The main pitfall of a freelance dancer

As Life of a Freelance Dancer nears a pivotal marker since its' creation nearly 17 months ago, I feel it is finally time to approach a very important topic. It took me a long time to feel that I could appropriately address this item, as I felt I hadn't had enough experience in the field. For many professionals who have found themselves freelancing after having some length of a career dancing with a company, there is one thought that haunts most of them day in and day out. While work can be quite slow or unfulfilling if one takes a job because they haven't any, being without exciting prospects may make one feel like they are burgeoning on the end of their career. In my time as an advocate for freelancing, I have been told by at least a dozen seasoned professionals that they think their career is driving off into the sunset. So many freelance dancers are burdened by the feeling that the end of their career is happening right now. But, is this statement true?

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing this topic is the innate fear among dancers of the imminent end of their dancing and the lifestyle that comes along with it. The fear of having your dance career stolen from you before you are ready to bury it is ingrained in every dancer from a very young age. Dancers are told to train properly in order to prevent career threatening injuries, even though they don't know if they are even receiving proper training. At some point during every dancer's education/career, somebody in class sustains a traumatic injury. Horrified energy fills the room as that unfortunate dancer usually lays on the floor clutching their injured part. In that dancer's moment of need and privacy, nearly the whole studio surrounds and suffocates that person staring on in horror. Hopefully, they truly do feel bad for the person that is injured. But the truth really is that every dancer in that room knows that it could have been them and wonders if that injury is the big one. The one that ends their career.

I was quite surprised that once I entered the professional workforce, most of the non-dancers I met were only interested in talking about my diet, the probability of getting injured, and how long my career would last. News stories constantly come out stating that ballet dancers are more likely to become injured at work than football players, making us the most injury-prone profession. One of the most common questions I get asked is, "Well, what are you going to do after you're done dancing?" Dancers have to cope with their own fears about their career ending, while the world is constantly reminding them of that possibility. All of this fascination with the idea of recreating oneself between their 20's and 40's can make it impossible to focus on the fact that you are dancing right now. It is difficult being a dancer. Dancers live with a lot of fear. At one point, we will all lose what we have worked a lifetime to gain. And everybody knows it.

This is where freelancing can magnify this truth. All company dancers measure their lifespan by season, kind of like a school year. I am currently in my 11th season as a pro. At Pacific Northwest Ballet, our season consisted of 6 different sets of programming, which didn't include Nutcracker or any touring. Most seasons consisted of 40 weeks of work and anywhere from 80 - 120 performances. Currently, my upcoming season is up in the air. I have worked for 2 weeks already and have set up about 8 weeks of work through December. Freelancing work doesn't always line up beyond a month or two in advance. My current line-up consists of performing in the Barak Ballet launch in Santa Monica in October and a handful of Nutcracker performances that I will mention when contracts have been signed. After the holiday season is over, I have no idea what I will be doing. It may be a lot. It may be nothing. If it is nothing, aside from being a financially challenging winter, it could be an emotionally stressful time as well.

Performing in Ballet Nova's Nutcracker (Photo: Ruth Judson)
The reason that I can foresee a time without work being stressful is because I have experienced it this summer. Aside from 5 weeks during my last season, I spent nearly 7 months traveling between the months of November and May. When I had completed my last job, I knew that I wanted to spend a majority of my summer at home in Philly. I didn't really look for a great deal of dance work aside from my weekly work search and a few auditions (plus there is quite the lull in possible jobs since most people would rather be outside in the sun than inside a dark theatre). Then, we added the stress of a move that we had not prepared for, threw a few events, and I tried to stay in shape while giving myself a physical and mental break at the same time. Aside from the 2-week gig in August, I have not performed for an audience since May. This is quite possibly the longest period of time that I have gone without seeing a stage since I was a student. Now that I have had enough time to rest and reset, I am ready to start rehearsing tomorrow. Unfortunately, I don't have that option. It is quite apparent to me that this is why, lately, I have been struggling with the feeling that my career is ending. What did I do with my summer and, until October, what do I have to look forward to?

Living in this mindset is anything but healthy and I know for a fact that so many freelancers exist in this state constantly. A dancer without a company can't gauge that their career will last, at least, as long as their current contract, barring any devastating injury. A freelancer's career isn't continuing until they have solidified that next job. If it is a slow period, one may not be able to see far enough ahead to realize that their career isn't ending. There is also the fear that if money runs out and a dancer needs to take a normal person job, they may be overwhelmed with the workload and their dancing will suffer? The reality of a professional-level freelance artist is that if you are maintaining a certain level professionally and can maintain your health, you ultimately get to choose when your career is over. You choose when to stop staying in-shape, looking for work, and taking work. It is true that you may not get respectable work opportunities or options that compel you to sign a contract. But only when you stop dancing and seek a new path has your career truly ended.

Just writing this down in a public forum doesn't necessarily help settle the emotional stress that is caused by this additional career fear. But there isn't much more to the career equation. Dancers must trust that their career isn't over until they choose or a doctor tells them (get a 2nd opinion, or 10) that it is truly over. And even if a dancer does decide to retire, they can always make a comeback a la Celine Dion. But all joking aside, most dancers feel their career is over because they are not pleased with the options presented to them. If you have lost the fight to make work happen or to put in the time to make better things happen, then perhaps it is time to hang up your slippers. Being a freelancer requires great dancing, great networking/promotional abilities, and even greater emotional fortitude. Patience and balance are key to this profession. While every freelance dancer will likely feel that their career is coming to an end at some point, those who continue to work through this stress and remain patient can have lengthy and sustained professional careers.

Relax! The sun isn't setting on your career.

No comments:

Post a Comment