12.24.2012

In the spirit of the holidays - Part 2 (12 of my favorite moments)

Smedley St in south Philly
For the second installation of my In the spirit of the holidays blog series, I will be sharing a collection inspired by the 12 Day of Christmas. In the spirit of this holiday, I am offering up 12 of my favorite moments while freelancing this year. I'm not really sure why there are 12 days of Christmas in the song (they never taught that in Hebrew school), but what the hell! Here we go!

Rehearsing Othello with PNB soloist Lindsi Dec
1. Dancing Cassio's solo/duet with Iago in Alaska Dance Theatre's Othello. Beyond the fact that Gillmer Duran created this piece on former OBT principal Artur Sultanov and me, he asked for a lot of personal input, making this creation a meaningful collaboration. I've been known to dive into a character, but I have rarely been given the opportunity to portray a character dealing with great internal struggle. Everytime I left the stage at the end of this solo/duet, I felt like I had walked offstage not as an image of Shakespeare's character, but as Cassio himself.

2. Having the opportunity to dance as a principal guest artist with Rochester City Ballet in Leverett's The Nutcracker. I have danced the grand pas de deux in The Nutcracker multiple times with schools as a guest artist, but never with a professional company. Throughout my career, I sat in the wings in my Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Marzipan costumes watching other dancers who had the opportunity to perform along with live orchestra to this iconic piece of music with balconies of theatre-goers falling into the holiday spirit. This was my first time performing the grand pas while leading a company of professionals. On top of that, I got to reconnect with an old friend, Jessie Tretter, whom I had met nearly ten years ago when I was an apprentice with Houston Ballet and she was in the academy. All-around an incredible experience!

3. Being accepted into people's homes as if I was a part of their family. Two of my favorite experiences this year happened far away from home. Anchorage first, then Providence. I had many great host family experiences this year, but these two topped the cake. I was nervous to spend 5 weeks in Anchorage, let alone in a strangers house. This was my first time spending more than a week or so in somebody's space. My Alaska host's were kind, generous, and, most importantly, spatially aware. They gave me a warm home, great conversation, and plenty of space to feel like I had my privacy. My Providence host family didn't know it, but they came into my life just when I needed them. I had recently experienced a great loss and was desperately in need of support and a nurturing environment. We spent so many hours sitting around the kitchen sharing stories, debating topics, and just being familial. My host mother was an amazing chef, my host father was such a gentle spirit, and my host sister was too witty to pass up on a conversation. Her adopted big brother is proud of her progress at the Joffrey Ballet's trainee program since her graduation weeks after I left.

Driving down the streets of Anchorage
4. Moose, glaciers, and 140 inches of snow (all-time record breaking snow). Freelancing brought me many places this past year. I left PNB in part because I wanted to see more of the world while performing. I haven't made it anywhere international quite yet, but getting to dance in Alaska was like visiting another country. I think I took nearly 1,000 photos during my 5 weeks in the last great frontier. When I tell people I went to Alaska in January, most people cringe. My words…Don't knock it til you try it! I had such an amazing experience in Alaska. Yes, the sun was out for about 5 hours, but by the time I left, it was out for nearly 8 hours. Yes, it was -15 degrees the first day I arrived, but other days it was nearly 40. Beyond the dancing, Alaska was just an all-around warm experience!

5. Getting to visit NYC dozens of times. I was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. By the time I was 15, I was taking the train to NYC regularly to take classes. By the time I was 18, I was living and training at the School of American Ballet. Once I moved to Houston, then even further to Seattle, my love affair with New York was put on hold. After a year or two in Seattle, I started to miss NYC more than you could imagine. Not only did I miss the city and it's energy, but I missed the connections and the feeling of community in the dance scene. Now that I am living in Philly again (in the city this time), I can easily decide on Friday that I want to go into the city on Saturday, buy a cheap bus ticket, and make a spontaneous trip to my second home.

My first time at the Boston Opera House
6. Getting to see Boston Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada for the first time. I am not the kind of person to arrive in a new place and sit on my ass. If you bring me to Paris, Im gonna go see London, too. I have always wanted to see both of these companies perform live. I have seen the dancers of Boston Ballet, as I took company class there and was offered a contract to dance with Boston Ballet 2 (I took a corps contract with PNB instead). Surprisingly, I never got to see the company dance. My friend, James Whiteside (former BB principal, current ABT soloist, and JBdubs by night) was able to get me tickets to see the company perform in Don Quixote. Since I was only an hour train ride away in Providence, I was able to see the company dance. It was a very special performance for me, as Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio danced the leads. Misa was my partner in our workshop performance at the School of American Ballet (I hadn't seen her dance live since) and Jeffrey is the brother of my friend, BB principal, and LOFD guest blogger, Lia Cirio (he was also promoted backstage to principal at the conclusion of this performance). I also got to see many friends that I have trained and danced with over the years perform. As for NBOC, the company has always had an air of mystery to me. You always hear about how amazing the company is, but most people I know have never seen these foreigners dancers. While dancing with Rochester City Ballet, Jessie was able to get free passes for us to see a dress rehearsal of Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Not only have I been dying to see the company, but I have also been dying to see this production. We barely made it to the show in time, but after a 4-hour jaunt across the border we got to see this luxurious production. The company definitely lived up to its' expectations and the production was amazing. I also got to reconnect with another old friend from my time in Houston Ballet, Mcgee Maddox (currently a first soloist with the company).

7. Throwing my networking event for freelancers, Contact. I am relatively new to freelancing, only having entered this world full-time back in April. I have learned a lot quickly and grown my network just as quick. One thing I realized as I started getting in the flow of this blog was that people were starting to look up to me for my knowledge, experience, and clout. After I recognized this, I decided that I wanted to do something about it. Along with my good friend, Bennyroyce Royon, we were able to put together an extremely successful event, in two weeks no less.

Dan at Niagara Falls on our day trip from Rochester
8. Getting to bring my partner along with me to share in my new experiences. My partner, Dan, and I have been together for quite some time (it will be 7 years come January). He has been so amazingly supportive of my career since we got together. So much that he quit his job, picked up our life, and moved across the country for it. Little did we expect that moving across the country would eventually mean that I wouldn't always be working in one place. But still he has been beyond supportive the entire time. One of the best parts about me traveling so much is that I often take him along with me for some time. He came for a handful of days to Anchorage, Providence, and Rochester. So, not only do I get to see the world, but I get to bring him along for the ride, as well.

9. Dancing the La Esmeralda and Le Corsaire pas de deux in a gala. I hadn't performed a classical pas de deux onstage since 2006 when Mara Vinson (former PNB principal) and I danced the Don Quixote pas de deux in First State Ballet Theatre's Arabesque Festival gala. While dancing at PNB, my rep of leading roles mostly consisted of contemporary works. By the time I had left, I truly believed that I couldn't perform a classical pas de deux well (variations included). Well, I proved myself wrong with these performances. Now, when approached with classical work, I gladly say sure, instead of doubting myself with a demure yes.

10. Connecting with, sharing, and collaborating with amazing artists. One of the reasons I left PNB was because I felt greatly isolated from the dance world. There were great artists in the company and a few in the dance scene, but there was also a level of social climbing and social class in the small network of dancers. Beyond my event, moving to Philly and being in NYC a lot have given me great opportunities to network. The dancers are more open to wildly intriguing (sometimes bordering on nuts) possibilities. But beyond the dancers of the mid-atlantic/northeastern dance scene, those that I met at my gigs really inspired me to think in the box, out of the box, and wherever that next step is outside of that out of the box.

