Picking the Right Pic

Most blogs tend to focus on sharing thoughts and experiences through text. I was walking to the gym trying to decide what I would post about next and I thought to myself, "I'm feeling very visual today." So, with that, I offer you my first phlog blog (if that is even a term).

Final year of training audition shot '02 (photo:Roe O'Connor)
One of a dancer's best marketing tools is a visual history of their dancing. Photographs. Most dancers begin accumulating dance shots as a student. Any professional has done the first arabesque shot in pink tights and a leotard or black tights and a white t-shirt. Alright, so maybe I fudged it my final year, as I was auditioning for summer programs and companies. But I promise you I have about 3 other shots in first arabesque in black and white tights. Moving on. These photos are great to use as a student, but become less impressive to prospective employers as you progress in your career. If you have nothing else, studio shots are better than nothing.

As you gain experience in the dance world, employers want to see that you have stage experience. It is best to collect performances shots, if at all possible. If there is a professional photographer, try to get any photos of yourself through the organization that you are dancing for. If this doesn't work, dont be afraid to approach the photographer or search for their business online. Sometimes, the photographers will charge you for photos and at other times they will give them to you for free. I have heard of dancers that sometimes grab images off of facebook or a public gallery online and save them to their computer (you would have to figure out how to do this). If you do this, by all means, give credit to the photographer. Use your best discretion.

Performing w/Seiskaya Ballet (photo:Dmitri Papadakov)
Every dancer wants to make sure that their photos show their versatility as an artist. At the left, I have a classical shot of myself performing my variation from the pas de deux La Esmerelda while freelancing with Seiskaya Ballet. Even, if I am sending my information to a contemporary company, I will send them a photo like this. It is good to let an employer know that you have basic classical training and that you are have great versatility as an artist.

Performing w/Avi Scher & Dancers (Photo:Matthew Murphy)
Next, I will typically include a shot of myself dancing a contemporary role, like this one to the right. Currently, there is a greater range of possible work that can be listed in the contemporary range. A classical company may consider one piece to be much more contemporary than a contemporary or modern company. Do some research on the company that you have chosen to send your info to. If it looks more modern than contemporary I may send them a photo like the one below. If it looks more contemporary, then I may send them a photo like the one above on the right. All in all it can be to your benefit to develop a varied portfolio. If you are only interest in one style of dance, by all means, only seek out performance pics in the style in which you are seeking out work. But those that best survive the freelancing lifestyle are versatile artists. And showing that you have done work that is as varied as possible will give you a better chance of finding work.
Performing w/Dance Fusion (Photo:Bill Hebert)

Performing w/Ballet X (Photo:Alexander Izaliev)

One type of performance shot that I feel is important to have, especially as a male, is one executing some type of partnering skill. It is important, especially for a man, to show that they have the experience, strength, and technique to perform any role that is thrown their way. You can view a partnering photo that I might send to a prospective employer in my previous blog about Preparing for limited-rehearsal gigs or by viewing the photo that I have posted to the right.

Headshot (Photo:Shalem Mathew)
Now that we've talked performance photos, let's talk about the all-important headshot. Headshots aren't just used to give potential employers a peak into your personality. They are also usually important after you've been hired. It is very rare for a company to take headshots for you if you are dancing with them for one program. Most will ask you to provide your own headshot. If you have already danced with a company, you may be lucky enough to get headshots done for you (see my PNB headshot below). If not, you may have to pay out of pocket for these photos. Do some research in your area and try to find somebody that has experience with dancers and is reasonable (I'm a big fan of http://www.murphymade.com/ in NYC and http://bmengini.com/ in Philadelphia). If you cant afford photos, continue reading for my advice on that.

Headshot (Photo:Angela Sterling)
I have two headshots that I use depending on my perception of the company that I am sending my information to. If the company is only classical or if it is a school performance, I will be more likely to use the headshot to the left, as it is more conservative and has a more classic look. If I am seeking work with an employer that is more contemporary or if I want to show off my edge, I will typically use the above headshot. Obviously, it is not that big of a deal and it is more about preference. My suggestion would be to just go with what leaves you feeling confident. One headshot is all that is necessary and I would never send both to one employer. But it can be nice to have different options for looks in order to appeal to a wider audience.

My final advice for those that have read this far is for dancers that are starting up, looking for updated shots and low on cash, or that would like to expand their portfolio. I remember when I began dancing professionally, I figured that the company photographer would take great photos of me and that I would get them from her. Unfortunately, it was quite uncommon for anybody but the "favorites" of that company to be captured in time. Beyond that, I assumed, to a degree, that people would just throw themselves at all of us professionals in the hopes that they would get to photograph we the creatures of dance. This wasn't the case. I spent 7 years with only two photographers that approached me who were genuinely interested in photographing me (one that got a great shot, but required us to pose on a muddy mountain with horseflies biting us until we had to stop 10 minutes into the shoot: The one shot that worked). Unfortunately, the other photographer didn't have a penchant for catching dance at its' finest. So, how does one get headshots and dance shots for free? I have joined the network Model Mayhem. Essentially, this is a network to gain exposure in the modeling industry. But the modeling industry is vast and has many different genre's that photographers are interested in. The great thing about Model Mayhem is that all you need is 5 photos of anything you consider modeling to be approved and then you have an entire network open to you. I'm not sure if Model Mayhem is really a great option if you are looking for modeling opportunities, but there are many photographers listed that are interested in expanding their portfolio. Most are willing to do this for trade. Be sure to do your research and that you are in a safe, comfortable environment if you meet up with a photographer. It may take some work to get the photog on point, but work together to give them your best work and get some great photographs at the same time.


