The importance of taking breaks

Driving towards downtown Los Angeles

The past year and a half has been quite challenging for me, adjusting from the structure of a big-time union company to the wildly changeable life of a freelance dancer. I began auditioning for companies while still working at PNB, often on weekends. I would finish my workweek, take a cab to the airport, fly across the country, audition, and then fly back to begin a new workweek (sometimes flying back early Monday morning and going straight to work). Following this extravaganza, I finished out my last season with the company, moved across the country, danced job after job after job, and taught master classes/subbed whenever possible. It was shocking to my system and I was very clearly running full speed ahead towards burnout. About six weeks ago, my partner made me take a day retreat to assess why I had started developing extreme stress and anxiety symptoms in even the most minor situations. My assessment: I hadn’t even realized that I had been dancing, working, teaching, and stressing about so many life changes for 18 months without taking more than a few days for myself. My plan? Take a month off from dance and dance work, teach minimally, travel somewhere that isn’t in the Philadelphia region, and dye my hair some fun color that I could never sport onstage.
Purple and Blue

Working full-time for a company has many great perks. Aside from rep, finances, touring, and benefits, you are also given structure. PNB had a great contract that provided forty weeks of work a year. This meant that we were laid off for 12 weeks every year. Of course, you could continue dancing during these weeks, but you were afforded the opportunity to take a break if you wanted or needed. As a freelancer, you aren’t governed by an official calendar. If work pops up, chances are you will take it. Freelancers, often living in constant fear of financial disaster, tend to book their schedules dancing with “this” company and teaching at “that” school and “that other” school. My summer included me dancing two gigs in Philadelphia that rehearsed on completely different sides of town and teaching at six different schools, some of which were more than an hour commute each way. On top of all of this, I was taking ballet class in the mornings, going to the gym daily, choreographing a solo that I performed in the Philly Fringe Festival, keeping up this blog, looking for new work, and so much more. I was literally running from place to place. As in, I would dash down the street running to get to my next job. I didn’t have time for anything. My bills were paid, but I wasn’t even aware until my retreat that I couldn’t keep it up much longer. I clearly needed a break.

One of the hardest things to figure out is exactly when one should be taking a break. There are two ways that you can figure this out. The first way is to look at your calendar and determine how long you can practically dance before giving your body a rest. Some dancers need time off after a couple months, while others can go up to six months. One thing that I am sure of is that no dancer can keep their body in peak physical condition 52 weeks a year. You can put time off into your calendar, blocking out one or a few weeks. Of course, these dates can be flexible in the event that a great opportunity presents itself. But you should really try to commit to this time off. The other way to determine when to take a break is impractical and dangerous. Many freelancers beat themselves into the ground until they burn out or become injured. I learned this lesson the hard way, but I figured things out just in time. The hard part was that I didn’t even realize that I was approaching burn out.

In my mind, I was convinced that I had absolutely no choice but to hustle around the city like a prostitute de ballet. At times, I didn’t have a choice. But once I got in the flow of that constant rush and panic, I couldn’t break the pattern. I was rushed and panicked about everything from making ends meet to food shopping. How can you tell if you are approaching burn out? There is no real answer to this question, as I feel that everybody handles stress and workload differently. For me, I first noticed it in my breath. My partner turned to me after I had reacted with unnecessary abrasiveness when he was trying to help me accomplish a task and said, “I haven’t seen you take a full breath in at least two weeks.” I was anxious about the simplest things. At times, I couldn’t even handle our cats meowing when we prepared to feed them, like they do every night. I had begun to lose my ability to cope with normal, everyday stressors. This was my first sign. The second sign that I was running myself into the ground was when I started to question whether I should continue in my profession. Anybody that knows me personally is well aware that I am quite the “bunhead.” I live for dance and try to immerse myself in the art as much as possible. So, it was odd when I started thinking about what my life would be like without dance in it. I knew that I was lying to myself, but I also couldn’t stop playing with the idea. It was almost as if I was teasing myself to take the bait. When burn out is approaching, it is almost like being addicted to a drug. You start ingesting unhealthy thoughts. Though you are quite aware that this kind of thinking is bad for you, you keep going back to that negative thinking. If one gets to this point, it is necessary to take some time off. Essentially, burn out can be a career-threatening injury.

