For many young dancers transitioning out of high school and into the real world can be a confusing and turbulent period. Going from studio dancing with a structured training program and set performance opportunities to an unstructured schedule with little to no definite guidance is a challenge. Not to mention the decision of whether or not to attend college or jump straight into professional dancing.
If this newfound freedom isn’t met with smart decision-making and self-motivation to succeed and continue training, it’s easy to get lost. As an example of the determination and maturity it takes to excel in the dance world post-childhood training, PARTS interviewed a New York University Tisch School of the Arts student who is working his way into professional dancing while still earning his degree.
Josh Zacher is 21 years old and has just entered his third year at Tisch. Zacher grew up dancing and competing with for several studios in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I started dancing because my mom signed me up for a dance class as part of a summer camp and I guess I really haven’t stopped since. I was in gymnastics and then I dropped that and just did dance.” As a committed dance student with a rigorous training schedule, Zacher still managed to graduate as valedictorian of his high school in 2013 before making his way to NYU. “I definitely wanted to go to college, but I was not convinced that I was going to be a dancer. I knew that I wanted to be somewhere urban and that I wanted a college that had a focus on career development and real world preparation.”
Although Zacher is naturally talented, it is his work ethic that has earned him his successes. He serves as a great model for young dance students considering what their move is after high school. He’s making waves in the New York dance scene, earning his degree and living in a city that suits him...he’s doing it all! Here’s some of the insight Zacher had to share with PARTS.
What dance and theater activities are you involved in at NYU as well as outside of school?
I am involved in a lot of really cool activities. At NYU, I am part of the (subjectively) premiere student dance company The Pulse Dance Project. We are an entirely student-run organization that produces, choreographs, markets, and performs our own showcases. I auditioned as a freshman and got in. I teach dance through the Dancers Choreographers Alliance at NYU, which is a student club offering students access to dance. I have been in and choreographed a variety of different kinds of shows at NYU through both the Tisch Department of Drama and other organizations on campus such as Tisch New Theatre, which is a student club that last year put up "Catch Me If You Can" in the Skirball Center.
Outside of NYU most of my opportunities come through Broadway Dance Center. This week I was part of the first ever gala for ALMA NYC. It’s a young NYC-based Fosse dance company. I’ve assisted and danced in a flash mob with Derek Mitchell and I take class as often as I can. Also my freshman year I joined a modern-based improv company called American Creative Dance. It was my first professional job in NYC.
You trained in a variety of dance styles growing up, were heavily involved and successful in the dance competition circuit, and are now studying theater. Why didn’t you study dance?
The summer before my junior year of high school I attended the Summer Dance Institute at the University of Michigan. Overall, I had a wonderful experience, but what I took away most was that I didn’t want to do that in college.
Dancing in college is a very different ballgame than dancing at a studio for competition. It’s academic, which means that it is rooted in classical modern and ballet for the most part. These styles are incredible and I have the utmost respect and joy for these programs. However, for the most part, this training is not commercial and prepares you mostly to work in a modern or ballet company. I knew that I did not want that. I wanted something more fun.
There are some colleges now such as PACE University and Oklahoma City that are more commercial-based, but I didn’t know about these at the time. That being said, I am very happy with studying theatre. Exploring the new mediums of acting and singing has dramatically expanded my artistry and made me more marketable to work, especially in New York.
A friend of mine said to me last summer when I was questioning my choice to study drama, “You can’t go to school for what you’re already good at.” And I completely agree.
How was your transition from studio/competition dancing to studying predominantly theater and having to train in dance independently?
It was somewhat difficult, not going to lie. It’s one of the most bizarre things in life when your existence revolves heavily around something and then abruptly that avenue shifts and you have to find a new way to bring it back.
The biggest obstacle for me has been time and finance. Since I’ve been in school I have not been able to dance nearly as much as I would like, but I find ways to make it work. Pulse Dance Project helps, and I do take some dance in my major.
Do you think dancers can study something other than dance in college and still remain focused on pursuing a dance career?
