How to Approach Issues Appropriately

Why do dancers remain quiet about most issues? (Photo: Bill Hebert)
While we all hope that the leadership of every job we take has the best interest of their dancers and their well-being in mind, this is unfortunately not always the case. In my history, there have been a few occasions where I have felt the need to directly address an issue with a director, staff, or choreographer. But when I do have to speak up, I try to think of it as a delicate art that requires timing, tact, lack of emotion, reason, and a predetermined (yet malleable) solution.

Spending three years as Pacific Northwest Ballet's union delegate taught me a great deal about addressing reasonable issues with a person that holds career power over you. As freelancers, we don't have the luxury of asking somebody else to take care of problems that arise while we are at work. For this reason, independent contractors need to learn how to take care of issues on their own.

The first thing that a dancer needs to do before approaching an issue is to determine whether or not it is valid enough to bring up. We must all acknowledge that there are many, many pieces that make up a dance company. An individual dancer, while valuable and important, is often only one small piece of a larger puzzle. For example, if somebody hurt your feelings in how they spoke to you in rehearsal, it may be better to approach that person directly, instead of calling upon the director to mediate. The director probably has more important things on their plate than dealing with every day interactions between employees.

While a handful of situations do not require the need to bring an employer into a conversation, a handful of items may need more serious discussion. While many situations feel like they need to be addressed immediately, that is rarely the case. As with most things, timing is everything. It is often best to wait for emotion to settle before entering into a potentially stressful conversation. I have overlooked and been involved in multiple discussions where emotions were still high. And unfortunately, a person seems less reasonable and logical when they are emotional in the moment, no matter how valid their argument may be. If a dancer would like to discuss casting or something that upset them, it is best to wait a few days to cool down before moving forward with any necessary discussion. This will make you appear more rational and help to avoid awkward unprofessional actions, like tears or yelling.

If you have waited a few days and still feel that an item deserves attention, I suggest that you do one of two things. Either ask for a meeting or email the person with whom you would like to speak a brief note. If you are planning on starting with a face-to-face meeting, make sure that you are prepared to state exactly what you want to say as quickly and clearly as possible. Know that there will likely need to be compromise on the table, but don't feel that you have to be completely submissive to keep a positive working relationship. Dancers are taught to submit. I have seen artist friends that are determined to finally stand up for themselves leave important meetings with their tails between their legs and zero resolution because they simply agreed with everything that was spoken to them in their meeting. The second that the boss starts speaking, they become timid and fearful to disagree. Be prepared for discomfort. Don't push too hard, but don't allow somebody to walk all over you. Especially, when it is something that means a lot to you or could be detrimental to your well-being.

I always prefer to send a preliminary email to address my concerns and follow up with a meeting. This allows me to state my case without the distraction of my nervous, spontaneous reaction to an uncomfortable conversation. This can be a tricky task due to the fact that once an email is sent, it can't be retracted. You want to make sure that you say exactly what you mean and want to say. It is important to keep in mind that an email can be used as evidence against you if you are not wise about your word choice and the information that you put into writing. When I need to bring something up, I like to draft my initial email and let it sit for awhile. This usually allows my emotions to settle and gives me a chance to edit with a more rational mind. I also try to ask somebody that has no stake in the circumstance to review what I write before sending it out.

Emails that I have had to write tend to start with a greeting, followed by an address of my concern/distress, actual examples of the issue, and a request to meet in order to resolve the problem. These correspondences are always very matter-of-fact, lack any direct accusations, lack any emotional or angry tone, and, if possible, offer a resolution. I find that a simple email can resolve most issues without even having a one-on-one discussion in person.

If an issue is not fixed through one of these channels, a dancer really only has three other options; deal with it, continue addressing the problem, or quit. The most disappointing fact to me is that such a high percentage of dancers just deal with issues of safety, conditions, schedule, etc. Of course, this is the easiest and most agreeable option, but I am an advocate of the importance for dancers to stand up for their quality of work, state of health, and free time outside of the workplace. Dancers are superior athletes that too often get treated and paid like slave labor. Respect and care should be expected, not a wish or hope. Of course, this is all within a realm of reason. In the end, though, the more that dancers stick up for themselves, the more this behavior will become the norm. For this reason, I think that continuing to address an issue is the most practical and important option of the three. If a request to speak with management is ignored, wait a few days and try again. If a dancer finds that they were talked out of addressing an issue during a meeting, they should approach the issue again to make sure that it is eventually resolved.  The last option on my list is extreme and an absolute last resort. In the dozens of jobs I have worked as an independent contractor, I have only considered quitting a gig once and this was due to a multitude of factors that were verbally addressed, but continued to be an issue after resolution had already seemed to be met.

Sometimes, you have to approach management a few times (Me & Abby Relic before Cinderella)
Working as a dance artist is a unique profession with a unique culture and even more unique expectations. While most dancers want to work in this field because they are wholly passionate about what they do, this fact does not mean that a dancer can be abused because an employer knows dancers will follow through no matter what. Often with masochistic excitement that they survived an unsafe or overwhelming feat. When it comes to safety, emotional abuse, injury, lack of respect for free time, requirements to perform non-dancer duties, or general happiness, a dancer should learn how to have an adult conversation with their employers to make sure that the organization's vision stays in line with a dancers physical and emotional prosperity. It is rare that management isn't interested in these items. It is only that they often have too much on their plate to be aware of certain issues. This is why it is the dancer's responsibility, especially freelance dancers, to find appropriate ways to approach issues. When this happens, dancers are not only happier, they are healthier and bring more value to a company.

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