Working with what you have

Just a little view into my everyday life. Yesterday, I had rehearsal for a dance film that I am taking part in, which I can't talk much more about without consent. But, that is besides the point. I wanted to save a little money/sleep in yesterday. So, I planned to wake up and head on over to the gym to give myself a good stretch and barre, with a hint of center work. I don't know why, but I am always convinced that I don't remember the time of rehearsals/classes. So, I am constantly going back to emails and websites to make sure that I am not missing anything. Well, I checked the gym schedule to make sure that the studio I use to warm up in would be available and this time my paranoia actually worked to my advantage. There was a class starting in less than a half hour, which would leave me no time to warm up. So, class at home it was.

Stretching on the kitchen counter
I am lucky enough that my partner and I have an apartment with hardwood floors and that our bedroom has enough space that I can at least extend my legs in most directions (depending on the angle that I stand) without hitting anything. So, I started off stretching in the kitchen and living room, as it has the most wall space and surfaces that are at a good height for me. Once I felt stretched enough, I headed into the bedroom to get on with my warm-up class.

Once in the bedroom, I set up my computer which has ballet class music loaded onto it (that was generously given to me by my friend Rachel, who is a Philadelphia-based freelance dancer and teacher). I really enjoy using these particular CD's, as many of the tracks are lengthy and there are enough to give you multiple speed options for each combination. I have a few combinations that I always perform when I am warming myself up, but I make sure that I always change up combos beyond those 3 or 4. Even though I am giving myself my own class, I don't want to get bored or only work the same muscles over and over again. I also try my best to create combinations that wont let me slack. I try to add a different balance after every other combination to make sure that my standing leg is always strong. I feel creating a solid base to work on is the most important thing as a dancer. Lastly, I always skip grand battements when I am warming up at home. I have enough space to move around without kicking things if I am moving slowly and can gauge where my legs are going, but I don't want to risk hurting myself by quickly throwing my legs into the air. Often, I will do a few combinations away from barre work that mostly involve tendues and balancing on releve to make sure that I am secure and ready for my day.

My goal is to make it into class at least 5 days a week, sometimes my rehearsal schedule starts during my first option for class. At other times, I just need to save a little bit of money and my schedule conflicts with when studios are open at the gym. For this reason, I just have to work with what I have. Warming up and maintaining my technique are very important to my body, mindset, and career. Don't think that scheduling or money have to stop you from staying in shape or preparing yourself for your workday. Stay tuned for future posts. At some point, I plan on posting a typical self-warm up ballet barre for those that need a little bit of assistance in creating combinations.


Freelancing isn't all glory

Nearly every person that I speak to about my freelancing career usually responds with "You're life is so exciting!" I wouldn't necessarily disagree, but at times it is also exciting in a less than glorious way. I have been freelancing for about a year now and part of that time I was relying on regular, seasonal work with a company in Philadelphia. It was only at the beginning of April when I was forcibly placed into the role of full-time freelance dancer. I am not stating this to take away from the depth of knowledge that I do have about this field. While I am experienced, I am also continuing to have new experiences and learning about specific challenges that freelancers face. Unfortunately, freelancing is a lot of "you live, you learn." In the process of learning, it may present challenges to see how industrious and strong a person you are.

I know that this post is much darker than other writings on this blog, but there are certain realities that freelancers or those that wish to become one need to be aware of. Yes, I get to travel the world to dance. Yes, I get to follow my passion. Yes, I am my own boss. But there is also a harsher side of freelancing. First and foremost, pick-up dancers are not governed by a union that negotiates their contracts for them. Instead, it is the dancer's responsibility to make sure that all of their needs are met and put down in writing before committing to a gig. Unfortunately, most dancers don't realize exactly what this means until they have an experience that brings one of these needs to their attention. A majority of the time these issues relate to environment or transportation, but it can also relate to commitment and pay. Just read this article about the poor state of financial appreciation/respect for dance artists. When negotiating a contract, some employers will low-ball a dancer's pay. They may not be doing this to disrespect a dancer, but instead to preserve the financial well-being of the company. At the same time, it can be impossible for a dancer to meet their monthly needs at $400-$500/week. This can make it difficult to commit to work. Dancers want to be working and there is always the question of whether a dancer will be able to find better work during that period. So, negotiations need to take place. A dancer who is in demand may find that they are negotiating multiple contracts at once, which makes it easier to make little mistakes or miss a clause that is important. And being a young individual negotiating with the person who will presumably become your employer can be quite uncomfortable. Learning how to effectively negotiate salary is important for a freelancer. It is an art and it is a different process with each potential employer. A dancer doesn't want to appear selfish and egotistical. But at the same time, why shouldn't a dancer have the ability to pay their bills or put a little bit of money in their savings account? This is, in my opinion, one of the hardest parts of being a freelance dancer.