100% yes! One of my good friends is a business major in Stern here at NYU and she is one of the most incredible dancers I know. She is signed with Clear Talent Group and intends to be a professional dancer. I have other friends with similar situations.
One of the faculty at the NYC Pulse on Tour event that I worked this summer broke it down very simply: When you walk into the room, your dance degree is not going to get you the job if the person next to you (for whatever reason be it talent or not) is better for the job.
Bonnie Erickson from Broadway Dance Center also says regularly that she completed a BFA in Dance and had no clue what to do when she graduated. I think that, at least for commercial and ballet dancers, college training is not necessary because of the temporal restraints. That being said, I think that every dancer should go to college. But if from an economic perspective you want to consider your degree as an investment, the likelihood of a profitable return is risky and oftentimes low. This is coming from a theatre major so take it with a grain of salt.
You’ve studied a lot at NYU about the entertainment business. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
It’s very important to know people because it is specific people who make work happen. Look at IMDB and IBDB to see who is the producer, casting director, director, choreographer, associate choreographer, dance captain, assistant dance captain, etc. Then find out how you can interact with these people. Take their class, see their work, and educate yourself as much as you can.
Another big lesson is that reputation is everything. As Bonnie Erickson from BDC says, “Life is the audition.” Always be at your best and aware of the energy you bring to a room. This includes when you take class, what you say at parties and who you hang out with. It’s a perpetual awareness.
You interned with Broadway Dance Center this past summer. What did that entail?
I was part of the Summer Professional Semester which is a program dedicated to educating dancers about the artistry and industry of dance. (These are Bonnie Erickson’s words not mine.) I took 12 classes a week and had weekly seminars about various industry topics including agency representation, audition prep, contact improve, injury prevention, headshot/resume, website/social media presence, and self-defense…that was fun! In addition, we had 4 mock auditions with Desmond Richardson, Luam, Josh Prince, and Brooke Wendle. Agents from Bloc, Clear, and MSA attended these auditions as well as casting directors from various offices around NYC. We also put on an industry-invited showcase at the end where we performed pieces choreographed by BDC faculty, alumni of the program, and students. I was one of 5 selected from the 68 students that got to choreograph a piece for the show.
What did you gain from that experience?
This experience really put a lot of things into perspective for me. I made an incredible amount of connections with both friends and professionals and became a member of the BDC family. I found a lot of motivation and clarity in what I want to do with my life as it pertains to dance and I cannot recommend the program highly enough. It has been life changing for me.
What are your plans/hopes for post-grad life?
I want to be a working performer and choreographer who can sustain himself artistically here in NYC. Any day that I get to dance or choreograph is a good one. Dream jobs include Broadway, national tours, dancing for recording artists, making movies…the big cool stuff that anyone with a dream goes to first.
Reality and survival jobs could include serving as a freelance choreographer, teaching dance at various venues around the city, cameos on TV shows that film in New York, working for BDC, working for a fitness company, being an assistant--I’m currently the Budget Director’s assistant at Tisch and I love it! Also working for a dance competition or convention would be a great way to travel and build relationships nationwide. I want to stay in New York, but eventually I would love to have a bi-coastal presence between here and LA if the opportunity presents itself.
What inspires you to dance and choreograph?
Everything inspires me to dance. Anytime I hear music, I immediately start moving in some way. I think that I love dance so much because it has found a very prominent place in my soul and I would like to keep it that way.
Choreography comes most prominently from something that is meaningful to me, like an experience or a memory that has a deep-seated affect on me. Any piece of music that I really connect with is usually something that I try to choreograph to at some point.
I’m also inspired by the people around me and by the fact that dance is an ancient and perpetually evolving art form that I can continue to explore for life. There is always a new discovery to be made, so there is always motivation to dance.
To learn more about Zacher and his work, visit josh-zacher.com.
2015 Broadway Dance Center Summer Professional Semester Showcase
Choreography by Josh Zacher
"Elixir & Fuzz"
Starring Josh Zacher
Choreography by Zanza Steinberg