My very first partner, Katie Moorhead & I reconnecting at Contact
11. On the flip side from #10, reconnecting with so many old friends. Not only did I get to dance with an old friend from Houston in my travels, but I reconnected with so many more along the way. From people that I trained with to my first dance partner to teachers and people that I lived with in a dormitory, I can't even count the number of people with whom I have had the chance to reconnect. This right here has been more valuable than most of the experiences I have had in my career.

12. Creating this blog. I used to blog when I was a member of Myspace. I was in my early 20's and experiencing a lot of new things in life. I guess you could say I was a little dramatic. Well, I blogged openly about whatever I was feeling. I got a lot of criticism for it, but over a year or so I wrote over 400 blogs and had about 20,000 views. I have been meaning to start a blog again ever since Myspace exploded with spam and I quit the network, but I couldn't find the inspiration. Finally, I found something that inspires me enough to write about regularly. Since I started this blog in my Providence host family's window seat in April, it has received nearly 7,500 views, been shared by another publication, gotten me work, and inspired me to move this resource from the internet to a public place where freelancers can connect with one another.

With that said, I would like to wish each and every one of you a wonderful holiday season. And thank you to all of you who regularly read my blog! This blog is my pride and joy and I can't wait to continue writing for you in the coming year! Cheers! L'chaim!

12.21.2012

In the spirit of the holidays - Part 1 (8 wild moments)

Chanukkah bush and the Jewish nutcracker my mom made me
 In the spirit of the holidays, I have decided to make two lists. This first list is written in the spirit of Chanukkah. Being a secular super Jew (maybe that is an exaggeration),  I am quite aware that the Festival of Lights is well past, but lets keep the celebration going. In honor of the 8 days and nights that the oil burnt bright, I am posting 8 wild moments I experienced while freelancing this year from Philadelphia to Alaska and all the way back to South Carolina.

Super Jew???
1.  One of my wildest experiences while freelancing this year happened while dancing with Alaska Dance Theatre in Anchorage. I was set to dance on live television for Alaska LIVE with Bernadette. About 30 minutes prior to airing across the state, I rehearsed a solo that I performed as Cassio in Othello. Nobody noticed that I rehearsed facing the wrong direction. When my live segment was coming up, they finally realized that they had told me to face the wrong way. The new space was very odd and I was dancing on concrete. Let's just say I winged the whole thing very well.

2. During class at one of my gigs, a dancer sprained her ankle. The director leapt out of their office and said, "You will hate me for this, but you must grab a belt, put in your mouth, stand up, go to barre, and do 100 tendues with sprained ankle. NOW GO!" Let's just say I about died and had to leave the room. (PLEASE DON'T DO THIS!)

3. Three words - Disco search lights during the Sugar Plum variation. While I'm on Nutcracker...performing at a mega church, the addition of English, Italian, and a love pas de deux between Clara and Drosselmeyer, the spilling of dry ice onstage and instead of cleaning it up immediately raising the curtain, a drill team of ridiculously talented gingerbabies, instead of the curtain falling after bows Gangnam Style starts playing and the whole cast does the entire dance, and performing 3 shows of Chinese and 15 shows as the Cavalier.


On set - Itchiest beard ever!
4. During class onstage, a chipmunk snuck onstage through an open stage door. It ran amok around and through dancers feet for about 5 minutes. Never heard little girls scream so loud!

5. I swore I'd never mention this, but in the name of fun and good humor, performing in a dance film that was essentially Nutcracker mixed with Alice in Wonderland and a hint of Little Drummer Boy on acid. Think techno-Nutcracker music with elephants screaming in the background in the month of July. Shhhhhh...don't tell anyone I was ever in it!

6. Performing an open rehearsal in New York City at the 3-room studio/home of the 95 year old choreographer. Dressing room = pantry, lobby = bedroom/dining room, dance studio = dance studio.

Preparing for the live taping
7. After performing my solo on Alaska LIVE with Bernadette (#1 on this list), I immediately sat down to be interviewed live by Bernadette herself. When I sat in my stool, it immediately collapsed while somehow landing on the pole that held the seat up. I was able to balance the seat without it falling by squeezing my legs and pushing down as hard as I could. I did this for the entirety of the 4-minute interview. Lets just say that the crew applauded me when we went to commercial and my legs killed me for days afterwards.

8. Jumping into Neopolitan in Swan Lake with about 2 minutes notice that the original dancer had injured themselves at the end of the first act. Then the staff realizing there was nobody to perform my other part. I performed both parts in every show.

Stay tuned for a 12 days of Christmas inspired post in this 2-part blog series!

12.04.2012

Surviving Nutcracker - Act like a professional, Think like a student

Jessica Tretter and me performing the Grand pas de deux w/ Rochester City Ballet (Photo: Kelsey Coventry)

Although it is Tuesday afternoon, today is the second day of my first two-day weekend in over a month. Time-wise, I am halfway through my Nutcracker season. Performance-wise, I am two thirds of the way through all of my shows. I have 18 shows of Cracked Christmas gloriousness this season and to be completely honest, Im ready to be finished. I am already Nutcracker-jaded from my 7 seasons with PNB, often dancing in more than 40 performances from Black Friday to New Year's Eve. Although, 18 shows is nothing compared to my time in Seattle, the main difference is that I am/have performed the leading male role (Cavalier) in 15 of 18 performances. That is a lot of dancing, partnering, warming up, choreography, etc. With the stress of all these factors, a handful of people have asked me how I keep it together during this time of the year. It is as simple as changing my professional mindset.

Rochester City Ballet's The Nutcracker
I have been blessed with the holiday gift of numerous offerings for Nutcracker work. In fact, I have turned down gigs or passed them on to friends at least 10 times, as I have been booked since the end of October. In total, I signed to work with 4 organizations this Nutcracker season. I began my sugar-plummed journey with the honor of being hired as a "principal guest artist" with Rochester City Ballet. After 3 weeks with the company, I flew back to Philly for less than a day and took a train down to Arlington, VA to perform with Ballet Nova. Tomorrow morning, I will be flying down to Myrtle Beach to perform with Coastal Youth Ballet Theatre. I will finish my Nutcracker tour where it all began for me, Chester Valley Dance Academy, in Lionville, PA. Along with the blessing of work, comes the curse of a freelancer. I am not traveling with a partner. Instead, I am being/have been brought in to dance with leading dancers in each company and school. This means that with each gig, I must perform completely different choreography to the exact same music every week for 4 weeks. My biggest concern has been keeping all of the choreography straight.

