Finding Your Joy In Dancing With Sarah Shoemaker

Podcast

August 6, 2021

PTR 109 | Joy In Dancing

 

The life of a ballet dancer is both difficult and rewarding in many ways. In this episode, our guest guides us in finding your joy in dancing. Susanne Puerschel sits down for a chat with Sarah Shoemaker, Executive Director at International Ballet in Greenville, South Carolina. Sarah looks back on her experiences as a dancer, and the lessons learned from years of dancing. She also tackles the financial difficulties faced by dance troupes and they discuss what can be done to support the arts.

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Finding Your Joy In Dancing With Sarah Shoemaker

Welcome to another episode of the show. I am in New York and meeting up with Sarah Shoemaker. Sarah and I go way back. Although we never were on one stage together, we were always looking at each other as I wish I would have what she has as dancers and artists, wherever we were at that point in early 2000 when we crossed paths. Sarah Shoemaker’s years in the professional arts world began in 1992, working for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1994, Sarah Shoemaker received a contract to dance with the Charleston Ballet Theatre, where she performed for four seasons.

In 2000 after completing her Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the College of Charleston, she accepted an administrative position with Augusta Ballet. Her evenings were spent teaching and choreographing for various groups in and around Augusta, Georgia. In 2004, she was invited to launch a dance program at Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tennessee and later served as the Director of Dance at Brentwood Academy. While in Nashville, Shoemaker began acting in independent film, TV, and commercial projects. She stopped acting when she moved to Greenville, South Carolina, in 2014 and began producing the documentary film, Invitation to the Dance, which has won several film festival awards.

She currently serves as the Executive Director of the International Ballet in Greenville, South Carolina and is producing another short film with her husband and choreographer, Thomas Shoemaker. It is called Just Let Go. She is a mother of two beautiful children, a daughter and a son. Hang tight. This is going to be a great interview. I can’t wait to dive into her journey from years ago where we last parted. With no further ado, here is Sarah.

Sarah, thank you so much for being here. It is my absolute pleasure and honor to reconnect with you. It’s been quite a few years since we parted and moved away from each other and now finding each other back. Thank you for being here and taking the time. I know your schedule is full, so the more so I’m grateful.

Thank you. I’m only here because I’m a fan of what you’re doing and I believe in what you’re doing. I was so pleasantly surprised when I saw you connect with Philly and it was like unicorns and rainbows in my head of the joy of seeing two people that I respect, love, and knew a lifetime ago. Fast forward all these years and to see not only her journey into retirement from the performing side, but to see your journey into this new evolution of giving back to the people that we were when we were all together to that age group.

I loved watching that show, and then I felt like if Susie ever wanted to hear from the business side or the evolution when you leave the performing side early because I stopped dancing when I was 25. There was a sliver of a performing career, but then everything fell out after that. I thought I could speak into those things if that were ever to be applicable to your audience. That’s why I’m here so that I could speak to that. I want to say thank you because you’re doing incredible work and I hope that people are allowing themselves to be poured into from your experience and your advice because you give amazing advice.

I need to go and take that in. Do you know when you get a compliment, it still feels not uncomfortable. I’m going to take this in, so thank you. That is such a beautiful gift. I do want to get into the business side because that’s my jam besides all of the other things. What I want to start with is that I’m finding this common thread between performing artists and regardless when they stopped and when they pivoted, once a dancer and artist, you always have that in you. It’s in your blood. I would love to know your journey and share not the journey altogether because I highlighted that already, but what made you start. What was that spark? Where did that come from?

Every person is different and their goals are going to determine what they need to do and what they don’t need to do. Click To Tweet

I can’t even remember. When you’re exposed to ballet as a young person, whenever that is, if that’s in your blood, it’s going to be like an instant thing and you’ll never remember a time before that. For me, I don’t remember this happening, but my dad says that he saw something on PBS, public television, when I was 4 or 5 years old. He thinks it was Baryshnikov. It may or may not have been Baryshnikov. I don’t know. It could have been Nureyev. It could have been any big star, but somebody famous was dancing on television, and he called me in to show me what was going on. He says that is when it started. He thinks he remembers that. I don’t remember that moment, but I do remember from the time I could see my full-length reflection in our glass fireplace, and I can remember dancing in front of that and the glass was my full-length mirror.

The fact that I could see my whole body means I was tiny. I was already looking for my mirror, studio, or whatever, and I had no technique, language, and ballet shoes. Nothing, but I remember dancing. That instinct and love of dance is something that is in different people and you can’t explain where it comes from necessarily. It’s there and it’s powerful. It’s like anybody’s instinct for music, art, or any kind of expression that speaks to your soul and connects you to something greater. You do it. You don’t know why you’re doing it, but you’re doing it because you’re seeking something.