Another aspect of freelancing that presents a great challenge is covering your bills when you are not dancing for an employer. You can read about different things I do to survive in my previous blog, Summer Slow-down. Even though there are a lot of great ideas there, dancers can still encounter certain challenges in making ends meet. I am one of those dancers that prefers to find work that helps enrich my dance career, instead of seeking part-time work outside of my field. When I am not dancing, I am usually able to find work teaching master classes (I am lucky enough to be well connected in the Philadelphia region since I was raised in the suburbs). I have also obtained work at national competitions and performing minor gigs. Since I choose not to get a job outside of my field and my weekly offerings change, I don't necessarily have a great way to gauge exactly what my monthly income will be. Also, these teaching/judging/gigs don't typically work on contract. I recently had an issue where I committed my workday to teach for an organization and spent hours creating new choreography for them (I even paid for music for the event). I was given 36 hours notice that the event was cancelled. Not only was I out on the salary that I was expecting, but there was not enough time to find new work to replace lost income. This isn't a frequent occurrence, but freelancers need to be efficient about spending and saving their money for times like this. It is difficult to hold somebody accountable for issues like this, as most of this type of work is done off contract. But now you can see how important it is to negotiate work that will leave you a certain amount of savings.

Lastly, freelancers have to figure out how to deal with injury. One of the scariest parts of freelancing is that many dancers can't afford health coverage. You can read further about this and find important information about how to seek coverage, if you can afford it, here. I am lucky enough that I have been able to maintain my health insurance to this point. But even with health coverage, injuries can present great problems. One of the most difficult aspects of dancing is knowing when an injury is going to take you out. Obviously, if there is a major fracture involved (knock on wood), you are not going to be able to dance. But most dancer's injuries occur from overuse or include various levels of sprains. These injuries can sometimes be pushed through. Other times, they can be pushed through to a degree, but may eventually do more serious or permanent damage. So, first a dancer needs to know their limits and determine when it is acceptable to continue working. Freelancers have a tendency to work through injuries more than regularly contracted dancers. Not only because they tend to be more aggressive and strong minded, but also because they often have no choice. "Do I pay my rent this month or do I end up back at home or living couch to couch with friends?" This is one of the hardest and scariest aspects of freelancing. If you have a great support system from your parents, the freelancing life can be simple to navigate. But if you are on your own or far away from home, there will be times that challenge your strength as a dancer and person.

There are other aspects of freelancing that are not as glorious as they seem, but negotiating work, making ends meet during off-times, and dealing with injuries are three of the harshest realities of this lifestyle. There are ways to work with each of these, but a dancer must be aware of the challenges that lay ahead of them when they choose this path. My upcoming blogs will bring "Life of a Freelance Dancer" back to more positive posts. My feelings, though, are that this blog should share every aspect of freelancing and, unfortunately, it isn't all glory.