What is my trick to keeping the choreography straight? I'm still developing this strategy, but this is what has worked for me so far. I had rehearsals with two of the schools before I left for Rochester, so I had the opportunity to dabble with the choreography and put it in the back of my brain for safe keeping. Once I arrived in Rochester, I stopped focusing on my other gigs. For me, it is more important to focus on the task at hand, then to try to juggle what will be happening down the road fresh in my mind. I didn't study or rehearse any choreography that wasn't related to the Nutcracker that I was performing with RCB. I figured that I was less likely to forget or change the choreography if I focused on my current situation. When I was a student, I hadn't figured out the art of multitasking when it came to learning and retaining choreography. In order to keep things straight, I went back to my youthful ways and stayed on one track. Once I had completed my duties in Rochester, I hopped on a plane and began studying the DVD for my next gig. Although I hadn't reviewed the choreography since our one rehearsal as Hurricane Sandy was coming ashore, the base of the work was still somewhere in the back of my brain. I had just spent 72 hours listening to RCB's orchestra play the Nutcracker soundtrack on a loop that repeated 6 times,  but I had to endure the music to refresh my memory. Once I arrived in Arlington, we had a few refresher rehearsals and then knocked out 6 performances of my favorite holiday classic (note the sarcasm). My next gig will be the most challenging, as I have not rehearsed with the dancer and the choreography is quite different. After I finish that gig, it will be smooth sailing from there. I am reprising my role at the academy that I was raised at. Although we have barely rehearsed, the choreography will come back to me easily since I have performed it before.

Aside from retaining choreography, the biggest challenge for me is to remain excited throughout the multitude of performances (and if not, to at least give off the appearance that I am excited).  As I stated before, I am pretty Nutcracker jaded. Not only do I over-rehearse the role (even though I've already had 12 performances, two of my partners haven't rehearsed with me. This means that I have to rehearse from scratch 4 different times), but after rehearsals and shows I have to venture out into the real world to purchase gifts for family and friends. During my shopping trips, it never fails that Nutcracker music is being blasted on the speakers at malls and stores. And to make matters even worse, if I want to sit down and relax, the Russian Trepak and Sugar Plum Fairy variation play on TV for at least one ad during every commercial break. For me, it is 6 weeks of Groundhog Day.

The Eastman Kodak Theatre, Rochester, NY
Wherever I show up for my next set of performances, I have to somehow become excited for the opening of the production, care about the outcome, and be spirited about the upcoming performances. Again, I have to revert away from my professional way of thinking and remember how it felt as child performing in the Nutcracker. At my most recent gig, the entire cast (which included hundreds of students aged 4-18, their parents, and adult performers) was called into the green room for a pre-performance pep talk. This happened prior to each of the 6 shows. There were always spirited words, offerings of good luck, and smiling faces. At the end of each session, everybody held hands, threw their arms up in the air, and screamed NUTCRACKER at the top of their lungs. The first time this happened, I felt like I was going to throw up in my mouth. The last thing I wanted to do was have a Nutcracker pow-wow and then exalt the Nutcracker gods. I went back into my dressing room and I had a long conversation with myself. I've spent ten years as a professional, surrounded mostly by professionals. All, or most (Jessika Anspach), of these professionals generally despise everything about Nutcracker outside of the fact that it paid our salaries for the rest of the year. So, to be surrounded by a bunch of overly excited students was a shock to my system. In my own personal conversation, I thought back to my first days with Nutcracker. This annual holiday performance was usually one of two or three opportunities that I would have all year to get onstage. Also, even if the theatre only seated 200 people and the audience only consisted of family, it felt like the biggest deal ever. Neither the president of the United States, nor the New York Times were present. But it still felt like everybody in the world was seeing it. Lastly, the Nutcracker is actually the reason that nearly everybody I know started dancing in the first place. My professional mind had become jaded to this, so I had to think with my student brain. With this knowledge, I was able to join the cast in their upcoming pre-show rituals and leave the room with a real smile after shouting Nutcracker.

Another place that I really struggle during the Nutcracker season is in taking class, warming up prior to every performance, and keeping each performance fresh. Even during my Nutcracker tenure with big companies, I found it hard to motivate myself each and every day. I already knew the choreography, my body was exhausted, and sometimes my roles didn't require using any flexibility that might require a warmup. I remember when I was a student, I wouldn't do anything without taking class at the beginning of my day or warming up. I would also go over the steps multiple times to be sure that I remembered the choreography. Today, I try to keep these practices with me. When I am performing, I make sure to take class every day. If class isn't available, isn't to my taste, or doesn't fit in my pre-performance schedule, I make sure to give myself a full barre and a healthy serving of center work. Then, I make sure that I do a mini-barre at least 20 minutes prior to my entrance onstage. To keep the performance fresh, I always go over the choreography prior to the show or at intermission. This helps to keep my brain from going on auto-pilot. It keeps my performance fresh and tricks my mind into thinking that this is a new piece for me. In the end, I believe that all of these things help to protect my body. Dancing without properly warming up can present wear and tear on the body and dancing on auto-pilot can lead to simple mistakes or injury.

Whether you are performing in 40 shows with one company or 20 shows at multiple venues, surviving Nutcracker can be a great challenge. Aside from remembering choreography, multiple performances in multiple settings can provide physical and mental challenges. When I was a student, I was excited for everything. As many of us professionals gain experience and grow older, we forget about the joy that Nutcracker brought to us and how it led many of us to performance careers. If we all remember what it felt like to be a student, we can help pull ourselves out of Nutcracker doldums, do our jobs well, and pull through the season healthy.

My Sugar Plum (Jessica Tretter) and me after our last show for Rochester City Ballet's Nutcracker

11.22.2012

How to cope with the holidays away from home

My partner at Thanksgiving dinner in Seattle
It's 11 PM and I am sitting at Applebee's sipping a yuengling waiting for my riblet meal to arrive. I just finished dress rehearsal dancing the cavalier in Rochester City Ballet's Nutcracker and I'm starving! Rehearsal went really well and I hope that my partner and I only continue to grow from there. With such great elation after the run, I am feeling surprisingly manic at the moment. I just got a text from my partner (the life kind) and he is sitting at my mom's house amongst family on this Thanksgiving eve, while I sit by myself eating dinner only to return to my hotel room. As I roll across emotional extremes, I am learning how to cope with being away from loved ones during the holidays.

I was having a conversation with my sister via Facebook a few weeks ago right after arriving at my hotel in Rochester. She was asking me about my current gig and was awe-struck that I work the way I do, essentially a self-touring artist. My response to her awe was that my life is glorious and lonely all at the same time. I get to meet amazing artists and dance on great stages, but I also get lonely and homesick at times. Christmas-time is actually the busiest time for most freelance dancers. Since Nutcracker takes over stages, televisions, and the world during this season, there are more opportunities to work, as everybody wants to bank on this annual production. This means that the likelihood of spending Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all of the inbetween festivities with those close to you decreases greatly the more successful you are.

Seeking T-giving my first year in Seattle
When I got my first job with Houston Ballet as a teenager, I spent my first set of holidays away from close friends and family. Im pretty sure, after a failed turkey baking attempt, a handful of friends and I ended up at Bennigans. We claimed it was the best Thanksgiving ever, but I dont really remember it. I assume that we were just trying to be really positive about the whole fiasco. Within a year of leaving, I created my own family in Seattle (after moving to PNB) and started a relationship with my partner, which has been going strong for nearly 7 years. Aside from that year in Houston and the subsequent one in Seattle, I've always been with close friends or family on Thanksgiving. It makes my heart ache a little bit to write this, but this holiday will be my first without my partner since we got together. And although it makes me sad, I am hardly letting this holiday pass without being proactive about enjoying it.

If you find yourself away from friends and family for the holidays, there are ways that you can stay connected. We are so fortunate to live in a day and age where technology can bring us closer together, even when we are hundreds or thousands of miles apart. I have already set up a time tomorrow to Skype with my family. Even if I am not eating green bean casserole and stuffing at the table, I can be there visually and in spirit. A phone call is comforting, but getting to share some face-time can really help you feel thankful and make you a part of the festivities. I always feel more connected when I can see somebody's reaction in a conversation. In my opinion, people often feel badly during the holidays not because they aren't present, but instead because they feel left out.

