How to Negotiate a Contract

Here I am at 10 pm on Friday night, sitting in front of my tv watching the Olympic opening ceremony, sipping on a glass of wine, and blogging. For a freelance dancer, searching for work and building your profile never ends. This aside, there are many aspects of freelancing that I have wanted to share with you since the inception of this blog. I have been hoping to discuss the ins and outs of negotiating a contract with a potential employer for quite a while, but I get nervous every time I think about it. Negotiating is tricky and can vary greatly from job to job, even if you are working for the same person. Please keep in mind that I can't share every detail of this process. If I did, it could jeopardize my own future negotiations. With all of that said,  I will share as much as I can to guide and educate all of you in the art of negotiating.

Even though you've enticed an employer to hire you through an audition, video reel, or word of mouth, you haven't officially solidified the job until you have agreed upon the terms of a contract and signed on the dotted line. For the first decade of my career, I was lucky enough to join professional companies that were governed by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents most professional ballet dancers in national and regional companies across the U.S. The union negotiates contracts in 2 to 4 year spurts and any dancer that joins the company is offered a contract that is set in stone and unchangeable. In my last three years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was elected as a delegate for AGMA to represent the dancers of the company. Being a very active delegate, I was offered the opportunity to learn many of the inner workings of a ballet company. Not only was I responsible to insure the comfort and safety of the dancers, but I was also in charge of relaying information to dancers about specific aspects, including the financial state, of the company. In my final season with PNB, I put together a very intricate set of proposals and took on a major role in the negotiation of dancer contracts. I learned a lot in this process and have been able to use that knowledge in my own negotiations with companies and schools.

The first thing that comes to mind when people think about negotiating a contract is money. One thing I always take into consideration when negotiating is that nearly all of the organizations offering me work do not have the budget of a major ballet company. I can never approach negotiations as aggressively as I did when I was with PNB. I prefer to let a potential employer make an offer, instead of telling the company a "going rate." This gives me a good idea of the financial abilities of the company. If the pay offered is reasonable, I will automatically accept the monetary aspect of the offer. If it doesn't cover my monthly financial needs or is something I can't work with, I always make a gentle and polite counter offer. Somebody is offering you work, so be sure to thank them for their original offer before you counter offer.

Before countering with a new number, I suggest you take a look at your rent, utilities, groceries, etc. to determine your monthly needs. Keep in mind that if you are staying on location for an extended period of time, you may have excess bills beyond your home expenses. I also suggest that you research the company/school/project before beginning to negotiate. Check their website, reviews, and other online resources. This will give you a better idea of their budget and the functionality of the company. Money is the touchiest subject in negotiations. Keep in mind that most employers are making offers somewhere within a range of their maximum pay. Most companies that use freelancers have fewer resources and are doing everything they can to keep their company afloat on a smaller budget. There is often wiggle room, but if you jump too high in price or ask beyond your skill level you are likely to end negotiations and lose the job offer. Be reasonable and take your experience into consideration when you are creating a "going rate."

The last aspect of salary to take into consideration is whether you should be paid per week or per performance? I generally ask to be paid per performance if I am learning the choreography on my own and will be spending less than a week or two on-site. If I will be spending a few weeks with a company and will be learning the choreography on location, I will often request to be paid per week. If I am working considerably more on a performance week than during rehearsal weeks, I have negotiated to be paid a greater amount for the week of shows. All in all, though, come to an agreement that is fair, covers your monthly expenses, and represents your value as a dancer.