Guest Blogger - Boston Ballet Principal Lia Cirio - World Ballet Competition Gala

Lia in Slice to Sharp by Jorma Elo (photo: Gene Schiavone)
Please let me introduce you to my friend, Lia Cirio. Lia is a Principal dancer with Boston Ballet who also works as a freelance dancer when she isn't commanding the stage at the Boston Opera House. Although I had known Lia through other friends for years, we officially met while freelancing back in September for the Guggenheim's Work's & Process program with Avi Scher & Dancers. Lia has graciously written a post for us about one of her recent freelancing jobs. Continue reading below to hear about Lia's experience as a part-time freelance dancer:

Lia & Paul at the World Ballet Competition gala

My most recent "gig" was performing at the World Ballet Competition gala in Orlando, Fl. This is the second time I have performed in this gala. Last year, my brother, Jeffrey, asked me to go with him. We performed the Le Corsaire pas de deux, along with a Viktor Plotnikov piece (Jeffrey had been a competitor in 2009, where he met Vasile Petrutiu, director of the World Ballet Competition). This year, Jeff was unable to attend, so I took Paul Craig who is also a member of Boston Ballet. We performed the Coppelia wedding pas and a piece by Viktor Plotnikov.

Summer layoff can be a strange time for dancers. Some dancers just like to have down time and others like to stay extremely busy. I probably tend toward the latter, the busy one. Galas can give dancers something to do in their down time, like provide a paycheck, opportunities to perform something they may not get to with their home company, and last but not least, a chance to travel. In addition, it's a lot of fun meeting other dancers and seeing old friends. After all, the ballet world is very small. 

This time around was not quite as stressful, as I had already danced the Coppelia wedding pas in a couple of other galas. It's also so much fun to see what Viktor Plotnikov will come up with. The partnering in his ballets is always a challenge, but in the end fulfilling. I enjoy working with him and feel that I grow each time I am in one of his pieces.

Dancing in Orlando is something I'm a little bit familiar with because I have danced there several times already. I have friends in Orlando Ballet and I love the Orlando audience. Everyone is always so welcoming and excited about ballet. This year I got to see some people I knew, like Rolando Sarabia, Joan Boada, Jonathan Jordan, and Maki Onuki. I finally got to meet someone I have been wanting to for awhile - the beautiful Maria Kotchetkova. I was so thrilled to find out that she follows me on Twitter and Instagram...haha! 
Lia enjoying Disney World
I felt as though my performances went well. We ended the night with a barbecue for all of the "stars" at Vasile's home, hanging out and sharing stories.  Hearing what other dancers go through is healthy and knowing we share the same issues is comforting. 

As if all of this was not enough of a reward, dancing in Orlando brings one extra benefit.  A dear friend of Orlando Ballet and huge supporter of the arts, Wally Harper, was able to offer us some free passes to Disney World. A few of us ended our trip visiting one of the most magical places on earth:)

That was the first stop of my summer. Now, I'm onto some teaching, coaching, learning a new pas for a gala in August, and rehearsing Don Quixote for a gala in July. Definitely a busy one!
Lia w/ Sabi Varga in Tsukiyo by Helen Pickett (Photo: Gene Schiavone)
Follow Lia on twitter or Instagram: @MsLiaC


Breaking out of my niche

When a dancer spends a longer period of time with a company, they tend to get typecast. One dancer may be considered a Balanchine specialist, while other dancers may only get to perform classical roles. Very few dancers are offered the opportunity to expand their reach into every possible role and style that is in a company's repertoire. For this reason, I have found that very capable dancers start to believe that they are only valuable in the roles that their artistic director chooses to place them in. One of the best things about freelancing is that it can offer dancers the opportunity to grow in areas of their dancing that they may not be offered to explore in their current or previous company.

After dancing in a large neo-classical company for 7 years, I found that I started to view my dancing based on the niche that my artistic director had placed me in. My training was based deeply in the Vaganova method. This is what I was taught at home and at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, even though I spent my last year branching out of that style at the School of American Ballet. I also spent my teenage years as a competition kid, training in every style from ballet to jazz to tap. I had a very varied upbringing. The first few years in this large company, I wasnt offered many opportunities to dance outside of the corps. But once I finally started to dance leading and featured roles, I was often only cast to dance in contemporary pieces (which I LOVE to perform). As time passed by and these were the only pieces that I was cast in, I would sit down with my boss and request to learn a role like "Bluebird" or "Peasant Pas de Deux." Usually these requests were overlooked or I was given an answer like "your lines are just not classical enough for this role." I would often think to myself, "I have more classical training than a lot of dancers in this Balanchine company." Alas, I never really got to perform any leading roles when the classical ballets came around. By the time that I had left the company, I had sworn off dancing classical ballets and was convinced that if I were given a variation to perform, I would slaughter every ounce of the piece.