Another way to avoid sinking into doldrums while you are, perhaps, alone in a hotel room is to get out. I notice that I feel much more lonely when I isolate myself. It is pretty logical, actually. You may feel slightly down or that you are going to take the holiday to rest up for your gig, but staying in a small room by yourself with a television and the shades drawn is only going to make you feel more removed. If you don't have anything to do or anybody to visit, perhaps, find an open restaurant and sit at the counter/bar. Usually people who are working on a holiday have to work and are missing this precious time with their family as well. It is much easier to strike up a warm conversation on a holiday than it is on most other days. If this form of socializing isn't for you, find a local cinema and enjoy a movie with the crowds that pack theatres on the holidays. You won't feel alone and you won't have to socialize with strangers. No matter what, I suggest that you just get out for a period of time.

Often, beyond family, people miss the traditions that go along with certain holidays. Every Thanksgiving, my partner and I wake up, turn on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and bake sugar cookies. We mix all of the ingredients, roll the cookies out, use our 30-something cookie cutters, bake them, and decorate them once they are all golden and delicious looking (our secret is that we always underbake them so they remain super soft). I am currently in a hotel with a microwave and a small refrigerator, therefore making this tradition an impossibility. But, I did buy a couple of cookies and I am planning on catching some portion of the parade. So, although this tradition is not fully realized, I am at least holding a part of the tradition for this year and we can continue it in full the next time we spend the holiday together. If you have a tradition, find a way to keep the spirit of the tradition with you. Small things like this can really help to keep away any holiday sadness that might surface.

Lastly, what is a holiday like Thanksgiving without a huge feast? One thing that I have found is that it is almost impossible to spend a holiday by yourself while on a gig. It warms my heart to say that I have found that people will go out of their way to help make an out-of-town guest feel welcome and wanted on these special days. For instance, the network of people at Rochester City Ballet have been more than generous in offering me a place to spend during this day of thanks. I have received offers to join families for dinner from fellow dancers, administration, wardrobe, physical therapists, and beyond. In fact, I found  it difficult to turn down many of the offers. Most of the time, as a guest, people will welcome you with open arms. But if nothing formulates, don't fret. Just plan ahead. Do some research and find a place that is open for the holiday. Maybe you have been working really hard, pinching pennies, and eating in every night. This could be used as the perfect opportunity to really treat yourself for all of the hard work you've been putting in. Consider seeking out a restaurant that serves a few courses, perhaps with a pairing of drinks for each course. If you aren't comfortable eating on your own, bring your phone, a good book, a journal, or any other item that you enjoy using on your own. Make it a memorable experience and treat yourself.

All in all, the holidays can be a difficult time for anybody that is feeling lonely. Working away from home during this season can easily make you feel alone. As always, it is important to be proactive to make sure that you keep a healthy, happy, and fulfilled holiday season. Stay connected with family and friends, keep traditions as alive as you can, find yourself amongst people, and be merry (even if it is all by yourself). If you are able to stay happy while traveling during the holidays, you will find that this is truly the most fulfilling, lucrative, and wonderful time of the year.

Holiday season - Boston, MA

11.12.2012

CONTACT: A networking event connecting freelance dancers

Dancers connecting with dancers

It's Saturday night (I didnt get to edit until Monday) and I'm laying on my king-sized bed in my hotel room at the Courtyard Marriott right outside of Rochester, NY with ice on my muscles while drinking a Yuengling lager. I have been trying to find time all week to write this post, as I started rehearsing Nutcracker with Rochester City Ballet, but I am beginning to learn that my first week dancing any gig is always overly exhausting. This is not only because I am dancing a lot, but meeting new people, learning the culture of a company, and taking in new styles and choreography can be overwhelming. But the midnight hour has passed and I finally feel like I can take a moment to share about the event that I threw in NYC a few weeks back.

When I started freelancing, I had a very small network of friends that had any knowledge about the art of dancing with different companies on a regular basis. Most of the dancers that I knew who freelanced were stars of big ballet companies. They didn't actively seek work, instead they were always sought out for work. It must be nice to have people calling you, asking you to work for them. But in most realities, unless you are a leading dancer with a big name company, you are unlikely to receive random phone calls requesting your service as a performer.

A small network of freelancers
As I have spent more time in this field, I have started to build a base of freelancing friends and what I have found is that there is a great need for resources, mentoring, and connection in our community. Like I wrote in my previous posting, The importance of your freelancing friends, the best way that you can find work and support is through your network of friends that freelance. Dancers typically create this network very slowly, gig by gig. It is also common for dancers to lack interaction with others that perform in different styles and genres of dance. Due to the nature of our work, it can take years to develop a solid, nurturing system of support. I felt this personally and I felt this amongst my friends and decided to do something about it.

Co-hosts Bennyroyce Royon and me
An old friend of mine, Bennyroyce Royon, and I reconnected through our freelancing careers. He was a student at Juilliard, while I was a student at the School of American Ballet. We were two of very few students that crossed the social boundaries of the contemporary college and neo-classical ballet high school dance programs. After we graduated from our respective schools, we mostly lost touch, aside from a handful of chance run-ins. When I was rehearsing in NYC for my gig with Avi Scher & dancers, we reconnected and have stayed in close contact ever since. Aside from our mutual care and friendship, we have also been a great support system for each other as freelancers. Although we were raised dancers of different styles, we have had some crossover during our careers. Nonetheless, we mostly remain within the realm of our backgrounds, Benny dancing mostly contemporary work and myself dancing more in the ballet spectrum. We both exist in the same world and in two completely different worlds. We chatted for awhile when I was visiting New York this past August and decided that we needed to connect our separate communities and create something to bring together those beyond the communities that we know. And with that idea, Contact: A networking event connecting freelance dancers was born!

Our venue in Greenwich Village - Soy and Sake
Just a few weeks ago, on Monday, October 22nd, Benny and I threw our first event for freelance dancers. We were more than pleased with the success of the evening. Not only did we exceed our goal of attendees, but we also exceeded our goal of community support. We already knew that there was a great need for connection in our community. But talking directly to hardworking freelance dancers, we learned that there is even more need than we realized. Dancers don't just need help finding work, but many of the freelancers we talked to are uninsured, have few resources to help market themselves to a broad audience, struggled to find work and proper working conditions once they found it, work multiple jobs, and have nobody to hold their hand along the way. I am hoping, through events like this and beyond, to help create a support network that will make our lifestyle easier, more lucrative, and more sustainable.

Excitement over door prizes
Not only was there great energy coming from the numbers of freelancers at our event, but there was great feedback from the organizations that donated door prizes in support of this event. Benny and I were able to obtain donations from Dance Magazine, the Joyce Theater, Sansha, Broadway Dance Center, Lyquid Talent (website design), and MurphyMade photography, among others. Aside from the generosity from these organizations, those that weren't able to donate within the short time period that we put this event together (2 weeks is a short period of time), expressed their support and hope to donate to future events. I can't tell you how many times I heard, "this is such an important thing for this community and I am glad that you are doing this. Keep us updated." The general excitement for the potential coming from this event was thrilling and touching.