That was how I got into it and then I do remember getting my first pair of ballet shoes when I was six. I remember the smell of the leather and it was like paradise. To this day, I can close my eyes and remember that new ballet shoe smell of the leather and this is my thing forever. The journey since then continues to this day. I’m still working for a ballet company. It can take different forms, but that power and the love of dance is in me. I’ve tried to get away from it though. That’s the other theme of my life. It’s that it’s so hard to carve out a place that I did try to leave the industry several times and never succeeded, so I have surrendered at this point.

I’m sitting here covered in goosebumps, so relating to every word that you’re saying because it is in us. We can’t deny it and the further we’re trying to go away from it, the further we’re trying to deny ourselves that is our calling, the harder the nudges will get and the pulling you back into the tight rope. What were the things that you did that had nothing to do with the dance and ballet scene?

I tried to quit when I was eighteen.

How did that go?

It didn’t last. It lasted about a year and a half, but the benefit of that lesson was that I do frequently tell kids that if they’re burned out, injured, or needing a break, it’s okay. There’s this panic of, “If I stopped for two weeks, I’ll be fat and forget how to dance. It’s over.” I always say I quit when I was eighteen for a year and a half. That’s prime training. That’s when it’s supposed to be happening and I was eating Snickers, going to work, and sitting at a desk. I was living the opposite of the ballet world life and yet I still managed to come back and get a contract with a small ballet company. I was dancing ballet and doing the thing. How is that possible if it’s impossible. It is possible. You can take a break, two-week break, month break, six-month break, and year-and-a-half break as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t advise it, but I would say, “Let’s not panic about breaks.”

Every person is different and their goals are going to determine what they need to do and not need to do. For your average dancer, who isn’t destined for a principal career with a big company, let’s not panic. You can do it or not do it. You can break or not. I’m glad I took that break because I feel like it’s helped me to inform other people that they don’t need to panic about a break. I came back at nineteen and a half and did dance for that next few years, but then I tried to stop again and got a business degree because I was so tired of being a starving artist that I thought I would like to make money. To me, getting a business degree sounded like the way to make money. The first job I got after getting the business degree was working as the marketing director for another ballet company. I thought I was doing that as a stepping stone and it turned out to keep my toe in the water enough that I couldn’t leave. I never wanted to go to a corporate institution. I couldn’t leave.

PTR 109 | Joy In Dancing

Invitation To The Dance

 

From the marketing job, I ended up getting back into the studio, and then I spent like 10 or 12 years teaching and choreographing, which I did love. I would still be doing that to this day had I not gone through another life evolution of when you’re evolving through your career, you hit these obstacles, and you have to decide which path to take. I ended up choosing to take a break from teaching and then that is what led me to leave teaching. I did love teaching, but it was a strategic choice at a certain moment and I don’t regret it because now my job is to empower other teachers. Even though I’m not the one in the classroom, it feels good to be able to support, endorse, and do what I need to do to support other teachers. It feels like I can live vicariously through other teachers now.

I acted for a while. I spent about ten years acting, but I knew when I did that, it wasn’t a career move. It was more like a hobby on steroids. I wouldn’t say going into the acting world was necessarily leaving dance because I was still working in the dance field, but it was a detour to learn another side of art. I’m glad that I did that detour outside of the ballet industry because the things I learned in the film world and the acting world are completely opposite lessons from things I had learned in the ballet world and would have been beneficial to know as a dancer. Now that I’m in my position here, I feel like I’m able to use these different things to try to encourage others when they get panicky about the ballet stuff because you can get panicky about it. You can obsess and I’ve had enough experience in other things to say, “There’s no need for you to panic.”

This is such a beautiful circle that you described. Let’s start with the permission to take a break because I find you are completely right from both of our experiences and saying that people, younger people, even people in their careers in their mid-20s or 30s are panicking when taking a break. If it’s two weeks, a day, or even taking a sabbatical to literally lean in, listen, and to understand what is going on, either with their body, giving themselves time to heal, or giving themselves time to take themselves out of the daily rut. We can get accustomed to many things and only do we realize whether or not they’re serving us when we take ourselves out of them. Let’s give our readers the permission that whatever your intuition tells you, and whatever comes your way, it is the right thing. It doesn’t maybe feel like it now, but when you connect the dots backward, it’s exactly what you needed.

This is going to sound probably a little extreme, but I don’t mean to scare people or make an analogy that’s too much. I did watch on Netflix, Leah Remini. She does a series on Scientology and I was learning about that cult idea and some of the things that they did to force people to do things that they wouldn’t normally have done. It was this brainwashing thing. There were elements of that reminded me of the experiences of training in the ballet industry for so many years, day in, day out. I’m not saying that this is an intentional malicious thing. It’s a by-product of the reality of the competitive, physical, and elite-like athletic nature of it. You put all these things together and it seems like what is required is this and this.

The net result is you end up putting children into a situation where they’re not prepared to understand that there’s a cost to never allowing yourself a break and think and endorse for yourself. You’re not only saying yes to the teacher every day. You’re being given this constant you’re not enough message. It’s so tricky because we know as adults, it wasn’t malicious. We understand why it was, but we also understand that if you don’t take yourself out of it for a moment, then you’re essentially becoming a brainwashed person for something that isn’t necessarily going to help you as a human ultimately.