I feel that one of the downsides of dancing in a full-time company is that people start to believe what the person in power believes about each dancer. I remember when I first joined PNB, there was one newer dancer that was often overlooked and considered one of the weaker dancers in the company. I would watch this dancer in class and thought to myself, they are actually very talented. I didn't understand why they were viewed by others in this light. When the artistic leadership transitioned and our new director came in, he offered this dancer one leading role. Within months, this dancer was dancing leading roles often. Other dancers started to voice that this dancer was extremely talented and, before they suddenly left the company to pursue another passion, they were probably on the verge of being promoted to soloist.

I look at this example and I try to apply it to myself often. Although every dancer wishes that they could be in control of their feelings and their confidence, often your confidence is only based on one person, with one opinion, in one company. This is what happened with me. I believed I was a contemporary dancer that also excelled in Balanchine ballets, but was completely incapable in the classics. After I left the place that created this image, I wasn't willing to push myself outside of this identity.

Once I began to freelance, I found that I was being offered work to perform classical pas de deux as often as I was being offered work in the contemporary field. I was very reluctant to accept an offer to perform a classical pas de deux, even with students. I just didn't have the confidence, nor the want to re-explore the land of classical ballet. Finally, I was offered an opportunity to perform that I just couldn't refuse. Nonetheless, I showed up to rehearse for this gig reluctant and quite nervous that the director was going to be upset that I was not of a professional caliber as a classical dancer. Luckily, she was very kind to me and gave me the liberty to choose my own variation and to tweek the pas de deux to my needs. Now that I felt more comfortable with my environment, it was time for me to follow through with my job and perform as best as I could. You can see how it went below:

Getting the chance to dance a classical role after spending so many years being denied the opportunity was actually quite gratifying in the end. Performing a role like this as a guest artist with a school was a great platform to reestablish the fact that I CAN dance classical ballets. There was a little less pressure on me than there would be performing on the stage of an opera house. But I feel that dancers often put a similar amount of pressure on themselves to perform well in any setting. After having this experience and a few more performing classical dances, I am fully confident now that I am capable of performing these works. It is hard to break the emotional pattern of being placed in a niche, when everybody around you starts to believe that you belong there. Through freelance dancing opportunities, I am able to challenge specific boundaries that others have placed upon me and that I have placed upon myself.


Summer slow-down

Summer in Tel Aviv
The dance world functions kind of like our nation's school systems. Classes and seasons tend to start around Labor day. Seasons end and schools close around the beginning of June. For those that are looking for added enrichment or are a little behind, summer school is in order. In the ballet world, summer programs are great ways to get exposure and test out a company's school. Since these intensives bring in larger masses of students than the school year, most companies don't rehearse or perform during the summer months. And who wants to sit inside a dark, cool theatre when the sun is out and you could be away on vacation? For these reason, it can be very difficult to find dance work during the summer.

There is the occasional performance opportunity during the summer, but they are rare and usually comprise of companies going to festivals or international shows. For that reason, many freelance dancers look for other work during the summertime. This can be a positive thing, as it gives the body a rest and it gives dancers a chance to enrich other parts of themselves, dance related or not. So, what job should a freelancer search for when they are off for the summer, but still need to make a living?

The first job that comes to mind is one that will help build experience in a field that many dancers choose to enter once they retire. Teaching dance is a great outlet for dancers when they aren't dancing full-time. You get to give back to your students and you can even learn a lot about yourself as a dancer. The tricky part about teaching at summer intensives is that these programs often start hiring their roster of teachers back in January and February. So, you have to be willing to commit to not dancing before you may know if you have a possible dance job lined up. For instance, I was expecting to be dancing this summer, but my plans changed dramatically in April. So, when I started seeking summer work,  most summer programs had already booked their faculty. I sent out many emails, but am having to search in other places to make ends meet at the moment. But if you are able to obtain one of these summer teaching jobs, it may help keep you going for a month or two or maybe even help you take a vacation.

