Adjusting to new environments...fast!

Every dance company has it's own culture. Larger companies tend to have more structure and dancers thrive in cliques, while smaller companies tend to fly by their own rules and have a greater sense of family. Although, I have seen these trends throughout my dance career, each and every company works differently and has different social rules. Essentially, dancing with new companies, schools, and events can be like visiting different countries. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of a Frommer's or Lonely Planet guide to tell us how to conduct ourselves and what to expect while dancing in a new environment.

When I first started dancing professionally, I was wide-eyed, bushy tailed, and a bit green. While training, I would always go in the first group and stand front and center. This practice didn't work very well for me when I joined a company. I remember the first time that a principal dancer walked up to my apprentice self and scolded me. They said, "You have only been here for a month. You need to respect the people that have been here for years and let them dance first and in the space that they want." I was in shock, a little hurt...a little embarrassed. I was under the impression that a principal dancer had already proven themselves to the artistic staff. As an apprentice, I thought it was my duty to show what a hard worker I was and that I was going to be a valuable member of the company. I had two choices: Do I unabashedly prove my worth to the artistic staff or do I push to be accepted by my colleagues?

I spent the rest of my apprenticeship and my first couple seasons in the corps of a different company figuring out how to conduct myself. I was lucky that I got to spend time in more than one institution. It showed me that no two companies function the same. Some dancers worked differently with different teachers and ballet masters, in different rehearsals, and in different social situations. This left me plenty of time for analysis. And to make some very awkward mistakes along the way. In the end, though, these situations have been very valuable to me, especially as a freelancer who finds himself in different environments pretty often.

The first time a dancer has to adjust to a new place occurs before class even starts. Barre spots. Everybody hates them and everybody loves them. There is nothing worse than having no definitive place to stand. But there is nothing better than having that perfect spot where you see yourself in the mirror (or don't see yourself) at that perfect angle that makes all of your lines look their best. I find that smaller companies tend not to care as much about where they stand because there are fewer dancers and there is more space. On the other hand, dancers in larger companies tend to be more possessive of their barre spots. It is important not to impose upon somebody, but also not to become overanxious about stepping on anybody's toes. The best thing to do is ask dancers that have already claimed their spot where to stand or, if you are not comfortable, sit away from the barres and find a place to stand as the class begins. Use the first few days of class to feel out the company before you start to develop any regular habits. Within a week, you should have a good idea of how the dancers function.

For me, building and using my social skills has been a very important aspect of freelancing. I have always been generally outgoing. Starting back at my first summer program, I made extra effort to talk to people when I passed them in hallways. I tried to learn everybody's name with whom I had any slight form of interaction. Some people gave me dirty looks, but most people were very friendly and equally eager to meet me. This openness has been extremely helpful to me throughout my career. Today, I still try to introduce myself to people the first chance I get. I try to learn people's names quickly and find a connection or identifying characteristic that will help me remember individuals. Before I enter any new workplace, my first step is to browse the company's website and to look at people's faces and biographies. I tend to learn names better when I am told people's first and last names. So, when I meet people, I always ask for their full names. When I go home, I will recheck the website using the roster like a set of flashcards. I find that the quicker you can remember and relate to people you are working with the faster you are welcomed into an environment.

Another important way to speed along adjustment is to ask questions. I often tell people that I am "the question guy." It is nice to learn some history of an organization from the people that have been existing within it. How long have people been in the company? How often do they rehearse? What is the director like? Do rehearsals end on time? Where do people live? What is there to do around the studios? Is there anything that I should know about? Of course, you need to take into consideration that everybody has had different experiences within the workplace and some people may feel more positively or negatively about their time with the company. For this reason, take advice with a grain of salt.

The most important thing when coming into a new environment is to be open to new experiences. I spent 3 years working as a union representative for AGMA. So, I know what it is like to work within the tight framework of a union contract. When you are freelancing, you are much more likely to be in a place that is run differently than what you are used to. If somebody skips a 5 minute break, go with the flow. But, if you need to speak up to protect yourself, do so. Be open to new classes and new movement styles. But still be true to yourself as an artist. Don't let your neurotic dancer habits (you know we all have them) take away from the opportunity to expand yourself as an artist or to inhibit yourself from making new connections with people. For instance, I have a regular, 5-day a week, gym habit that I am pretty reluctant to give up. Just last week, I had to allow myself to take a day off from my schedule when a dancer asked if I wanted to grab a drink after rehearsal. It was a good decision, as it gave me the opportunity to make new connections that have helped ease my way into a new place. The more open you are, the more you will learn, the more you will be embraced, and the easier it will be to enter into a new workplace every couple of weeks.

1 comment:

  1. I found that advice from the veterans should be taken with a big ol' grain of salt. They are generally quick to forget how rough it was when they were starting out so they'll tell you not to put up with this or ever to agree with that. And in the same breath, they'll tell you to put in your dues and do this and that. So nod and smile and don't forget what you're in this for.