The #1 Question People Ask

Waiting to board my plane home at Manchester-Boston airport
There are many aspects of performing on multiple stages with a variety of organizations that are wholly gratifying. Much of this satisfaction comes from your audience. Sometimes, they are comprised of parents that want to see their little Angelina perform as the White Swan in her senior dance recital. On other occasions, they are highly educated balletomanes hoping to be transformed by the world of ballet. After many performances, I am greeted by curious audience members, staff, and sometimes dancers that want to offer me their regards and ask me questions. After the initial greetings takes place, I usually get this. "I looked in the program and checked your bio and I couldn't find what company you dance with. Where do you dance?"

The first time I was asked this question I was caught quite off guard. How was I supposed to approach this subject concisely and appropriately without telling the story of my life and career? I have a tendency to tell stories that only need to go from point A to point B in the fashion of a story that goes from point A to point Z. I often give an overshare of details and lose the point of the conversation quickly. My mind scrambled to find a way to clearly explain why I wasn't attached to any specific company. I replied, "Well, I work as a freelance dancer full-time. I am not attached to any particular company." I said this knowing that their response to this would be some state of confusion. Sometimes, I feel that I understand their confusion better than I do my answer.

The ballet world is set up as a system of companies that have created names for themselves with specific associations. Some are world acclaimed and others are nationally recognized, while a handful are regionally focused and some are community based. It is easier to judge a dancer through a larger association, then solely on the status of a dancer being a dancer. When an outsider sees a professional perform well, they want to put a label on that artist. It is easier for them to go home and say "I saw this dancer from the Pacific Northwest Ballet perform," than it is for them to say that they saw a freelance dancer. Even dancers have trouble establishing their worth if they can't say, well I dance for "fill in the blank." Having my background of being in a big company helps. When people are confused, I will often tell them the company that I used to dance for and their eyes usually light up with more cognition. Even with this, it is still a struggle for me to know exactly where to go with this conversation and how to answer their next question. "Well, you were great! When are you going to get a job with a company?" or "When are you going to join this company?" or "Why aren't you with a company right now?"

There are many reasons that freelancers do what they do. I was using freelancing to make extra money during weeks that I was laid off from the company that I was dancing with seasonally. When I was suddenly no longer with that company, I had to find a way to keep dancing and continue to support myself and my partner. My story is personal and it is unique, as is many other freelance dancers. For this reason, it is difficult for me to openly share every aspect of my story.

Many freelancers know what their end goal of freelancing is. It can be anything from getting experience to joining a company to spending the final years of their career doing what they want to do. For others, like me, it isn't that simple. Some dancers aren't sure if they want to continue freelancing forever or if they want to eventually join a company again. A lot of freelance artists use their time on the fly as a period of self-exploration. This is the the case for me. I feel that I am currently figuring myself out as a dancer. I entered the professional ballet world with certain expectations and, as I have gained experience, those expectations have changed. Freelancing allows me to explore different scenarios and to shut down my expectations and create understanding. It is a lot of hard work to constantly remain open and vulnerable.

Why do I want to continue working as a freelancer, instead of desperately auditioning for a company to call home? Freelancing is as difficult as it is rewarding. Having any type of commitment in one place can be a challenge. Finances can be hard. And sometimes it comes down to the simple fact that I want to sleep in my own bed. So, why wouldn't I want to join a company full-time? On the other hand, I am living my dream. I am dancing roles that I likely would not have been offered with the big company I was dancing for, traveling the world, and making endless friends and connections along the way. With all of this floating around in my head, you can probably understand why it can be so difficult to answer these ballet fan's simple questions.

The first time that I gave this question a stab, I don't really feel I did myself justice. As these questions have popped up more often, I am getting better at approaching the subject of being a homeless dancer. Last night, I found myself at the dinner table of a restaurant with the staff of the school that I had just performed with for their end of the year show. In the flow of our conversation, those usual questions surfaced and I can say that I am proud of my response. It went a little something like this. "I am not currently attached to any company. I travel around performing from place to place and am content with that. If I dance for a company and find that I have a special connection with them, I am not saying that I wouldn't settle down. But at the moment, I am not specifically seeking a place to call home. If it happens, I would be happy with that. But my current goal is to just be fulfilled and happy." I feel that there is a large group of freelancers that feel this way.

Still today, I have moments where I question my value as a dancer that has no home. I tend to rely on the prestige of my previous job to convince people of my value with my words, even when my dancing has already convinced them. I guess, at times, that I am still convincing myself to believe in me. I dont have an artistic director, boss, or some other person to guide my worth and offer me praise for my accomplishments. It's funny how all I ever wanted as a professional was to be in charge of my own and others' view of my worth. Now that I finally am, I sometimes want somebody else to do that job. It goes back to that aspect of the ballet world that I spoke about in my previous post about how I get work, where dancers are trained by the ballet culture to be humble and quiet about their accomplishments. Now, I don't only have to convince possible employers of my skill and value, but I have to convince myself, too. So, with the conclusion of this blog post, I am going to set a goal. I am going to strive to be comfortable with being my own boss and positively assess my own self worth. And I am going to endeavor to be more comfortable relying on my current value, instead of completely relying on the value of a previous affiliation. It is one of the most positive qualities I can offer myself in being my own boss.


How to pack for short-term & long-term gigs

4 weeks worth of luggage at NY Penn Station
Im sitting at Philadelphia International airport in what is dubbed the "Philadelphia Marketplace," waiting for my very delayed flight to depart for New Hampshire. Out of all of the airports that I've traveled through, I would say that Philadelphia has a pretty nice array of options for eating, shopping, and lounging. Im sitting in a white rocking chair in the middle of a long hall of shops and eateries, recharging my ever-drained phone from periods of boredom on the train playing Words w/Friends, Scramble w/Friends, and Draw Something. As I rock back and forth, I have been trying to figure out the next topic that I should write about. For a moment, I thought to myself how impressed I was that I packed in only 10 minutes last night. I remember the first few times I traveled as a teenager. How it would take me hours to figure out what to pack and I would have all of my belongings zipped away in my suitcase more than a day before I left. All of that has changed over the years, mostly due to the immense amount of traveling I did living in Houston and Seattle. Although, today, I don't get as nervous about packing when I travel, I do get nervous when I have to pack for an extended period of time.

