Courtney Liu, ‘13 Discusses her Life in NYC as a Professional Dancer and Arts Entrepreneur
What is an arts entrepreneur? How do you become one? Courtney Liu, Duke ’13, shares insights and strategies she’s learned as a professional dancer and arts entrepreneur in New York City. It takes more than just passion. It takes flexibility (literally and figuratively!), a varied skillset, and most importantly, the ability to hustle. Check out Courtney’s story below.
Hometown: Cincinnati, OH
Graduation date: May 2013
Major(s), Minor(s), Certificate(s): Psychology Major (Developmental Psychology concentration), Markets and Management Certificate
Duke Extracurricular Activities and Leadership:
Sabrosura (President, Co-President), Baldwin Scholars, Duke Dancers, Alpha Phi
Internships/Summer Experiences/On-Campus Jobs:
Freshman Summer: DukeEngage in Zhuhai, China (taught ballet, jazz, and English)
Sophomore Summer: Benenson Arts Award to go to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Summer Intensive; Duke in Greece
Junior Summer: VIP Program for Psychology Majors graduating with Distinction; Durham Crisis Response Center, Research Intern and Hotline Responder (funded by SOL grant)
Other Jobs at Duke: Yoga Instructor at Wilson Gym, East Campus RA, Ballet Instructor at Nina’s School of Dance, Walltown Children’s Theater, Red Apple Day Care and Triangle Youth Ballet
Tell us about what dance means to you and your life, and why you decided to pursue it professionally.
George Balanchine once said, “I don’t want dancers who want to dance. I want dancers who need to dance.” Since graduation I have discovered that I fall into the latter category. There is nothing logical about pursuing a career in dance, particularly ballet. Most dancers endure excruciating pain, suffer lifelong injuries, receive little compensation, retire before age 40 and rarely become stars in the way that singers and actors do. For all these reasons I was hell bent on pursing a career outside of dance during my four years at Duke. However, upon graduation I felt stifled sitting down in an office all day and found myself running out the door each evening for ballet class. When the opportunity presented itself, I left my job to pursue dance professionally.
Walk us through how you were able to move to NYC, pay the bills, and begin your professional dance career?
As a senior at Duke, I wanted stability in my life and therefore had no interest in a career in arts entrepreneurship or dance. Along with my peers, I spent my last year networking and applying to jobs until I landed a Research Coordinator position at Bellevue Hospital in Psychiatry.
I moved to NYC and paid my security deposit, moving costs, and the first month of expenses with savings I had put aside during my four years at Duke. I was happy to have a steady salary and spent my weekends and evenings taking contemporary dance classes. Fellow Dukie, Monica Hogan, ’12, started a dance company and I began performing with her at different gigs she booked throughout the city. Hungry for more opportunities to perform, I started to browse Backstage.com.
When I saw the Phantom of the Opera audition I realized how much I missed ballet. I was in no condition to attend the audition. Although I was once a tiny, 17-year old ready to land a ballet contract, I was now an out-of-shape 22-year old who hadn’t taken a ballet class in months.
I had an unbelievable surge of energy in that moment and used the momentum to push myself through the next two months. I brought my ballet supplies back from my parent’s house, changed my diet and spent most of my salary on daily ballet classes and pointe shoes. I ran out of the hospital every day at 5 p.m. to make the 5:30 class at Peridance and stayed for the 7 p.m. class, if I had the funds.
One Sunday I took class from Stuart Loungway, a former San Francisco and Joffrey Ballet dancer. I left his class feeling exhilarated. It was everything I loved about ballet…. graceful physicality, intricate musicality, artistry and care in every step. I attended this class every week and Sundays became a benchmark for the week’s work as I pushed to re-gain my technique.
After eight weeks Stuart asked me to join his company, Terra Firma Dance Theatre (TFDT), for their Spring Season at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center. I was thrilled and also relieved to learn that they rehearsed on Sundays…so I could keep my day job.
