Monday, 31 May 2010

Supply + Demand x Love

So I hadn't planned on kicking off a journal entry this way, but Dita von Teese mentioned something on Twitter that set me thinking:

I've been contemplating a blog post for some time that would start to open up a window on my experience of the whole life/work/dance escapade, especially where those things hit the financial intersection, but it's such a delicate topic. It's easy to be evasive, woeful, deceptively optimistic or overly single-minded in such a discussion, but since it's such a wide terrain and universal moan, I've felt it best to just sit back and think on it a little longer.

Thankfully, Dita posted that, and I think it kicks of a really powerful train of thought. The fact is, performance, art, writing, whatever creative thing you like, always hangs in that delicate balance between essential human impulse and slippery commodity. I've been walking my own path to reconcile those aspects of who I am, and it's caused me to form some very definite opinions. I'm not going to try to unpack all of that here and now--there'll be future time for thought on all this to evolve and focus--so instead, I'm going to focus on the concept of supply and demand, as modified by love.


I love dance. In particular, I love tribal fusion. I love it for being a place to apply practice and dedication to thoughtful experimentation. I have made things since I was old enough to hold a crayon or knot a piece of yarn, and I love that I am involved in a dance movement that prides itself on originality and hand-crafted individuality. For over a decade, I have been making jewellery and experimenting with making other works of art, be they costuming or sculpture. I started dancing when I was five, I think--I was really little when I began ballet, and after we moved away from my previous teacher, I kept making my own choreographies, plays and puppet shows on my own in the countryside of the American Midwest.

All of this is to say that these things are essential to me. I happily make things happen in my own world, and I have been doing it not because I am essentially a performer, but because this impulse to make and do and develop ideas is how my imagination works. I would be a dancer or designer in my own living room, quietly, quite happily; I don't see sharing these things publicly as the completion of the cycle, only as one possible outcome.

I graduated from university a couple of years ago into one of the worst economic dips of memorable history. No jobs anywhere. I was very lucky to have studied tribal fusion with the masters in San Francisco before embarking on my London adventures, so I'd been hired to teach bellydance by the University of London Union while I was studying. I was lucky to have very well-attended classes, to the extent that I was able to keep my university job as a dance instructor into the days and months following my graduation from the School of Oriental and African Studies. I was asked to do performances, and I was lucky to sometimes have those performances lead on to other interesting opportunities.

However, my sights always had to be on getting a day job--one does not graduate as an international student from the University of London without an enormous amount of debt. To sketch a picture, I paid £10,000 per year for three years in tuition. Each year, I had to buy hundreds of pounds worth of books, study packs and photocopies. I also had to borrow money for food and rent--and I had to borrow a sufficiently high amount of money to convince the UK Home Office that I wasn't going to starve to death or become homeless on their watch.

This doubled the amount of money I needed to borrow for each year of school, and the majority of those funds came via loans from private lending companies with unsubsidized interest. If you haven't had the wonders of compounding interest unleashed upon your future, I envy you. In the end, once the compounding interest and the passage of time have unleashed their full potential on my financial out put, my education will have cost me three times again what I actually borrowed. (If I think about it too much, it makes me nauseous.) If you want to do the math, you can work it out, but suffice to say that my student loan debt is into six digits, whether you figure it in dollars or pounds.

In case you're curious, I got my degree in Development Studies and Social Anthropology, and I did quite well.


Now, about performances: They need to make money. As I said, part of me is essentially a dancer. But being a performer is a different thing--it's work, which takes time, effort and resources. I've put literally thousands and thousands of pounds (and dollars before I moved to the UK) into my dance education. I learned from the best of the best, and then invested thousands upon thousands of hours into practicing, thinking on and implementing the lessons I learned. I put thousands of hours again into making my concepts and costumes come to life, not to mention the financial output on materials.

I will share all this. But you have to ask. I can't read minds. I work on a system of grassroots democracy, wherein I know I'm doing the right thing by devoting myself to this art form when I get asked to share it. The best thing that can happen is that I'm asked to share in the most respectful way, where someone can envision the effort and knows that I need to eat and live.

Each month, my student loans cost me as much as most of my friends pay in London rent--no joke. And while I would always do this artful stuff for my own soul's sake, it is one part of my life. It could be my quiet hobby and not my job. I have to work; if I get to earn money by devoting effort to dance and art, that's wonderful. But that only works so long as there is demand. If I am not invited to perform, not desired as a teacher, the performances and the lessons go away as I am forced to apply my working hours where they are valued. This is how most things work--where there is demand, someone will work to supply the in-demand.

So if you love an artist, and you support what they do, help engage in that grassroots democracy wherein those artists who are loved get the encouragement to persevere. Be vocal about who you'd pay to see develop their artistic voice, and be prepared to vote with your wallet. Invite artists to perform, and help spread the word to people that may be able to help them find work. The public output of an artist is effort in conversation, which is either encouraged or discouraged based on responses over time.