When a dancer has determined that they need to take a break, how do they prepare to take time off? Obviously, the most ideal way is to create some type of savings. This way you can pay your bills and maybe even travel while you are giving your body and mind a rest. With scattered or sometimes low paying work, it can be difficult to create a savings. If you are unable to save enough money to take an extended break, I suggest finding some way to make money while avoiding dancing. Teaching is an option. But, if the plan is to stay away from dance altogether, teaching may not be the best option. If you need to continue bringing in income, perhaps, look for other work that isn’t dance related. Not only will this give your body a chance to recover, but it will hopefully give you time to miss dancing. I think it is important to miss dancing every once in awhile. It builds a greater appreciation for and want to dance. Doing other jobs also gives you a greater range of work experience that will benefit you when you retire from dancing. One could look for desk work at a dance/non-dance institution. If one is looking for short-term work, they could check out Craigslist or ask around. I know some friends that even mention that they are looking for short-term work on Facebook. No matter the avenue, just make sure that you feel comfortable with the situation and that you trust they will compensate as agreed upon prior to doing the job.

Corona Del Mar in Orange County, CA
The best way to take a break is to get out of your working environment for a bit. It was hard for me to stop working, even when I committed to taking some time away from the studio. Because I work from home when I’m not in the studio, it is impossible for me to 100% get my mind off work in my house. To achieve this, my partner and I traveled across the country to Los Angeles for a week. We had a bit of money saved up, but we didn’t have the funds to do a luxurious vacation. We decided that the best way to do this would be to visit my partner’s hometown. He has tons of family and friends in LA, so this seemed like a great option. We both have a credit card directly linked to an airline, so we were able to use a voucher to greatly reduce the price of flying. Essentially, we paid for one round-trip ticket and split the cost. Then, once we arrived in LA, we either stayed with friends or family. This cut the cost of hotels. The only expenses that we needed to afford were food and renting a car. My suggestion if you want to get out of your home-base is to find a location where you can stay with a friend or family and make it work. If that isn’t a possibility because you need to stay home to work, I would suggest, at least, taking a weekend get-away. Take a train/bus/drive to another town or city nearby. If you can afford one night at a hotel, go for it. If not, go on Groupon or Livingsocial and look for deals or adventures that will get you out of the house and offer a fun or new experience. Whatever you do, be sure that you are giving yourself a chance to enjoy yourself. Freelancing is stressful and requires time to decompress and get your mind off work. 
I began this blog en route to Los Angeles and am finishing the post a day after arriving back home. I didn’t touch it the entire week I was taking a break, even though I was tempted. Lynne Goldberg (link in my friends of freelancers column) is a life-coach for many great dancers in our community, including Edwaard Liang, Maria Kowrowski, and Kathryn Morgan. We were having a conversation a couple of months ago where she mentioned that repeated thoughts create wiring in the brain. Once you have created that wired connection, it is hard to break the pattern of thought. I really agree with this concept. I spent a large part of my vacation struggling with guilt that I was getting out of shape, falling behind in work, and losing valuable opportunities that I should be seeking. Even with these thoughts, I did not work. The emails and phone calls came in and I responded that I wouldn’t be available until the following week. I feel that the reason I struggled so much to relax was because I have wired my brain to be in a constant state of staying in shape, looking for work, and stress for the last 18 months. I still need to work on relaxing and taking time for myself, but this vacation was a good first step. I am positive that taking short breaks more often will help me find a healthier balance, physically and mentally. In this difficult career, not only do we have to enjoy our work, but we need to find time away so that we remain healthy and passionate about our artform.

Driving into the sunset (and palm trees) in Long Beach


How to find and obtain health insurance

In the dorms at the School of American Ballet, attempting to do a breathing treatment for my asthma. My suitemates, Jermel Johnson (now Principal Pennsylvania Ballet) and Andrew Scordato (now Corps New York City Ballet), decided to have some fun while I used my nebulizer.
When I first decided that I was going to create this blog, I made a list of more than 30 topics that I felt were important to touch upon. Of course, I have added more to that list over time. But from the start, I knew that I needed to write a blog about obtaining health insurance as a freelance dancer. I've put it off and put it off again, but for good reason. How could I write a blog about searching for health insurance if I had never done a search myself? Well, dear followers, the search is over. I applied for my own health insurance plan earlier this week and now that I have gained credibility in writing this post through experience, I am prepared to share what I have learned through the process.

