Knowing When to Say "No"

As dancers, we are always taught to be YES people. Do you want to do the combination again? YES! Do you want to try that lift again? YES! Do you want this job? YES! It is ingrained in a dancer's mind at a very young age that you should nearly always say YES during your dance career. For, if we say no, we may actually remember that the human body has certain limitations and we may miss out on career-boosting opportunities. At the same time, it is also considered poor etiquette to say NO to an instructor, choreographer, or director. But there will be a time in every dancer's career, especially as a freelance artist, when they are suddenly struck with an instance where they may need to say NO. When is it appropriate or, perhaps, even necessary for a dancer to break the expectation for them to remain submissive and say NO?

1. Since this blog is about freelancing, let's start with an example for any dancer that works as an independent contractor. It can be very exciting to have an employer reach out to you for an opportunity to dance with their organization. Though, there are a few reasons that you should say NO to a potential job for reasons beyond timing and logistics.

If a director want you to travel for a period of time to work with them, but doesn't want to provide travel, housing, or sufficient weekly pay to cover your bills, this is absolutely a time that you should say NO. Take it from me. My last major performance gig didn't provide housing, which led to me living like a homeless person going from couch to couch at pure strangers homes for 5 weeks. I ended up severely injured and traumatized for months after (imagine random crying fits out of nowhere). Beyond that, if you are away from your normal connections and you aren't being paid enough to cover your monthly expenses, it will be nearly impossible for you to recover your lost income in time to meet your bills. Be sure to know what you are committing to before signing that contract.

2. As you mature as a dancer, you get a better idea of what works for your body and what doesn't. Also, you may end up dealing with some nagging injuries that prevent you from performing certain steps. For me, when my lower back started to reject certain partnering choreography, I would have to step up and tell a choreographer that I couldn't perform certain lifts from a flat-back position. While this wasn't always met with the happiest response, I was able to continue dancing without injuring myself for quite some time. It is important that a dancer is completely sure that specific movements are off the table before claiming that they can't perform those maneuvers. Also, be sure to understand that saying NO to certain movements may end up reflecting upon you in certain ways and you may find yourself limited in casting.

If you are a freelancer, this is one of the most important things, as you don't want to injure yourself to impress an employer that is only hiring you for one production and may never use you again.

At a certain point, this lift was off the table for me - "Not a Cry" by Amy Seiwert (Photo: Alexander Izaliev)
3. During my time working for the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), I learned that there has been research conducted that shows dancers are much more likely to become injured during the 4th consecutive hour of rehearsal. Beyond that, there is an increased likelihood of injury in rehearsals that extend beyond one hour. When I worked for Pacific Northwest Ballet, we had a 5-minute break every hour of rehearsal and no dancer was allowed to work beyond 3 hours without a 1-hour break before starting back up again. I understand there is sometimes a need to break one of these rehearsal rules, as stopping a choreographer mid-thought could be detrimental to their process or holding an emergency rehearsal on a performance day may only be available during that 4th hour. But, generally, a dancer should do their best to avoid saying YES to rehearsing for endless periods of time without appropriate breaks. Your body is your instrument and, if your employer isn't going to take that into consideration, it is your job to protect it.

4. While it may be great experience for a dancer to take on additional non-dancing work for a company (social media, marketing, admin, etc.), a dancer shouldn't be required to perform work outside of their job description. Working as additional stage crew to load-in, load-out, or perform duties of a stagehand should not be an expectation of a dancer, as well. Heavy lifting and moving could put dancers at risk. If an employer has these expectations of dancers, this should be expressed to them before they are given the choice to say YES to accepting a contract.

Networking at an event (Photo: Patrick Mackin)
5. One expectation of many dancers is to attend general public and fundraising events for an organization. While this is not always mandatory, it is good for dancers to attend these events. It helps the company promote its' mission, it lets donors and potential sponsors feel like they are a part of the organization, and it humanizes our often untouchable-feeling art form. While these events are often lots of fun, there are times when an attendee has too much to drink or is attending with less than favorable intentions. Just because a major donor or a potential sponsor is looking to give money to the organization does not mean that they can treat a dancer inappropriately. If you are uncomfortable with the direction a conversation is going, absolutely do say NO to any advances that are clearly inappropriate. And, if worse comes to worse, excuse yourself to use the restroom, refill your drink, or grab a friend to help pull you out of the situation.

6. I have a major rule that I never pay to work for an employer. If there are any items that an employer asks for you to pay for, you should say NO to that job. This includes paying for unpaid tickets that you were expected to sell (I don't think this should ever be a dancer's expected responsibility), shoes for performances (especially if you are required to dye them), travel, hotels, costuming, housing, etc.

7. The rehearsal studio is an extremely unique workplace. There are many things that if put in any other work environment could easily be considered crude, inappropriate, or sexual harassment. This is a difficult item, as dancing requires touching each other's bodies in otherwise inappropriate places for partnering or to tell the story. If you are a young, hopeful dancer who is shy, prude, or extremely religious, then you may want to consider looking into a different career option.

Now, there is a time when certain types of touch are inappropriate in the studio. If your partner or a choreographer are touching in places that are unwelcome for you or don't make sense to express the storyline, do express that it feels uncomfortable immediately. Usually, if everybody is working appropriately, this should resolve the issue. If certain types of touching continue beyond rehearsing the actual part, it is necessary for you to say NO or to reach out to the company's Human Resources department to address the issue. If there is no Human Resources department, you need to reach out to the ballet master or director.

In an office environment, this would be sexual harassment - Romeo & Juliet w/Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)

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