It turns out that most of the other dancers had day jobs as well. Everyone knows that many dancers/actors/singers move to New York and “don’t make it”. However, I found that many dancers “make it” in New York (aka. perform on great stages, land contracts with their dream companies) but still cannot pay their bills with a dancer’s salary. Most dancers in New York work other jobs to pay the bills (e.g. babysitting, waiting tables, Lulu Lemon sales). In addition, dance is not a career that lasts forever and a single injury can sideline a dancer forever. By concurrently pursuing another career path I was able to pay my bills and invest in my future, post-dance.
After Kaatsbaan, I joined another small ballet company and another contemporary company. Although I was dancing many hours I still could not afford to quit my job at Bellevue until I had booked a dance job that would pay my bills.
Because I had a good track record at the hospital, I was able to negotiate a flex-time agreement with my boss that freed up my daytime schedule for auditions. During this time money became very tight as my student loan grace period expired. Even with a full time research job I was not able to pay my rent, student bills and take daily ballet classes ($19/class). I started tutoring four hours per week to make ends meet.
After many auditions, I was offered a contract with the touring cast of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for November and December. I told my boss and we both agreed it was best for me to leave at the completion of the study in June rather than to start on a new study and leave in October.
However, I was now unemployed until November and had no income other than tutoring, which was ending for the summer. I reached out to my networks and found two freelance jobs, one as a grant writer for a boutique PR firm and another as an administrative assistant for a dance institute. I also began babysitting a few hours per week to supplement my income.
Although the freelance jobs were good, I was still worried they would not provide enough income for the coming months. I continued applying for jobs and going to auditions.
I found the solution to my financial worries on Answers4Dancers.com. Busch Gardens needed dancers for their Halloween shows for September and October. The gig paid well and was located near my Mom in Williamsburg, VA, which meant I could stay with her and sublet my apartment for a full four months (Busch Gardens and Radio City tour).
I auditioned in both Williamsburg and New York to increase my chances …. and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I booked the job. I plan to continue to work in grant writing and arts administration on a telecommute freelance basis while I am touring and am looking forward to embarking on this adventure!
How do you/what is your strategy for continuing to find paid/professional dance gigs and growing your professional dance career? How do you network/meet people that may hire you?
• Find your niche
Although I would love to take every style of dance, I invest in my ballet technique first because this is the skill that sets me apart at auditions.
• Balance high paying jobs with fulfilling jobs
The highest paying jobs are rarely the most “artistically fulfilling” jobs. I balance my paid and unpaid gigs so I can pay my bills but can also perform the cutting edge work.
• Attend practice auditions
I go to every audition that fits in the schedule because auditioning is a skill that cannot be developed in the classroom.
• Invest in your technique
Even if I have to take on a second job (e.g. tutoring), I always make sure I have enough money to take ballet class daily to improve my technique.
• Prep for auditions
Before an audition I read the entire website, watch (and sometimes learn) the choreography on YouTube, talk to dancers who may have information about the job or the audition, take extra classes in the style and buy clothing to match the part.
• Tell people how great they are
Whenever I see an impressive dancer or take an exceptional dance class I always make sure to approach the dancer or teacher after class and compliment their work. I usually follow-up by friending them on Facebook or connecting on LinkedIn.
• Pursue multiple careers
I continue to pursue a career outside of dance in grant writing and administration to relieve some of the anxiety that comes with identifying oneself as a professional dancer and to create a stream of income that is not dependent on my physical health or the volatile arts industry.
How did your time at Duke build skills that you have been able to use as an arts entrepreneur?
I am incredibly thankful I spent my time at Duke developing skill sets outside of dance. The research and writing skills have served me well in telecommute grant writing/administration positions and the Duke degree itself has helped me land tutoring and babysitting jobs. However, the most valuable skill I learned at Duke is how to “hustle”. Like many students, I spent my four years constantly looking for new opportunities including summer internships, different classes, various jobs, grant funding and extracurricular activities. I am crafting my career in arts entrepreneurship in the same way I crafted my four years at Duke, by piecing together various streams of experiences and income.
What advice do you have for students considering arts entrepreneurship and following their arts passions?
Develop multiple skills (both inside and outside the arts) while at Duke. An artist’s life is a hodgepodge of jobs and the most sustainable arts careers are those that can balance these multiple responsibilities.
Describe your life as a dance/arts entrepreneur in three words.
Creative, Flexible, Strategic