Being diagnosed at the age of 4 with severe asthma really taught me the importance of having health insurance. I visited the hospital at least 5 times per year until I was about 17 years old for asthma related problems. When I left PNB, I felt extremely fortunate that I was offered 18 months of continuing health coverage as a part of a federally regulated program called COBRA. I was moving across the country the day after my duties had ended with PNB, working with a new company, commuting over an hour each way from the suburbs, and searching for a new place to live in a city that wasn't very familiar. I hardly had time to figure out how to obtain health coverage.

COBRA was a godsend. I still had coverage to pay for that earwax blockage that prevented me from hearing out of my left ear for five days only three weeks after moving (ewww...gross), which surprisingly screwed up my ability to balance while dancing. I struggled to pay the $521.70/month tab, but felt that I was very lucky to still have the option to take care of myself. COBRA only lasts for 18 months after you cease working for a company. As I approached month 16, I had to begin seriously looking for coverage that was affordable, allowed me to take care of my asthma and medications, and offered options for physical maintenance while avoiding completely breaking the bank. Now that I have figured things out, I am still kicking myself that I could have been saving hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of dollars a month.

Before one starts looking for an affordable health plan, they should first determine their needs. For me, I am asthmatic and require certain medications that need to be refilled nearly every month. I also want to feel that if I am ill, that I can go straight to a doctor. I don't want to question whether I should see a doctor. If I have to pay a great deal out of pocket, chances are that I will keep putting off an appointment until I am way to sick to work. Being a dancer, I also feel it is important to have an option for physical maintenance to keep my body in the best condition that I can. So, for me, an ideal plan has affordable prescription coverage, low co-pay with no/low deductibles, and "specialist" coverage for PT and chiropractic care. I also travel a lot, so it would be impractical for me to get an HMO plan, where you have to choose one main doctor that gives you referrals for anybody outside their services (these plans are usually cheaper). I need a PPO plan that allows me to go to any provider that accepts a specific health insurance company's plan (read here for more information about HMO vs PPO).

Where does one begin their search for health insurance? My partner (life partner) owns an organizing business (Shameless plug) and has become "Philadelphia's next top networker." In his many ventures to make friends, obtain clients, and learn what people in Philly are all about, he met an insurance broker. Since my partner doesn't have any health insurance at the moment, the broker told him he could help him out. My partner mentioned that I would soon need to find new coverage and the broker offered me some great advice. If you have recently left a company and are on COBRA and you like your current health plan, call your current provider. PNB offered insurance through Regence, which is a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield. BCBS is one of the largest providers in the country. Using this network, with the right plan, I have had easy access to most providers, even though I live across the country. This is extremely important for freelancers who spend a large amount of time away from their home-base. All one has to do is call the customer service number on their insurance card and ask to talk to a representative about switching over to an individual plan. A dancer could easily do this before expensive COBRA payments kick in. Just make sure that you don't have a lapse of coverage for more than 63 days. Law states that an insured person can not be denied health coverage if they have had coverage less than 63 days before applying (read here). This method of seeking insurance is the quickest way to gain and continue coverage.

What are you supposed to do if you have had a lapse of 63 days without coverage, are leaving your parent's insurance plan, or have never had your own insurance coverage? The first thing you can do is call major national providers like BCBS, Aetna, or any others on this list. This is going to require a lot of time, patience sitting on the phone, and self-comparing. If you do have access to an insurance broker, like I did, you may want to give them a call and get advice from them. Don't be afraid if you don't have access to a broker. There are many websites that act like insurance brokers. One site I found particularly useful was Ehealthinsurance. Beyond that, one can use finder.healthcare.gov, healthinsurance.org, or any of the useful sites that are listed in this great article about finding your own insurance. Be aware that coverage can change according to your state, age, and other conditional items. If you don't get your health insurance through one of these websites, you can at least use them as a tool to get a general comparison of rates.

