|Waiting to board my plane home at Manchester-Boston airport|
The first time I was asked this question I was caught quite off guard. How was I supposed to approach this subject concisely and appropriately without telling the story of my life and career? I have a tendency to tell stories that only need to go from point A to point B in the fashion of a story that goes from point A to point Z. I often give an overshare of details and lose the point of the conversation quickly. My mind scrambled to find a way to clearly explain why I wasn't attached to any specific company. I replied, "Well, I work as a freelance dancer full-time. I am not attached to any particular company." I said this knowing that their response to this would be some state of confusion. Sometimes, I feel that I understand their confusion better than I do my answer.
The ballet world is set up as a system of companies that have created names for themselves with specific associations. Some are world acclaimed and others are nationally recognized, while a handful are regionally focused and some are community based. It is easier to judge a dancer through a larger association, then solely on the status of a dancer being a dancer. When an outsider sees a professional perform well, they want to put a label on that artist. It is easier for them to go home and say "I saw this dancer from the Pacific Northwest Ballet perform," than it is for them to say that they saw a freelance dancer. Even dancers have trouble establishing their worth if they can't say, well I dance for "fill in the blank." Having my background of being in a big company helps. When people are confused, I will often tell them the company that I used to dance for and their eyes usually light up with more cognition. Even with this, it is still a struggle for me to know exactly where to go with this conversation and how to answer their next question. "Well, you were great! When are you going to get a job with a company?" or "When are you going to join this company?" or "Why aren't you with a company right now?"
There are many reasons that freelancers do what they do. I was using freelancing to make extra money during weeks that I was laid off from the company that I was dancing with seasonally. When I was suddenly no longer with that company, I had to find a way to keep dancing and continue to support myself and my partner. My story is personal and it is unique, as is many other freelance dancers. For this reason, it is difficult for me to openly share every aspect of my story.
Many freelancers know what their end goal of freelancing is. It can be anything from getting experience to joining a company to spending the final years of their career doing what they want to do. For others, like me, it isn't that simple. Some dancers aren't sure if they want to continue freelancing forever or if they want to eventually join a company again. A lot of freelance artists use their time on the fly as a period of self-exploration. This is the the case for me. I feel that I am currently figuring myself out as a dancer. I entered the professional ballet world with certain expectations and, as I have gained experience, those expectations have changed. Freelancing allows me to explore different scenarios and to shut down my expectations and create understanding. It is a lot of hard work to constantly remain open and vulnerable.
Why do I want to continue working as a freelancer, instead of desperately auditioning for a company to call home? Freelancing is as difficult as it is rewarding. Having any type of commitment in one place can be a challenge. Finances can be hard. And sometimes it comes down to the simple fact that I want to sleep in my own bed. So, why wouldn't I want to join a company full-time? On the other hand, I am living my dream. I am dancing roles that I likely would not have been offered with the big company I was dancing for, traveling the world, and making endless friends and connections along the way. With all of this floating around in my head, you can probably understand why it can be so difficult to answer these ballet fan's simple questions.
The first time that I gave this question a stab, I don't really feel I did myself justice. As these questions have popped up more often, I am getting better at approaching the subject of being a homeless dancer. Last night, I found myself at the dinner table of a restaurant with the staff of the school that I had just performed with for their end of the year show. In the flow of our conversation, those usual questions surfaced and I can say that I am proud of my response. It went a little something like this. "I am not currently attached to any company. I travel around performing from place to place and am content with that. If I dance for a company and find that I have a special connection with them, I am not saying that I wouldn't settle down. But at the moment, I am not specifically seeking a place to call home. If it happens, I would be happy with that. But my current goal is to just be fulfilled and happy." I feel that there is a large group of freelancers that feel this way.
Still today, I have moments where I question my value as a dancer that has no home. I tend to rely on the prestige of my previous job to convince people of my value with my words, even when my dancing has already convinced them. I guess, at times, that I am still convincing myself to believe in me. I dont have an artistic director, boss, or some other person to guide my worth and offer me praise for my accomplishments. It's funny how all I ever wanted as a professional was to be in charge of my own and others' view of my worth. Now that I finally am, I sometimes want somebody else to do that job. It goes back to that aspect of the ballet world that I spoke about in my previous post about how I get work, where dancers are trained by the ballet culture to be humble and quiet about their accomplishments. Now, I don't only have to convince possible employers of my skill and value, but I have to convince myself, too. So, with the conclusion of this blog post, I am going to set a goal. I am going to strive to be comfortable with being my own boss and positively assess my own self worth. And I am going to endeavor to be more comfortable relying on my current value, instead of completely relying on the value of a previous affiliation. It is one of the most positive qualities I can offer myself in being my own boss.