Immigrant Dancers in New York City: Why are they Still Here?

The US immigration system creates many hardships for immigrant dancers, so why do they fight to stay in New York?

By Maria Luisa Mejia, Gabriella Fernandez and Emily Hoodenpyle, WC: 1626

After finishing her professional degree in English Studies in Hanoi, Vietnam, Linh An saw an opportunity to move to New York City due to the fact that her parents were working as diplomats there. Her goal was, and still is, to pursue a professional career in dance in both Musical Theater and Street Styles. The dance scene in Vietnam is more commercialized than the one in New York, An explains. The focus dancers have there has less to do with creating new art, and more to do with reusing old choreography and reordering mainstream dance sequences. Trying to escape that world of commercialization, An entered the New York dance scene with the idea and the hope to further develop her artistry and technique, considering that back in Hanoi she never received any formal training.

An is just one example of the many immigrant dancers that have chosen to come to New York City to pursue dance as opposed to any other city in the States. According to The US Department of Homeland Security, from the 83K immigrant dancers that moved to the country in one year, 40% of them ended up in New York City [source]. In fact, the demand was so high that the Dance/NYC Alliance found 205 dance organizations with programs for immigrant dancers (source). According to the Immigrant and Nationality Act, an immigrant is, “any alien in the United States, except once legally admitted under specific nonimmigrant categories” (source). New York City’s focused and committed dance scene encourages many of these immigrants that happen to be dancers to venture out and take advantage of all it has to offer.

Although true, building a successful career as a dancer can become quite difficult when you are not even allowed to work. In order to be hired legally, the dancers that move to New York City need to acquire an “O -1 Artist Visa”, a U.S visa given to foreign internationals who are deemed as “aliens of extraordinary abilities” and, according to the qualifications of the US Government, possess “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” [source]

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Mexican dancer Liza De La Garza at Battery Park. Photo By Maria Luisa Mejia, October 2018.

Without this visa, dancers are incapable of getting any job, whether that job is performing in a choreographer’s showcase, or teaching dance classes that pay for living expenses. Unfortunately, obtaining the O -1 Visa is not only a lengthy process, but also an expensive process due to the high fees that the lawyer working on your case charges. With that being said, when it comes to these dancers building their professional careers, it requires more than just talent.

Liza De La Garza, a 22 year old Mexican dancer attending Pace University for Arts and Entertainment management who wants to eventually be both a professional dancer and business person, feels while taking dance classes, U.S. born dancers are always in the lead. Dance classes in the city tend to be somewhat of a competition because the teachers are usually top — tier choreographers. Therefore, dancers go in with the mindset that those attending their classes are being scouted for the teacher’s next project. Teachers do this because they are trying to avoid the draining and time consuming process of holding auditions. Because of this, everyone has the tendency of giving their 110% effort and performance even in class.

Taking that into consideration, even if a great choreographer sees Garza in class and wants to hire her, because of the visa that Garza is currently here on, she is not allowed to take part in any paid performance that she is offered. “Sometimes I have to turn down work”, Liza says “because I don’t have a social security number, or I just don’t have the permit to work.” Liza is always starting off in the bottom of the list because her status in the country barely allows her to be on the list at all. She is currently on an F — 1 visa which is held by students attending a 4 year professional educational journey, and she cannot get the O — 1 Artist Visa because she cannot have two different statuses in the country at the same time. Liza is only one of many students that may want to work professionally as a dancer but is not allowed to do so. Their unfit visa status puts a strain on their careers. The longer it takes for them to get an Artist Visa, the longer it takes for them to get their careers started and get valuable work experience.

These circumstances are unfortunate because choreographers in New York do want to work with Immigrant Dancers. Rose Lu is a dancer who moved to New York from Taichung, Taiwan six years ago after training for years in break dance and street styles to pursue a professional career in both dance and filmmaking. Her career got started in her hometown after performing in events such as the opening for the “Roots” brand store in Taipei, Taiwan, and the launch of the Sci — Fi movie “Tai-Chi-O.” According to Lu, people approach her because she is an immigrant. She explains that looking Asian is an advantage for her because people approach her and ask her questions, which is always good when starting a conversation amongst people who could be hiring. Similarly, Elodie Dufroux, a contemporary dancer from France who has extended her 6 month stay to 5 years and counting, because she is an immigrant, people love her accent and “love that you’re not from here.” There is no denying that choreographers want diversity in their groups, or that they are interested in hiring these talented immigrant dancers, they just do not have the ability to do so.

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French dancer Elodie Dufroux at Ripley Grier Studios. Photo by Maria Luisa Mejia, February 2019.