Unfortunately, most dancers and employers don't put much emphasis on the next aspect of negotiations. Often, these issues are discussed after the fact or arise while an artist is already working for an employer. I won't pretend that I haven't done this, but I have learned through my own and others' experiences that it is important to negotiate needs/comforts into your contract. Who will you be staying with? Your host family lives 5 miles from the studios. How will you get there? Will you be required to pay for shoes? You are staying in a hotel without any kitchen. Will you receive per diem for meals? Transportation from home to the location, requirements outside of studio rehearsals and shows (outreach, lecture demos, promotional activities, etc.), and therapy options are a few things to keep in my mind when you are getting things in writing. Many of these items tend to be discussed, but are never put on paper. If it will make you more comfortable to put things in a contract, you must mention it during negotiations. A lot of dancers prefer to keep needs and comforts out of their contract to speed negotiations along and avoid any uncomfortable disagreements. This is perfectly fine. But if something is important to your comfort, I would suggest having details written down in an email. This will protect you in the small chance that you need proof that something was promised to you. Companies almost always produce the contract that you will sign. They will be putting everything in writing that is necessary to protect them. Why shouldn't you do the same for yourself by requiring certain protections in place for you.

To be completely honest, I don't think anybody involved in negotiating dancer contracts is ever excited to discuss money and needs. Companies want to put on high-level productions and dancers want to dance. Nobody wants to sit down and have potentially uncomfortable conversations. Unfortunately, it is very important to have a contract signed by both parties for your own protection. I will almost never agree to dance without having signed a contract first. If you don't have things in writing and a company decides not to pay you, you are limited in your ability to recover that pay and relationships can quickly fall apart. The only instances where I have worked off contract have been while working with the school that trained me as a child and when details have already been discussed via email and a contract was being produced. Even with that information, I strongly suggest having a contract signed prior to working at all times.

Negotiating a contract is an art and requires a lot of careful thought and consideration. There are many more details about negotiating, but much of them are very personal and specific to each individual negotiation. If you would like some advice or need some more information, please feel free to leave a comment and I would be more than happy to contact you to help out. Happy negotiating and merde!


Continuing to better your technique in open class or on your own

I was taking a particularly good open ballet class from Natalia Charova at Koresh Dance Company's school this morning. I was given a lot of attention and a handful of corrections, when a particular thought crossed my mind. It isn't very frequent that open class teachers give me more than one correction during a class. If a freelancer takes class at a school, they are typically overlooked because it is the teacher's responsibility to give more to their students than a professional. But if a professional dancer only has the option to take open classes, how do they continue to improve themselves as a dancer?

My last week has been extremely busy, from teaching to rehearsals to going up to NYC to audition for Sleep No More. I didn't realize that this topic would become my next post, but I should have seen it coming after class on Wednesday. Most of the classes I have been taking since becoming a full-time freelancer have been open classes. When a professional dancer enters an open class, it can take a while to establish a relationship with the teacher. These open class teachers, in most situations, appear to give dancers space as a gesture of respect and acknowledgement of their time put in and talent. Some dancers like to receive corrections, some are just trying to take a class that is a change from their regular company class, and others just want to be in a safe environment where they can warm up as they wish. As a dancer comes to class more often, teachers tend to test the waters and see how each particular dancer wants to take their open class.

Now, the reason that I should have seen this topic coming is because I went to Steps On Broadway to take a warm up class before my audition. I took from one of my favorite teachers, Nancy Bielski. I have been taking from Nancy since the days I thought I would become a Broadway dancer. This was well before I fell in love with ballet (maybe at the age of 15). I was particularly driven to make it professionally and would push myself to the front of her class, perhaps when I shouldn't have been. I remember her specifically pulling me aside and telling me that there are professionals in class and that I should be more respectful. I am sure she doesn't remember this, as we have only really connected in the past year. But that is besides the point. I was spending a few weeks in NYC this past October doing a gig with Avi Scher & Dancers at the Guggenheim (stay tuned for an experience report in an upcoming blog) and began taking Nancy's class regularly for that time. From day one, she quickly and effectively offered me corrections. After that first class with her in years, she pulled me aside to see who I was and where I danced. Ever since that conversation, I have been greatly impressed by her memory. Each time I have returned to her class, even if it has been months, she remembers my name and keeps on me throughout the entire class. That is one thing that I really appreciate about Nancy. From the start, she doesn't hold back when it comes to correcting dancers. I feel that she realizes how important it is for a dancer to keep growing well beyond their formal training. I walked into class this past Wednesday and, right as class got underway, I was given a direct correction in plies, "Barry...when you are in 4th position you have to pull your left hip back, even with the right." Then, again, in our first tendu combination, she walks up to me and says, "You have to fix this and then I'll leave you alone for a bit." I began to think to myself, "Wow! It has been so long since I have been corrected. I can't believe that I've been doing this on my own. How do I realize what I need to work on if I don't have a set of eyes looking directly at me." And there the basis for this post was created.