For some, it will because they’re going to have massive success and enough rewards in ways that it gives them freedom later to process some of this. For the vast majority of dancers, they have to unpack it later. You don’t want that for people and send them off into the world saying, “I’m going to give you a lifelong job of unpacking the baggage that we created between 8 and 18 years old.” That’s not okay. That’s why I’m so proud of you on what you’re doing because what you’re doing is speaking into some real truthful elements that don’t get talked about.

For me, the struggle is that I still work in the machine. Not only do I work in the machine, I’m the leader of a machine that still preaches this system of teaching. I struggle with that because I do want the kids in the school that I run to have their best chance at success and I still do have that voice in my head saying the best chance for success is you need to be dancing four hours a day and you need to do this. I still have that understanding of, it does take this amount of work to get there. There’s this other side of me that goes, “Sarah, pull the lens back on occasion and recognize that the ones that aren’t going to be dancers are going to have to unpack maybe some of these messages.” It’s very tricky.

In case you’re wondering like, “What are you doing for the benefit?” I try to do it in some of the messages like things that I’ll say to the dancers in casual conversation, so it’s not like I’m infusing a lot of things into the training to reveal mental health issues that might need to be dealt with. I’m trying to have those one-on-one conversations that are supportive of like taking a break. I’m an advocate for that. Another example is the way that I try to remind the kids as often as possible that there is no pressure in this. This should be joyful. You should be experiencing joy and you should be proud of the fact that you’re helping others experience joy when they come to see you dance.

There's plenty of room in this pool for you. It's up to you to figure out where. Click To Tweet

Those types of messages may be too subtle, but for me, at least I feel like it’s something that I don’t remember being said to me. I remember it being very much about like, “I’m not enough and I will never fit into this industry.” I tell people, “You fit in this industry. I can’t tell you where and what company you’re going to be in. I can’t tell you if you’re going to be a teacher, choreographer, board member, fundraiser, or an executive director. There’s plenty of room in this pool for you. It’s going to be up to you to figure out where.”

That particular message, I want to highlight that a little bit because it is not talked about. We put the end all be all, the goal of a lifetime to stay on stage and where I understand, that is something rewarding and beautiful, but it takes so much more to a successful company, creating the art, or even being involved in the art. There are so many more avenues that we can participate in. Look at us. We tried to move away. I was heartbroken when I stopped dancing because I thought I’m not going to recover from this failure or whatever disappointment. We always will find a different way. What is meant for us will always come back to us. Looking backwards, I truly believe in that. Something that we can give to every single one is that you truly have to lean into that, have the face that what is meant for you will always come to you.

You’ve given me so many little nuggets that I want to tap into. Let’s talk about joy for the most important reason. A few years ago, I had to describe what joy means to me. “What brings you joy?” I did not have an answer. To this day, I have the hardest time saying what brings me joy because from the moment I stepped into the studio at age ten, joy was off the plate, no longer welcome, and the enemy of me becoming a professional dancer where now I know so different. If we would have kept joy walking along with us, I believe that I wouldn’t have to do so much unlearning now and we are diminishing the capabilities of the dancers or the artists going into these professions. We’re not allowing them to shine as bright as they can. Particularly in your experiences because you’ve been a teacher as well in that.

Most of the dancers that I know currently would say that they’re experiencing joy in the dancing, but if I’m honest with some of them, I would say there’s an element of where the joy is coming from. Just to understand, is it coming from the participating in the dancing or is it coming from the camaraderie because that’s a joy? Is it coming from the attention? Is it coming from the accomplishment? You always have exceptions and you always have it’s up and down. Some people might be joyful one day and then not so joyful the next day. To help young people understand that understanding specifically where the joy is coming from is so important because that is the information that you can build on not only for your life, in terms of a direction or what your choices are, but also to not get lost and distracted by something that isn’t your joy.

For example, I thought that being a ballet dancer would bring me joy. Looking back over my life, I can now say, “No.” I love ballet because it was beautiful. I loved watching and celebrating ballet, the music, the way a class was put together, and so many things about ballet. I participated in it because it was of all those things, but I never got any joy from doing a variation. My least favorite class of all the summer intensives and all the classes, the class I avoided the most and did not enjoy doing, was variations. I never wanted to learn a variation. I hated learning variations and the reason is because I wasn’t very good at it. I would never have been the person doing the variation in the ballet unless there was no one else in the room to do it. I was the last resort.