Meeting new friends
I hope that Benny and I can continue to bring our community together and offer friendship and support to this network of talented human beings. We are so grateful for all of the support that we received for this event and for the great amount of generosity that was offered to make this event a success! Enjoy the photos I posted from that evening (captured by the amazing Karsten Staiger) and please stay tuned for future news!

Networking at its finest

10.31.2012

Making it work - My Hurricane Sandy rehearsal experience

Its been awhile since Ive really had a chance to write a serious post. I, initially, was planning on writing about how well my networking event for freelancers went, but this week got a bit crazy and I didn't get around to writing that. Instead, I ended up spending a majority of the week prepping for a hurricane and figuring out how to do my job without getting stranded or putting myself in danger. My next post will focus on my event, but for the moment everybody has got Sandy on their minds.

I took a bus home from NYC on Wednesday night last week flying high on the success of the event that my friend Bennyroyce Royon and I had thrown. My first task upon arrival was to take out the trash for our block. We save money on our rent by helping our landlord out with this chore. After lugging about five trash cans and six recycling buckets around the block, I sat down to take a rest and the news was on. NBC Philadelphia's long-time meteorologist, Glenn Hurricane Schwartz, was talking about a tropical weather system that had just developed into a hurricane. This cyclone's name was Sandy and she was about to make landfall in Jamaica. They had mentioned that the storm's track had the potential to take a turn that nobody had ever seen before. The potential danger was mentioned, but the actuality of it happening was met with a bit of skepticism.

The next day, I started solidifying plans for rehearsals with Ballet Nova near Washington, D.C. I will be performing the grand pas de deux with a student in their Nutcracker in December. Since I leave for Rochester City Ballet this coming weekend, the only time that I had to rehearse was this past Sunday - Tuesday. Things were all set for rehearsal and the forecast still seemed ridiculous. They were saying that a handful of forecasts were pushing Sandy over the Jersey shore, which meant that Philadelphia would receive the brunt of the the wind and rain from the storm. The news said that if this happened, it wouldnt happen until Tuesday evening. Still feeling skeptical about this news, I went about my business as usual; getting back in shape and enjoying some Halloween festivities.

As Friday approached, newscasters were starting to talk about this storm system more seriously. Still with a hint of skepticism, they mentioned that more and more forecast models were sending this storm right at us on a track that has never happened before with a tropical system, especially at the end of October. With all of this uncertainty and a stronger hint of potentiality, I decided it was time to be a bit more proactive with my communication with Ballet Nova. I truly feel that openness and honesty are the best way to deal with any situation and that is exactly how I approached this. I talked to the director of the school and mentioned my concern about the forecast. Being that I need about 5 days to prepare everything to leave for 5 weeks, I absolutely couldn't be stranded in DC. On top of that, if a possibly catastrophic weather event was going to affect Philadelphia, I wanted to be home to protect my partner, pets, and home. Since they were expecting the storm to hit on Tuesday evening, I suggested that we shorten the rehearsal period from 3 days to 2 days. The director was more than understanding of my concern and we decided to remain in contact and make a decision based on the following day's forecast.

When Saturday arrived, news only got worse. Sandy, now poorly noted as Frankenstorm, was really panning out to make history. And not only was she going to make history, she was going to do it a day earlier than yesterday's forecast. Newscasters were starting to make this storm sound really frightening. I fought with myself the entire day to make the right decision for my upcoming rehearsals in DC. My gut told me to completely cancel and just stick around Philly to avoid any complications or danger. But my mind told me that I had to stick with my commitments and remain professional and travel for at least the first two days of the rehearsal period. I had an unfortunate case of dancers syndrome. Even in the face of danger, I wanted to show up, do my best, and not let anybody down. In my mind, anything that wasn't exactly what we had planned on was going to disappoint my employer. Finally, as the evening approached, I made my last ditch effort to make something work out, even though I was absolutely uncomfortable with the prospect. I would take a bus down to DC, rehearse as long as necessary during the day, and take the last train back to Philly that same night. My hopes were that the storm would travel slower than forecast and that we wouldn't feel any effects until I was safely inside my apartment. I felt like I was being overly dramatic and that I was blowing things out of proportion, but in the end I needed to do what I felt I needed to do.

I woke up this past Sunday at about 7 am to get prepared for my trip. It was already raining and it was breezy outside. This didn't put me at ease. I had tried to get an earlier bus down to DC so that I could get back to Philly earlier, but all of the buses were sold out except for a 3 am and 11 pm trip. Way too many people were trying to get home before the storm hit. We jumped on the freeway and the Megabus driver gave us their run-down of emergency procedures, which now included the bus blowing over in wind or encountering flooding. We actually made our trip down to DC in good time considering the weather, but having fewer cars on the roads probably helped.

From Union Station, the director of the school picked me up and we got to know each other along the drive. Two fun pieces of information I learned driving to the school were that the school used to formerly be the Arlington Center for Dance (where I went to my very first summer program audition for Houston Ballet Academy and eventually attended that program) and that I have a handful of friends that started at that school. Once we arrived, we launched straight away into a full-blown rehearsal. I'm quite glad that I had already learned most of the choreography for the production. I was initially planning on having a nice outline of the choreography, then really digging into it for the 3-day rehearsal period. Once news of the hurricane started to get more serious, I began learning the choreography more seriously. This proved to be a smart move. We were able to fly through the rehearsal process at a fast rate and accomplish nearly as much in 4 hours that we probably wouldve done in the 9 hours I was supposed to be there.

The bread aisle at our local supermarket
Around 5 pm, I got that message that I was praying I wouldn't get. A friend emailed me and told me that all Amtrak trains had been cancelled on the Northeast corridor. We stopped rehearsal immediately and frantically searched to find out if this was true. As is normal in any situation like this hurricane, people sometimes get/give incorrect information. It wasnt clear if this was happening, but it put a fire under our butts to get me back to the station. I suggested we run the entire pas de deux one time and then run to the train station. I'm glad that we did this, as I wanted the student to be as comfortable as possible for my arrival (I dont want to forget to say that she was quite impressive). We ran the grand pas de deux and I jumped in my clothes and we flew on over to Union station. Luckily, the information I had received was incorrect and trains were still running. They had all been cancelled for the following day, but trains for that evening were still running. I was able to change my ticket to an earlier time to assure that I made it on one, as there was still potential to cancel. The train station had a frantic energy and lines were ridiculously long as people attempted to get home before the storm showed its wrath. The interesting thing, though, was that people were friendlier than usual. Perhaps, events like this make people realize the things that are more important to them. Anyway, I arrived home around 10:00 that night (looking at the departure board, I lucked out arriving earlier as trains started to get cancelled/severely delayed) and stopped by our local grocery store as they were closing (I had already been shopping days earlier, but I wanted a treat after all of the drama). I made it home safe and was able to ride out the storm with my partner.

Although the storm was not horribly scary in Philadelphia (we had winds near 70 mph and I swore the tree across the street from us was going to fall on our apartment), it did actually live up to the hype that forecasters had built it up to be. My thoughts are with all of those that suffered the most damage, especially on the Jersey coast and in New York City. For all we know, we could've seen such destruction here in Philly. I learned a few interesting lessons from Sandy this past week. When it comes to your own safety and comfort, you have to follow your gut. Nobody can truly predict what nature has in store for us. Safety comes before dance. And when it comes to your career, you have to do everything you can do to perform your job duties within reason. I feel that the openness of communication I had with the director and the odd, potentially dangerous forecast actually helped create a quicker connection between the two of us. In the end, all was fine here in Philly. A medium sized tree branch hit our building, but there wasnt any damage from it. There are leaves all over the place, as we live across the street from a park. Philly lost a lot of trees, but otherwise seemed to fare well with the storm. I feel that I really went out of my way to make this rehearsal happen and Im glad that I was willing to make it work. And now, I'll have this story to tell my grandkids.



