Clearing up the fear of going to classy events

Attending a gala fundraising event for Alaska Dance Theatre w/fellow ADT dancer Sarah Grundwaldt
One of the most interesting things about being a dancer is that you, at times, get to experience the life of luxury. While most dancers can barely afford a modest 1-bedroom apartment, a car, an acceptable computer, and a few dinners out a week, they are expected to dip their toes into the lives of the wealthy and act accordingly. I remember my first event at a donor's house when I was an apprentice with Houston Ballet. Everybody was dressed to the nines, holding a glass of wine in one hand, and grabbing hors d'oeuvres with the other. As I tried to find that balance between figuring out how to act and pretending like I had attended hundreds of these special events, I began my journey into adulthood and the life of a professional dancer.

Most of these events are greatly important to organizations that employ you and pay your salary. At these fancy venues, companies inspire interest and develop relationships that may eventually or already have funded programs, seasons, and artists like myself. While many artists prefer to sit in the corner talking to their friends and colleagues, it is greatly important as a dancer and person that we learn how to reach out and properly conduct ourselves in these situations. For this reason, I have compiled a list of proper etiquette, behavior, and the best ways to approach multiple angles of these events.

- Always read the invite to make sure that you understand the time, location, and type of event.

- Different types of attire:

Casual - Wear something comfortable, but avoid t-shirts and inexpensive jeans that look worn, torn, or old.  Men - maybe a collared shirt or something that isn't a t-shirt. Women - A relaxed dress or nice slacks.

Cocktail - Wear something classy, but nothing like you would wear at a wedding. Men - no jeans, definitely a collared shirt or classy top. Women - same as men with jeans. Wear a cute dress that you
Baby version of me in cocktail attire.
might wear if you were going out with your friends. Add some nice jewelry for flare.

Gala/Black-tie - Men - Wear a suit and tie, blazer, or, if you really want to show off, a tux. Women - A very classy and nice dress or a fancy suit. More refined than something you would wear out on a Saturday night. 

- Arrival - I always love when the first person who shows up to a party is exactly on time. Unfortunately, having been to and thrown many events, I have seen the discomfort on that person's face when they realize they are the first and only person/couple there. If you aren't privy to break the ice with the host or have a conversation with more strangers than friends, being the first to arrive is probably not for you. I would suggest showing up about 30 minutes late if you feel this way. Within an hour to an hour and a half of the party starting, there is usually a speech or something important happening. Try to arrive by the end of the first hour at the latest. As long as you show up by a reasonable time, though, nobody will bat an eyelash at you. Just have an, "I had another amazing event to go to first," excuse.

- How To Act - One thing that most people are worried about is that they have to be on their best behavior. Yes, you have to be respectful to the host, come off as interested and knowledgeable about your field, and remain social. But you shouldn't change your personality, completely avoid disagreeing with a view/opinion, or worry about doing the wrong thing. Don't pretend to talk about something that you don't understand. If you don't understand, ask for more information on the topic. This will show you are engaged and eager to get to know somebody. In the end, while people at these events may feel elite, they are still human beings with concerns, faults, and eccentricities.

- Don't get wasted. If you accidentally go a little overboard, though, it is not the end of the world. Unfortunately, you will find that there are a few people at every major event that get a little too toasty. If this happens at each and every event, you may start to get looks and become the avoided one (maybe consider checking into AA). But nearly everybody at these events has had a moment. Just don't knock over any million dollar vases. And, of course, make sure that you have somebody to drive you home safely.

- While this isn't a requirement, most people feel most comfortable with a drink in their hands. If you want to slow down or don't drink, get something non-alcoholic. If you don't want to feel pressure from people, lie to them and tell them that your water is a vodka soda. Nobody will ever know.

- One thing that drives me nuts is how people get embarrassed about eating at parties, especially with a drink in their hand. If you are hungry, eat. Alcohol is often flowing at these parties to liquor up donors and convince them to donate money/relax and enjoy themselves more. If you don't eat, you may have one of those moments I was talking about above. There is nothing wrong with finding a corner where you can put your drink down to use your hands to eat. It can be difficult to eat at a stand-up party. If somebody asks you a question while your mouth is full, hold a finger up, laugh it off, and joke about it. There is no reason to be uncomfortable eating, as everybody is in the same position and it is not easy to eat with one hand free.

- Make sure that you don't venture into a part of the house that may be off-limits. Many donors have expensive items that they want to protect or they want to keep the party compact. You don't want to be the reason that a donor stops holding events at their place.

- While it is perfectly acceptable to spend some time talking to friends/colleagues, don't stand in a closed circle the entire time. Potential donors come to these events because it is their chance to feel like they are an integral part of an organization. If you aren't comfortable meeting donors on your own, grab a friend and walk around with them.

- To start a conversation, ask somebody how long they have been involved in an organization. My favorite go-to ice breaker when an event is directly after a performance would be, "What was your favorite part of the program?" While you may know nothing about each other, you at least have one common interest, dance.

- Don't talk about yourself the entire time. Donors are usually interested in hearing what a dancer has to say. But they usually connect with dancers that also express interest in what they do. Mutual interest is much more engaging than egotistical self-promotion.

- To exit a conversation, you can say that you want to mix and mingle more. If the conversation has become increasingly difficult to exit, it is easiest to excuse yourself to use the restroom.

- If there isn't a clearly marked end time, feel when the crowd is starting to dwindle. Try not to be the last person at the event, unless you know the person throwing the party or if they have engaged you in conversation. Keep an eye on social cues from people who are trying to be nice, but really want you to leave.

The only ways to truly embarrass yourself at a classy event is to become way too intoxicated or to completely isolate yourself with your friends and stay closed off in a corner while ignoring donors. Everybody has broken a wine glass, been approached with a mouthful of food, stumbled here or there, or made an off-the-wall comment. If you follow these guidelines while attending a high-level event, you should be fine. But if you read all of this information really closely, you'll find that most things are acceptable and that accidents do happen and are most often acceptable. Go prepared to be social and to enjoy yourself. Don't avoid these events. Not only can they be the most memorable events in the most amazing venues, but they can also form relationships with donors that may lead to friendship, promote your career, and support future work inside and outside a company.

Two close friends & donors, Ray Hoekstra & Dan Drummey, at Pacific Northwest Ballet's gala event in 2006

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