What I learned later was the joy was the environment and the creation of something from nothing. That’s why I ended up acting and loving acting because it was like an ensemble. When I experienced ensemble cast work, and then there was a crew involved right in front of me, there’s the camera and then there’s all the crew, I was like, “This is what I love. I love creating together.” I don’t care if I’m in front of the camera or behind the camera, or whatever. I want to be involved in the process of creating something beautiful, cool, interesting, or funny. In my early life, I spent so much time thinking I was supposed to be a ballet dancer. If I could have unpacked what it was specifically earlier than I maybe wouldn’t have been so driven to become a ballet dancer. Not that I regret it because I have no regrets of the little short career that I had, I learned so much, and I met my husband. When I look back, the greatest blessing from me dancing was meeting my husband. It’s not about the dancing.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I learn stuff? Yes. Was it the dancing? Not for me. It was never the dancing. For my kids under my watch at International Ballet, just helping them realize that some of you feel like it’s the dancing and it might be, but some of you, it’s okay if it’s not. It’s okay if you discover at some point that it wasn’t the dancing. It was something else related to the dancing. That’s an okay thing. It doesn’t mean you failed, you are a failure, and it was wasted. You don’t know what the benefit is going to be, what the perk is going to be on the other side of this, but there will be perks and benefits and you will be joyful. It may not be what you think the joy is.

I’m sure you remember this, too, because I remember it so clearly, it’s very tempting to picture yourself achieving this beautiful dream. It’s so beautiful. You think, “That’s what I want. That’s for me,” but that’s similar to looking at like a movie star and being like, “I’m going to star in a Hollywood movie.” It looks very fun, but only some people get to have that. It’s a destiny thing to some degree. By all means, pursue it, work hard, and go for it. I tell everybody to go for it, but I also say, “Be okay with that not being your story. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean you failed. It means you discovered that your joy was something else.”

PTR 109 | Joy In Dancing

Joy In Dancing: There should be no pressure in this. This should be joyful. You should be experiencing joy and you should be proud of the fact that you’re helping others experience joy when they come to see you dance.

 

Let’s pivot a little bit and let’s talk about business. You went to school for Marketing. You have your BA in Business.

I didn’t go to school for Marketing. I went to school for Business Administration. I ended up taking a job in marketing right after. Marketing ballet is hard though. I would rather market something popular.

Let’s get into this. Tell me. This is such a good statement. Why is it hard to market ballet?

There’s a lot of reasons. The people who love ballet from birth, if you’re in it, that’s like selling ice to Eskimos. That’s easy, but the culture at large is not comfortable, in my opinion, with dancing. You could argue with me and saying, “Why is So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars so popular?” My answer to that is because there’s an element of competition in those that allow someone to feel more comfortable watching it. If you remove the competitive element, people are like, “I don’t get why I’m looking at this. I don’t understand this, so then I don’t want to watch it.” Throw in a competition and now I understand. There’s a winner and a loser. The struggle is if you’re not putting ballet out there in a competitive way, with a winner and a loser, then people don’t know what to do with it. I’m not speaking about the people who are dancers or have been dancers, but the vast culture. It’s hard to break through that lack of education.

The answer is not simple because it gets back to something that is deep in our culture, a deep, systematic appreciation for the sake of arts. I could go on all day about my opinion about why there should be more support for the arts because, for me, it is quite close to why you would tell people to go to church. Especially in the South, there’s a church on every corner. Everyone’s telling you to go to church. I’m a Christian, so I have faith in my life, but it’s interesting to me that the journey that I take in my spiritual life is similar to the way that I feel when I’m involved in my art form. There’s a close relationship.

As a culture, why is it we can talk about things that are more spiritual or religious in nature, but you take it a hair over to something that you can’t define as clearly because there are no words for it? Take it to an art, which is an expression of these profound human experiences and commonalities that we have, love, understanding self, experiencing self, going there, and finding beauty in the human, people can’t comprehend it. It’s the same thing as church. To me, it’s the same thing. You want to talk about elements of faith. Let’s talk about elements of art. It’s as important to me, but it doesn’t feel like the culture gets that. They’re like, “No. There’s spiritual world, competition, sports, and money. We don’t understand art.” I’m like, “To me, it’s so powerfully important as a human being.”

You aren’t originally from the States and you’ve had more international exposure. I have not had as much international exposure, but I like to believe that there are other cultures that it’s not so complicated. It’s like, “Art is important.” It’s like a fact that what you would do is honor the arts and the artist. The artist is as important as anyone, but here it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we can’t sell it, package it, and help people understand when there’s no culture of support underneath that. That’s my opinion. That has been my experience.

I can talk to people, but at the end of the day, they don’t quite understand, for the most part, why. There are a few that do. I have board members here at the company that I work for and some donors who were not dancers, they’re not artists, they were successful in business, and yet they give every year. They come back and they go, “We get what you’re doing, value it, and support it.” It’s not that there’s nobody. It feels like a very few people comparatively speaking to other ventures that are easier to sell and understand.

Be okay with something not being your story. It's okay. It doesn't mean you failed. It just means you discovered what your joy was. Click To Tweet

Can we unpack this? I love the analogy of competition, the hero and the victim. It’s very easy to understand. This is why sports have such a large audience. I understand all of your objections and I’m a big believer in, “How can we?” Asking a question. We now know where we’re at. We know it feels like it’s hard to sell, from the top there isn’t enough support financially or in any other way, and people can’t relate. What are we going to do about it? How can we make it more relatable? How can we gain more support? How can we build our own support system in the arts for example? How can we bring in more of the younger audiences so that they can relate to it?

