So You Think You Can Freelance?

Photo shoot at a freelancing gig (Photo: Shalem Photography)
It wouldn't be a typical week if somebody didn't reach out to me about the art of freelancing as a dancer, choreographer, or instructor. Sometimes, I get messages from dancers that have been dancing with a company for a period of time who feel like they need a change of scenery to freshen up their careers. At other times, I hear about dancers that would like to kickstart their career by getting some experience to put on their resume. While I am always happy to offer advice to professionals or hopeful pre-professionals, I find that these dancers don't always come to me having done much research about what it means and takes to be a freelance dancer. To help streamline the process, I would like to offer any dancer that is considering dabbling or immersing themselves in a freelance life these 10 questions to ask yourself before reaching out for advice on how to take the plunge into this challengingly rewarding careerstyle.

1. If you already have a company contract, what percentage of the time are you fulfilled vs. unfulfilled?

I can't tell you how many times I have heard dancers with glorious company contracts verbally announce that they are leaving their company at the end of the current season. Perhaps, they have had a few programs where they weren't casted as they wish or they don't feel appreciated for the time that they have put into an organization. No matter the circumstances behind their feelings, more often than not, the dancer is just venting. And let me tell you, dancers likely bitch more than any other species of human on Earth. With that said, once I left Pacific Northwest Ballet and got some experience in the freelance world, I realized that my lack of fulfillment was more situational than it was complete. I left the company for more reasons than just the stagnant feeling that loomed over my head like the grey, dreariness of the Pacific Northwest. I didn't like the city of Seattle as a home. But looking back at my level of fulfillment, I was fulfilled more than a majority of the time. For me, the less fulfilling moments were overwhelming enough to push me to leave the company. Take some time to assess your fulfillment ratio and consider the amount of work that goes into freelancing, the possibility of fewer experiences (whether more or less gratifying), and how much you value stability vs. artistic fulfillment.

"Oh...Honey...You're gonna be a star" (Danya mimicking Degas)
2. If you are finishing up your pre-professional training, are you honestly sure that you are qualified to dance at a professional level?

Alrighty. I'm just gonna put it out there. When people find out that I have had a successful career with companies large to small, it isn't uncommon for me to get this response. "Oh...How wonderful! You're a dancer! Well, my niece is 17 years old...and, well, she is so talented. She's gonna be a ballerina." I'm usually pretty reserved and guarded with these conversations, as I tend to be too honest and don't have much tolerance for patronizing people. When the photos inevitably come out, I am forced to help the auntie face the reality that their loved one does not have the appropriate skill, body type, or proper training to have a legitimate professional career. This is an unfortunate thing in the dance world. There is no accreditation system to say that a school with poor instruction can't take people's money for teaching poor technique. And when a dancer is the best in a bad school, they tend to think that they are much better than they actually are. Many dancers, unfortunately, suffer from what I call "American Idol Syndrome;" where their projected potential is far different than their true potential. Try visiting a few pre-professional schools, do a few auditions, or watch and compare with Youtube videos. Be realistic and make a decision. Take into consideration, "Is it just a hard year for me to get a job or am I not being offered jobs because I am not qualified to be hired?" 

3. What city do you live in?

This may not seem like the most important question, but where you live is quite relevant to being a freelancer. If you live in a small town, do you have access to professional levels classes? Is it extremely expensive to fly out of your airport? Are you able to keep up-to-date on trends? If you want to find substantial amounts of work and make networking connections, it is much more feasible to do that out of a big city that has an established dance scene. You can make a freelance career work from anywhere, but you will likely have to submit to community productions, work your ass off in your online marketing, or spend a great deal of time traveling into larger cities.

4. How do you cope with financial stress?

Unless you are a trust-fund baby or have the luxury of parents that have no problem supporting you well into your 20's, you need to look at your reaction to moments that were financially stressful. If, one time, your car broke down and you just used the last of your paycheck to pay all of your bills, how did you make things work? Did you crawl in a ball and cry until somebody else solved the issue for you? Or, when times get tight, where is the first place that you start to tighten your pockets? If you stopped taking classes so that you could go to the club with your friends, you are likely going to have issues. Freelancers need to be the most savvy financial assessors they can be. And when times get stressful, they need to be able to handle the heat.

