Agents Lisa Coppola and Terry Lindholm know that a dance career is often most clearly viewed in retrospect. Both came to Los Angeles as young scholarship students at EDGE and Tremaine, respectively. Their professional lives, as dancer and dancer-choreographer, took turns they hadn't predicted, and, in their second careers, they've found great rewards in sharing the benefits of those experiences.
Almost three years ago, Coppola and Lindholm opened the dance department at McDonald/Selznick Associates, the agency owned by choreography reps Julie McDonald and Tony Selznick. Representing dancers for film, TV, industrials, stage, print, music videos, tours, and commercials, MSA Dance has a roster of approximately 300 clients, most of whom have come by referral. Coppola and Lindholm's goal is to stay small and shepherd their clients through what they see as an exciting time in dance, when opportunities are diverse and dancers have more choices than ever when it comes to representation.
"There are now eight agencies for dancers, which I think is incredible," says Coppola. "When I was dancing there were only two…and it felt more like you were just lucky to be covered. Now dancers are getting empowered to say, 'Okay, this place gets me, they get my skills, they know what my goals are: I think I can build a team with them.' And that's what's important, that communication. As a dancer, I didn't always feel like I was in the loop or I could call and ask questions. I thought I had to figure it out myself. Now I think the clients can put more responsibility on their agents and say, 'Hey, I need your help. This is what I want to do. How do I do it?'"
Building relationships: Electronic submitting has changed the way that dancers begin their relationships with those who hire them. A process that once began in a dance studio now tends to hinge on a photo on a computer screen. "The photo really becomes much more important than in the past," says Lindholm. "It's not just something to say, 'She kind of looks like this.' This is the person, and you're either right for it in the picture or you're not…. A casting director, probably a director, and maybe even a choreographer sees it before you get called into the room, which makes it three times as hard. And it's hard for new people."
A dancer should be equipped with a three-quarter length or full-length dance shot, says Coppola, "that gives a good idea of what your physique is like and is representative of your style—the way you're going to walk in the room," as well as a commercial shot that's a little more conservative. Lindholm adds, "If you don't have a color picture, you're behind a little bit."
Although the agents say not to waste time and money on the cheapest available shoots, they advise clients to work with photographers willing to start with one or two rolls. Because dancers change so quickly through the audition process, the agents say, their photos may not represent them in a year. The agents also recommend that dancers hold off on big investments in marketing materials until they are signed and can incorporate their agents' input.
Because striking up professional relationships can be so challenging, it's very important to nurture existing ones. Coppola and Lindholm suggest keeping in touch with casting directors by sending out postcard updates and furnishing updated photos.
With choreographers, taking class is a good way to establish or maintain relationships, says Lindholm. "After each job, we always suggest that people send a thank-you card, or, if they have any questions, go ahead and ask them in a note. Sometimes choreographers and casting directors don't have time to respond. But when they do, it's great information for the next one."
While professional ties are hard to forge, they are easy to break. Says Coppola, "Part of nurturing those relationships is being on time, being professional, doing your job. With casting directors, if you don't show up to a casting—and trust me, plenty of our clients have done this—don't think they're not going to remember your name…. The next time I try to submit that person, they're not going to see them."
Says Lindholm, "I think a lot of people have the misconception that because a lot of people are going in for an audition that they're going to just hide in the crowd. But now there are so many specific times for people that you get called in because they want to see you…. And people make notes. I've been through it in my own career. If they don't want to see you, they don't want to see you, and there's very little you can do to change their minds."
Finding your style: Defining your identity, your niche, in the dance world is a complicated task that most young dancers are ill-prepared to tackle. Finding the point at which your skills, look, and goals intersect is "a journey," say Coppola and Lindholm, and it all comes down to confidence. When a client isn't working, the agents feel obligated to figure out why. "A lot of times it's that they're unsure of themselves," says Coppola. "Like girls who ask, 'Should I gain weight? Should I lose weight?' It's got to be you being comfortable in your own skin. Yes, there are stereotypical dance jobs where they want you to look a certain way, but there are plenty of people who break those rules and still work. So I think it's more about being true to yourself."
When trying on a new look, to increase versatility or because your interests go against your type, it's easy to lose sight of what you have to offer, say the agents. "I think one of the hardest things for people is to know when they're being believable," says Lindholm. "I think people who are always questioning what they should be are going to miss the jobs that they are right for, because they're constantly asking the question and chasing the trend. Like Lisa says, you have to be observant, and you have to take in what's working, but within your vocabulary."
In her own career, Coppola remembers coming out of the EDGE scholarship program, represented, proficient in all dance styles, and confident that she was going to work. But in audition rooms, she found that she was often taller than the men (she's 5-feet-11-inches) and realized that her opportunities in L.A. would be shaped by her height. For instance, she says, "It didn't matter how good I was at hip-hop; I was never going to dance behind Janet Jackson. I'm not the right look; I'm far too tall."
Coppola's understanding of her type helped her to make an informed decision, at around 25, that she had explored all the dance avenues that were available and of interest to her.
"I can only advise our clients that they've got to figure that out," she says. "What are the things you want to do? And what is your chance of doing them? It has really, again, nothing to do with your skills. It's figuring out your look and your type and can we make this happen?"
Getting smart: "Education promotes longevity" is part of Coppola and Lindholm's philosophy. A dancer's education begins with the training itself: moving forward in the craft, maintaining health and strength, and becoming as well-rounded a dancer as possible. At least as important, however, is the dancer's marketing and financial savvy.
"It's exactly that business side that's going to put someone over the top," says Lindholm, "because somebody who spends the time to learn which choreographers are working, what choreographers want you to wear, ["what classes they should be taking," Coppola adds], those are the people who are going to be ready…. When you're taking your business seriously, you can optimize the time that you have. You have to be prepared for what's to come, and part of that is using the money that you earn wisely—because sometimes you make a lot—and investigating retirement plans and health insurance, so you don't get caught, like I did at 35, without anything, no savings and no health insurance, because I didn't investigate my union opportunities when I had the chance."
In the long run, another vital part of a dancer's education may be college, say the agents, who highly recommend it, although neither took that route. Four more years in school not only gives you more options in the future but that time also might keep you from the dance world until you're mature enough to succeed in it.
"I've seen so many people at 18 or 19 years old get wrapped up in so much nonsense and fall into the wrong crowd," says Lindholm. "And, by age 20, they're done. I think that it's easier to handle a tiny bit older…. And you're coming here, what? Just to get into the cycle so you don't miss that one movie? There's going to be another one in four years."
Lindholm knows from experience the importance of having a backup plan: He didn't have one when an injury he sustained in his 20s finally caught up with him. Although he isn't suffering now from lack of a college degree, Lindholm says it would've been heartening to have one when he was caught between careers.
"There are things that school gives you that you can't get in the real world, and there are things in the real world that you can't get from school," he says. "But if you're just going for a basic degree, I think it's worth the investment of the four years for what may happen down the line." BSW