10.19.2012

How to make your own performance reel

I know that everybody has been patiently waiting for my next posting. Writing a blog has been on the back burner while I have been preparing my freelancer networking event, CONTACT. Since I have accomplished many of the tasks that I needed to get done, including obtaining some door prizes from some very important dance institutions, I can finally focus on this blog again. What better way to get the ball rolling than to write about one of the most important tools for every freelancer: How to make your own performance reel.

It took me months of research, preparation, and work to finally master the art of creating my own performance reel. The first and, sometimes, hardest step of creating your own reel is obtaining and then choosing video clips that show your strengths, technique, versatility, and artistry. At the beginning of your dance career, you may not have very much footage. If you need extra footage, grab a friend and a video camera (handheld camcorder, phone, Ipad, computer, etc) and dance a work in the style that you are trying to show off (whether it be a variation, your own choreography, or something you learned off youtube). If you dance for an AGMA company, it can be very difficult to obtain footage. For instance, in Pacific Northwest Ballet's contract, each dancer is only allotted 30 minutes of footage during their career with the company and 30 more minutes upon their departure from the company (this is very little if you have danced in multiple full-length ballets). Not only that, but if any footage is over 3 minutes in length, there is a required 3 second blackout. This all probably sounds really weird, but it is in place to protect the choreographer's work. If you have been freelancing for awhile or have worked for non-union companies, access to footage of yourself may be easier to obtain. I am always quite aggressive in getting footage of myself dancing wherever I perform, as I like to have an array of options to choose from.

I apologize in advance to everybody that owns a PC, as I'm a Mac. At some point in the future, I may have a guest blogger write the same version of this blog for PC owners. But for the time being, I will be instructing all of you how to make a reel on a Mac. The first step to creating your reel is to get your dance footage from a DVD to your Mac. First, you need to check if your computer has a DVD-burner. If it does, then your computer is capable of pulling footage off of a DVD. Unfortunately, most computers dont arrive with software to help you pull, or "rip," footage off of a DVD. Dont worry! You can easily obtain free software online to perform this operation. I personally use the program Handbrake (Click this link to download). Once you've downloaded the software, put your DVD in and open up Handbrake. It will bring up a search window. Click on the DVD under devices and choose the video file you would like to put on your computer. Let Handbrake do its thing and determine the length of the file. Once the application is completed, under "file" you should rename your file to something specific that will allow you to remember what the footage is. Be sure not to change the file type at the end. (For instance, if it says "file:/users/joeschmoe/movies/midsummers.mp4," you would only change "file:/users/joeschmoe/movies/barrykerollispuck.mp4"). Then, click start. This process will happen at nearly the same speed that the footage you are ripping runs.

Now that you ripped the footage off of your DVD onto your computer, you are ready to start piecing together your reel. You are going to create the reel with the IMovie application that comes pre-installed on your computer. Open up the application and click on "file." Under "file" you will scroll down to "import," then "movies." When you click on "movies," find the folder where you placed your footage and select that. It will take a period of time for IMovie to import into and convert your video for the application. I usually try to do something off my computer during this time, as going online or using other aspects of the computer slows down this process. After the footage has loaded into the program, click on "file" again and scroll down to "new project." After you name the project (which should be something anybody can see because if you burn a DVD sometimes it embeds this name onto the title of the DVD). From here, I like to begin with a basic pen and paper list of pieces that I feel show me off best. From there, I watch the footage again and, if something appeals to me, I add the entirety of that clip to the project. You can do this by clicking the mouse on the spot of the clip in the lower half of the screen. A yellow box will appear and you can move the edges, like an accordian, around to encase that clip. After you have encased the clip, click and drag the yellow box to the top half and drop the clip in the "projects" box. I always go through all of the clips I like and drop them in the "projects" box first. If you do this first, you will see the total length of all of the clips and be better informed as to how much footage you need to cut.


Now that you can see how much footage you have, you need to determine a reasonable length of time to make the clip. Sometimes, you are given a specific length for a specific audition/project. Most of the time, it is up to the dancer to determine the proper length of their reel. My general reel is a little over 7 1/2 minutes, but I have made other specific reels, like my video audition for Newsies (which I have reluctantly placed below this paragraph...note...I have very little vocal training) that have been shorter. Some people have told me that the length of my performance reel is a little too long, but I did my best to front-load the reel with what I feel are my strongest roles and show the most diversity in the event that a potential employer gets bored and closes out the video. When paring down footage, I sometimes try to get an outside opinion (and not someone who danced the piece or family, as they are attached in similar ways) of the clips that I have chosen, as it can sometimes be difficult to determine great footage. Often, dancers have an emotional attachment to certain pieces. Even though it may not be the best footage of you, it is hard to detach from how you felt while you were performing the piece. I often go through the entirety of the clips in the project box multiple times and slowly delete or downsize clips that I don't feel belong in the reel or that I feel already have a better representation in the reel.


Since you have pared down the clips to a reasonable length, it is time to start linking your clips together. Start ordering your clips. I prefer to use a clip of my dancing that is very strong, but not my strongest for the first clip. If you give away everything at the beginning, then everything following that will look weak. Don't leave your strongest clip for last or even the middle, but put it somewhere near the beginning in case the potential employer loses interest early. Don't lump one style of dance at the beginning and another at the end. Mix the clips up by double clicking the clip and dragging and dropping them around the "project" box. I would suggest keeping the clips at less than a minute each. Maybe a classical variation at the beginning, a contemporary piece second, some partnering third, and then another variation after that.

Now that you have developed some type of order to the clips, it is time to start linking the footage together. In between the upper "project" box and the lower "event library" box is a light gray toolbar. Look all the way to the right, the second little box from the right that looks like an hour-glass (or four opposing triangles with two being light gray and the other two dark gray) will assist you in creating smooth transitions between clips. There are a variety of "transitions" that can be used between clips. Play with these transitions and see what you like. I find the most professional transitions, which I use most often, are "cross dissolve," "cross blur," and "cross zoom." Once you determine your choice, click and drag the transition style that you would like to use up to the "project" box and place it between two separate clips. Once placed, you can double click the tiny transition box and change the duration of the clip. There is a lot of trial-and-error in this process. At times, things can get glitchy as well. Just stick with it and be patient.

The next step in the process of creating a great performance reel is to add a title box to introduce the clip, end credits to close it out, and subtitles if you feel they are necessary (my current reel doesn't have subtitles, as I figured it out after I created it). The "titles" area is one box over to the left of the transitions section with a capitol "T". Again, peruse the array of options and choose what suits you best. Like the transitions, click and drag whatever you want to introduce your reel at the beginning of the clips. You can adjust the background once you drop the box into the "project" area. Then, the screen to the right of the project will allow you to add text. For the introduction, I usually keep it simple and just put my name along with the words "performance reel." When I auditioned for Newsies, I typed in my name and "auditioning for the role of newsie." Your intention for this reel should determine the text. Then, at the end, I go through this same process and add my name and the best way to contact me (I put my email since that seems safest). If you only have a few clips, you can put the name of the piece and the choreographer. That is unless, you want to add those into the clip.