5. Have you ever seen a professional contract and, if so, do you understand what most of the legal jargon is saying?

If you are performing in musical theatre or commercial work, you may possibly have an agent. But if you are finding work as a ballet or contemporary dancer, you are highly unlikely to have an agent (Believe me...I considered creating my own agency for freelance concert dancers). Considering the fact that the concert dance world is severely underfunded, you will likely be doing your own negotiating for pay, travel, housing, conditions, and anything else that you are going to need throughout your employment as an independent contractor. While you don't have to understand everything that is written in a contract, you need to know what you are signing. If you have never seen a contract before, consider going to the AGMA website (if you are union) or calling them up to see if you can get access to their contracts (understand that most independent contracting agreements are one to two pages long, unlike AGMA contracts). Otherwise, do some research or consult an attorney or law school friend to help you learn how to read a contract to protect yourself.

6. How do you take care of your body in your current situation? What are your plans to take care of yourself if/when you get injured?

One of my biggest challenges as a freelancer has been taking care of myself after an injury. People may think that they aren't likely to get injured or that they will just deal with it when it happens. Let me assure you that you will get injured if you stick to freelancing for more than a few months. The conditions are constantly changing, you are in unfamiliar working environments, and the work is always changing in style. When I was dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Houston Ballet, we had physical therapy on-site and access to workers compensation, a multitude of high-level health professionals, and enough salary to cover any additional costs. When you freelance, you are on your own. If you don't enter freelancing with an injury plan (practitioners, how to pay, insurance, etc.), like I unfortunately did, it may cost you a job, your rent money, and/or your career. Create a plan and have an idea of what practitioners you can use for different situations.

Me in an old-school modern work - Threnody (Photo: Bill Hebert)
7. What types of works do you want to dance?

So, you are a neo-classically (Balanchine) trained dancer. You want to branch out into more contemporary work. Are you going to be happy leaving Balanchine behind? One thing I miss more than anything else is getting to dance the works of Mr. B on the regular. As a ballet dancer, with few exceptions, a majority of the freelance work that I have encountered either involve dancing full-length classical productions, edgy to post-modern contemporary works, or old-school modern works. If you want to dance the expensive repertoires of Balanchine, Robbins, Forsythe, Ratmansky, Wheeldon, and beyond, freelancing is unlikely for you.

8. You finish a show and your employer is nowhere to be found. Your flight is early in the morning and your rent is due in a few days. What do you do?

Honestly, this has NEVER happened to me. And I am quite grateful for this. But I have been in situations where I have had to stand up for myself. While it is important to attempt to remain as respectful as possible, it is impossible to have a fulfilling freelance career if you are a pushover. Yes, people may like you if you let them do whatever pleases them. But you will likely be unhappy in your work if you feel disrespected or in danger.

9. During extended lay-offs, summer breaks, or time off from school, did you take class? How did you motivate yourself?

One of my biggest fears about leaving a company atmosphere was that I was going to sleep in all the time, eat potato chips and ice cream daily, and get severely out of shape. Without the pressure of coming in to work each day to stay in shape, retain your casting, and (above all) collect your paycheck; do you have what it takes to motivate yourself to take technique class five days a week? A good gauge of this is to look at how you act during lay-offs, holday breaks, and extended times off. Are you the type of person that knows how to take a break to rest their body, but gets back into the studio with enough time to safely prepare for the next rehearsal period? Or are you that dancer that shows up the first day of rehearsal without having taken class for 5 weeks? 

10. What are your finest qualities as a dancer? Where does your dancing need work?

Perhaps, the most important quality of many freelancers is the ability to self-assess one's work. Yes, all professional dancers have some sense of what they need to do to improve themselves. But one quality that many dancers need work on developing is their ability to see what they are good at in the art form. The reason for this isn't only to boost one's confidence on days that they are feeling a bit down. More importantly, freelancers need to know their finest qualities because they need to know how to sell themselves at an audition, in a performance reel, and in an email. If you can't find the good and the bad, it may be challenging for you to improve on your own and put yourself out there to find work.

How Appropriate (Photo: Brian Mengini)
Now that you've taken the time to look over these questions and assess each of them for yourself, you might have a better idea of whether you want to leave your company contract and jump on the bus to freelance-ville. If you still find yourself enthusiastic and inspired about steering your own career, then you know where to get in contact with me for advice!

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