If you feel that you need some advice or assistance in looking for the right insurance plan, among other things, there are three great resources that EVERY freelancer should know about. Fractured Atlas is an organization that helps support and service artists of all types, from organizations to freelance dancers. If you look around this website, you can find information that can help you find health insurance. One can also join the Freelancer's Union. This union is free to join and their mission is to "connect freelancers to group-rate benefits, resources, community, and political action to improve their lives – and their bottom lines." Lastly, a dancer that has already spent some time as a professional can contact Career Transitions for Dancers for advice on insurance and beyond. I am sure there are many more resources out there that I have missed. If any of my readers have more to share, please feel free to leave a comment with that information below.

In the end, I ended up going with the carrier that I had through my COBRA with PNB. I was able to switch my company plan to an individual plan that is comparable to my previous coverage and I will be saving nearly $300 a month to boot. If you want to see what my plan looks like  click here and find the PPO 30 Copay plan. My co-pays are generally low, there is no deductible in-network, and I can see a physical therapist or chiropractor if necessary. Even though it was a lot of work to figure all of this out, I am glad that I can continue protecting my body and my wallet. As dancers, it is important that we do everything that we can to maintain our instrument. Every dancer should have some form of health insurance. According to this 2006 article in the L.A. Times, "Classical ballet companies, weighing injury totals against the number of dancers who perform each year, report a 67% to 95% annual injury rate." If a dancer is on their own, they need to have an option to take care of themselves if, and when, injury occurs.


The importance of your freelancing friends

The best quality that a freelancer can bestow is great networking/social skills. Most of the work that our type of artist obtains is based purely on an outgoing, friendly, and trustworthy personality. Even though dancers rarely speak onstage, this career is, perhaps, more social than most others. Freelance dancers need to be engaging in order to woo employers, as well as friends. If a dancer is more of a loner and less friendly, they will be much less likely to survive in this field. Not only are my freelancing friends very important to me on the basic premises of friendship, but they are also very important in helping me find and obtain work.

When I spent my first summer away from home at the age of 16 with Houston Ballet Academy at their annual summer intensive, I made it a point to learn the first and last name of every dancer living in the dorms and in my classes. I continued this practice at every program I attended. At the time, I thought I was just being friendly. But what I was really doing was fine tuning my networking skills. Who knew where each young hopeful's career would lead them? And who knows how valuable a friendship in this career can be for you, personally or professionally. While many of these dancers eventually left their pursuit of a ballet career to pursue other interests, a small contingent of us moved on to become high-quality performance artists. The connections that I've made all the way back to my first summer program experience through to my career as a big company dancer to my foray into freelancing have been the most valuable aspect of this harsh life of a freelance dancer.

Performing in a gig Matthew got me (Photo: Dmitri Popadakov)
When I was traveling around the country seeking a job after choosing to leave the prestige of PNB, I met a man by the name of Matthew Prescott (Matthew was recently featured in this Pointe Magazine article speaking about freelancing). Matthew started his career with the Joffrey, but eventually transitioned into full-time freelancing. He was freelancing with the company that I was auditioning for at the time. I was auditioning in a warm-up class prior to a performance onstage. We got to chatting and he told me about his lifestyle as a freelancer. Not knowing whether I would eventually be offered a contract from any of the companies I was auditioning for, I asked Matthew if he could give me some pointers about getting freelance work. After that audition, we became friends on Facebook. Ever since, Matthew has been a great source of assistance for me.

After I had taken a seasonal contract with that same company, Matthew was the first person to email me with information about a gig. He had worked with this person before, but was unavailable during the dates that the employer needed him to dance. I felt honored and nervous. My freelance career had begun. Over time, I have come to learn the importance of sharing work with your freelancing friends. Matthew was the first person to show me this and I feel it was a very valuable lesson.

