Springtime: A Time for (Contract) Renewal

My new work, Diagnosis, premieres this Saturday in NYC (Photo: Eduardo Patino)
It's been a busy, busy few weeks here at Life of a Freelance Dancer! Other than teaching, I have been hurriedly preparing for the world premiere of my new work for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative's 10th anniversary production at Columbia University in New York City this upcoming weekend. If you want to see some extremely intelligent and talented dancers, follow this link for tickets. Shows are at 3 pm & 8 pm, and additional choreographers include American Ballet Theatre soloist Craig Salstein, Emery Lecrone, Claudia Schreier, and more! Additionally, I will be speaking this upcoming Tuesday, April 18th, at Gibney Dance for their Dancer's Economic Empowerment Program (DEEP) about negotiating contracts for professionals. The event is free and starts at 6:30 pm, so stop on by, say hello, and learn something! You can RSVP by clicking here. Beyond all of this excitement, I am also honored to have recently been featured in Inside Dance magazine's March/April issue in their Teacher4Teacher segment. I've only been focusing on my teaching and choreographic career for a short period of time, so I was taken aback when they asked me to share my thoughts and experiences thus far in my career. So far, this spring has been quite good to me and I am extremely thankful for everything that has come my way!

Teacher4Teacher feature in Inside Dance Magazine
Speaking of spring, this season is a great time of renewal. The sun stays out later, plants and trees begin to blossom, and people generally have a sunnier disposition on life as their habits move from indoor living to outdoor recreation. Dancers are no exception to the rules of renewal when it comes to springtime. If a dancer works for a unionized company, this is when they will find out if they will be reengaged to dance another season with their company. While some dancers will be let go from their positions, others may choose not to sign their contracts in hope of renewing their inspiration, getting a fresh start, or gaining the chance to progress beyond their current status in the rank-and-file of their current institution. Whether a dancer wants to leave their current company or was blindsided by news of non-reengagement, they need to determine how they will go about continuing their career, if they wish to do so.

Let's start by talking about possible options for a dancer that is looking to leave their current company position. First off, a dancer needs to determine if they are thinking of leaving only if they find a better option or if they are absolutely moving on whether they get a job offer or not. When contract time came up my final year at Pacific Northwest Ballet, I already knew I was leaving. I had made the decision to give up my contract nearly 7 months prior to being offered another year of work. So, there was no question by the time that I received my letter of intent that I would not accept a new contract. Most union contracts require management to notify a dancer of intent to rehire by March 1st. Once these letters go out, a dancer has until April 1st to agree to sign their contracts. Typically, a dancer who chooses to look beyond their current position will start reaching out to other organizations for auditions beginning in January or February. While many companies will allow you to take company class or attend a cattle call to audition, most won't tell you if you are being offered a job until after April 1st, when dancers reach the deadline to return letters of intent to their employers. Some dancers choose to tell their director that they aren't returning the following season earlier than this deadline (like I did), so jobs may become available before this date. But generally, a director will tell you that they are interested without making an official job offer until April or May at the latest. If you are thinking of leaving, but haven't made a solid commitment to depart, many dancers will just sign their current contract and continue into the next season. But if you are determined to change your career path, you may take a risk and let your boss know that you won't be returning, whether you have a job offer or not. Or, if you are comfortable enough, you can ask for an extension for your letter of intent, which is much less common.

If you are 100% set on leaving your current company, chances are that you are willing to take the risk to or are already prepared to be a freelance dancer, either for a period of time or permanently. Many former company dancers fall into freelancing for one of two reasons. Either they wanted to change some aspect of their career trajectory by choosing to leave their company and didn't gain full-time employment elsewhere or they were blindsided by non-renewal of their contract. I recently helped guide a dancer with a nice regional company on building a foundation to freelance from after they were unexpectedly non-reengaged from a position with a company they had danced with for 5 years. When presented with the idea that they had no say in this decision, they felt empowered to take full control of their career.
Ali Block, in my new work, gave up a company position to freelance & attend Columbia University (Photo: Eduardo Patino)
Either way, one needs to be prepared to freelance with an appropriate package to offer to potential employers. A cover letter (expressing your background and interest in working for employers), CV/résumé, dance photographs, and a performance reel are a great place to start. Of course, your package doesn't have to be completed to perfection from the beginning. But it should have enough information to offer an employer an idea of who you are. Additionally, each freelance artist needs to have a short-term and long-term plan in place, whether they ever realize these aspirations or not. For many dancers that are blindsided by the loss of a job, their main goal is to use this time as a gap-period between contracts. They hope to gain greater experience in roles that were, perhaps, not available to them in their previous work situation to make themselves more marketable the next time company auditions come around. For others, freelancing is the long-term goal. Whether common items like answering to one boss, becoming bored performing works in the exact same style in every program, or lack of touring were driving forces for a dancer to seek out long-term freelancing, a dancer needs to have long-term goals in place. What do you want to dance, where do you want to dance, who do you want to dance for, how long long do you want to dance, and why do you want to continue dancing? These are all questions that should be on a dancer's mind as they enter the wide wild world of a freelance dancer.

One often disregarded reason that some dancers consider freelancing after leaving or being forced out of a company is because they just aren't ready to retire from the art form quite yet. Maybe they have unresolved expectations, their body can't handle a 40-week workload, they can't admit to themselves that they are through with their art, or they want to finish their career on their terms. A lot of us think or used to think that retirement from dance was a straightforward process. But I can share from experience that I have seen freelancers enjoy long careers, dancers freelance for awhile and rejoin companies, dancers freelance for a bit and retire fully, and dancers freelance for a bit to retire for a period before making a fascinatingly rare comeback. There is great value in the freedom of choice and direction that freelancing can bring you. There is absolutely no shame in using freelancing as a slow end to your performance career.

Independent contracting can work as a great wind up or wind down for a career in dance. Just as long as your are clear in your goals and work to the best of your ability at each job you are working, while being fluid in adjusting goals as time passes. Spring sure brings forth great change. While there are sometimes chilly, gloomy days to cope with, we finish this season with flowers, lush green landscape, sun, and warm temperatures. It isn't shocking that a dancer's season mimics this change. It can be difficult to make decisions about your career or to accept that you are being forced to change the its trajectory. But if you look at these things with a spring-like outlook and put in the effort to understand, prepare, and execute the next step of your career, I can assure you that you can gain great success.

Springtime has finally arrived!


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