Talking to People You Don't Know at Events

Dancers at Contact: A Networking Event for Freelance Dancers
After teaching at Steps on Broadway this past Sunday, I picked up a coffee and started walking the 30 block trek from the Upper West Side to Broadway Dance Center. Around the point that I walked past Lincoln Center, a gentleman stopped me to ask if I was somebody he had taught a decade or so back. In a break from my typical metropolitan self, I turned to him and stated that he must have the wrong guy since I was raised in Philly and didn't attend academic school in the city. I'm not sure how he did it, but he managed to entice me into a conversation that lasted exactly 20 blocks. While my mind was racing back and forth as to this guys intentions and whether I should bid him adieu, his conversation skills kept me engaged as he strayed (for the most part) away from creepy or utterly odd. While I eventually determined that this sexegenarian's initial reasoning in reaching out to me was physical attraction, he was compelling enough to defer any uncomfortable intentions. This guy had impressive skills when it came to talking to a complete stranger and, in the wake of this interaction, it struck me that dancers also need to have similar communicative abilities. Whether in the theatre, at a public venue, or even on the streets, we will often have to engage in conversation with new colleagues, donors, visiting choreographers, and arts lovers alike. So, in response to this experience, I figured that this week, I would offer some tips and tricks on how to engage with people you don't know in the event that you find yourself in a conversation with a new colleague, somebody who could develop into a supporter of your work, or anybody beyond your typical passing conversation.

1. Don't be afraid to walk up to an individual or group and just say hello. The first step of engaging with people you don't know is to calmly announce your presence. From there, you can usually find your way into a talking point to become a part of the conversation. Obviously, you don't want to abruptly interrupt or interject before you have been appropriately welcomed. But stepping up to an individual that is standing alone or a small group of people in conversation and saying, "Excuse me, do you mind if I join you?," is a perfectly acceptable way to join a conversation or to introduce yourself without feeling too intrusive.

2.  If the person/people you are greeting is/are already in a conversation when you enter, be sure to give the participants space to complete what they are talking about. Sometimes they will take that route. At other times, a new participant can completely alter the direction of the chat, especially if the conversation was deeply personal. Be sure to leave room for that natural evolution to take place. But don't be unprepared if you are going to step in to introduce yourself, as the conversation's focus may quickly turn over to you. In the event that the group doesn't ask you to properly introduce yourself (beyond your name), I always suggest that you have a follow up topic in the event that your entrance turns the spotlight over to you. For instance, if you want to engage with a visiting choreographer after a performance, throwing out an, "I love your work and would love to discuss your inspiration for the piece," may work well. For a patron that you have yet to meet, it is always appropriate to ask them if they enjoyed the show. And when they say yes (which they almost always will), ask them what their favorite part was. There is no easier way to spur conversation with a stranger than to relate to the reason that you are both attending an event. If you are at a philanthropic event, ask how they got involved in the organization. If they are at an art gallery, ask them what type of art they like. If you were in a performance and they attended that performance, ask them about the show. If you directly relate to the reason that you are both in attendance, that can be an easy launching point to eventually lead into a more meaningful conversation.

3. The best tool to cultivate in becoming a compelling presence at any event is to have a toolbox of general questions prepared to ask people of all kinds. While the artists who are part of a production are obviously going to be asked questions about themselves and their work, all people like to feel interesting enough to be asked about themselves and their life's work. Once you have engaged somebody in the idea that you are both mutually interested in the reason that you are attending the event, you will need somewhere to go from there. There are a range of topics you can discuss once you've broken the ice and had an initial connection of interests. Go ahead and ask questions like: "How long have you been coming to see our shows?" "What do you do for a living?" " Are you originally from (the city you are in)?" "What else do you do for fun aside from attending the ballet?" There are a range of simple questions that you should always have in your back pocket to avoid awkward silences or the subsequent response to that silence, "Excuse me, I told my friend I'd head over to see them."

4. This is something that I'm actually quite horrible at because I'm always afraid that I am going to be perceived as disingenuous. I actually have to practice being complimentary of other people, as it is easy to discredit simple things that may not seem exciting or compelling to me, but may be meaningful to others. I think that, as dancers, we often are used to accepting compliments from people outside of our field. But as never-ending critics of our own technique, we tend to be extremely critical in general, which leads to difficulty in offering positive reinforcement to others. If somebody at an event bought tickets in celebration of their anniversary, be sure to wish them a hearty congratulations. If somebody thought they wouldn't enjoy a dance production and was surprised that they found it compelling, reaffirm their achievement in overcoming an obstacle in them becoming supporters of your art. Again, all people enjoy feeling special and accomplished. A little nod or a few kind words can go a long way in having an enjoyable conversation and potentially growing a relationship with people you meet at events.

5. This may seem unnecessary, but always have an exit strategy for uncomfortable conversations or for people that are outstaying their welcome. Unfortunately, especially for female dancers, some patrons only attend events in hopes of meeting dancers for romantic reasons. Especially, if alcohol is flowing, there are the rare guests who can become inappropriate towards dancers. Not to validate this activity in any way, but this makes sense since dancers are often seen as untouchable creatures onstage, often wearing form-fitting costumes that leave little to the imagination. It is always a good idea to have a friend with you or nearby to help you exit a conversation as quickly as possible, if necessary. If you find yourself alone with a patron that is crossing certain boundaries, it is alright to tell them that they are being inappropriate and that you are uncomfortable and leaving. Yes, you don't want to be oversensitive. But you also want to be respectful to yourself and remain safe. Know what your line is, whether mild flirting is comfortable or an arm around your shoulders bothers you. But the second that lines are crossed, immediately exit without niceties or explanation and be sure to mention to somebody in a management position that a patron crossed a line with you to avoid situations like this in the future for yourself and/or others.

Talking to dancers at Contact: A Networking Event for Freelance Dancers
6. Most importantly, take a breath, grab a glass of wine (if you are of age), relax, and enjoy yourself. Most social interactions with people you don't know at events are calm, simple, and happen quickly. And we are our most compelling self when we allow our true personality to shine through. If you attend enough functions, you may find that you are in conversation with the same people from a previous event. And, if you are lucky, you might even create long lasting relationships that lead into friendships, romance, or benefactors who support your work. Life is a party and if you put yourself in the mix, you are sure to meet a few people that enrich your life in ways well beyond a simple, passing conversation about the weather.

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