Find your groove in dance

  • Education
  • Sunday, 12 Jan 2003



HOW did someone who completed a degree in Mathematics end up as the head of dance at the National Arts Academy? Joseph Gonzales believes the dance career chose him! 

Although there was not much awareness in the country in the early 1980s of the possibilities of dance as a career, Gonzales says major influences were movies like Fame and Flashdance and watching the performances of dance companies that visited Malaysia, such as the Australian Dance Theatre's Ghost Dances. 

''Dancing is fun and it has enabled me to travel extensively,'' he says, adding that he was a professional dancer in Kuala Lumpur from 1982 to 1987. He has also participated in festivals in Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia. 

He also continued further dance training in England at the Bush Davies School and the London Studio Centre where he was on a full scholarship. Gonzales' qualifications include a Diploma in Performing Arts, and diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance in London, where he was the first Malaysian to obtain a distinction for teaching ballet.He also obtained a distinction from the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in modern dance. 

“I also worked as a dance teacher on weekends to supplement my income,'' he adds. He was the lead male dancer in London's West End and the UK National Tour production of The King and I

On his return to Malaysia, Gonzales was a full-time dance teacher at the Federal Academy of Ballet from 1992 to 1994. He then became a part-time lecturer at the National Arts Academy, teaching ballet, modern dance, history, anatomy, choreography and pedagogy. He has been head of dance at the academy since 1999. 

Gonzales advises students to be tenacious, as a career in dance is not easy; it is a very competitive field where looks and talent matter.  

''It can be very frustrating to go for auditions and not get a part as you do not fit what the producers are looking for. It affects your emotions too as your friends may have gotten the part but not you. 

''Auditions are also a long process and can include two or three call-backs where you have to do another sequence, such as singing another song or dancing to convince producers you are what they are looking for,'' he says, adding that he always advises his students to “think of the future as you can't dance forever”. 

“There will always be someone younger and more talented and after a certain point, your physical skills and abilities change. Besides clients may also ask for younger dancers.” 


What does a head of dance do

My job includes a myriad of tasks, from teaching to administration and preparation of syllabus to employing teachers and preparing schedules and programmes for students. I also present papers at conferences and festivals. 


Describe a typical day at work

My day usually begins at 8am when I attend to e-mails and answer national and international correspondence and other urgent matters.  

From 9am to 11am, I either teach or attend meetings. I usually work through lunch, unless I have appointments with various people from industry such as managers, promoters, agencies, or education departments of other institutions. 

From 2pm onwards, I may be writing, reading or preparing presentation papers. There are also rehearsals, choreography and meetings with students. 


What qualifications do you need

The education and qualification required vary according to the type of dance work intended. Performance requires training at a very high level in professional dance schools or universities. The course duration is usually three or four years, aside from early training. 

For girls, ballet classes usually start at age five or six while boys start at approximately age 10. 

In Malaysia, the National Arts Academy provides the only fulltime dance training leading to a diploma in performing arts (dance). The training incorporates Asian and Western arts. 

The academy entry requirements include SPM with credits in Bahasa Malaysia and two other subjects, and passes in Mathematics or Commerce or Principles of Accounts, STPM with one principal, and a pass in Economics, or certificates in Creative Arts, teaching or related subjects. Students must also pass an audition. 

Dance education is also available at various institutions of higher learning in the country.  

Qualifications for university entry vary from country to country. For US universities, students need Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and entrance exams besides the auditions, while large ballet companies such as the New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of England and the Paris Opera have their own training schools.  

Private dance schools offer courses in Western dance styles - generally Royal Academy of Dance or Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance qualifications enabling candidates to be entered for foreign-based examinations. Again, I would like to reiterate that auditions are an exhausting and competitive process.  

In more established countries, dancers have pension schemes, insurance policies for ill-health, injuries and pregnancy among others. Career span is also extremely limited with a few historical exceptions such as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.  

Dancers can also consider a teaching career. The ideal situation is for a teacher to have had performance experience to understand the difficulty and competitiveness of a dance career. However, good dancers do not always make the best teachers. 

Qualifications are also dependent on the intended place of work. Presently, university degrees such as a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts are required, while in the past recognition was given for experience.  

Private dance schools require qualifications from professional boards such as the British Royal Academy of Dance. There is also the possibility of turning dance into a business, such as the Federal Academy of Ballet. 

For choreography, it is important that you build your reputation within the industry, be it commercial or artistic.  


What kind of personality suits this career? 

Creativity and discipline are important. So is perseverance, especially when you have to dance even though your muscles are aching! Even if you are having a bad day, you must remain disciplined as you need to convince the audience of the message you are conveying. Basically this means leaving your worries at home and concentrating on performing.  

You have to be very creative, especially if you wish to focus on choreography. 


What's the best part of your job

It's a great job! What I like best about it are the opportunities to work on choreography and teaching. I also feel like I am in the position to make changes in the dance field in terms of programme implementation and policy. There are also plans for Malaysia's first dance degree programme. 

It's also very flexible as no two days are the same. 


And the worst

It's the bureaucracy and red tape, working with people who do not work hard and do not understand the nature of the job, and students/dancers who lack commitment or passion for the arts. 


What is the salary range

This depends on what you are doing. If you are with one of the state-run companies (every state has a professional dance company), the basic is RM673 with experience. You also get medical benefits, EPF, overtime, as well as a daily allowance when performing overseas. 

The salary scale may be low but with the overtime, you can make a fairly decent living. 

Since 1998, dancers who graduated from the National Arts Academy, who join a state-run company earn a basic salary of RM1,200. 

The Petronas Performing Arts Group also hires full-time musicians and dancers. 

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