How does one pack when traveling long distances to perform? It is much easier to pack for a gig when you are only going to be there for a period of a week or less. When I am traveling somewhere for a short amount of time, like I am right now, I typically pack just one small carry on suitcase and my backpack. I try to keep my backpack light, as the last thing I want is to put undue stress on my back. I tend to save my backpack for entertainment (like laptop, books, magazines, Nintendo 3DS, etc.), snacks, electronics chargers, and any other important items (medicine, etc). If I am planning on checking my bag, which I rarely do (to save money), I will be sure to pack a pair of ballet slippers and a dance outfit in the event that my bag is delayed. Other than that, you don't need a variety of items to travel. I will usually pack about 3 outfits for daily wear. For dance, I will bring the same amount of outfits for ballet, but I will bring enough dance belts for each day that I will rehearse and perform. I usually ask my employer what my shoe requirements are for the program. Even if dance shoes are provided, I will always bring one extra pair beyond what I am given or asked to bring in the event that something goes wrong. I have had shoes develop holes faster than expected on different flooring. I, even, recently had the drawstrings of a shoe untie and suck up inside of it. A nearly impossible fix for any male dancer.  Always be prepared. Be sure to bring your stage make-up and any toiletries that you need. Since I don't usually check bags on short-term gigs, I use small leftover containers to put things like hair gel and facial creme in. This is to be sure that they are the regulatory 3 ounces or less and will pass through security. I also always bring at least one jacket or sweatshirt , even if the forecast calls for warm weather. The last thing you want is to be caught off guard when the weather surprisingly changes or if your host likes to keep the air conditioner on full blast.

The more difficult gigs to pack for are those that take you away from home for more than a week. The longest I have spent away from home while freelancing has been 5 weeks. Not only that, it was in Alaska….in the winter. I remember being absolutely mortified about packing for this experience. Although I didn't start packing days in advance, it definitely took me a lot longer than 10 minutes to pack.

It is important to ask if you will have access to a washer and dryer prior to arriving at your destination. This may change your packing strategy. Obviously, you need to pack according to the season and climate of the area that you'll be staying. My first suggestion is to pull out all of the clothes you would like to bring and place them in an orderly fashion on your bed. I try to bring about one outfit for each day of the week, but initially start with about twice that on my bed. Anything beyond one weeks worth of clothes will definitely throw you over any weight restrictions. Obviously, you don't want to wear the same outfit the same day of each week. So, try to bring outfits that can be mixed to create multiple different looks. I tend to pack more dance clothes than I do regular clothes, as you will probably spend more time in dance clothes and you sweat through them faster in any given week. I also try to bring two options of dress outfits, shoes included. I am almost always invited to a company function or theatre event during my time on location. If it is winter, keep in mind that you will need to bring extra layers, including scarves, gloves, and hats (and maybe even snow boots). I also try to bring a couple of extra items to occupy myself in the event that I can't find transportation and am living in a more suburban area. I have been known to pack my Nintendo Wii for any gig that lasts longer than a week. I also have to assess which toiletries I will need while I'm away. Will my host family provide these items and, if not, would it be cheaper to bring them with me or buy them when I arrive? Also, will the weight of these items throw checked luggage over the maximum weight allotment?

Now that I have laid everything out on my bed, I have to assess what is a necessity, what is a luxury, and what is a comfort. Necessities obviously take priority, followed by comfort, then luxury. Although, at times you may feel like that extra trendy outfit is a necessity, it is always annoying when you finish a gig and realize that you haven't utilized certain pieces of clothing and that you had to pay extra to get your luggage on the flight because it was overweight. You don't necessarily have to pack all of each item (shirts, tights, etc) together. As I put my "necessary" items into my luggage and gauge how much extra space I have, I'll add some of my comfort and luxury items, while putting away clothes that I realize I don't need. I may repeat this process 4 or 5 times. Often, I will put my necessary tights in my big luggage and place the ones that are a luxury in my other luggage. By doing this, not only have I given myself time to assess my needs, but I have also split items up. This protects me in the event that any checked luggage doesn't arrive at my destination.

Now that you have packed all of your belongings, you can use a scale to make sure that your bag isn't overweight. First weigh yourself. Then, weigh yourself while holding your luggage. Subtract the "holding luggage" weight from your own weight and you should have a pretty good idea whether you are going to go over. If you are traveling via train or bus, it is much less likely that you will have an issue with weight for your bags, but check with the company's website prior to packing your things.  Lastly, for comfort, I suggest carrying a neck pillow in your travels. I use this item for two things. Not only is it great to keep your neck more upright if you fall asleep, but it also doubles as great back support in an uncomfortable airplane, train, or bus seat.

On a final note, I suggest that you always leave a bit of extra space in your luggage, so that it isn't overweight with all of the souvenirs that you purchased during your travels. The first time I freelanced away from home for an extended period of time, I was surprised that I can survive on a week worth of clothing when Im away. It makes me second guess how much I really need all of the clothing that is sitting in my closet and drawers at home. Be smart about your needs for packing. Try to pack more strategically and less emotionally. Though, always be sure to bring one or two things with you to remind you of home!