When I was growing up, and I’m talking about the European culture, it is a completely different upbringing. Sports in Europe is one thing that has its fans and following, but so do the arts. It was because of accessibility. I went to the theater at four years old. We went every month. If I wanted to go more often, that was the drive. It was an hour drive each way. I didn’t care. Let’s go and do it. For $20, that was it.

This is the thing, and this is why it’s so complicated. It’s that it boils down to education, but they’re so linked because when I think about the answer to the problem, it’s would be nice if the public school system had a better way of exposing kids to the arts. There are programs, but it always feels like it’s the last priority. I would flip it and say, “We have all these cultural problems and all these issues. What if we tried flipping the system and putting arts and art concepts and creativity at the front, and then fill in from there? Play it out for 50 years and see what happens.” If I’m wrong, then fine. What is wrong with the concept of valuing human expression and creativity and teaching the value of other people’s expression? You’re going to end up with a more empathetic and intelligent group of people over time. Now that’s what we’re struggling with.

Our number one issue is that we have a whole bunch of people who are fairly uninterested in listening to each other. They’re not particularly creative at problem-solving, and they want to act like a toddler all the time. I’m like, “We have solutions to this.” If you would go to the artists of our country and ask them if we have problems like this in our art forms, we’d say no. We don’t think that way and function that way. I’m not saying we don’t have our problems, but I’m saying that there’s an inherent human value in what we’re doing. Whether it’s a tendu or explaining the color red that you chose for a painting, it doesn’t matter what the art form is. That is a hugely important thing for us to be teaching in schools. If we were to start there, then what would happen over time is you would have the art form itself, the whole system would begin to support itself in a way that would make it healthy, as opposed to what’s happening now.

What’s happening now is you end up going back to this idea of an elite, exclusive, and private club mentality. Nobody wants and likes that. The reason it’s happening is because it’s a survival thing. There is no alternative. “I have to raise the money and get the money.” For us to exist, I have to get the money. I wish I didn’t have to do it in the way I’m doing it and there was an inherent value system in our culture that made ticket prices come down, make it more accessible, and all of that. That’s why I say it’s complicated because there is a solution, but it’s a long-term solution. It’s not a quick solution and I don’t know who that powerful voice is that’s going to be able to make that happen. It’s not one just voice. It has to be a team of voices. Maybe I’ll work on it someday. My journey is not done. Obviously, I’m passionate about this and once you feel like you’ve been in it long enough and seen enough angles, then maybe you can help and I can help.

We all can help. It starts with talking about it and with asking different questions. By putting the possibility out there, what would it look like if we would completely turn the education system upside down, and make arts a number one priority, for example? I would say, “Let’s turn professional companies upside down and give the dancers what artistic directors receive in salaries and see how an artistic director would show up with a low five-figure, 38-week contract. Also, how dancers would show up and how they would invest in themselves if they would get high six figures, low seven figures per year, 52 weeks, and have the money to invest.” Let’s see what that will look like, for example. I have another thing. Gordon sent this to me. In the New York Times, MacKenzie Scott has given away another huge round of funding to underfunded arts organizations, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater of Harlem, $10 million, which is like in itself, she is so generous, understands, and sees where this is all going.

I understand that getting these kinds of funds is great. It is a short-term solution though, because in a year or two, they are going to be at zero again. I am a dreamer and visionary, and I know there is a way. We have yet to ask the right questions. What could we do with $10 million and even half of that to make money? What avenues are there? Even if it’s compound interest, even though you’re a not-for-profit organization, how could this money be invested to make lots of babies, so in two years, you don’t have to go again and ask for money?

It’s doable and requires very wealthy people to set up funds. Half of your business model is a business. Even though we’re a not-for-profit, I have to have to earn the tuition, sell the tickets, and do all that for the earned revenue. That part, for the most part, should be able to work as a normal business without relying on donations. You shouldn’t be relying on donations to operate. You need to be able to rely on donations to continue to elevate or do performances, the add-ons. You should have a business model that part of it is self-sufficient and runs and it’s because of supply and demand.

PTR 109 | Joy In Dancing

Joy In Dancing: It would be nice if the public school system had a better way of exposing kids to the arts. There are programs, but it always feels like it’s the last priority.

 

You’re not hurting and overburdening anybody. This is what we would expect to pay in the marketplace. This is what we pay, it works. In a ballet company, there’s always going to be thousands of dollars above and beyond that, that you do have to raise because there is no earned way to achieve that unless you could get it from interest. If you said, “Sarah, we’re going to put $10 million in this account.” Your budget is now dependent only on the interest from that account, and the money that you earn, then that’s the budget that I work with.

