Francine L. Trevens
Ever dream of being in show business? Dancer, singer, actor? Think it would be glamorous and fun? It can be and is...sometimes. When you are dancing. More often, between gigs, however, it is discouraging, disappointing and disillusioning.
Most performers have to face the reality that they need a second career. We often hear of cab drivers, sales clerks and waiters who are also in show business. I’ve known one who sold rare books, and another who designed clothes.
Of course, a good many become dance teachers. Some become college professors, such as Charlie Repole. This gives him the freedom to direct and choreograph summer theatre shows regularly, as well as work with students eager to learn more about the performing arts.
The late Jeremiah Sullivan, who appeared on Broadway as Solieri in AMADEUS, among many other roles, was a much sought after astrologer. He even had several royal clients. It was easier juggling that sort of career than a nine-to-five job. Many other performers do go the daily grind route, with the understanding that when a role calls, they may go dancing off into the stage lights for a while.
Because of the acknowledged uncertainty of the life, several organizations have cropped up to help performers find alternate work. There’s the Actors Work Program division of the Actor’s Fund and Career Transitions for Dancers – dedicated to helping former dancers move into a new field, sometime working at both until the final transition is made.
Vivian Eng spoke to them about possibilities at one time. They assured her she would find a second career she’d love as much as dancing, but she still doesn’t believe it. She did manage to get a bread and butter career, however, through a former dancer friend who became a supervisor at a small legal firm. The firm often needed outside temps to proofread. Her friend helped Vivian by telling her where to take classes, how to work on her own, and “held my hand” as she learned. That was back in 2001. Ms. Eng feels quite competent now and often works for that same company as well as several other places as a legal proofreader.
“You have to be very careful. One comma out of place could be a major problem.”
Vivian, who just returned from a tour of THE KING AND I, has done many productions of that musical. Vivian was raised all over North America. Her father was a medical researcher and went where the interesting projects took him. But she’s been a New Yorker for some time now.
A 5’ 5” dancer, she’s rather tall for an Asian, but too short for Rockettes and the wrong size for the Asian role in A CHORUS LINE. She feels this has limited her dancing career somewhat, but she loves dancing as much as ever. She continues taking dance classes, does shows when she lands a job, and does legal proofreading as well. Vivian Eng has appeared in every production of THE KING AND I in the past 15 years, according to choreographer Tony Stevens.
Many dancers find alternate careers for themselves. Thommie Walsh of A CHORUS LINE renown works in real estate while still directing, teaching and choreographing when opportunities arise.
“When teaching master classes across the country I always stress that college is essential and that having a minor is a smart thing to take on,” Thommie said.
“In A CHORUS LINE. A dancer falls, in agony, and obviously will never dance again. The director asks, ‘what would you do if you couldn’t dance anymore?’
“It is something that all artists should not take so lightly, as I did 32 years ago. Luckily, I began to choreograph, direct and teach directly out of A CHORUS LINE.” (Michael Lichtenfeld was one dancer to whom the unthinkable happened, causing him to switch to choreography when he pulled a hamstring in the middle of the run of a show.)
“Recently I got my real estate license, hoping to enhance my financial situation,” Thommie Walsh enthused. “As you know, being an artist is a roller coaster ride. A sale – real estate-- is a lot more difficult than I had thought, but stimulating to learn a new dance, if you will.
“Each time I have crossed back into theatre gigs since this new adventure, I have appreciated the experience so much more. And the real estate adventure? I am really thrilled that my intellect is capable of other things besides theatre. Now I am filling my time between theatre gigs and it feels great not waiting by the phone for Hal Prince to call me.”
Jeanne Pearson, who was in the long-lived off-Broadway hit THE THREEPENNY OPERA at the then Theatre de Lis, has a good head for figures and detail. She actually worked in investment banking for a time, at the World Trade Center. Luckily, she left that position several years before the 9/11 disaster.