Dancing out of your comfort zone

There are many aspect of freelance dancing that involve dancing out of your comfort zone. From being in new environments to dancing with new groups of people to accepting the challenge of very different styles. As a part of my search for work, I decided to take a risk and send my information to Momix. The company self-describes itself as being "known internationally for presenting work of exceptional inventiveness and physical beauty, MOMIX is a company of dancer-illusionists." It is not uncommon for me to send my information to a company with absolutely no expectation of receiving a response. But to my surprise, I received an email from the company two days ago asking if I would be interested in taking a master class to be seen and considered for the company while they were in Philly performing. Well, this blog is pretty fresh, as I just got home from taking the master class. It was definitely an interesting experience that threw me way out of my "safe" place.
Momix in action
I was actually pretty nervous to take this master class with Momix. When I take master, open, or company classes with ballet companies, I have a good idea of what to expect. I have never taken class with a company like Momix and, honestly, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. Were we going to start with a ballet class? Would the class be completely based on modern technique? Were they going to see if I could stand on my head and do back flips? I am much more unnerved by the unknown. If I have the knowledge that something is going to be out of my comfort zone, then it is a lot easier for me to cope with my own thoughts. Awareness of expectation is the biggest comfort for me. I debated whether it was worth my time to go and take this class. I decided that it was more important for me to be open to a new experience, then it was for me to dismiss an opportunity to learn about something that I was unfamiliar with. Not only that, but this was a free opportunity to take class for the day. This saves me the cost of my daily maintenance class. Snaps to that!

At about 12:20 pm, I ventured through Center City towards the University of the Arts. I am familiar with Uarts because I have rehearsed there before. If I could find comfort in anything it was that. As I walked down the streets of Philadelphia towards the studios, I felt a little flutter in my chest. I don't like to admit nervousness, but it was clearly there. I was wondering how big the class was going to be and whether I was going to have to fight my way around the studio. My biggest concern, though, was still if I would be lost with the material and make a fool of myself. This is a huge issue for dancers that have made it to a professional level. As a student, you are allowed to fail. As a professional, you are expected to hold up well in any situation. This is a common issue that many dancers are faced with.

I finally made it to Uarts and made my way upstairs to change and warm up. When I arrived in the lobby of the studios, I found that I was the only dancer there. I thought to myself, "maybe Im in the wrong building" (given that there are multiple venues that Uarts rehearses in). After I determined that I was in the right place, I anxiously waited for a rush of dancers to show up. Well, that never happened. By the time the company dancer who would be conducting the master class showed up, there were 5 dancers present. A full class can be difficult because it can be hard to find your space and the varied level of dancers often leads to instances where your neighbor has no concept of spatial awareness. The opposite can also be a challenge. With fewer dancers, there is less energy to bounce off of and there is also no opportunity to hide when you need a rest or can't pick up a step. Well, we were on the small side for a class. And not only that, the age and experience of the group was wildly varied. One dancer was a Uarts Junior, three of the other dancers were between the age of 55 and 65, and then there was me.

The teacher handled this smaller, eccentric group pretty well. Instead of running us into the ground for an hour and a half, he sat us down for the first half hour and gave us a history of Momix and the concepts that are used behind their work. The company is directed by Moses Pendleton, who is not a dancer. He took a movement class in university and created a visual piece with a couple of friends for his final project. It was so interesting that it got picked up to tour. This was the birth of Momix. The dancers take a ballet class every morning followed by about an hour of open improv. These improv sessions take steps that are eventually cultivated to become the choreography that becomes a show.  Our class was based off of these improv sessions. We warmed up with a short improv session, which was followed by some stretching in the center of the studio. After that, we performed some more improv that was only mildly guided. I have improv'ed before, but I would hardly say that I am an expert at it. I have a moderate amount of experience with it, but at a certain point I prefer more direction.

After we completed our first few improvs across the floor, the teacher took two of the dancer's themes and turned them into a creature. This is where it really started to get interesting. One of the 60-something women had to jump up onto my shoulders (where I had to hold her for nearly 5 minutes) and did a pump with her chest and upper body, while one of the other older ladies did her foot-stomping improv in front of us. My job was to hide myself behind the stomping lady. Essentially we created a stomping, chest pumping giant. I wasn't too thrilled about having to maintain a sexagenarians weight for such a long period of time, but I convinced myself that this experience will be worth it at some point. And if not, at least it will be a good story. As we really started to get into the pumping, I was relieved that my shoulder-sitting partner had to leave to feed the parking meter with her stomping friend. At this point, the only people left dancing were myself and the Uarts student, as the other dancer could barely walk across the floor, let alone move her body to the music due to aging joints and bones. I did appreciate her will to try and remain active through her old years, though.

So, the final segment of this class was 2 open 2-minute improvs that emphasized who we were as dancers. We danced to a slow piece of music, followed by a tribal, high-speed selection. I feel that my slow improv was stellar, but once I got to the fast-paced music I started to lose my groove. I started to run out of material and was wishing that I would have been given a bit more direction to guide my improv. What I enjoyed most about this part of the class was watching the Uarts student really excel in her improv. She was very talented and very interesting to watch.

In the end, I was not as out of my comfort zone as I had expected to be, but I was still pretty far from comfortable. I'm learning throughout my career that I don't always have to impress people when Im dancing. Sometimes, I just have to do what I need to for myself, so that I can learn from these experiences. Even though this master class was really an audition for me, it wasn't so much about me solidifying a job as it was a chance to continue the expansion of my improv knowledge. It took me a while of dancing professionally to understand and respect improv. As I gain more experience with it, I'm learning the complexities behind it and am growing to respect how difficult it can be to create on the spot. It is truly a skill that is hard for many highly-trained dancers to master. So, in the end, was I comfortable and content with this experience? Absolutely not! But did I gain something from this master class, I sure did. And by that, I mean more than just a damn good story.