As a freelance dancer who doesn't have a regular artistic director/ballet master/teacher that knows who you are and what you need in order to grow as a dancer, how do you make sure that you are continuing to perfect your art? I feel that it really depends on who you are as a dancer. The simple but not always practical answer is to go straight up to the teacher and say, "I like to be corrected." I don't know any dancer that has done that the first or second time they have met a new teacher. I am one of those dancers that enjoys being constructively corrected. When I enter a new classroom, instead of verbally stating this, I imply with my body language that corrections are important to me. I don't hang out in the back for each combination. Instead, I stand as close to the front as possible, in plain sight of the teacher. If the teacher does offer me a correction, I nod my head or verbally acknowledge the note. Then, I try to work on that correction right away so the teacher sees me doing it. This shows the teacher that I am comfortable and accepting of corrections. If I really just want to warm up in a class, I will hang out in the back of the room for combinations and offer others a chance to be in the foreground.

If you aren't lucky enough to find a teacher that is comfortable correcting professionals or if you are giving yourself your own class at times, how do you continue getting better? I've toyed around with this idea a lot in the past few months. I have always approached class with the thought that I shouldn't just be warming up, but I should be bettering my form. When I start class, I usually have a general thought continuously flowing through my head. Something along the lines of, pull my inner thighs together to close any air showing between the legs, or hold my core but leave the natural curve of my lower spine, or reach my limbs as far away from my core as possible without distorting my placement to create a longer line. I take one idea and use that as my focus throughout the entire class. I am not so focused on the idea that I can't analyze other things that need to be fixed. But if I start with that foundation, at least I'm always working on something. Dancers can use this method on their own for a period of time, but eventually they will need to have a set of outside eyes to watch them. Another educated dancer or teacher can give you new ideas to use as your foundation correction for class.

Another important tool that I have utilized as a dancer that often has to rely on myself to continue improving is Youtube. If I need inspiration as a choreographer, I will look at footage of choreography by some of my favorite choreographers. I realized that I can do the same thing if I need to find inspiration to better my skills. I have learned that watching dancers that inspire me offers a new look at my own dancing. If I watch a dancer performing online and see that I am really impressed by the execution of their pirouettes, I'll watch the video multiple times to evaluate how they are performing the feat. The next time I get into a studio, I try to mimic what they have done. Of course, this method requires true knowledge of technique, as a dancer doesn't necessarily want to emulate a choreographically stylized version of a step. But if a dancer doesn't have access to another pair of eyes, they can use other tools to remind themselves of corrections that may not have come to mind while they were working on their own.

There are many ways that dancers can better themselves in an environment that doesn't have a leader to guide you on a path of bettering your technique. The above ideas should be very helpful to any dancer, in a company or freelancing. Of course, there are surely other ways to improve yourself that I haven't listed or explored. So, if you have any other ideas that I have forgotten or haven't thought about, please feel free to share them in the comment box below.


Guest Blogger - Multidisciplinary Miami-based freelancer Priscilla Marrero - "Miami Light Project" experience

Priscilla in Normal is Good by Yali Ramazoga-Sanchez (Photo by Brad Fernihough)
Priscilla Marrero and I go WAY back! I first met this beautiful person and talented artist back in 2001, when we were both still training. We really hit it off while attending American Ballet Theatre's summer intensive program in Orange County, CA. In this short 4-week period of time, we forged a friendship that has lasted over 10 years. Although we rarely see each other, we have maintained a great friendship and care for each other whether across coasts or sitting across each other eating dinner under palm trees.

