with scholarships. Otherwise, there are many who continue struggle, juggling between job-to-job and yet still striving to sustain their dance careers.

Dancers who concentrate solely on performances should indulge in rigorous practice and well-timed [and well-placed] public performances to bring ample recognition as an artist of excellence. Establishing oneself as an artist/dancer is critical, as it will allow them to assert themselves financially in order to command higher fees. Good professional contacts and an extensive network are very critical for the performing artists. Dedicated and talented persons who have the advantage of being in touch with the right contacts can become well established.

Those trained in contemporary dance, semi-classical dance, ballet, etc. can join a dance group or company. Such groups and companies are generally invited to perform at prestigious venues and events. Other groups perform in schools and universities, and the pay is fixed as per the scale fixed by the institution. The remuneration may not always be very high, but for a dancer keen on pursuing this professionally, there are emotional rewards in doing this kind of work.

Teaching is also a common option for professional dancers, though sometimes it can curb their performances. Many performing artists eventually branch off to become teachers. This field has many possibilities. One can offer private lessons, or affiliate himself/herself with a dance institution where dance as an extracurricular activity is encouraged [with a fixed salary]. There are a number of dance organizations that need professionally trained dancers to teach. Many schools have dance teachers as full-time employees who besides imparting training, also organize activities and competitions.

Dance therapy is also an increasingly popular field. The purpose of giving therapy through dance is to provide a physical means of expressing emotions and feelings. Dance therapy is usually advised for the emotionally disturbed, mentally and physically disadvantaged individuals, and sometimes for the elderly. This is a very emotionally enriching and rewarding experience.

If one is talented, whose lucky star rose early, then pursuing their passion will not be a problem. Looking at the ‘successful’ (by recognition) young artists shining in the field of dance, who made a name for themselves: Suhaili Micheline, Bilqis Hijjas, January Low and many more young ones from ASWARA, Sutra Dance Theatre, Temple of Fine Arts, and others that will soon flood the scene. These are individuals who refused to relinquish their passion despite the odds, compromising the comforts of a ‘stable’ profession in pursuit of their dreams– and ultimately emerging as winners. What can be gleaned from their stories and struggles are their common denominators of patience, perseverance, and a solid determination to succeed.

More than raising the standards of Malaysian dance, it is necessary to push the performing arts onto another level of sophistication and creativity in support – perhaps in the form of more substantial and consistent financial aid from either private or public sectors. Only in that way would be able to create an ideal situation for dancers in the country.

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