Living with a Host Family

I hear a low rumble and there are trees flying by my sides. I hear kids screaming and I'm feeling pretty tired. Yet another engagement as a freelance dancer has come to an end. I can't help but feel nostalgic about the past 4 weeks as I glide on my way home on what is becoming a regular experience with Amtrak. The performances of Swan Lake with Festival Ballet of Providence went well. I had some memorable experiences, including about 3 minutes notice that I was dancing a featured role on opening night due to another dancer's injury. I got to see yet another dancer put an exclamation mark on a beautiful career. But the memories that I will hold dearest to me in this experience will be the ones that I shared with my host family.

Often, when I am dancing as a guest artist somewhere that isn't close to home, housing will be provided for me. There is an array of options that an employer can provide. From a hotel, to an apartment, to housing you themselves. If you will be staying for an extended period of rehearsal and performance, the most common thing to do is to place a dancer with a host family. Living with a host family requires one to be very open to new experiences and willing to adjust one's habits.

I am always a bit nervous about spending more than a couple of days with people that I have never met before. What if we don't get along? What if they have expectations of me that I can't meet? What if I need more personal space? I have found that the best thing to do before arriving for your stay is to be open about your biggest concerns with whomever is setting up your housing accommodations. For instance, I need to be positive that my host family is going to be comfortable with who I am as a person. I always request a gay-friendly household and ask that I am placed with more open-minded people. The last thing I want is to show up and find that my temporary home is not comfortable with my lifestyle. It is always slightly uncomfortable to bring up this personal information, but it is better to address it prior to arriving than to live in a bad situation for a month. I also try to make sure that my host family has wifi, as having internet access is very important to me. If you are open about what will make you most comfortable, you are more likely to have a good experience. I also try to have some direct interaction with my host family before I arrive. Before I traveled to Alaska, I skyped with my host "mother." We got to see each other and feel out our personalities. I was able to ask questions and get a quick, direct answer. If Skype isn't an option, phone, Facebook, and email are valuable tools.

So, the day has arrived and you have been traveling all day. You may be exhausted from travel and you probably want to get situated. No matter how tired I am, I always try to sit down and have an extended conversation with my hosts. They have been gracious enough to allow me to stay with them and it is good to break the ice from the start. Remember that you probably already have something in common, a passion for the arts. Ask about their relation to the organization you are dancing for, but be sure to focus on getting to know them as people, too. After we spend some time together, I try to get a acquainted with my surroundings.  If it isn't too late, I always go for a short walk around the neighborhood. I find that I can settle down faster if I have a clearer perspective of where things are. Just make sure you know how to get back home (and if it is -15 degrees outside, don't keep the code to the garage door in your phone…because it will shut down in the cold and you will have to be creative in getting back inside the house). Now that you've settled in, how do you function in your new environment?

Every person has different habits and different comforts. Try to make yourself as comfortable as possible, but be respectful that you are not in your own house. Don't walk around in your underwear. Don't go out for drinks with friends and exceed your limit. Be cautious the first couple of days and really feel out each situation. Make sure that it is clear whether you are buying your own food or if it is alright for you to scavenge the refrigerator. Also be clear if there are certain rooms that you can't enter. Try not to assume that things are a certain way. If you are unsure, it is always best to ask. Although, these things make living with a host family sound uncomfortable, in all reality, most situations turn out to be very enjoyable and you can still keep most of your habits. For instance, I am not a morning person. I don't like to talk when I have just woken up. I will have a short conversation in the morning, but not much more. As a small hint to this, if I don't have my own space to eat breakfast, drink my coffee, and go online, I will wear a hoodie with the hood up until I have sufficiently woken up. It is a gentle barrier that gives me space to be quiet and wake up. Obviously, you don't want to be rude and do this all day long, but you can find ways to feel that you have your own space.

Some host families are just providing a place for you to stay and do not require or want much interaction, while others want to accept you as one of the family. I have experienced both situations and have been comfortable with both. My most recent experience was with a wonderful and generous family in Providence, Rhode Island. They not only provided a beautiful home, but they are great 
My host family's home in Providence
people that made me feel welcome, comfortable, and like I was a part of the family. This family went above and beyond the norm to make sure that I was comfortable. Delicious home-made dinners, a ride anywhere I needed or wanted to go, support, and friendship were only a few of the luxuries that I experienced during my stay with this family. During my time in their home, they were gracious enough to share what it is like to host a dancer.

April, Lily, Jesse, Jeff, & Jacob (Lily & Jacob are Jesse's siblings)
Who are these host families that so generously open up their home and privacy to complete and total strangers? Sometimes, they are donors for the company. Sometimes their kid dances in the school. There are many reasons why a host family may take an artist in to reside with them. April and Jeff, my host "mother and father," have had a relationship with Festival Ballet of Providence (Festival) for quite a while. Their daughter, Jesse, started training in the school nearly 10 years ago. She is finishing her final year in Festival's school and will be attending the Joffrey Ballet trainee program in Chicago beginning this fall. As Jesse grew up in the organization, April became more involved with the ballet. First, volunteering to assist with shows and eventually joining the board of the company. Although, she is no longer on the board, she continues to be a great advocate for Festival. When I asked The Fam, as I call them, why they chose to host a dancer, April mentioned that one of the ballet's admins called her up to see if she knew somebody who would be willing to host a dancer. April thought "We could do that. We have an extra bedroom and are close to the studios." Jeff loves having guests at the house and wanted to be supportive of the ballet since it has been so instrumental in Jesse's development. They wanted to do what they could to help out.