If you have a billion dollars in an account, then maybe the New York City Ballet or these big companies that have huge budgets, maybe their trust fund that’s sitting there that’s generating interest pours into their budget, they can still do all the things they’re doing, but there’s this large sum of money sitting there. The alternative would be to have something that you’re producing that’s earning that kind of money, but I don’t see, unless you’re getting out of the business of ballet and going into the business of something else, I have yet to figure out what you could produce that would sell. Birthing a secondary company would be a completely different thing for a ballet company to do.

I want to challenge you. Think outside the box, super big. Birthing another company would be having an LLC on the side that feeds your not-for-profit. I love the thinking that you’re getting into. We’re in this. We have the money. We’re going to live off of the interest and that’s our budget, but how can we use the money to make more money? As in not only having it sit there, but to produce more, make more babies over the years, being able or using parts of it to come up with different marketing strategies that then will bring in more people into the community that will support. There always will be people out there that want to give. That brings them joy and makes them fulfilled. That is their jam and that can still exist. What I’m saying is relying only and solely off of those people that are there that want to help is like having just one stream of income in the market.

Right now, it’s the only way that it’s done.

I understand it is the only way. This is why we have to think.

You’re suggesting a business model that would be very difficult for a nonprofit to do.

Why is it difficult?

For a number of reasons, part of it is that even though you’re relying on donations, that is the way that wealthy people want to use their money. It works. Let’s say you’re a very wealthy person. I’m asking you for money. You’re helping my organization, but you’re also being helped. For me to now say, “No longer do I want to rely on your donation because I’m going to do this instead.”

If we valued artists, everything would change in our culture. Click To Tweet

That’s not what I’m saying though. I said that we want to have those people come in and give money, but let’s play this game out. I can use that money, reinvest it, make more money, and have the same benefits of not having to pay taxes on it. I have other ways on moving my money around to not pay taxes on it. I don’t necessarily have a not-for-profit organization be my only way of having a tax write-off. There are many other ways.

If I’m a nonprofit and I have a nonprofit status by saying that this is what I’m doing, I’m providing this service, but then I have another business that’s profiting that is not these things, I may lose my nonprofit status.

You don’t because the nonprofit has nothing to do with the for-profit. The for-profit can optionally feed the not-for-profit. You want to keep that not-for-profit status because it has a lot of great benefits, as in pay less for theaters. You have those benefits.

We do, but my understanding of the nonprofit is that you are operating in a certain way that they understand that you deserve that status. If you do something that is going to take you outside of that, then you’re going to lose your nonprofit status because you’re no longer operating as a nonprofit. You could say, “What if you started selling t-shirts?” That’s a new revenue stream. I would say, “That’s probably fine. They’re not going to care about that. We sell t-shirts. They’re not coming after us for that.” I see what you’re saying. It’s like it would be a nonprofit since there’s no individual is profiting. My feeling would be it would take so many resources to bear the second company that it blows my mind. If you said, “Sarah, you’re going to start doing X, Y, and Z to earn an extra $300,000 a year in revenue to support the nonprofit.” I would be like, “How am I going to do that? How am I going to start a company?” It would be like starting a new company for the benefit of the nonprofit, but I can’t imagine what that company would be.

You are in the how and how is it going to work, and this is where we get overwhelmed and moved into it’s not possible.

It is possible. It’s just hard. Here’s the other thing. It’s less efficient for me.

You’re thinking you have to do it, implement it, and do it all by yourself. No, it’s not.

There’s no money to hire a person.

PTR 109 | Joy In Dancing

Joy In Dancing: The alternative would be to have something that you’re producing that’s earning that kind of money, but unless you’re getting out of the business of ballet and going into the business of something else, we have yet to figure out what you could produce that would sell.

 

There’s always a way. I am so grateful for you for going down that road with me.

I’m only an executive director of a small nonprofit.

Don’t underestimate. You’re not only.

There are probably executive directors of much larger organizations who probably would be able to speak into this in a much more powerful way. I know from my little corner of the world why this works and why I would be fearful to change it by taking on a whole new business model. I would bet that if at the higher end, with the more professional experienced companies and business managers, that if they haven’t done it, there must be a reason that they’re not doing it. Unless they are doing it and maybe they are. Maybe they secretly have LLCs that are pouring into them. It could be. They’re still asking for money though. They still seem needy. It’s just the way it’s done. It’s so hard to think outside of what is known and what works. I would be scared to mess with the model too much. I do like the idea of making your money work for you. It sounds ambitious.

I work in the film industry on the side and there is a conversation happening about the nature of the nonprofit that I run and could they be involved in the film project as a potential investor and beneficiary of the film. This is the first time that this has come up where we’re having conversations about could an artistic project be born out of a nonprofit that potentially would be a revenue stream if it were to sell to Netflix or whatever. That is the concept.