Finding work can be challenging, especially considering that most opportunities are offered to dancers that already have a close relationship with a company or school. It can be expensive for both a company/school or dancer to audition, especially if it is only for a short term contract. Often, companies want to go with a dancer they already know is of quality, respectable, and easy to work with. When the chosen dancer isn't available, a company is highly likely to go with someone suggested by the dancer who wasn't available. For this reason, maintaining relationships with your freelancing network is of great importance. And not only should we nomadic dancers accept work from friends, we should reciprocate the favor. This "you pat my back, I'll pat yours" culture is integral to the survival of many dance artists.

Another reason that freelancing friends are so important is for the support system they can offer. Not only can they help you get work, but they can help you with the many obstacles this career can throw at you. Am I asking for too much money? Is it appropriate to ask for transportation to be provided? This situation seems unprofessional and unsafe. Am I overreacting? These are a few questions that friends who have "already been through it" have helped me answer. Beyond that, these friends can also be a great source of moral support.

Me, Jen Goodman, and Joel Prouty performing "It Makes Me Nervous" by Avi Scher (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Something I have been generally quiet about is that I went through a particularly tough period this summer. I was expecting to be working all summer when my situation changed quickly. I was forced to scramble for work in a short period of time and this put me in a few precarious positions in order to make ends meet. When I was feeling particularly down, I reached out to a friend that I met while dancing with Avi Scher and Dancers in the Guggenheim's "Works and Process" program (See blog here). Jennifer Goodman was a long-time Joffrey dancer that took up freelancing after new artistic director Ashley Wheater took over the company. Jen offered me this great advice about freelancing that really lifted my spirits and helped me make sense of what I was going through. "I had to let go of my usual comfort zone and wanting to know and control things and just go with the flow." When you are short on work or have little lined up, emotions bubble to the surface. Jen helped me put things into perspective. Within weeks of receiving this uplifting email, I went from having little work lined up to being generally booked for the next seven months with projects that I am excited to be a part of. It just goes to show how manic this freelancing career can be and how your emotions/self-worth can quickly change suit based on your current situation. During this time, many more of my freelancing friends were great sources of support. Honestly, comfort from those who have been through what you are going through is more comforting than most support that loved one's can offer.

Freelancing can be as rewarding as it is challenging. It definitely isn't for everyone. It requires patience, emotional strength, steely nerves, and, of course, boatloads of talent. In full-time companies, you have your coworkers in the same room with you to rely on for support every day. As a freelance dancer, you're freelancing friends, while not always close in distance, become your coworkers and support system. With that, I will leave you with just one more piece of advice Jen gave me. "Embrace the unknown, go with the flow, take in every new experience good or bad, and trust that all this is happening for a reason and aligned with your life path."

(Stay tuned for a guest blog post by Jen Goodman)


Meet your link to getting hired - Lauren Menger

Often, when you are sending out emails, marketing yourself as a valuable freelance dancer to different companies, your emails are not going straight to the artistic director. If you are sending your info to a larger company, you will most likely be communicating with the company manager or the assistant to the artistic director. This is not typically the case, though, with smaller sized organizations. I have found that smaller companies who utilize freelance dancers don't typically have the finances to hire a massive network of administrators to handle everyday business. What often happens is one very respected and responsible dancer takes on a more administrative role and helps the company out with certain tasks. Taking on this responsibility can be very valuable, as it offers some great work experience outside of dancing and it saves the company some money. I have had a few great experiences working directly with a dancer while I am setting up work. The best part of this interaction is that you are already developing a direct relationship with somebody that you will eventually be dancing with before you arrive. Recently, prior to signing a contract to dance with Festival Ballet Providence in their production of Swan Lake, I communicated with a dancer about everything from contracts to housing and travel. Meet Lauren Menger.

