When I first met Nikki she was a high school student training at Northern California Dance Conservatory in Roseville, CA. In a classroom full of faces, she was the one soaking in your every word with a look of determination and positivity. She approached her dance training by working hard with clear intention to improve. On occasion, when tension arose in the studio, you could count on her infectious giggle to breathe fresh air into the room. Her resilience was blindingly evident and secretly I wished for even half.
WHERE IS SHE NOW
Fast forward ten years. Nikki is 26 years old, living in New York dancing professionally, teaching dance, and collaborating with other equally talented artists on special projects. With every opportunity, she continues her dance training at local prestigious schools. She has that same determination and positive attitude. Life has a way of tearing people down, but for Nikki, her resilience persevered.
She’s living with two roommates in a 3 bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. Their rent, it’s $2,750 a month. A MONTH. With the basic extras – electricity & internet, they’re paying $1,000 per person. Add on to that public transit, food, health insurance, and dance training and we’re well beyond an easy breezy budget to maintain.
As a dancer you usually don’t have just one 9-5 job. You piece together an income with part-time work, projects, dance jobs, teaching jobs; basically anything and everything you can get your hands on that will allow you to financially fend for yourself. No month’s income is ever really the same and there is no guarantee there will be work in the future. It is a constant hunt for survival and there are many dancers out in the work force hunting the same goal. It’s brutal. On top of all the time spent working to live and trying to get dance jobs, a dancer has to keep their body at peak and their training relevant. This part, much like their rent, is not cheap. For comparison sake a gym membership in Washington Heights, NY is on average around $60 a month. An average person is encouraged to work out 3-5 times a week, while athletes are somewhere between 5-6 times a week, right? Hopefully taking at least one day in there for your body to rest. Ok. Now for a dancer it would generally be ideal to take one to two classes a day for 5 days of the week. Well, each class is $20 (sometimes $22) a piece. So for a month of training we’re talking about between $400 to $800 a month to stay “hirable”.
The point of telling you all of this? Awareness. Dancers aren’t easily defeated. They’re born with a warrior spirit. They fight hard for long periods of time to follow their calling. They sacrifice so much to bring joy, connection, empathy, and human expression to their audience in whatever venue they may perform.
The return on investment comes in waves. Nikki, for all of her hard work, has continued to reach new levels with her career. It started with receiving her B.F.A. with an Emphasis in Modern Dance from San Jose State University under the direction of Gary Masters. After graduating Nikki was approached to dance for Gigi Torres on a short dance film approaching the topic of female empowerment and periods. This video went on to be reposted by popular underwear retailer Thinx. Nikki talked about one of her most favorite dance relationships with the very talented choreographer and photographer Mike Esperanza. And her most recent success – being flown out to California to dance for DV Dance directed by Dominic Duong.
“Being in New York City, you don’t know where you’ll be in a year.”
Talking about her future Nikki says long term goals are hard. She does plan to continue to teach and absolutely is going to continue the fight to get work in the dance world. But it’s hard to know what the future holds and where the opportunities will come. It makes living this kind of life a risk but also an adventure worth every moment.
Her #1 fear is being rejected for her body type. She says “It’s the worst feeling to go to an audition and feel like I’m the biggest girl there.” Especially if that means you’re less likely to get the job. The dance world has a long history of discrimination based on physical appearance. Hearing Nikki share this fear with me made my soul ache and at the same time my anger flare. The people in power, who are driving the value system for how women should look, continue to put a certain body type on a pedestal. They’re doing this regardless of passion or artistry and it’s killing the art form. Dance is meant to tell stories, express feelings or ideas, preserve culture; it’s meant to be inclusive and bring us together in this human experience. That can’t be done if there is only one archetype in the story.
We have an opportunity for change with each generation.
I beg for more dancers like Nikki, or Misty, or Mia. They deserve space in this world, they deserve to be seen and have the opportunity to inspire others. We deserve to see their talent and feel their passion. Our young girls, the next generation of women, deserve the chance to see heroes they can relate and aspire to. We should place value on heart, courage, passion, skill, talent, artistry, expression…the list is endless, but instead these values only apply if the woman’s body fits the expected mold. How sad for those who can only see physical beauty. The depth of beauty that lies beyond the surface of the skin is a gift to those who seek it.
WHAT KEEPS HER GOING
Her friends. Seriously, isn’t it amazing how support from people in our inner circle can get us through some of the hardest times of our lives. Nikki and her two roommates make it their goal to look out and take care of each other. When one of them has a rough day they make sure to plan a movie and wine night, or find something fun (and affordable) for them to go do. It’s so important that we all stick together.
Nikki also brought up reframing your perception and positive self-talk; I wholeheartedly agree that these two things are very important to keep us going. She brought up feeling like other dancers are better than her. This can lead to serious confidence issues that can come across in your dancing. Nikki says when she starts to feel that way she makes a perception shift and tries to let those dancers inspire her. There were also times she would make the cut for an audition and get a job offer. This should be a time of celebration and a feeling of achievement but so often for dancers, self-doubt is quick to set in. She wondered why she got picked over other dancers. Surely they had more to offer than she did. I hate that this type of thinking is something that happens to so many of us. Nikki focuses on positive self-talk by reminding herself to calm down, and accept that she was chosen because the director saw something in her that fit what they wanted; that she too has something of value to offer. I wanted to clap my hands at this self-affirming statement, because damn straight she has something great to offer. Ultimately we are responsible for our own success, so shouldn’t we also be our loudest supporter?
Living and working as a dancer in NYC!
Central Park right after a snow storm, when it’s quiet and empty.
Finding moments in the city when you’re outside and alone.
Seeing the stars (the ones in the sky).
She’s got a travel wish list too:
Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria, The Alps
Fun fact, if she could live a double life, she would be a marine biologist helping to preserve and care for the great barrier reef.
CENTRAL PARK, NY
Photos were taken in Central Park, an expansive natural space in the heart of Manhattan.
US PROJECT: ABOUT
The US Project strives to tell the diverse stories of us here in the US, all of us. Born from a personal need to do something in light of recent political events the US Project is intended to find the beauty and value in all life around us.