What you’re suggesting is that there could be ways to produce something, an asset like a Netflix whatever, that you would then profit from. In a way, I am already exploring it with that conversation, but here’s the thing. Even in that conversation, I have been fearful because even though it’s a great idea on paper, there is something about involving something as delicate and precious as this organization that has taken years to build up a reputation and years to do what it’s doing well. It’s a finely tuned well-oiled machine and going into a project or a venture that has risk associated with it, which all businesses have risk associated with them, that is not in control. That’s a new idea. It’s been discussed, but it’s likely that it’s not going to go forward with the nonprofit part because it’s so outside of the box. It’s not even me deciding. That’s a higher-up decision. What I’m saying is there are ways to produce art that sell, but involving a delicate ballet company in it can seem scary.

It’s partly because of the nature of how hard it is to survive now. It’d be like going up to a homeless person and saying, “I’m going to give you a mansion.” You don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know if I even want a mansion. I want to stay homeless because that’s scary. There is an element of when you’ve been in need and when you’ve been dependent for so long, it’s hard to think, “There’s another business model that could work. I live in this world.” I have lived my life in the world of the nonprofit that relies on donations. I’ve never worked in a nonprofit that generated a secondary revenue stream that could support the nonprofit to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Thank you for that. This is where the analogy of the thermostat and the thermometer comes in so beautifully. Thank you for making that analogy with a homeless person and the mansion. The reason why most people that win in a lottery spend all their money within three years and end up the way they started off was because they have their thermostat set at a certain temperature and they’ve never broken through that glass ceiling. They never raised their temperature, not their ability but their own belief system. If we would raise the thermostat for the arts and say, “It is scary. We’ve never done it before but what if?” The power of asking these questions, just because we’ve done something for a long time, it has been working, it’s comfortable, and familiar doesn’t necessarily mean it will consistently work the same way.

It's hard to expect culture to change when there is no guarantee at the other end of it. Click To Tweet

If we’re looking at history of whenever we had any kind of economical reset happening, what that meant to any arts organization, you said it is that consistent survival, this is how we survive. We’re in a surviving state of mind. Look at our artists. They’re consistently in a survival state of mind and this thermostat is set at survival, but if we were to move the needle and move it to thriving, what would that mean for everybody involved? What if dancers wouldn’t have to have free roommates? What if they could invest into themselves and into other avenues that when they get out of their performance life, they are set without starving themselves.

It would change our culture. That’s what I was saying about the education. If we did value artists, we could provide opportunities for making a living in fields like this. Everything would change in our culture. There would be such a ripple effect. I don’t know how and where that money comes from until you figure that out. If you figured that out, by all means, let me know. I’m willing to try. I’m a little gun shy because of the nature of need.

The truth of the matter is that from the get-go, young dancers are told that this is a scary line of work and you probably shouldn’t do it. There are a million other things you should do, but this is not the thing that you should do. That’s the message from the beginning, for most of the time. There are a few parents who don’t say that and who will say, “Follow your heart and who knows what will happen.” Even those parents, they’re still a little chaser to that message, which is get a degree or do this or that. There’s always some language in there that is fear-oriented, and so that is genuine concern. People don’t say that because they want to plant fear. They genuinely feel like there’s no evidence that this is going to work in a way that is going to be easy for you or that’s going to lay out a path in front of you.

One of the things I used to envy the most about people who didn’t work in the arts, and I would frequently look at doctors or other hard occupations that take training, years, talent, and education. It’s not that I’m working any harder than those people. They’re working very hard and dedicating their lives to something. It’s the same track. The difference is that they have a track. It’s like, “You do this and then you do this,” and you have instructions on exams that you have to pass and get a certain score on to get to the next place. These paths are laid out. In the arts, you’re on your own. You’re so lonely and you’re told that this is a bad idea in the first place. There’s not a lot there to uplift and support.

What you’re describing is an environment in which there would be a path because there would be money at the end, and not even wealth, just security. Paths are built when there’s a destination that’s worth going to, but when you’re in the woods and they’re like, “I could send you out that direction, but there’s nothing to look at up there. There’s no view or there’s no waterfall.” No one’s going to beat a path to that because it’s woods. That’s what it is to be an artist. You’re going into the woods and there’s no one to beat the path before you. That’s so hard, scary, and lonely, but an artist’s heart says, “I don’t care if there’s a waterfall at the end. I like the woods and enjoy the woods, so I’m going to go in the woods, and I’ll figure out what’s out there. There’s no path, so maybe there is something out there, and I’ll be the one to discover it.” The inherent joy of that is why we do it, but it’s hard to expect the culture to change when there is no guarantee at the other end of it.

What guarantees do you have? We’re going to round this up. Guarantees or having security or guarantees in life is such a fake model that we are chasing because nothing is guaranteed. The only thing that is guaranteed is that one day we’re all going to go.

PTR 109 | Joy In Dancing

Joy In Dancing: Art is really important. It’s a fact that what you would do is honor the arts and the artist, the artist is as important as anyone, but here, it just doesn’t feel that way.

 

I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I feel like I won the lottery of life with the parents that I have because they supported. They didn’t provide any reason for me to have fear of anything. Clearly, I have fear of changing the business model, so I do have fear. For me, it’s been a matter of saying, “You go forward.” I’m getting a little off-topic. There’s no guarantee, but if you’re not functioning from fear, then it doesn’t matter anyway. If you’re looking for a guarantee, then maybe you’re afraid that you’re not going to get something.

