Modern Dance Is Not A Pyramid Scheme: Tere O’ Connor Responds


A recent, widely-circulated article in DanceUSA’s e-journal asks “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?” Its author, Sarah Anne Austin, questions if modern dance is turning into a “pyramid scheme” that encourages students in higher education to enter a field where there is little to no promise of job opportunity or financial stability. This positions professors in dance departments as a sort of fraudster, duping students in to a line of study that will result in no eventual payoff.  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission explains a “pyramid scheme” as a situation where “participants attempt to make money solely by recruiting new participants into the program. The hallmark of these schemes is the promise of sky-high returns in a short period of time for doing nothing other than handing over your money and getting others to do the same.” Many have come forward to challenge and expand the dialogue on this notion, including a recent DanceUSA response piece by Jennifer Edwards. Culturebot has also posted an interview with Roz LeBlanc, Assistant Professor of Dance at Loyola Marymount University, whose photo and story framed the original DanceUSA article but has since been removed at LeBlanc’s request because of its unauthorized use.

The text below highlights a response by respected professor and choreographer Tere O’ Connor, who incited a flurry of activity on Facebook when he posted his initial thoughts on the article.

Contributor’s note: The author would like to thank Roz LeBlanc, Tere O’ Connor, and Jennifer Edwards for their eloquent, informed responses. She would also like to extend a huge thanks to Elena Light and, especially, Brandon Cournay for encouraging and helping to facilitate this article.

I wish I had more time to write about this because I would have pages to contribute. There is certainly a lot of truth here, and I feel a genuine desire by the author to look at a problem head on. It is however missing a crucial understanding of the complex ways that dance departments are dealing directly with these issues. It also undervalues the role of choreographers who run these small companies that do employ dancers from universities. Also, not all dance artists who take on university positions are doing it just for the Tiaa-Cref factor. Many of us think that dance and the multitude of concepts it generates can contribute crucial knowledge that is missing in the larger world of ideas.

The way the article is written sounds as though its information is a surprise to us all, and a secret we are keeping from students and dancers. This is ridiculous! To call it a pyramid scheme is to criminalize something that is a result of a society in flux, not a willful fleecing of the public. This is an issue we have been trying to confront head on in universities way before this was written. With dwindling budgets and the attack on university education we are trying to include this reality in everything we do. We are constantly trying to deepen the administration’s and the public’s understanding of our value. We do teach students about self-sufficiency and the reality of the market but we also include the concept of a satisfying life, not determined exclusively by money, in our definition of success.If we exit for a moment the capitalist value system inside of which this article makes its claims we could see that the experience of being in a dance department provides an activated present that is of great value, not just a preparation for the future. The range of different styles, cultural histories and thought that comprise dance departments is growing more and more diverse. Students must daily navigate contrasting ideas and decide whether they want to be a myopic or an inclusive thinker (a binary problem in itself.) Do they take information in and comb through it or look for market based validity of ideas and ignore the rest.

Statements like the one quoted below from the article contain the kind of thinking that we hope our students might avoid. 
“However, I’d argue that society in general benefits more from, say, medical discoveries than it does from a dance being made” 
If society benefits “more” from one thing than another, does the “lesser” thing get discarded or do we launch a further investigation of its role and its importance in the very complex and interdependent structures of existence? This thinking is at the center of the attack on university education right now.

If I had children I wouldn’t send them to college to insure they get a job. I would send my children to college to insure that they didn’t take on the intrinsic belligerence of binary thinking. I would not want them to become part of the “this or that” train driving our world. I think dance is definitely at an important moment of redefinition, but I think this is the perfect moment to grow its presence in the university to offer complexity and multiple explanations of phenomena into our thinking and apply this as an antidote for real problems. Of course, if we return to capitalism and profit, we see that the concept of “win or lose” provides the central bifurcation fallacy defining our world. Its grip will be very hard to escape from if it is all we have.

Tere O’Connor

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