I am a dancer and I do more than dance

In the corporate world, working from home has inspired a fascinating idea…Does the 40-hour in-office work week reallyequate to success and efficiency? Turns out, people work best when they have control over their schedules—that means more flexibility, greater work-life balance, and less adherence to the hustle mentality. 

What could this mean for the dancer? Don’t get us wrong—We will always encourage you to strengthen your technique in the classroom. But, we also believe that when it comes to being an artist, doing more doesn’t always mean doing better. Just as we are rethinking the rigidity of corporate America and our elementary and high school systems, can we also reconsider if it really serves young dancers to be in intensive technique classes 6 days per week, competitions and conventions every weekend, and summer intensives back to back? Are we only growing when we’re in the studio training? Are we only dancers when we’re dancing?

At an event hosted by The Growing Studio years ago, l Tony-winning director/choreographer, Susan Stroman, emphasized the importance of being a well-rounded artist and human. That means living life beyond the studio and the stage—visiting museums, reading novels, exploring new cities, and spending time with our loved ones. We spoke with Stroman’s associate, Leah Hofmann, about her experience embracing life beyond the dance studio. Leah has graced the stage on Broadway, as a Radio City Rockette, and at the Metropolitan Opera. She credits her other interests in puppetry, teaching, Etch-A-Sketch art, service, and physical therapy for informing and inspiring her ever-evolving work as an artist—and human. 

RN: What arts did you study growing up? Did you always know you wanted to pursue performing?

LH: I was curious about different art forms from an early age. I loved watching Lamb Chop and Sesame Street. Dance is what got me into this business professionally, but I actually did not go to school for performing—I studied physical therapy. At that time in my life, I wasn’t ready to jump into a full conservatory program. I loved PT school and appreciated the skills of that craft even though I’m not sure I ever saw myself actually becoming a physical therapist. I learned so much about being a functional human being in society, how you can help people, and how to have compassion and empathy in your work. I could already see benefits in the world of dance through injury prevention and treatment. It’s funny—So much of what I learned in rehab transfers into puppetry. Understanding how the human body works helps me to develop the movement of my characters and bring them to life.

RN: Do you regret not attending a theater program?

LH: Regret is a tricky word because where I stand today is a result of my choices, successes, hardships, and lessons, and looking back, I appreciate my unique journey in professional theater.  But yes, of course, I wish I went to a wonderful conservatory. That would have been great. But I also saw another side of life through my experience in PT school—helping people in the clinic, interacting with families, and facilitating patients getting back to their normal lives. I definitely feel like those skills and human experiences transfer into everyday life of being an artist. You can tap into emotions, interactions, and information in whatever character you’re playing on stage. Sometimes in an ensemble, you’ll play 10 different characters in the span of a show. The more experiences you can draw from, the more tools you have in your belt to explore character development.

RN: You have an interesting perspective when it comes to ‘survival jobs.’ Can you speak more about that?

LH: Moving to New York City and having side jobs gives you different points of view in this bustling city. Doing (many) side jobs opened my eyes to what makes a functional metropolis—We have to have all these people here to make it work. This is just like a show where you need the dressers, set designers, stage managers, actors, and the creative team to make everything come together. I eventually want to write a book about survival jobs for artists. It is so important to discover what feeds (or fights) your soul. What work makes you a more well-rounded artist? Lean into that.

RN: How has this perspective helped you over the past year and a half?

LN: Our industry took a turn when COVID happened. While there is nothing wrong with being intensely focused on performing, many dancers were suddenly lost when the theater lights went dark last year. For people who had a one-track mind to be on Broadway, this was a huge wake-up call. Those friends who already had side job skills (especially ones they were passionate about) could translate those to other jobs such as teaching online, writing, and pursuing other creative outlets. I think the key is to find what gives you joy, fulfillment, and challenge and also rest, peace, and a sense of identity.

RN: What does it mean to be a well-rounded dancer, or a well-rounded human?

LH: I was never fully comfortable when people would introduce me as, “Leah, the dancer.” I never thought that embodied all that I am/everything that I do. I would much rather someone say I am an artist because I feel it encapsulates what I have done and what I am still curious to explore. Curiosity is one of the most useful and functional attributes to have—Plus the willingness (and freedom) to fail, humility, and learning to be open to discovering new parts of yourself. 

RN: What excites you outside of dance?

LH: New York City as a whole excites me, and New Yorkers are working overtime trying to revitalize this city. I love learning how artists are finding new and innovative ways to share their work and connect with people. I’m challenged to think about how I can do this in my own innovative and helpful way, too. How can we create new avenues in the performing arts while still paying homage to what we know theater to be? That question excites me.

RN: What other advice can you give to dancers who might be scared to branch out of their comfort zones?

LH: It can be really simple—Read a lot of books. Enjoy a good meal. Visit a local museum. Also, don’t be shy to ask for help, guidance, and assistance. That is a huge way to grow as an artist—Being vulnerable and asking for help along the way. 

I also try to practice doing little things that are scary…Things as small as calling someone on the phone or saying hello to a person I recognize at the grocery store. These add up to taking bigger risks both as an artist and as a person. All these little (and big) life experiences make you more relatable. And what more do we want than to be on stage and be relatable to audiences?  

Another word of advice…Take the word ‘survival’ out of ‘survival job.’ Your side job can very well be your thrival job. Just because you’re not performing 100% of the time doesn’t mean you are not an artist. Think, How am I a helpful, functioning person in society? What brings me joy, challenge, and insight? How can I learn and grow while sharing my talents and skills with others?

Follow Leah on Instagram at @theleahhofmann

Photo: Danelle Tucker by Rachel Neville

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