Ashley Hoffman, 26, warms up. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
Just past the front desk at the Equinox fitness club in Westwood, a sign encourages members to sign up for their free 15-minute Pilates session.
Next to the sign is Pilates instructor Ashley Hoffman, a 26-year-old with a porcelain complexion and full, reddish-brown hair. She and another trainer chat while waiting for spontaneous customers, but the fit-looking men and women checking in zoom by to the cardio and weight machines upstairs. There are no takers on this mid-December morning.
Hoffman has been at the club several hours already and has a long and eclectic day ahead of her. So she returns alone to the studio to warm up for her next stop — Reid Olson's late-morning ballet class.
"It's the class the professionals take, but the majority of the people taking it are not [professionals]," she says later, driving east on Olympic Boulevard toward Dance Arts Academy on South La Brea Avenue, where Olson, a onetime principal dancer, teaches a popular and crowded class.
Hoffman is a professional ballet dancer, and she has, against the odds, put together a busy freelance career. Los Angeles has for decades had a thriving if below-the-radar concert dance community of ballet, modern and ethnic dancers. These are women and men devoted to the art of dance, a mostly nonprofit world of dance-for-its-own-sake. It's a community largely separate from that of commercial dancers, who find work in L.A. in music videos, at theme parks, in film and on television.
The concert dance community here is dynamic, thanks to the plethora of dance studios, strong university dance departments and an ongoing influx of professionals from around the country, including the nation's dance capital, New York City. A performance career is highly competitive and short-lived, and dancers will seek out greener pastures for a chance to get onstage.
So what makes a dancer come to and stay in L.A.? And what are their lives like? The dancers interviewed for this story moved here for various reasons. But they have stayed, quite simply, because they have found artistically stimulating opportunities here.
Making art, and simultaneously making a living, is difficult anywhere, and its particularly challenging for dancers. Only 28 percent of dancers have full-year, full-time jobs, according to federal census data from 2005-2009 and analyzed by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Then there are the unique challenges of being a dancer in Los Angeles. The city's defining characteristics are its broad expanses and the car that helps one navigate those distances. Creating a sense of community in this environment is difficult. You're much less likely to bump into a friend by chance, as you might on the subway in New York City, said Meg Wolfe, a dance performance artist who arrived from Manhattan seven years ago.
She described the L.A. dance community as splintered into numerous "microclimates" — artists teaching at university and college dance departments; the many culturally specific dance companies, such as Mexican folkloric troupes; the commercial dance/film and video worlds. There is limited overlap, again, because of geography and the lack of a single dance center. The lack of a theater that presents only dance is another common complaint.
But there are upsides too in the Wild West nature of the dance scene. Artists are able to define themselves more easily here, Wolfe noted.
"Everyone's got their own experience of what being a dancer in L.A. is … it feels like you can slip in and out of various scenes more readily here," she said.
Hoffman's experience seems to validate that assessment. Born and raised in a Chicago suburb, she moved here in spring 2007 to perform with Los Angeles Ballet, a then-new troupe established by Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen. After a year and a half, Hoffman's contract was not renewed and she was out of work. But she decided to stay to continue dancing professionally. She became accredited to teach Pilates and found she was in demand with a diverse group of smaller companies, among them Luminario Ballet, Sophie Monat Dance, and with independent choreographer Josie Walsh.
"You are part of such a small group, you wonder if anybody notices that you exist," Hoffman said. "I think the movie and film industry does overpower the art and culture, and that can be frustrating at times. But, still, there is definitely an outlet for it [dance] here."
The recent arrival of Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project, which has backing from the Music Center, has created hope and excitement in the city's dance universe. Hoffman went to the first audition in November and was one of the five finalists out of 57 who tried out. Millepied will be holding more auditions this month and next, but Hoffman said he told them he would be in touch.
"It seems like it would be really perfect, but you just don't know what's going to happen," she said.