The Fam had never hosted an artist before. They didn't have any major concerns about having a dancer in the house. The only minor worry was having an adult male around that they didn't know, given that Jesse is only 17 years old. After speaking with the director of Festival about me and doing some research on Facebook, they felt more than comfortable having me stay with them. Through their research, they were happy to find that we had more in common than just ballet. April also mentioned that, "All of the dancers I have met have been really great people. There is a sense of dedication and passion for something that keeps them very focused and real. I have an enormous respect for a group of people that are doing something just because they love it and have been able to ward off all other conflicting messages that this is a hard profession and just did it anyway. The dancers that I have met at Festival, I find to be very honest and very real." For these reasons, April felt very comfortable letting not a stranger, but a dancer stay in her home for a month.

April, Jeff, Jesse, and I spent a lot of time together. The meeting place of their home is a huge, self-designed kitchen. The layout makes it the perfect meeting place for the family and is a great venue for easy discussion. We enjoyed many laughs as we got to know each other and shared different experiences with one another. The time we spent together was very real and I feel that we gained a lot from each other. Jesse told me, "One thing we got from Barry staying with us is that there are many other companies outside of Festival. We have been offered a greater peak at the ballet world. I feel more educated." April also mentioned that she really enjoyed that "the common thread was the knowledge and excitement around ballet. I loved to hear about and watch performance footage that you had done.  I liked hearing about your creative process in choreography. I also appreciated hearing how you figured out how to deal with the harsh aspects of dance, like dancing in pain, expectations of companies, expectations of fellow dancers, and how you processed that and have been able to figure out how to be good with that and still be true to yourself." I gained a broader view on many things. Aside from our many passionate discussions about ballet, I gained a greater respect for family. Each family functions differently and I really respected April and Jeff's approach when it came to running their family. It was special to form a big brother bond with Jesse. I also learned that, although I am not a dog person, puppy's can be cute and I can live with one (The Fam brought a new puppy into their home two weeks into my stay).

Rosie - The Fam's new puppy
I feel we all gained a lot from this experience. Not every host family situation is as smooth as the one I just experienced. But you can drive your experience by being clear about your needs prior to arriving and being malleable to other people's ways of living once you have arrived. In the end, you can grow so much by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and you can make lifelong friends in the process. I will close this entry with a gem of a quote that my dear Jesse left me with at the end of one of our conversations. I feel it is very inspiring for anybody that is thinking about freelancing.

"It is really nice to see dancers outside of Festival, especially because I'm going away to the Joffrey trainee program. I respect freelance dancers now and feel more comfortable and secure to leave home now that I have a bigger view of the dance world. Freelancers are brave, they could potentially be unhappy and homesick. It is nice to get to know somebody who is real and has been in the dance world outside of Festival. When I'm nervous about something, I think of my brother. Now, I feel comfortable that I can think about you when I'm nervous about going somewhere else."

Jesse & me backstage on opening night with FBP


Preparing for "limited" rehearsal gigs

It is not uncommon to be invited to perform a gig with limited rehearsal on location. This is more common for festivals, galas, and school performances, but can happen in any situation. I am sometimes sent DVD's or emailed youtube links to learn choreography and am expected to arrive for the gig with 24 hours to put together a pas de deux. Performing in these types of gigs can be a challenge, especially with limited time, a lack of rehearsal space, and new partners. There is an array of ways you can prepare for these performances, even with limited resources.

One of the biggest disadvantages of being a freelance dancer is not having regular studio space to rehearse in without charge. How do you prepare for performances where you are expected to learn the choreography at home and get your stamina up to perform the piece at a standard that you and your employer are pleased with? I have found a couple of ways to work through this issue. The first thing you must do is learn the choreography. Spend as much time as necessary watching the video you are given. Take breaks from studying the video and come back to it in order to make sure that you aren't just copying the video. I like to watch a short section of choreography, then play that section again. You want to make sure you are actually retaining the choreography. Of course, the best way to do this is in a studio with a television monitor. For me, that isn't often an option. At home, I will close my eyes, visualize myself doing the choreography, and dance full out only with my port de bras. Once I have correctly executed the choreography in my head, I will move on to the next section. Once I have learned the two parts, I will go back to the beginning and tie the two together. I will continue to do this until I have performed the entire piece in my head. Now that I have learned the choreography, I need to rehearse the entire piece with my whole body.

My next step is to find a place that I can rehearse the piece full-out. If you are a dancer in a company or teach at a dance school, you can use that organization's studio space. Dancers with companies can usually use a studio during lunch hours or after the rehearsal day is over. Many freelancers take on teaching jobs in order to supplement their salary when they aren't dancing out of town. If possible, show up early or stay late to grab an empty studio. If you are not tied to an organization and don't have regular access to a studio, I have found that the gym is my best friend. When looking for a gym membership, be sure to ask if there is a larger room (usually used for aerobics or yoga classes) that is available to members when they aren't being used for classes. I would be reluctant to join a gym if they don't have an option like this, as it can be a lifeline. No, the floors of these rooms are typically not sprung. Yes, they are typically hardwood and a bit slippery. I find that even if you can't dance a piece full out for safety purposes, it is very important for muscle memory to run a piece in a space where you can fully extend your body. Make sure to have your rehearsal music on an ipod or your phone and don't be shy if other people are using a part of the space. Be respectful, but remember that you are being professional by doing what is required of yourself in order to present a product that has been fully rehearsed. Rehearse the choreography regularly and dance sections that you feel are safe to dance full-out. If you can't jump in your gym, be sure to practice specific jump sequences a couple of times after class (or at a respectable time during class if another class starts immediately after). If it is necessary, especially if the piece requires extensive pointe work, ask a local studio if you can do an exchange of services (like cleaning, desk work, mailings, filing, etc) for free studio rental.