Priscilla is currently an independent performer, choreographer, and teaching artist living in Miami, Florida. She collaborates with multidisciplinary artists through performance, including dance, film, visual art, clothing design, music, and physical theater. She is an active member in the creation of Inkub8, an alternative | whitebox | hybrid | studio and has performed with local Miami companies such as Josée Garant Dance, Momentum Dance Company, Florida Grand Opera, and Artistic Dance Theater. She was also featured performing a solo in season 5 of So You Think You Can Dance, making it all the way through Vegas week until the last round of cuts before the the Top 20 were chosen.

When I asked Priscilla to share a recent freelancing experience with my audience, she was very excited to tell me about her recent project with the Miami Light Project's Here and Now commissioning program, which took place back in the beginning of February. Read all about it below:

Priscilla in Think Like a Guy (Photo by Glexis Novoa)
The entire process of creating a piece for Miami Light Project was surreal. From the moment we submitted our application to the moment we were performing in front of an audience. MLP was the first grant that I had personally applied for. Knowing if my partner and I were selected for the commission with our own creation was exhilarating and scary!
Carlota Pradera, my partner in this commission, and I were actually in Tampa at the Florida Dance Festival when we were finishing up last minute details for the application. Finally, we pressed submit online and hoped for the best. Later, when Carlota called me to announce the good news, I was in a meeting and could not help but to go outside and cheer. I think the waiters were a little bit worried, but heck, I knew this was going to be an incredible process.
When the producers called us in for our first meeting, we had the opportunity to meet the three other local artists also being commissioned. There was a feeling in the room of "wow, we are in this together." We would each present a 20-minute work in the new home for Miami Light Project, the Goldman Warehouse. Beth Boone, director, jokingly made sure to tell us, “You guys will be the first class in the new home. You better be good!”  No, pressure. Phew.

We began the creative process in late August, entering the new space with many ideas and questions to be answered. Each session had a new beginning through physical experimentation, emotional embodiment, and characterization development. This was my second project with Carlota and our artistic collaborators, making it a little bit deeper with our connection as creators. We were in the studio three times a week in four hour sessions. (Sometimes a bit more, depending on the session or day).
As movers, we began each session with an individual warm-up, either through yoga, improvisation, or contact partnering. As time continued, we became interested in breath and how that was the initial seed for our movement or sound. I come from a ballet background. Initially, I would take a class before creating. But I purposely wanted to remove myself from that aesthetic, which was already in my body memory. 

Carlota has a strong connection with the floor in her movement vocabulary. She primarily builds her frame around the floor. Since college, I studied her method and enriched my vocabulary through release work and my relationship to the floor. We challenge each other both aesthetically and intellectually, an element that only heightens the exchange.  

Throughout this project, we had questions relating to the psychology of human behaviors in ideal beauty and popular dances. Being the investigators that we are, we headed out into the Miami streets. We went to a cosmetic surgery office, proposing that we were going to get work done. We went to pole dancing and hip hop classes, interviewing and taking classes. At one point, I found a newspaper article dating back to 2004 that was hidden in my high school yearbook. It related to a friend of mine getting surgery at 18 as a graduation present. We had late nights, including lots of conversations and exchanges with artists and non-artists. It sparked creative energy all around. Our curiosity was stimulated.
Early in the process, we brought in collaborators in clothing design, visual art, music, and film. We knew that we wanted to work closely with our collaborators from the beginning of the project to help deepen the languages between us and the work. Since some of our questions came from a previous work, we were all ready to go to the seed of this new work. I am inspired working with artists from diverse disciplines because the way each of us process is unique to each one. The individual intelligence of each mind is precious. When they create in their medium, their language is born and somehow all of our languages become one. It really fascinates me and, perhaps, is the reason why I continue to collaborate.
During the process, we had three work-in-progress showings for the producers and technical team. This was crucial because it solidified our ideas and concepts. In those showings, as performers and creators of the material being developed, the exchange with the first viewers gave us the necessary information to continue editing and strengthening our ideas. We also invited guest artists to provide feedback. They were just as involved in our process as our artistic collaborators. Sometimes, even more critical!
Priscilla & Carlota Pradera in Aquarius Juice
     (Photo by Glexis Novoa)
The moment had finally arrived when we were in dress rehearsal. The beauty of working in Miami Light Project's Goldman Warehouse is that we had already been working in the theater space before production week. We knew every corner, mark on the floor, and light switch. The space had familiar home energy. We had the opportunity to perform our commission, Aquarius Juice, six times in front of an audience (plus two showings at dress rehearsal and a private showing). The energy from each audience member was intimate and present. Each night was a new life. A new child being born.

