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

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