Be sure to incorporate other activities that will get your stamina up. Use your gym membership to its fullest extent. If you are doing a pas de deux, lift extra weights to build your strength. If the dance is very "puffy" (leaves you out of breath), do extra cardio with bouts of sprints to get yourself out of breath. Although, the goal is to run the piece multiple times before you arrive to perform, if resources don't allow you to do so, it is important that you simulate the stamina required of the performance in order to be assured you can make it through the piece. In the end, your goal should be to have rehearsed the piece full out multiple times before arriving. If you don't have the option to run it daily, make sure that you have at least run it through once or twice. You don't want to think that you know the demands of the choreography and realize once you have arrived that you are not properly prepared.

You have learned the choreography and rehearsed it on your own, but now you have arrived and you have to dance with a partner you have never met (often a student) and the show is in 24 hours. The goal here is to remain flexible. Try to run the piece that you are doing a couple of times before you get onstage, even if you have to mark certain things. Just make sure that you dance/partner trickier sections full-out each time.  I find that when you work with students, sometimes things go amazingly well and at other times they don't go as planned. Try to remember what it felt like when you were a student. Small accomplishments felt grand and any mistake felt massive. When dancing with students, I find it best to let your ego and dancer's perfectionism go. Don't be as critical of your performance as you would be in a fully professional atmosphere. Be attentive to the student. Let the student know that you are there to make them comfortable. For instance, in a recent festival that I performed in, I had a partner that was very nervous, a perfectionist, and was very upset after we finished the first performance, which went perfectly fine. While waiting to go on in the next show, I told her, "the most important thing you learn when you are a professional is that mistakes happen in performance all the time. It is how you play with those mistakes and cover them up that makes you professional." She gave me a big smile and was actually very pleased with herself in the second show. It can be hard not to focus on how you fumbled that pirouette or how that lift didn't get off right. But the reason that professionals are hired to work with students is to show them how professionals work and to give them tools that will help them eventually become one.

Freelance dancers are often thrown into different environments. Sometimes adjustments are easy and at other times conditions can be difficult. I tend to be a dancer that can go with the flow...to a certain point. A dancer should be respectful of how an organization chooses to conduct itself, within reason. If you feel that you are being put in an unsafe situation, by all means do speak up. Organizations can benefit from a professional dancer's knowledge and experience. Just try to be direct and sensitive in how you approach the situation. I have rarely encountered a situation where an employer did not want to make their guest artists as comfortable as possible. It can be quite stressful preparing for a performance where you would typically be given weeks or months of rehearsal. As long as you prepare yourself properly and keep a sense of, what I call, "Go with the flow-ability," you can enjoy work experiences with limited on-site rehearsal. Working as a freelance dancer, I sometimes feel like I am dancing on the edge of a cliff. It can be very frightening to perform with a small amount of full-on rehearsal, but it is quite validating to get through these performances. Most dancers don't realize that they have it in them, but most all of us do. Dancers are amazingly capable of adaptation.

In performance w/ a student at Seiskaya Ballet


Returning to my Roots in Providence

Festival Ballet of Providence

At the moment, I am dancing in Providence, Rhode Island with the Festival Ballet of Providence. We have finished all of our studio rehearsals and will be entering the theatre this coming week to perform Swan Lake. When I became a freelance dancer, I swore that I would never dance in the corps of a story ballet again. I also swore off the old style Russian training that helped build my foundation as a dancer. Little did I realize how valuable an experience returning to my roots would be.

The number one question I've gotten since I arrived in Providence was, "How did you end up here?" Well, my life partner is secretly (or not so secretly) a genealogy nerd and just happens to be related to the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams. As a Chanukkah gift, I bought us tickets to visit Providence over the holidays. While walking around the city looking for all things "Roger Williams," I was thinking to myself, "What am I going to do for this week's work search?" I remembered reading about the Festival Ballet of Providence in Dance Magazine a while back. I thought to myself, "I could work here." When I got back to our hotel room, I did some research and sent my info to the company. I think it is funny because even though I sent my information, I never expected to work in Providence, let alone 4 months later. But here I am in my third week dancing with the company.

Springtime in Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is a beautiful place during the springtime. It has a colonial city center with more suburban neighborhoods closeby.  I am staying on the eastside of the city, where it is more suburban. There are grand houses and amazing, flowery streets with trees in full blossom. It's ironic to be here during this season, as I feel like I am in my own spring awakening. When I was approached by Festival (as the dancers call the company), I was in the final stage of recovery from a back injury. I knew I wasn't strong enough to perform a leading role. I needed a place that would ease me back into shape. Festival's dancer assistant contacted me and offered for me to join the company for their production of Swan Lake to dance in the corps of the first act and a divertissement in the third act. Although my goal as a freelance dancer is to expand my repertoire and experience, this opportunity is just what I needed.

The style that Festival trains in is heavily influenced by the Vaganova syllabus. Most American ballet companies are influenced by this Imperial Russian technique, but have grown in different directions. I trained at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and am very familiar with this technique, though, I haven't been versed in this style for nearly ten years. Vaganova classes can feel very rigid and are often extremely hard, focusing on pure technique and building strength around their ideal, regal port de bras. I tend to prefer classes that have more movement and flow. After ten years away from this style, I was reluctant to return to it. But I have been surprised to watch my strength grow over the last few weeks. My jumps are bigger, my balance is better, and I even did two clean triple tours in class the other day (something that I haven't even attempted in years). Although, I sometimes modify certain combinations to remain true to the dancer that I want to be, I try to push myself out of my comfort zone to expand my reach as a dancer.