For me, fear and guarantee are related because if you don’t have fear and you don’t worry about anything, then the guarantee is irrelevant, you just go. I feel like my parents planted something in me that gave me the ability to not have anxiety and fear. I don’t have guarantees in my life, but I don’t have to worry about that either. The sad reality is I do know people who have died quickly and suddenly, not from long illnesses, just accidents. When you’ve had that experience, it does make you realize that to spend too much time worrying is such a waste.

Jen Sincero said, “Worrying is praying for the wrong stuff.” It’s not that I don’t worry at times, but I also catch myself and say, “What is it going to do? What is that going to produce?” Let me ask you that last question. Looking at all of your experiences that you have compounded over the years, what would you tell your sixteen-year-old self if you had five minutes with her?

I would tell her that she is smarter than she thinks she is because I spent many years completely discrediting my thoughts, thinking, “I don’t know.” The truth is I’m not a genius, but I’m plenty smart. I don’t lack and I shouldn’t have been worried about how smart I was. I should’ve been confident in the intelligence that I had.

Confident of you.

She wouldn’t have listened to me. If I could go back and tell her that, she would be like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

You’re the first person who said that. I was asked the same question and I was asked, “What would you do to make her listen?” The things that I came up with because at that moment, I was emotionally so involved to say, “I would make her sit down and understand to the point that she could repeat it back to me because that would save her from a few detours.”

It’s amazing how powerful those little voices are in our heads. That’s the thing as a parent, too. I can’t control those little voices in my kid’s head. I try to, but they’re there. They have little voices and I know they do because they’ll say things to me. I’ll be like, “That’s the little voice,” and we got to get that voice out of here, but that’s part of our journey and I try not to have any regrets. I have a few, but even though I try to spin it positive to say it was for a reason, I was supposed to learn and it was painful, but I had to learn that. I want to say in conclusion, too, that I appreciate what you’re doing.

If you're not functioning from fear, then it doesn't matter. Click To Tweet

This has been an all-over-the-map conversation. I hope that your readers and any young professional dancers that are reading and taking advice from you know that there are advocates. There are people further down the road who are still passionate and are still dedicated to this art form, to the future of this art form, and to the future dancers. Even though we haven’t solved all the problems, there are lots of people out there who care, lots of teachers, directors, and choreographers. This is an art form that is thriving in the way of heart and passion. We have problems figuring out how to fund it and support it for the artist’s sake, but they shouldn’t feel alone and they shouldn’t feel that there aren’t people trying to advocate. It will not come quickly or easily and the path may be difficult. We can talk about our paths, but I want young people to know that they’re not alone and hopefully, they’re reading the blog because you’re giving a lot of powerfully good messages to young people to think about.

Thank you, Sarah. That’s true. Nobody’s alone. Sometimes it’s easier to think that we’re alone because then we can curl up on the couch, not feel and lean into it, and look for solutions. I’ve been there in so many situations, but believe me that the community is truly the healing that we all are looking for in different layers. Thank you for your time. That has been filling my cup up so much. Thank you for being here. We are going to do this again.

I’ll keep thinking about your business model concept. You’ve challenged me.

You gave me the best opposition ever because this is exactly the solution, too but I don’t have yet heard that mindset. For me, it is such a big gift even though it makes me uncomfortable. It is the biggest gift you could ever give me. Thank you for that, too.

You’re welcome.

Thank you. Bye.

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About Sarah Shoemaker

Sarah Shoemaker’s nearly 30 years in the professional art world began in 1992 working for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1994 Shoemaker received a contract to dance with the Charleston Ballet Theatre, where she performed for four seasons.

In 2000, after completing a B.S. in Business Administration from The College of Charleston, she accepted an administrative position with the Augusta Ballet. Her evenings were spent teaching and choreographing for various groups in and around Augusta, Georgia.

In 2004 she was invited to launch a dance program at Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tennessee and later served as the Director of Dance at Brentwood Academy. While in Nashville, Shoemaker began acting in independent film, tv, and commercial projects.

She stopped acting when she moved to Greenville, South Carolina in 2014, and began producing the documentary film, Invitation to the Dance, which has won several film festival awards. Shoemaker currently serves as the Executive Director of International Ballet in Greenville, SC and is producing another short film with her husband, choreographer

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There is a better way to pursue ballet at the professional level. Instead of dancers pushing beyond their body’s limits, there is a healthier way to train your body, your mind and your spirit to soar. To become the best at your craft, you must be healthy. The mentality of surviving to make a performance perfect is an old paradigm that needs to change. As athletes, dancers must thrive in order to shine and connect with their audience. This new approach, leads to fulfillment, strength and longevity. It allows you to give more of your heart and soul on stage, creating an unforgettable experience that moves your audience. And that’s the whole pointe. 

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