The Mental Game of Freelancing

Look who was recently featured on renowned photographer Jordan Matter's "Dancers Among Us" Facebook page. Although my image didn't make the final cut into his New York Times Bestseller, I was also featured in his blog during the creation of this beautiful book. Being photographed by this man was a wildly unforgettable experience and I hope to be a part of his future projects.

Performing w/Alaska Dance Theatre in Duran's "Cash & Cline" (Photo: Gutierrez Photgraphy)
Now that I've got that out, moving on to this weeks' posting. I have a handful of topics that I want to write about this week, but I always feel more compelled to write on subjects that directly relate to things/emotions I am currently experiencing. One subject that I find comes up most often in conversation with my freelancing friends is whether or not we want to continue freelancing. Finding work on the fly is not only stressful, but often poses the threat of career, relationship, and financial disaster. While these fears are always looming in the back of every freelancers mind, we continue to dance because we love it and we continue to freelance in order to sustain ourselves. A combination of passionate (and sometimes blind) drive and fear for survival often cause nomadic dancers to swing back and forth between the choices of continuing freelancing, finding more stable company work, or quitting altogether.

I have discussed this in past posts and want to revisit the reasons that most dancers begin freelancing. A large amount of people who freelance do so because they were not able to obtain a job with a full-time company. Often, this is due to the fact that they just weren't in the right place at the right time or they were fresh out of school and still developing as a dancer. Another reason that many people start freelancing is because they feel that they have reached a certain point in their career with a company and want to go out on their own to find more fulfilling work. There are also people, like me, who were thrust out into the world of freelancing against their will. After spending a handful of months dancing with a company that I left PNB to join, I became injured during a rehearsal. Details aside, the young company broke my contract when I tried to take time off to heal because they didn't want to support an injured dancer. This happened in the middle of the company's season and right at the end of audition season. I was injured and couldn't get better in time to make myself presentable for company auditions. And at the same time, I didn't want to move from the city that I had just moved to only months before. Thus, I began healing and set out to become an established freelancer. Other reasons for freelancing include change of location for non-career reasons, short seasonal company contracts, and more.

Looking at the list above, you can see that freelancers become who they are for more reasons that are out of their control than those in their control. For those of us that didn't make the choice to freelance, aside from the fact that we knew we wanted dance to continue as the focus of our careers, it can become easy to start questioning the track of our career. Many dancers enter freelancing with a clear intention of joining a company in the future. But as you become more popular in your field and hold a busier schedule, the line blurs and the tendency is to flip-flop between company aspirations and the never-ending quest for the next gig. At what point do you know that you are ready to commit to another season as a freelancer or to start prepping for audition season?

There are many stresses involved in the art of freelancing that can push you in different directions. Dance/work-related stresses include (and are not limited to) finding work, staying in shape, quality of work, continuing to grow as an artist, feeling fulfilled in the work you are doing, and feeling like your value is represented by treatment and pay. Personal stresses include (among others) location, time away from home, works' affect on personal relationships, financial survivability, and work-life balance. Seeking to attain some sort of balance of these stresses can make it very difficult to make the conscious decision to continue freelancing. If a dancer chooses to take a two month gig across the country, how will that decision affect their two year relationship that they are leaving behind at home? Or if a dancer chooses only to seek work with academies and schools because the pay is greater than company work, how does that affect their feelings of fulfillment and growth? What if a dancer risks all of the stresses that are important to them only to find that the work they accepted is not up to par with what they had been expecting? Freelancing is a difficult choice because it carries such great risk and affects much more than your work-life.

Performing "La Esmeralda" at gala (Photo: Dmitri Papadakos)
While I have had some experiences that have brought me to some low places on my list, I have also had my fair share of great highs throughout my career in freelancing. One of my biggest goals I had hoped to accomplish during my dance career was to travel and see the world through my work. I couldn't do that in the companies I was dancing for full-time. I also found out that I have a lot more respect for myself as a classical ballet dancer after performing in a gala for a gig. This was an opportunity that I wouldn't have been offered while dancing at PNB, where I was pigeon-holed into the role of a contemporary specialist. While some of my freelancing experiences have made me feel less than valuable, many more have built my confidence to new levels and offered me experiences that weren't offered to me in my life as a company dancer.

Looking at these abridged lists of stressors that can affect your career as a freelancer, it becomes quite clear that there is great push and pull in the mind of a freelance dancer. At what point does a nomad choose to find more stable living? When does the choice to live wild versus living a normal life become too overwhelming to continue? Obviously, I am not in a place to tell people what their breaking point may be, but I can at least open up this topic for discussion on this forum and let people know that it is absolutely normal to question living the gypsy life. It is in every freelance dancer's best interest to constantly assess their needs, fulfillment, and happiness in order to remain healthy, stay at the top of their game, and to live a sustainable/enjoyable lifestyle. With all of these things in consideration, the mental games that freelancing presents are much easier to understand.

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