Getting the O — 1 Artist visa seems to be the ultimate goal because it is the only permit they can get that will allow them to be hired. Turns out that it is still not the answer to all of their problems. Dufroux, who was able to acquire the Artist Visa about a year ago, explains that in this period of time she realized that “for some jobs you cannot audition with an Artist Visa, you have to be a native [born] American.” Carlos Neto, is Portuguese dancer, actor and choreographer who moved to New York City from London (which is where he started his professional career) about 6 years ago to perform in a play and decided to stay after getting hired to teach at the world wide known sudio, Broadway Dance Center. Neto is renewing his visa for a third time because once you get the visa, there is no limit on how many times you can re — apply to extend it, after you pay the required sum again, of course. Neto has also realized that in both of his fields of work, “You cannot do all jobs on TV here even with an Artist Visa.” Furthermore, many jobs in this field require you to be part of certain unions that are geared towards the art workforce in the country. For example, Equity, in the case of musical theater, requires its members to have a proof of residence. Also, SAG AFTRA, for Films and Television, requires a social security number. Therefore, once you get the visa and fall into the “alien of extraordinary ability” status the O — 1 visa provides, you will be boxed into very specific areas of work because you are not allowed to try your extraordinary abilities in any area you may wish, even if still related to the arts. This leaves them, yet again, with a lack of job experience and variety.

Another issue Immigrant Dancers have to find their way through once they land in this fairly expensive city, is how they can support themselves considering that they are not allowed to work. In the case of the dancers we are familiar with, they had, at least at some point, either financial support from their parents, or arrived to New York City with an established and successful career. A good example is Neto’s situation, because he arrived to New York as an already recognized artist which allowed him to check the boxes for most of the qualifications needed to get the O-1 Artist Visa right away, including the money he needed to hire a lawyer. Taking into consideration the testimonies from our conversations, it seems that dancers who come to New York City without at least one of these two financial assistances, go through an extremely hard time finding ways to support themselves. They may even be forced to accept cash for jobs to avoid getting caught working.

So, why are these dancers coming to New York? If they are, “not allowed to do anything” as Linh An says, then why come at all? Turns out, it is the community and supportive atmosphere connected to the New York Dance Scene what makes staying, and fighting worth it. Neto, for example, calls the dance scene in New York City “healthy” and explains that, “people have less of a dance community [feeling] anywhere else in the world because their industries are much smaller, and the elders in New York City that were here as all the street styles developed can keep everyone cool” meaning that since there is no dance scene like this one anywhere else in the world that has seen so much hustle and history, no other community can compare to it.

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Portuguese dancer and choreographer Carlos Neto at Ripley Grier Studios. Photo by Maria Luisa Mejia, December 2018.

Furthermore, contemporary-Indian dancer Brinda Guha, gives some insight into what makes the dance scene in the city so worth it for immigrants because she herself took part in making it worth it. A few years ago, Guha was the head of the International Visa Program at Broadway Dance Center, a program targeted to dancers over the age of 18 from all over the world who come to train with some of the best teachers in the world. She says that her mission was to, “get dancers all over the world under one roof,” but the one thing that stopped a lot of them from coming was the financial aspect, considering the fact that the Student Visa most of them come on does not allow them to work and earn money. This is why many of these dancers need financial support from their parents, and most of them who are able to go have it. Because of this complicated aspect, she told us that it was her job to, “create a curriculum that made it worth it.” It is dedicated people like her that makes the dance scene in New York City worth it.

Guha herself is the pioneer of the dance style she calls “Contemporary Indian Dance” and she owns a successful studio where she trains dancers in this particular style. Guha says that she would not have been able to have the success that she has had if she was not in New York City. She says, “it has a speed, a hustle, maybe because it’s expensive. New York has a standard that weeds out people, people here focus on what’s working.” She also looks at the dance scene from the perspective of an immigrant because she is the daughter of two immigrants. She claims that, “In New York, no one looks twice at an immigrant, I don’t have to prove my identity to anyone.” By this she means, no one needs to prove themselves because they are an immigrant, the focus is on a person’s skill and nothing more.

After all, immigrant dancers in New York City are here because this is where they can get the best training, and where they are judged and praised on their skills alone. The only thing stopping them from succeeding is the fact that they are not allowed to work and the system they are caught in strains them in a way that makes it basically impossible for them to even be allowed to work. Yet these dancers are doing whatever it takes to stay and abiding by the system’s rules because in their eyes, they cannot get what they are getting in New York City anywhere else.

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