I am cautious about adding the names of the pieces or the name of the choreographer directly into the reel, as for a moment of time, it covers up a part of the screen and distracts from your dancing. But, if you would like to do this, you can achieve this by going back to the "titles" section of the program. The bottom two rows here can all be placed on top of a clip. Click and drag, for instance, "gradient-white" and place it on top of the beginning of the clip you would like to have a subtitle pop up on. Once you have dropped this box on the clip, a small box will appear that allows you to type in text. As usual, you can adjust the length of time by double clicking.

Now that you have created your entire reel, you need to either post it to youtube, another site, or create a DVD. Creating a DVD is another story, so I will save that for another post. Sharing your reel on the internet is streamlined by IMovie. Go to the top of the screen and click on "Share" and click on youtube. Be sure that you already have an active youtube account prior to sharing with IMovie. Once you have clicked there, a screen will pop up allowing you to sign in and to format the title, description, size & quality of video, and availability to the public. Click start and IMovie will take care of the rest for you. Once it is finished downloading, you can start sending people your link, you can post it on facebook, and you can start promoting yourself without directly auditioning.



An updated performance reel is, in my opinion, the most important tool for any freelancer. It is not cost effective to fly around the country to audition for short projects and the same holds true for companies that are looking for short-term dancers. I have gotten many jobs based off of sending my information or word-of-mouth, then sending my reel to solidify the deal. If you have access to a Mac, this tutorial should help ease any computer literate person into making a strong, easy-flowing performance reel. Stay tuned in the future for a tutorial on how to turn your reel into a DVD.

10.10.2012

Exciting News from "Life of a Freelance Dancer"

Me performing my own choreography in the Philly Fringe Fest - Gated Lies (Photo: Bill Hebert)

I have some exciting news to announce. When I started this blog a few months ago, I never really expected to get the response and feedback that I have been getting from our community of freelance dancers. Listening to my personal network of friends and freelancers, I have realized that there is a great need for support, connection, and resources in our community. For these reasons, I have decided to host (with my dear friend and fellow freelancer, Bennyroyce Royon, co-hosting) CONTACT: A networking event connecting freelance dancers. Not only will this be a great opportunity to get to know our community, but there will also be great door-prizes that will be invaluable to any freelance dancer. I wish we could hold this event in every city that freelancers exist in, but for the moment we will have to settle for our dance capitol. So, if you are in NYC on October 22nd and available between 7-10 PM, please send me a message through this blog or at BKerollis@yahoo.com and I will send you all of the details you need to RSVP for this event. Since there is limited space, we do ask that only freelancers with one or more years of professional experience attend. Hope to see my fellow freelance dancers there!

10.06.2012

Ashlee Dupre - NY-based Musical Theatre Freelance Artist

Ashlee Dupre performing in Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out
I spent years training in famed institutions like the School of American Ballet and the Kirov Academy of Ballet (KAB) and beyond. As time has passed, many of my friends, peers, and colleagues have gone on to dance from major ballet companies to contemporary projects to So You Think You Can Dance. Oddly enough, very few of my friends have crossed over into the genre of musical theatre. One exception to that rule would be my friend and former KAB classmate, Ashlee Dupre. As a ballet student, Ashlee had these amazingly steely muscles that propelled her dancing. Something else I learned while training with her was that she also had a huge personality. I have only seen Ashlee dance one time since we graduated from KAB. In 2006, we were both hired to dance in First State Ballet Theatre's annual (and now defunct) Arabesque Festival. We didn't know that we were both hired to perform in this gala until we showed up onstage. Even though we have only seen each other this one time since school, we have always kept up with each other on Facebook. Ashlee is currently working in the Off-Broadway smash-hit Silence! The Musical. Read on to hear what it is like to freelance in the New York musical theatre scene.

Ashlee Dupre
I started dancing at a young age. My mother owned a dance studio. At 13, I was accepted into the Kirov Academy of Ballet, where I finished out all of high school. Right after finishing school, I booked my first job with Colorado Ballet as a corps de ballet member. During my time with the company, I realized that I wasn’t very happy doing just ballet. I felt limited in my movement. I decided to move to NYC the following year. 
Ashlee performing at the Kirov Academy of Ballet

While living in the city, I continued auditioning for various ballet companies. In an audition for Vienna Staatsoper Ballet, out of 200 women I made it to the final four. Alas, I did not make it into the company. Soon after, I became interested in musical theater. My sister got me into it. She encouraged me to audition for the national tour of Movin' Out, Twyla Tharp's musical. 

I had seen the show on Broadway and fell in love with it. Elizabeth Parkinson originated the female lead. She is my idol! The audition process was soooooo long. I seemed to be doing great, though. In the auditions for the show, Twyla would use me to demonstrate combinations. There were about 4 callbacks. In the final one, she announced the cast and I was a part of it!
Ashlee w/Adam Dulin-Tavares in Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out
My role was in the ensemble, but I also understudied both female principal roles. During the 2nd year of the tour, I was promoted to play both principal roles (Brenda 4x a week and Judy 2x a week) in our shows. I can honestly say, if my career ended today, I would be satisfied because I danced my dream role, Brenda! 

When the tour closed, I got back to auditioning and soon landed a role in a new musical choreographed and directed by Lynne Taylor Corbett in China. That’s when I joined the union, Actors Equity. I had speaking lines and had to sing in the production. I found out that I could sing, which opened doors for me. When I returned to NY, of course, I had to continue auditioning. I also started taking voice lessons. I would go to every audition on the Actors Equity website that I could possibly do. I finally got another job, Phantom of the Opera, in Las Vegas. That was incredibly exciting! I felt like I could actually make a career for myself in musical theater. 

It was tough living in Vegas. Even though I was working, I still had to look for my next gig. That’s the thing with musical theater, your job can end before it even begins. I am constantly auditioning. I would fly back and forth from Vegas to NY for invited calls. When Phantom finished I was back in NY. I went to Elizabeth Parkinson and Scott Wise's musical theater summer program as a chaperone, but was able to take all of the classes offered. It was such a wonderful opportunity because I got to network with some amazing people. And I landed my next gig, Where’s Charley?, in the Encores! program at City Center because of it. I was the featured dancer in the program. I LIVED!!! 

A couple months after that ended, I received a Facebook message to join the cast of Silence! The Musical. And here I am today, a working dancer, singer,  and actress in NYC. It is incredibly hard to be a part of this business. It takes a toll on your emotions and body. But in the end, it's absolutely worth it. I learn new things everyday and I'm so grateful to be where I am today.

  
Ashlee's Advice for Freelancers: "Networking is one of the many challenges of a freelance dancer. It is so important. I have found that half the gigs I have ever done were because someone recommended me. Always be kind and open, you never know who you're talking to or who's listening. Of course, stay true to yourself."