One evening an audience member came up to me after a show. She was so touched by our performance that she became sentimental. She said that one of the reasons she had stopped dancing was because of her body image. Seeing us on stage, strong and present, the memories came back to her. She could not believe that they were still vivid in her body and thanked me for releasing her from them. I was very touched by her honesty and openness to experience the work. Those moments remind me why I continue to create work.

The entire process was an unforgettable learning experience, and I, along with my collaborators, are grateful to have experienced it. As a final note, I leave you with the words of writer Neil de la Flor on AquariusJuice. “Sometimes we have to face the ugly to see all the beauty in the mirror. Sometimes we have to smash the mirror and reconstruct a new image of ourselves. Sometimes we have to be jerked out of our comfort zone to find our true place in this human circus.” Pure. Honest. Present. 

Up next for Priscilla is the Ponderosa Choreographic Module in Stolzenhagen, Germany in August and September. Check out Priscilla's website to see what she will be up to in the future. 

Priscilla's advice for other freelance dancers:  “Every creative act involves a leap into the void…. If your work does not sufficiently embarrass you, then very likely no one will be touched by it” (Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares).  I am learning as I go, creating life as it comes. Continue your discipline, listen to your intuition, and share with others that share your truth. Every session is a new one, sometimes I question why I am still creating. A wise friend once told me that the only way to do it is to go into the studio every day, even if sometimes you just want to lie there.  Being active in your choice, somehow sparks creativity.


A home-base experience - Dance Fusion

Myself & Gwendolyn Bye in Threnody - by Mary Anthony
One of my very first freelancing gigs took place in Philadelphia. I had finished the Summer series with the company that I had been dancing with regularly and I was pretty green when it came to looking for work outside of my company life. My boss at the time had mentioned that a local modern company needed a few men to be a part of their reconstruction of a modern work by Mary Anthony that had been choreographed in the 1950's. I wasn't sure if I was up to the task of dancing with a modern company and was also reluctant to commit to dancing a "modern" piece, especially of that era and which I hadn't heard of or seen before. I needed work for the rest of the summer and I didn't know how to look for other work at the time. So, I agreed to dance in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival as a guest artist with Dance Fusion.

I had only been living in my apartment in Philly for about a week at the time. And to be completely honest, it was a disaster. Although our time there was short-lived, my partner and I had to deal with issues ranging from a centipede infestation to the ceiling collapsing to rain pouring on us as we slept through a poorly installed window A/C unit. To top all of this off, one of our cats nearly died of a urinary blockage and was still quite ill after we had brought him into our new home. It was hot outside and I was exhausted after finishing out my final season with PNB, moving across the country, and beginning work with the new company a day after I moved. I remember the first day that I had rehearsal with Dance Fusion, I had been running around in 100 degree heat like a chicken with its head cut off and I was at my wits end. Nonetheless, I jumped on the subway and headed to West Philly for my first day as a "modern" dancer since I was 16.

