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Aspiring Dancer Seeks Steps to Success

Advice from performer Gregory Hines to 22-year-old: Persevere despite rejection and doubts, and make key contacts.


Joseph Sanders became a stage performer by accident. Loathing physical education in high school, Sanders opted to take dance classes. After a few time-steps, stomps and cramp rolls, he was hooked.

But now that his goal is to dance on Broadway stages, how can Sanders, a 22-year-old Orange resident, realize his dream?

Gregory Hines, performer extraordinaire, offered advice.

Hines learned that Sanders recently graduated from Chapman University in Orange and was supporting himself working as a Starbucks barista and an administrative aide at the Millennium Dance Studio in North Hollywood, where he receives dance instruction.

Sanders has been studying jazz, tap, ballet and lyrical dance. Recently, he appeared in a Saddleback Civic Light Opera's production, "Man of La Mancha," and in the Orange County Performing Art Center's "Broadway Meets the Met," which starred Carol Burnett.

Sanders' immediate goal is to secure performing work with a cruise line, he told Hines. But until his ship comes in, he said he'll continue to audition for local non-equity stage roles, since he's not yet a member of Actors Equity.

"From your resume, I can see you're definitely qualified to work on a cruise ship," said Hines, agreeing that this was a good career step. "But do it [only] for a while--don't get stuck."

Celebrities often are booked on cruises, Hines said. So if Sanders performs when entertainment notables are aboard, he shouldn't be shy about inviting them to see his act. This could win him new mentors and contacts. "But you gotta be aware of one thing about cruise ship work," Hines said. "The stage moves."

Hines and other theatrical experts reinforced what Sanders already knows: He'll have a tough road ahead because of terrific competition for theater roles. The actors, dancers and singers who land on Broadway tend not only to be the most talented but also the most driven. They say they can't do anything else.

According to Hines, Sanders must learn to persevere in the face of rejection, banish self-doubt and unceasingly strive to make influential contacts, all daunting tasks.

"Believe me, Joseph, in this business, many people will say they'll do things for you when they won't," Hines said. "They'll say, 'Call my office,' and when you do, they won't get back to you."

Sanders should build up his non-equity credits before considering joining Actors Equity, which would allow him to try out for union roles, Hines said. For now, Sanders may want to spend his summers in New York auditioning and appraising his future competition, Hines added.

Broadway cattle calls are legendary: Ensemble auditions for Broadway musicals may lure as many as 300 hopeful dancers to a theater's doors, said Kim Craven, dance captain and a lead dancer in the national touring company of "Swing."

But with a Broadway credit comes prestige and pay--a minimum salary of $1,180 a week, plus health benefits and a pension, said Bob Bruyr of Actors Equity in New York. Off-Broadway roles command minimum wages of $423 to $733 weekly, he said.

While in Southern California, Sanders can try out for dance roles at local attractions such as Universal Studios, Hines said. He also should continue taking jazz and ballet classes to stay competitive. Of all stage performers, dancers have the shortest and most physically demanding careers.

"There's just so much wear and tear your body can take," said David Montee, director of theater at Interlochen Center for Art in Interlochen, Mich. "That's why professional dancers have a limited time to make their mark. Their careers can be over by the time they're in their 30s."

As dancers age, many switch to choreographing or specialize in character roles, said Lee Gunderscheimer, industry liaison for the Tisch School of the Arts drama department at New York University. Others who are "triple threats"--skilled in acting, singing and dancing--may merely emphasize their other talents.

That's why Sanders should continue to hone his acting skills throughout his career. Eventually, he may wish to consider enrolling in a graduate-level theatrical program. Universities offering top-rated programs of this type include New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Yale School of Drama, UC San Diego and the University of Washington.

Many offer practice auditions in which students can receive detailed critiques from experienced theater personnel, said Evan Yionoulis, chair of the Yale School of Drama. They also sponsor showcases for their graduates that are attended by leading agents, casting directors and regional theater representatives. Some take their students on nationwide tours.

UC San Diego offers its graduate-level theatrical students a chance to gain stage experience through paid professional residencies at the La Jolla Playhouse, said Walt Jones, chairman of the school's department of theater.

"You have to be in this business for the love of it, because if you're doing it for fame or applause, you're setting yourself up for an unhappy life," Montee said.

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