Nearly every person that I speak to about my freelancing career usually responds with "You're life is so exciting!" I wouldn't necessarily disagree, but at times it is also exciting in a less than glorious way. I have been freelancing for about a year now and part of that time I was relying on regular, seasonal work with a company in Philadelphia. It was only at the beginning of April when I was forcibly placed into the role of full-time freelance dancer. I am not stating this to take away from the depth of knowledge that I do have about this field. While I am experienced, I am also continuing to have new experiences and learning about specific challenges that freelancers face. Unfortunately, freelancing is a lot of "you live, you learn." In the process of learning, it may present challenges to see how industrious and strong a person you are.
I know that this post is much darker than other writings on this blog, but there are certain realities that freelancers or those that wish to become one need to be aware of. Yes, I get to travel the world to dance. Yes, I get to follow my passion. Yes, I am my own boss. But there is also a harsher side of freelancing. First and foremost, pick-up dancers are not governed by a union that negotiates their contracts for them. Instead, it is the dancer's responsibility to make sure that all of their needs are met and put down in writing before committing to a gig. Unfortunately, most dancers don't realize exactly what this means until they have an experience that brings one of these needs to their attention. A majority of the time these issues relate to environment or transportation, but it can also relate to commitment and pay. Just read this article about the poor state of financial appreciation/respect for dance artists. When negotiating a contract, some employers will low-ball a dancer's pay. They may not be doing this to disrespect a dancer, but instead to preserve the financial well-being of the company. At the same time, it can be impossible for a dancer to meet their monthly needs at $400-$500/week. This can make it difficult to commit to work. Dancers want to be working and there is always the question of whether a dancer will be able to find better work during that period. So, negotiations need to take place. A dancer who is in demand may find that they are negotiating multiple contracts at once, which makes it easier to make little mistakes or miss a clause that is important. And being a young individual negotiating with the person who will presumably become your employer can be quite uncomfortable. Learning how to effectively negotiate salary is important for a freelancer. It is an art and it is a different process with each potential employer. A dancer doesn't want to appear selfish and egotistical. But at the same time, why shouldn't a dancer have the ability to pay their bills or put a little bit of money in their savings account? This is, in my opinion, one of the hardest parts of being a freelance dancer.
Another aspect of freelancing that presents a great challenge is covering your bills when you are not dancing for an employer. You can read about different things I do to survive in my previous blog, Summer Slow-down. Even though there are a lot of great ideas there, dancers can still encounter certain challenges in making ends meet. I am one of those dancers that prefers to find work that helps enrich my dance career, instead of seeking part-time work outside of my field. When I am not dancing, I am usually able to find work teaching master classes (I am lucky enough to be well connected in the Philadelphia region since I was raised in the suburbs). I have also obtained work at national competitions and performing minor gigs. Since I choose not to get a job outside of my field and my weekly offerings change, I don't necessarily have a great way to gauge exactly what my monthly income will be. Also, these teaching/judging/gigs don't typically work on contract. I recently had an issue where I committed my workday to teach for an organization and spent hours creating new choreography for them (I even paid for music for the event). I was given 36 hours notice that the event was cancelled. Not only was I out on the salary that I was expecting, but there was not enough time to find new work to replace lost income. This isn't a frequent occurrence, but freelancers need to be efficient about spending and saving their money for times like this. It is difficult to hold somebody accountable for issues like this, as most of this type of work is done off contract. But now you can see how important it is to negotiate work that will leave you a certain amount of savings.
Lastly, freelancers have to figure out how to deal with injury. One of the scariest parts of freelancing is that many dancers can't afford health coverage. You can read further about this and find important information about how to seek coverage, if you can afford it, here. I am lucky enough that I have been able to maintain my health insurance to this point. But even with health coverage, injuries can present great problems. One of the most difficult aspects of dancing is knowing when an injury is going to take you out. Obviously, if there is a major fracture involved (knock on wood), you are not going to be able to dance. But most dancer's injuries occur from overuse or include various levels of sprains. These injuries can sometimes be pushed through. Other times, they can be pushed through to a degree, but may eventually do more serious or permanent damage. So, first a dancer needs to know their limits and determine when it is acceptable to continue working. Freelancers have a tendency to work through injuries more than regularly contracted dancers. Not only because they tend to be more aggressive and strong minded, but also because they often have no choice. "Do I pay my rent this month or do I end up back at home or living couch to couch with friends?" This is one of the hardest and scariest aspects of freelancing. If you have a great support system from your parents, the freelancing life can be simple to navigate. But if you are on your own or far away from home, there will be times that challenge your strength as a dancer and person.
There are other aspects of freelancing that are not as glorious as they seem, but negotiating work, making ends meet during off-times, and dealing with injuries are three of the harshest realities of this lifestyle. There are ways to work with each of these, but a dancer must be aware of the challenges that lay ahead of them when they choose this path. My upcoming blogs will bring "Life of a Freelance Dancer" back to more positive posts. My feelings, though, are that this blog should share every aspect of freelancing and, unfortunately, it isn't all glory.