Going for broke: What it takes to make a living as a performance artist


"You will be eating lots of ramen."

"Do you have a back up plan?"

If you're settling into a fine arts degree, plan on making a drinking game for the number of times you will hear grim phrases like these. It's well known that unless you happen to rub elbows with the right person, a career in the arts just doesn't pay great.

A modest lifestyle is one thing; three to four jobs at a time is another, and, sadly, it is the norm for most dancers in Indianapolis.

Tommy Lewey knows this all too well. "I am obviously not in it for the money," says Lewey. "But I'm not necessarily sure I would be making more money if I were living in a different city."

After walking in a cap and gown along Hinkle Fieldhouse, to receive his degree in dance pedagogy, Lewey quickly started teaching at Broad Ripple High School. Though he loves the job, it only pays when school is in session. When winter or summer break rolls around the checks stop. Lewey is a choreographer, teacher and waiter (to make up for the spotty teacher pay) on any given day.

"In terms of the arts here, dance is one of the most underappreciated," says Lewey. "I think that is kind of the hard truth. ... Dance is so stigmatized in popular culture right now — Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance — people kind of have one expectation to what dance is then when they get to see what dance really is, as an art form, not necessarily as a sensationalized media exploit ... it's not necessarily what they are expecting."

It's no doubt that the arts in Indianapolis are increasingly growing; however, the actual amount an artist can make performing gets a little sticky. Unlike any other medium there is always a middleman — the stage. No way around it, performing artists must find a company to back them. There's no Etsy consumer demanding a pirouette.

Groups like Dance Kaleidoscope, Motus and Gregory Hancock (this is restricted to programs that are not part of a university) have made strides in exposing Indianapolis to new types of dance. While those programs are copacetic, they can only do so much.

"If Indianapolis were like a sundae — like an ice cream sundae — dance is considered to be a fun cherry on top," says Lewey. "They (the community) like it, it's there, but they don't necessarily think it's needed. ... I think the opposite is true. The dance community here is appreciated and very underfunded."

It is worth noting that the song of "not enough money in the arts" will be on repeat unless a massive government overhaul happens where the arts are suddenly subsidized; until then, c'est la vie. But how does Indianapolis compare to other cities when it comes to making a living as a performing artist?

While we might have fewer companies, the competition for those spots can get heated. Dancers with DK, for example, tend to set up shop. All of the 2015 dancers have been with the group for at least five years.

Each of the dancers with DK is offered a year-long contract that guarantees them work for at least 40 weeks. The other twelve weeks are unpaid and many dancers collect unemployment. During the year they often work three or four jobs in addition to being in the studio for much of the day.

Stephanie Squint, a dancer with Motus for the last 4 years and choreographer at White Rabbit's house troupe, notes that although they pay for performances and choreography, the group has to rely on volunteer hours.

"There isn't a way to do [dance] full time without having a second or third income," says Squint. "I find that to be true in a majority of cities, not just Indianapolis."

DK marketing director Paul Hansen agrees that a struggle in the arts is hardly Indy-specific.When he was a teenager he moved to New York to pursue acting. Since then he has continued his theater work on the side here in Indy.

"The struggle is just the same [as being in New York]," says Hansen. "That's the thing, I think we are all a little twisted, we artists. Because there is this incredible excitement about survival."

To this day he will tell you with pride that there were two weeks that he lived off of cereal, white rice and stolen butter tabs from restaurants. To him, the scarce living is just part of the game.

Business owner and burlesque dancer Jenee Michelle laughs "this town isn't notoriously known for being able to pay dancers."

After moving to Indianapolis from Las Vegas — where she had a career as a showgirl — she quickly realized that a full-time job as a dancer just didn't exist here. "You can't be a dancer in Indy professionally because there isn't enough pay for it," says Michelle.

She decided to start a company to fight back against that very thing, making a "lifestyle" company that hires mostly dancers, giving them a steady source of income and bookings.

So what would we need to even make a few full-time performance [only] jobs an option here?

"It would take more of the decision-makers in town, whether that's a corporate entity or whatnot, I think it's them saying 'we want to hire talent, and we want to pay them appropriately' which I don't think is happening, says Michelle.

I think they best way to be successful in the entertainment area of this town is to diversify. I don't think a lot of people want to do that ... They are really attached to that hobby space. They want to have fun, get up and do their piece and work within their availability, but if you want to get more of a business and live off this then you have to diversify."


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