9.30.2012

The importance of taking breaks

Driving towards downtown Los Angeles

The past year and a half has been quite challenging for me, adjusting from the structure of a big-time union company to the wildly changeable life of a freelance dancer. I began auditioning for companies while still working at PNB, often on weekends. I would finish my workweek, take a cab to the airport, fly across the country, audition, and then fly back to begin a new workweek (sometimes flying back early Monday morning and going straight to work). Following this extravaganza, I finished out my last season with the company, moved across the country, danced job after job after job, and taught master classes/subbed whenever possible. It was shocking to my system and I was very clearly running full speed ahead towards burnout. About six weeks ago, my partner made me take a day retreat to assess why I had started developing extreme stress and anxiety symptoms in even the most minor situations. My assessment: I hadn’t even realized that I had been dancing, working, teaching, and stressing about so many life changes for 18 months without taking more than a few days for myself. My plan? Take a month off from dance and dance work, teach minimally, travel somewhere that isn’t in the Philadelphia region, and dye my hair some fun color that I could never sport onstage.
Purple and Blue

Working full-time for a company has many great perks. Aside from rep, finances, touring, and benefits, you are also given structure. PNB had a great contract that provided forty weeks of work a year. This meant that we were laid off for 12 weeks every year. Of course, you could continue dancing during these weeks, but you were afforded the opportunity to take a break if you wanted or needed. As a freelancer, you aren’t governed by an official calendar. If work pops up, chances are you will take it. Freelancers, often living in constant fear of financial disaster, tend to book their schedules dancing with “this” company and teaching at “that” school and “that other” school. My summer included me dancing two gigs in Philadelphia that rehearsed on completely different sides of town and teaching at six different schools, some of which were more than an hour commute each way. On top of all of this, I was taking ballet class in the mornings, going to the gym daily, choreographing a solo that I performed in the Philly Fringe Festival, keeping up this blog, looking for new work, and so much more. I was literally running from place to place. As in, I would dash down the street running to get to my next job. I didn’t have time for anything. My bills were paid, but I wasn’t even aware until my retreat that I couldn’t keep it up much longer. I clearly needed a break.

One of the hardest things to figure out is exactly when one should be taking a break. There are two ways that you can figure this out. The first way is to look at your calendar and determine how long you can practically dance before giving your body a rest. Some dancers need time off after a couple months, while others can go up to six months. One thing that I am sure of is that no dancer can keep their body in peak physical condition 52 weeks a year. You can put time off into your calendar, blocking out one or a few weeks. Of course, these dates can be flexible in the event that a great opportunity presents itself. But you should really try to commit to this time off. The other way to determine when to take a break is impractical and dangerous. Many freelancers beat themselves into the ground until they burn out or become injured. I learned this lesson the hard way, but I figured things out just in time. The hard part was that I didn’t even realize that I was approaching burn out.

In my mind, I was convinced that I had absolutely no choice but to hustle around the city like a prostitute de ballet. At times, I didn’t have a choice. But once I got in the flow of that constant rush and panic, I couldn’t break the pattern. I was rushed and panicked about everything from making ends meet to food shopping. How can you tell if you are approaching burn out? There is no real answer to this question, as I feel that everybody handles stress and workload differently. For me, I first noticed it in my breath. My partner turned to me after I had reacted with unnecessary abrasiveness when he was trying to help me accomplish a task and said, “I haven’t seen you take a full breath in at least two weeks.” I was anxious about the simplest things. At times, I couldn’t even handle our cats meowing when we prepared to feed them, like they do every night. I had begun to lose my ability to cope with normal, everyday stressors. This was my first sign. The second sign that I was running myself into the ground was when I started to question whether I should continue in my profession. Anybody that knows me personally is well aware that I am quite the “bunhead.” I live for dance and try to immerse myself in the art as much as possible. So, it was odd when I started thinking about what my life would be like without dance in it. I knew that I was lying to myself, but I also couldn’t stop playing with the idea. It was almost as if I was teasing myself to take the bait. When burn out is approaching, it is almost like being addicted to a drug. You start ingesting unhealthy thoughts. Though you are quite aware that this kind of thinking is bad for you, you keep going back to that negative thinking. If one gets to this point, it is necessary to take some time off. Essentially, burn out can be a career-threatening injury.

When a dancer has determined that they need to take a break, how do they prepare to take time off? Obviously, the most ideal way is to create some type of savings. This way you can pay your bills and maybe even travel while you are giving your body and mind a rest. With scattered or sometimes low paying work, it can be difficult to create a savings. If you are unable to save enough money to take an extended break, I suggest finding some way to make money while avoiding dancing. Teaching is an option. But, if the plan is to stay away from dance altogether, teaching may not be the best option. If you need to continue bringing in income, perhaps, look for other work that isn’t dance related. Not only will this give your body a chance to recover, but it will hopefully give you time to miss dancing. I think it is important to miss dancing every once in awhile. It builds a greater appreciation for and want to dance. Doing other jobs also gives you a greater range of work experience that will benefit you when you retire from dancing. One could look for desk work at a dance/non-dance institution. If one is looking for short-term work, they could check out Craigslist or ask around. I know some friends that even mention that they are looking for short-term work on Facebook. No matter the avenue, just make sure that you feel comfortable with the situation and that you trust they will compensate as agreed upon prior to doing the job.

Corona Del Mar in Orange County, CA
The best way to take a break is to get out of your working environment for a bit. It was hard for me to stop working, even when I committed to taking some time away from the studio. Because I work from home when I’m not in the studio, it is impossible for me to 100% get my mind off work in my house. To achieve this, my partner and I traveled across the country to Los Angeles for a week. We had a bit of money saved up, but we didn’t have the funds to do a luxurious vacation. We decided that the best way to do this would be to visit my partner’s hometown. He has tons of family and friends in LA, so this seemed like a great option. We both have a credit card directly linked to an airline, so we were able to use a voucher to greatly reduce the price of flying. Essentially, we paid for one round-trip ticket and split the cost. Then, once we arrived in LA, we either stayed with friends or family. This cut the cost of hotels. The only expenses that we needed to afford were food and renting a car. My suggestion if you want to get out of your home-base is to find a location where you can stay with a friend or family and make it work. If that isn’t a possibility because you need to stay home to work, I would suggest, at least, taking a weekend get-away. Take a train/bus/drive to another town or city nearby. If you can afford one night at a hotel, go for it. If not, go on Groupon or Livingsocial and look for deals or adventures that will get you out of the house and offer a fun or new experience. Whatever you do, be sure that you are giving yourself a chance to enjoy yourself. Freelancing is stressful and requires time to decompress and get your mind off work. 
I began this blog en route to Los Angeles and am finishing the post a day after arriving back home. I didn’t touch it the entire week I was taking a break, even though I was tempted. Lynne Goldberg (link in my friends of freelancers column) is a life-coach for many great dancers in our community, including Edwaard Liang, Maria Kowrowski, and Kathryn Morgan. We were having a conversation a couple of months ago where she mentioned that repeated thoughts create wiring in the brain. Once you have created that wired connection, it is hard to break the pattern of thought. I really agree with this concept. I spent a large part of my vacation struggling with guilt that I was getting out of shape, falling behind in work, and losing valuable opportunities that I should be seeking. Even with these thoughts, I did not work. The emails and phone calls came in and I responded that I wouldn’t be available until the following week. I feel that the reason I struggled so much to relax was because I have wired my brain to be in a constant state of staying in shape, looking for work, and stress for the last 18 months. I still need to work on relaxing and taking time for myself, but this vacation was a good first step. I am positive that taking short breaks more often will help me find a healthier balance, physically and mentally. In this difficult career, not only do we have to enjoy our work, but we need to find time away so that we remain healthy and passionate about our artform.

Driving into the sunset (and palm trees) in Long Beach