Another aspect of my career that I didn't expect to revisit was dancing in the corps of a full length ballet. In these ballets, dancers tend to dance less while standing and gesturing more. A minimal amount of partnering and moderate level of dancing was a great crutch to ease myself back into shape after recovering from my injury. It allowed me to build strength, so that I can be fully prepared for future work. Not only that. I was given a great reminder of how enjoyable it can be to dance with a larger group of dancers. There is much more interaction in the corps and you feel like you are accomplishing something as a team, which can be harder than dancing a solo or duet. This experience has reminded me that dancing in a corps can be fulfilling and therapeutic.

All in all this experience has been greatly valuable. Not only has it given me the benefit of time and built my strength, but it has given me perspective on where I came from and where I am going. I now value my time in the corps a bit more since I am no longer dancing in it full-time. As a corps member, I felt like I was wasting my career when I should have been dancing more challenging roles. But looking back, I now remember a synergy onstage with my fellow corps members and a feeling of complete team effort. That team effort was not only a part of the job, but it was something that each of us wanted to contribute for each other. And in the end, perhaps, I will seek out those grueling Vaganova classes that I avoided for way too long. I look forward to using this experience as I pursue more challenging roles with a healthy body, new-found strength, and greater respect for my history.

Want to know more about Festival Ballet of Providence? Check out the company here: Festival Ballet of Providence


Adjusting to new environments...fast!

Every dance company has it's own culture. Larger companies tend to have more structure and dancers thrive in cliques, while smaller companies tend to fly by their own rules and have a greater sense of family. Although, I have seen these trends throughout my dance career, each and every company works differently and has different social rules. Essentially, dancing with new companies, schools, and events can be like visiting different countries. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of a Frommer's or Lonely Planet guide to tell us how to conduct ourselves and what to expect while dancing in a new environment.

When I first started dancing professionally, I was wide-eyed, bushy tailed, and a bit green. While training, I would always go in the first group and stand front and center. This practice didn't work very well for me when I joined a company. I remember the first time that a principal dancer walked up to my apprentice self and scolded me. They said, "You have only been here for a month. You need to respect the people that have been here for years and let them dance first and in the space that they want." I was in shock, a little hurt...a little embarrassed. I was under the impression that a principal dancer had already proven themselves to the artistic staff. As an apprentice, I thought it was my duty to show what a hard worker I was and that I was going to be a valuable member of the company. I had two choices: Do I unabashedly prove my worth to the artistic staff or do I push to be accepted by my colleagues?

I spent the rest of my apprenticeship and my first couple seasons in the corps of a different company figuring out how to conduct myself. I was lucky that I got to spend time in more than one institution. It showed me that no two companies function the same. Some dancers worked differently with different teachers and ballet masters, in different rehearsals, and in different social situations. This left me plenty of time for analysis. And to make some very awkward mistakes along the way. In the end, though, these situations have been very valuable to me, especially as a freelancer who finds himself in different environments pretty often.

The first time a dancer has to adjust to a new place occurs before class even starts. Barre spots. Everybody hates them and everybody loves them. There is nothing worse than having no definitive place to stand. But there is nothing better than having that perfect spot where you see yourself in the mirror (or don't see yourself) at that perfect angle that makes all of your lines look their best. I find that smaller companies tend not to care as much about where they stand because there are fewer dancers and there is more space. On the other hand, dancers in larger companies tend to be more possessive of their barre spots. It is important not to impose upon somebody, but also not to become overanxious about stepping on anybody's toes. The best thing to do is ask dancers that have already claimed their spot where to stand or, if you are not comfortable, sit away from the barres and find a place to stand as the class begins. Use the first few days of class to feel out the company before you start to develop any regular habits. Within a week, you should have a good idea of how the dancers function.

For me, building and using my social skills has been a very important aspect of freelancing. I have always been generally outgoing. Starting back at my first summer program, I made extra effort to talk to people when I passed them in hallways. I tried to learn everybody's name with whom I had any slight form of interaction. Some people gave me dirty looks, but most people were very friendly and equally eager to meet me. This openness has been extremely helpful to me throughout my career. Today, I still try to introduce myself to people the first chance I get. I try to learn people's names quickly and find a connection or identifying characteristic that will help me remember individuals. Before I enter any new workplace, my first step is to browse the company's website and to look at people's faces and biographies. I tend to learn names better when I am told people's first and last names. So, when I meet people, I always ask for their full names. When I go home, I will recheck the website using the roster like a set of flashcards. I find that the quicker you can remember and relate to people you are working with the faster you are welcomed into an environment.

Another important way to speed along adjustment is to ask questions. I often tell people that I am "the question guy." It is nice to learn some history of an organization from the people that have been existing within it. How long have people been in the company? How often do they rehearse? What is the director like? Do rehearsals end on time? Where do people live? What is there to do around the studios? Is there anything that I should know about? Of course, you need to take into consideration that everybody has had different experiences within the workplace and some people may feel more positively or negatively about their time with the company. For this reason, take advice with a grain of salt.

The most important thing when coming into a new environment is to be open to new experiences. I spent 3 years working as a union representative for AGMA. So, I know what it is like to work within the tight framework of a union contract. When you are freelancing, you are much more likely to be in a place that is run differently than what you are used to. If somebody skips a 5 minute break, go with the flow. But, if you need to speak up to protect yourself, do so. Be open to new classes and new movement styles. But still be true to yourself as an artist. Don't let your neurotic dancer habits (you know we all have them) take away from the opportunity to expand yourself as an artist or to inhibit yourself from making new connections with people. For instance, I have a regular, 5-day a week, gym habit that I am pretty reluctant to give up. Just last week, I had to allow myself to take a day off from my schedule when a dancer asked if I wanted to grab a drink after rehearsal. It was a good decision, as it gave me the opportunity to make new connections that have helped ease my way into a new place. The more open you are, the more you will learn, the more you will be embraced, and the easier it will be to enter into a new workplace every couple of weeks.