Another option for the earlier part of the summer is to apply to judge at national competitions or teach at their conventions. Most of these competitions continue through mid-July, so there won't be many options beyond that time frame. I have not judged for any competitions, but I do have friends that have sat on these panels. The days can be long and tedious and the talent can cover a wide range. But competitions pay well and the chance to spot young talent before it gets noticed on a larger scale can be a great reward. As for teaching, you need to have the ability to remain fluid and open to things. Most convention classes are not your typical 10-30 student classes. They are often held in hotel ballrooms with well over 100 students trying to learn a combination. As long as you keep an open mind and are comfortable teaching on a grand scale, this could be a very valuable option.

Many of my friends make ends meet by getting a part-time job in a non-dance related field. There are a few ways to make good money, like waiting tables or bartending. But I would suggest staying away from these options if you are planning on dancing and remaining physically active at the same time. Of course, you do what you have to do. But my suggestion is to find a job that doesn't require you to be on your feet for hours on end or that keeps you up into the early hours of the morning. Try to find something you are passionate about while still making enough to survive. A friend of mine was very passionate about baking and was able to get a job at a pastry shop. If you want to stay in the dance community, look into working at the local dance shop. Not only will you get paid, but you might be able to grow a relationship beyond your time working there and get discounts on your dance clothes and shoes in the future. Maybe even consider getting a job at your local gym. You can make money and, at the same time, save money that would typically be spent on your membership. In the end, try to be open-minded and don't talk yourself out of applying for a job that you are really interested in doing. My former colleague, Kari Brunson, took a summer lay-off to explore her passion and eventually became a full-time chef and started her own Juicing Business.

Photo by Brian Mengini
Now that you've taken time to consider money-making ventures, consider doing other things that you have been putting off while you were dancing full-time. I had been speaking with Brian Mengini, Philadelphia area dance photographer, for nearly a year trying to set up a photo shoot. Brian is having an event, Barre Boys Turns 2, where he will be displaying nearly 30 photos that he has taken of male ballet dancers from New York City Ballet, to San Francisco Ballet, to the Mariinsky. Last week, I was finally able to work out a shoot with Brian where we ended up with this fantastic shot for the event. I will also be speaking on a panel about being a male dancer at the event. I have also been able to use some of my free time to assist my partner with his new business. Spaces Transformed is a professional organizing business. Dan goes into people's homes and offices to assist with organizing and helps develop systems to maintain that organization. Although my partner has done a great job starting his company, he is not as proficient at social media and internet marketing as I am. So, to help out, I have taken over some of the social media and website marketing work. Not only am I helping out somebody that I love, but I am getting some great experience that I may be able to use when I have finished my dance career.

When temperatures get hotter outside and people are running to the beaches, freelance dancers have to raise the heat in areas beyond their performing careers. There are many possibilities for work, from career building opportunities to life enrichment beyond dance. Performance work slows down during the summertime, but that doesn't mean that you have to go broke. Be smart, put yourself out there, and take advantage of the break from performing.


Choosing Your Home Base

My Home Base - Philadelphia, PA
Although many freelance dancers spend much of their time traveling around the world performing, most still need a place to call home. I do have a few friends that I would consider nomadic, living from friend-to-friend during their off-time. Generally, though, most freelancers need to choose a location that they can not only call home, but also a place from where they can easily conduct their business.

Choosing a location to call home is not always an option. Some dancers are just beginning their freelance careers straight out of school. This could mean that you are still living with your parents. Other dancers are employed with a full-time company and need to reside in the city where their work requires them to be. But how do you choose a place to conduct your business from if you don't have one of these factors to decide for you?