While appearing several times a week with the now defunct Hasselfree Mysteries in such cabaret style musical shows as The Hollywood Music-Kills, she served as personal assistant to the well-known Stanislavski expert, Sonia Moore. Currently, Jeanne is with a party-planning firm where many other performers are also employed. Her ebullient personality is a real plus in dealing with corporate executives planning major fund raising or honorary events. As a hostess, her phenomenal memory for names is a major plus. Jeanne still auditions, occasionally landing juicy roles such as Lady Bracknell in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST. In between, she has a stimulating second career.
Michon Peacock, who understudied Chita Rivera in the original CHICAGO, was doing the revue UPSTAIRS AT O’NEALS when she became pregnant. She had been working as an administrative assistant, doing bookkeeping and such to earn additional money while dancing. After her daughter was born, when time came to return to work, she realized she no longer loved theatre as she once had. She decided not to return to dancing. Her part time job blossomed, and now she is Conservatory Director for Cap 21 at NYU. In addition to helping young people get started in their theatre careers, she and other dance teachers at the University do an annual Faculty Follies. They did HEY BIG SPENDER in 2004 and in 2005, CELLBLOCK TANGO. Tony Stevens choreographed both numbers. Michon and her daughter visited backstage with Chita Rivera and her daughter this winter. It was a personal thing, but “turned into a photo-op!” That’s show biz for you.
Another case in point: A former child dancer who has a thriving career as massage therapist to fellow performers. Joel Benjamin has been company massage therapist for fourteen stage shows and five films. His client list includes Rue McClanahan, Tovah Feldshuh, Farah Fawcett and the late Raoul Julia among a host of other luminaries. But Joel Benjamin remains a dancer at heart.
Summer of 2005, a fortuitous circumstance gave him the opportunity possibly to be “standby to the standby” in HAIRSPRAY. He worked for months learning and practicing the various routines. The idea was, if he could cut it, and also cut 50 pounds off his weight, he’d get the contract. He took the chance.
Joel, who has a B.S. in Psychology/Pre-Med from Columbia and an M.F.A. in Arts Administration from NYU, as well as a massage therapy degree from the Swedish Institute, was a singer/dancer in seven Broadway shows while a kid. Joel appeared in Bells Are Ringing in which he was in the “Hello, Hello There” number and The Music Man as part of the chorus of eight used throughout the show. After that, he was in a series of “flops.” An Equity member before his age hit double digits, he left the union at thirteen because High School and college preparation took up his time. Little Joel Benjamin grew and grew and grew, physically and intellectually.
Despite a pre-med degree at nineteen, he “discovered a renewed interest in dance and formed my own troupe.” He was Artistic and Managing Director of the American Chamber Ballet, where he also danced and choreographed. When that ended in 1978, Joel needed something to pay his rent. Occasional gigs dancing and choreographing with modern dance and ballet troupes wouldn’t quite cut it. Massage therapy provided that living. No one knows more about aching body parts than a dancer, so what was more natural than following his new career in his old theatrical milieu, where his magic hands do the professional dancing? Not only did various films such as A LOVE AFFAIR, retain his services for the next ten years, but also companies such as Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel, the Club La Raquette/Parker Meridian Hotel, and various Broadway stars.
Then small miracle – roles for more than lithe and slim dancers began opening up. The role Harvey Fierstein created in HAIRSPRAY, for example. Joel worked one or two days a week learning the many dance numbers, while continuing his own massage therapy business. He rehearsed for months without a contract, which might be forthcoming soon. (It is not unusual for Broadway shows to save money by not signing the Broadway contract, with its steep health, welfare and other benefits, in addition to a sizeable salary, until practically curtain time.) There were various possibilities for using him - in the National Tour, in the Las Vegas version, as a Broadway understudy. As of this writing, no decision had yet been made.
Dancers don’t choose to dance — dancing chooses them. Their feet may follow the choreography, but it is their hearts that are dancing. Let the music begin – the offer be made – and dancers are more than willing to tap their hearts out.
Dancing is a labor of love – and if that love is sometimes unreciprocated – well – we can’t choose whom or what to love, can we?