A man and a woman stand in the center of the black studio floor. Black curtains pulled over three walls behind them transform one side of the room into a black box theater. She lunges low with a leg stretched long behind her, only to rotate and lean her body on his.
The director, a dramaturgy master’s student in Columbia University’s theater department, sits just off the edge of the all-black rehearsal space. With a laptop on his knees, speakers at his feet, and a script in his hands, he talks the performers through the first full run of his thesis project.
One of his dancers, Tamrin Goldberg, 24, had made her way through the incessant rain from the Upper West Side to this large yellow building in Harlem, where Columbia’s theater department has rehearsal rooms. Four hours later, she pulls an old tie-dyed college sweatshirt over her cut up T-shirt and digs her planner out of her bag.
“How’s Saturday from 12 to 4?” asks the director.
“Works for me,” says Goldberg, flipping the pages in her planner. Some are chock full of things to do, marked in a lively mix of colorful ink. Others are entirely blank. She rarely knows too far in advance what work she’ll have, if any. Dancing for a living is not so easy.
“In modern dance it’s so rare to be like, ‘I’m in a company, I’ve made it, I can pay my rent, I can eat food. And support a family? Ehh, questionable.'”
– Tamrin Goldberg, dancer
Born and raised in Seattle and transplanted to Atlanta as a teenager, Goldberg started studying theater and Spanish at Indiana University. But before long, she had to get out of Indiana. She moved to New York and graduated from Barnard College in the spring of 2012, with a double major in philosophy and dance.
Every empty space in her undergraduate schedule got filled: ballet every day, modern as much as possible, and yoga and pilates, in addition to rehearsals. While still in school, she had the opportunity to work with some choreographers whose names ring loud in the dance world—Brian Brooks, Sidra Bell, Kyle Abraham, Larry Keigwin—a function of studying in New York City.
New York exerts a gravitational pull on aspiring dancers across the country, and all over the world. But there’s a downside. “It’s just so oversaturated,” Goldberg explains, tucked into a corner table at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, her favorite café, just a few blocks south of her alma mater. “There are so many amazingly talented dancers here. And singers, writers, every type of artist.” And despite New York’s place-to-be status, Goldberg estimates that only about four modern or contemporary dance companies in the city can afford to pay their members a living wage.
“In modern dance it’s so rare to be like, ‘I’m in a company, I’ve made it, I can pay my rent, I can eat food,’” she says. “And support a family? Ehh, questionable.” Far more common is for dancers to float from project to project at pay rates that vary hugely, starting from zero. It has been two years now since Goldberg graduated, and she still struggles to almost make ends meet as she juggles performance projects with what she calls “survival jobs.”
And she’s lucky, she points out. Both of her parents are doctors who in their youth wanted to pursue something in the arts. “They realize the importance of the arts,” she said. “They’re very passionate about my sister and I following our dreams,” and are able to help fill in the gaps. But parental support is not unlimited—Goldberg sends them spreadsheets detailing her spending—and she knows it won’t last forever.
She tries to fill up her planner with projects and jobs that pay; the most ideal entries are both. She got a job as a hostess at a French restaurant that was flexible enough to accommodate auditions and rehearsals at odd hours. Standing in heels for eight hours takes a toll on a dancer’s body, though. In the end, she quit so she could get certified as a yoga teacher. Last January, she spent her days—before evening rehearsals—in an intensive course. She now teaches yoga once or twice a week.
This past fall, she booked an eight-week gig in an off-Broadway show. The pay was $100 a week, but the project took up nearly all of her time. During the first four weeks, she rehearsed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. That’s about $2 an hour. Many projects pay nothing at all. Recently, someone asked her to audition for a similar project, to work about six weeks. The pay would be $50. Total. She didn’t audition.
“I’m complaining so much because there’s a lot to complain about. But there’s a reason we go through all this.”
– Tamrin Goldberg
In the beginning, Goldberg said yes to any project. But now she relies on a formula: “There are three different reasons that you would do something,” she explains. “One is that it pays really well. Two is that the experience itself is something you believe in. And the third is that it’s advancing you professionally.” If a project fulfills two of the three, she’ll take it.
Goldberg’s survival jobs have included hostessing, babysitting, and most recently, working the front desk at Equinox Fitness, where the Tuesday evening shift—and any others that coworkers need covered—is hers. She got a 25-cent raise this week to make it a $9.25 per hour job. The best jobs, she says, are in teaching. She was a choreographer in residence for one semester at a high school dance program in Dobbs Ferry, and is choreographing a production of Godspell at a charter school in Harlem.
Two years, several projects, and a handful of survival jobs later, Goldberg still has trouble paying for food, dance classes, and her loft space in a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. It doesn’t have a door, a closet, or enough space to stand up straight, but she’s happy to climb the ladder to her “room” because it only runs $900 a month in such a convenient, safe location. Because projects come and go, and rehearsal schedules are always shifting, she is constantly reassembling the pieces of her income. She hopes to move on from the “project-ing” phase soon into something more stable.
“I’m complaining so much because there’s a lot to complain about,” she says. “But there’s a reason we go through all this.” She recalls a benefit concert at City Center last month—Chelsea Clinton had just walked offstage, and Hugh Jackman, a member of the charter school’s board, was behind her. She stood in the wings, watching the students dance excerpts from her own choreography, on the same stage where Alvin Ailey and other internationally renowned companies have performed. “It can be so rewarding.”