Lauren in Balanchine's Apollo (Photo: Gene Schiavone)

The professional dance world is very small. And when I say small, I mean really, really small. I was performing in a festival with Seiskaya Ballet while solidifying work with Festival Ballet Providence. I mentioned, in passing, that I was communicating with a woman by the name of Lauren Menger during a conversation with the directors and fellow guest artist, Boston Ballet's Boyko Dossev, when all of their eyes lit up. Lauren was raised at Seiskaya Ballet. I knew that we were connecting through our email conversations, but this new connection really helped seal the deal. I find that I always end up befriending dancers that take a greater position in companies beyond their role as a dancer. This is not only because they are an integral part in me getting hired. I find that these dancers are intelligent, ambitious, interested in the greater picture of the organization beyond their own status, and proactive in creating work experience that may help them when their dance career ends. I have great respect for that. Needless to say, Lauren and I became great friends and supporters of each other during my five weeks in Providence. I pulled her aside and asked if she would be willing to speak about her dual role as a dancer and liason to the artistic director for my audience and, to our benefit, she agreed.
Lauren performing Swan Lake (photo: Gene Schiavone)

What is your position with the company and how long have you been doing this/these jobs?

I am a Company Dancer here at Festival Ballet Providence and have been dancing full time here for the past seven years. We do not have official ranks. In addition to my role as a company dancer, I am called Production Manager in the playbill, but in all actuality it is more like an Assistant to the Director position. I have been in this position for the last five years.

How did you fall into your current position as an assistant?

Towards the end of my second year as an apprentice here, the company became short staffed in the office. Mihailo (Misha) Djuric, our artistic director, needed help with a few odds and ends. He didn't want to hire another person because he felt a colleague of mine and I were capable of the job and could split the duties. That year we were each assigned specific jobs. We were given an hourly rate and it was a nice small addition to our income. The following year my colleague was preparing to retire, so I incurred her duties. The next few years were big transition years for the company. We lost an executive director, who was incredible at her job, our production manager, two marketing people, and a slew of other administrative workers. I had a business minor from my time at Indiana University and had no problem picking up odds and ends that needed to be taken care of. This company has always been extremely loyal to the dancers and has never cut our pay. They have had to sacrifice office workers for the good of the dancers. Since this is the case, I help Misha out, filling in these gaps whenever possible.

What specific responsibilities do you have outside of being a dancer with your company?

Outside of the company my responsibilities include, but are not limited to: ordering, budgeting and distributing company dancers' shoes, answering all auditioner correspondence, coordinating truck rentals for load in and load out of the theatre (this includes my husband, fellow dancer Roger Fonnegra, driving them on occasion), assisting with all dancer/staff relations, communicating important information with the dancers whenever needed, communicating and helping out new hires, assisting with travel arrangements for guests, and assisting Misha whenever he needs help. I have also created and organized fundraisers, contributed to a blog, and helped sell tickets/ads.

What do you do to help dancers that are coming in as guest artists?

I try to make their transition as seamless as possible. I fill them in on the odds and ends of dancing with Festival. I have offered up my house as a place to stay when we can, assist with driving them places, answer all their emails/questions, take care of their shoe needs, and keep them updated with all company info.

What is the most rewarding part of your job as an assistant?

At times, my job as assistant can be time consuming, but in the end it is actually very rewarding. One thing that the director and I have always shared is our desire for the arts and more importantly our company in Rhode Island to succeed. One doesn't really realize how much work it takes to put on a production until you really are behind the scenes of it. This company has so many talented artists and dancers. It gives me great pleasure to know that I was part of the hard work that went into getting them on stage. My work often goes unrewarded externally, but personally it makes me feel good knowing that I can put forth my efforts into something larger and more meaningful than just myself.

What advice would you give to dancers who are looking for guest work? How about once they arrive to dance with a company like Festival?

My advice to dancers looking for guest work would be to make it evident from the get-go what type of work you are looking for. I would also say to not be shy about sending your materials out, even if companies are not necessarily seeking guests. I usually keep an e-file of dancers who send me their info to go through when we need them. When they arrive to work, I would say that being flexible is the best quality to have; and not necessarily the ballet type. ;) Be ready to give up some of what you are used to, either stylistically or personality wise, to mesh well with the staff and company. Also, be open; companies like ours really enjoy having other people come and perform with us, and being friendly can't ever hurt.

Lauren was one of the most positive aspects of my time in Providence. Companies are very lucky to have certain people that are willing to give as much to the organization as they do to their art. After finishing her 7th season with Festival, Lauren and her husband Roger decided to take a great leap across the country to join Ballet Idaho, where they will both dance. Lauren is also taking on a major role teaching in the school, all while finishing up a Master's degree in Elementary Education.