My first rehearsal started with a Mary Anthony modern class directed by Gwendolyn Bye, the director of Dance Fusion. It wasn't a hard class, but it was way out of my comfort zone. Luckily, Gwen isn't a nasty, aggressive work-horse. She is a very open-minded, thoughtful person who prefers to suggest an idea versus forcing you into her preferred method of dancing. After taking class, I started to feel that I could handle being a "modern" dancer for 5 weeks.

We moved on to rehearsal and I was thrown into the piece, Threnody, which the other company members had already been rehearsing for a handful of weeks. The process of learning this work was slower than the fast-paced world that I had come from while dancing with PNB, where we would put together a work in 2-3 weeks before it was put on stage. I definitely didn't mind this less stressful approach. It was now late July and we had until the beginning of September to perform the piece. Granted, we did only hold rehearsals twice a week in the evenings for about 2-3 hours. Nonetheless, this process was low stress. I was given more time to adjust to the foreign style. This was a godsend, as I was also adjusting to a new city, a new life, and all of the stresses that go along with that.

It was nice to develop a summer routine around my rehearsals with the company. If I wanted to experience a bit of a summer break, I could sleep in and take an open ballet or contemporary class at Koresh Dance School. If I wanted to feel more regimented, I could wake up early and take a ballet class, too. Having just moved, there were a lot of odds and ends that needed to be taken care of, as well as handling all of the disasters that were happening in our "slumlord" apartment. On top of all of that, there was a rare east coast earthquake and hurricane. The dancers of Dance Fusion quickly became family and helped me calm down when I felt like my apartment was going to fall down on top of me. What I really realized was that this opportunity was a blessing. One thing that I felt dancing for a major ballet company outside of NYC was disconnected. We didn't really associate with many in our community when our ballet company was already a huge one in itself. In Philadelphia, there are many small companies and projects happening that are under the radar due to its close proximity to NYC. Once you meet one person, you are suddenly connected to an entire community in this big-little city. I remember thinking to myself that one of the reasons I had left my previous job was because I felt so isolated. This experience helped me realize that I am not just part of one institution, but I am a smaller part of a greater whole.

Back to the experience, rehearsals continued through August and we even took a trip to NYC to hold an open rehearsal at the Mary Anthony Studios. This was, perhaps, one of the most interesting experiences I have EVER had in my dance career. Mary Anthony is in her mid-90's and still kicking. Not only that, she doesn't just own her own dance studio. She lives in it. Mary Anthony is one of the last living artists that I know of who continues to live a wild Bohemian artist lifestyle. She barely spoke, but I will tell you that she instilled great fear in me when she opened her mouth and aggressively shouted, "You are too PRETTY! You're a SAILOR...You've lived a HARD life." She was referring to the ballet technique that I still to this day am working on releasing when I am dancing extremely modern works. She sat very quietly through most of the day, but was very gracious to her entire cult following that joined us that evening.

The week of performances went by quite quickly. We performed at Drexel University's Mandell Theatre. By the time that we had moved to the stage, I was quite surprised to find that I was really enjoying myself and my fellow dancers. I was given a character to portray that was far outside of my personality and far away from anybody I have ever known. I started to feel my inner artist come out. Suddenly, I stopped worrying about how easy or hard or awkward or out of my style the steps were and I became a young, rebellious sailor that was taken from his mother by the sea.

Jesse Sani, Sean Rosswell-Dubbs, and myself performing Threnody - by Mary Anthony
From the beginning, I was slightly skeptical about diving into this experience. But in the end, I was greatly rewarded by this opportunity. Not only that, the people that I got to work with were wonderful and I continue my friendships with them today. This experience was the first thing that opened my eyes to dancing in styles outside of classical and contemporary ballet. Maybe it didn't improve my ballet technique, but it stretched me as an artist. In fact, Im looking forward to it stretching my artistry again, as I will be performing with Dance Fusion again in the Philly Fringe Festival this coming September. And this time, Im looking forward to it!