September is the time for dance students to return to their training or, in the case of the first years, begin a three year journey on the road that leads deep inside the wacky world of professional dance.
Once those students graduate into that world it can be frustrating, it can be debilitating, it can be wondrous. It can be all of those things one at a time or all of those things all of the time.
If you wanted to visualise dance for the uninitiated then an individual staring at a massive wall covered in big red buttons each one labeled "whatever you do don't push this button" would be a good place to start.
As a profession dance is loaded with uncertainty and finding a way forward is made all the more challenging for those prospective dancers for the simple reason that some people in the arts get to play with a stacked deck while everybody else, literally, takes their chances.
Along with the technique training, the choreography, the performances and dance history we have to wonder, here in TheLab™, if dance students are also being trained in activism and advocacy, two metaphorical spanners that every dancer needs in their metaphorical toolbox.
A couple of weeks ago we published data concerning the number of jobs for dancers that were available over the last few years. Numbers that should have rung alarm bells within the industry for no other reason than the data suggests an alarming lack of growth in the jobs market.
The amount of feedback and commentary we had for that piece was limited to say the least.
So what can a dance student do?
Well, for one thing they could strike up a conversation with the Artistic Director's of some dance companies, they all have email. They can ask them some pretty straight forward questions like; "what are you doing to increase the number of jobs available for dancers?"
Students and workers in other industries ask these kinds of questions all the time, so why not dance students? Why not professional dancers for that matter? It is just one of the things that students could do.
This is not about confrontation, it's about taking an interest in the entirety of the industry that dancers inhabit because everything is connected.
Dance companies can't employ dancers without money. They can't get money without Arts Council England (or whatever culture ministry feeds your culture programmes with financing). Arts Council England can't fund the arts without money from central government via the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
How much money they get (if they get anything at all) is determined by the government of the day, their policies and just how involved the appointed culture ministers are with their day to day portfolio responsibilities.
Lead by Example
If Arts Council England makes a simple change to the Grants for the Arts programme that could mean fewer freelance jobs for dancers. Funding for a new building might sound great in a press release but it also might concentrate work in one area of the country while pulling it away from another area.
The decisions made by people nobody has ever heard of while sitting in a nondescript room somewhere can massively effect the future prospects of every dance student in this country. They need to know who those people are and they need to know what they are saying.
So our question is this. Where are the students and why aren't they talking?
Are dance students being taught to raise these questions with their peers, with their future employers or even with their MP? The arts in the 21st century are very much about activism. It's very much about fighting your corner, not just for yourself though but for everything and everybody that dance is supposed to represent.
The students entering their first year of training in schools across the UK are the future of this industry. Is that future going to be more of the same? A few anointed individuals getting all of the opportunities all of the time for no other reason than "just because", or will that future be different?
Will that future be about dancers and choreographers advancing in their chosen profession because they are good at what they do and because they have a tremendous amount to offer the cultural landscape of whatever country they inhabit?
Will that future be less about nebulous networking skills and more about what you know and what you actually create?
Change comes through talking, through speaking out and suggesting alternatives. These discussion need to be had out loud where everybody can hear them. Being taught how to play the game is no longer enough, students need to be taught how to question the way the game is played and figure out how to change the rules.
Expecting somebody else to do it for you is a strategy with too many flaws.