I live in Philadelphia, PA. The deciding factor for choosing Philly, for me, was not related to the fact that the city is a great place to freelance as a dancer. I, initially, moved to this city for a seasonal job. Once my time with that job had come to an end, I realized that Philly is the perfect city for me to live and work out of. Instead of creating an outright list in this post, I will tell you through my experience in this city why it is a great place for me to call my home base.

The first reason why Philadelphia is such a great place to freelance from is its location. Everybody knows that New York City is the capitol of the dance world. There are many opportunities to perform, audition, take workshops, see shows, make connections, and stay in shape in NYC. What most people don't realize is that Philly is a short 2-hour ride by car, train, or bus. I can easily get to New York on the Bolt Bus or Mega Bus for between $20 to $30 round-trip (though I prefer the Bolt Bus for its reliability and rewards program). Amtrak is also a great option, but it is not as cost effective. As we all know, NYC is one of the most expensive places to live in the US. If you don't need to be in the city every day, it could be more cost effective to live in a city close-by. My rent in Philly is much cheaper and my cost of living remains much lower. Many of my NYC dancer friends have to live in a different borough than Manhattan, where most of the dance action is taking place, with roommates in order to afford their rent. Their commute to work is usually more than an hour each way. Keeping that in mind, a 2-hour bus ride isn't much longer than the average commute for a New Yorker. Not only that, but Philly's dance scene covers most of my needs as a dancer

Another reason that Philadelphia is such a great location is its proximity along the Northeastern corridor. There is a greater amount of freelance work in the northeast due to its immense population density. It is also much easier for a company or school to bring in a guest artist if it is cheaper to get a dancer on location. Keep in mind that the less an employer has to pay for travel, the more potential they have to pay you more. I have taken a train to Providence, flown to New Hampshire, and taken the bus to New York. I am also close to an international airport with many daily flights that fly all across the country. I am more marketable by being more accessible.

Philly is also a great place to freelance out of due to the fact that it has a great dance scene. Most people aren't aware of this because the city is overshadowed by its close proximity to NYC. Aside from more established companies like Pennsylvania Ballet, Philadanco, and Koresh Dance Company, there are hundreds of small companies and projects happening around the city year-round. The city also has an annual Philly Fringe Festival with hundreds of performances spanning over a few weeks and a bi-annual event named the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. Not only do these festivals offer great audience experiences, but they also offer many opportunities to perform locally. Although many freelancers travel for performances, it is really nice to be able to work in the city that you call home. I often use resources like Dance USA - Philadelphia Chapter and Philadalphia Dance to keep up to date on what is happening.

Beyond performance opportunities, it is very important to have a few options available to keep in shape. One of my biggest concerns is whether or not I can find a facility that offers quality, affordable classes. By quality, I mean top-notch instruction, enough space to execute combinations, and class sizes that are appropriate. Sometimes, a dancer needs to go through a trial-and-error phase with different dance studios. I've taken classes in studios that are too small or where the instruction level is poor. I have found that there are a few great options in my city. I prefer to take classes at Koresh Dance School in Philly, as the instruction quality is high and the classes are affordable. Most organizations that offer drop-in classes will give you a professional rate that is less expensive than the regular price of classes (in NYC most places only offer a $.50 discount), so be sure to mention that you are a professional and have some sort of proof. Not every city has a listing of weekly classes, but Philadelphia Dance does compile this list of places to take open classes. When it comes to any city, though, you will have to do your research online and ask other dancers in the area. If it appears that there are no drop-in classes in your area, don't be afraid to contact a respected school or company and ask if you can join in advanced or company class. The worst they could say is no.

When choosing your home base, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. For many people, New York City comes up as the only option of places to conduct freelance dance work. It is a great option and my favorite city, but avoiding this option may be the only way to make freelancing affordable. Most of my freelancing friends live in larger cities, where there is greater accessibility to classes and transportation. Other than New York, most others live out of Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. Although living in a larger city has great advantages, you may not have that option. If this is the case, make the best of the options that you have available to you. But if you are looking to relocate to a new city in order to make the most out of your freelancing career, take location, cost of living, and accessibility to your dance needs into consideration for the greatest chance at success.