The Best Advice I've Gotten (Life of a Freelance Dancer turns 1 year old)

 Giving a speech (Photo: Lindsay Thomas)
I am very excited to say that Life of a Freelance Dancer celebrated it's first birthday last Tuesday. In one short year, this blog has been viewed over 14,000 times by viewers on all 6 continents (Does Antarctica even count?). We have written over 52 posts with guest bloggers from multiple dance scenes on all topics pertaining to this career style. We have been shared by multiple other bloggers, partnered with a website design company that makes sites specifically for dancers, and threw an event for freelancers in New York City (stay tuned for another). Not only that, "LOFD" was named a finalist in Dance Advantage's top dance blog contest.  Cheers to a great kick off year and to many more to come!

In honor of "LOFD's" first year of life, I have decided to list some of the best advice that I have received and given over the past year. I have had many great, odd, challenging, and rewarding experiences during my first year of full-time freelancing and I have, surely, learned a lot. I couldn't have made it through without the support of my partner, mentors, colleagues, friends, and family (and because I didn't ask if I could share any of these gems, I will not be listing those who gave me this advice). Enjoy!

- "Trust you instincts."

- "Make a list of choreographers you want to work with and contact them."

- "Market yourself unabashedly, but don't be that person who puts a card in everyone's hand at the start of every conversation."

- "Do be gracious towards your employers. They chose to hire you over many other dancers. Whether it be an honest verbal thank you, a short note, or a follow-up email, let your employer know that you are appreciative and what you will take away/remember from your time working with the company."

- "Your value as a dancer is not based on what you are dancing at a particular moment. It's the sum of your whole career."

- "Don't try to clean up other people's messes. Give support if they ask for assistance, but let them clean up for themselves."

- "There is no timeline to a dance career."

- "Create pathways. If you create multiple pathways, one is sure to take. If you only make one, if it doesn't work out, you have nowhere to go."

-"Don't let those that haven't been in your shoes make you feel like you are less than you're worth." "One can't understand what it is like to play in the big leagues when they are only in the minors."

-"If dancing is something you are truly passionate about, be sure to make that apparent in your work ethic and artistry. People will notice." 

-"Acknowledge the problem, find a workable solution, take care of yourself, and don't internalize the problem."

 - "If you are offering your services for nothing or close to that, you are lowering your value as a commodity."

- "In classical ballet, you are expected to strive for perfect technique in your performance (among other things). In contemporary dance, you are expected to be moving."

- "I do what I need to. I help out when I can. And I don't make a big deal out of either."

-  "If you need something, you have to ask for it."

- "Find a way to be more compelling."

- "Take breaks from work."

- "Just because somebody hired you doesn't mean that you are a slave to their every wish."

- "Repeated thoughts create wiring in the brain. Once you have created that wired connection, it is hard to break the pattern of thought."

- "When a situation does get bad, I think the pressure valve will be empathy.
You can't submit. But you just might be able to understand."

- "Do smile and laugh. This may seem super shallow, but employers are drawn to dancers that are happy. The more you smile and laugh, the more likely an employer will enjoy your presence. Try to do this genuinely."

- Lastly...from my mom. Not necessarily advice, but a motherly push at the end of some advice. Mom: "You're famous." Me: "No, I'm not." Mom: "You are to me."

Elizel Long & me in Amy Seiwert's "Monuments" (Photo: Gutierrez Photography)


The Fine Line Between Submissive and Aggressive

As a student of dance, you are taught to be as submissive as possible. You know nothing and the teacher holds the key to all of the possibilities of your future. Of course, there are good teachers and bad teachers and you submissively hope that each teacher is going to give you all of the correct tools for success. Whether you get proper training or not, if you make it as a professional, it is likely that you lucked out on a great teacher or moved along to find a new, better teacher to show you the way. Once you become a professional, you are hired to follow the lead of a director and their artistic staff. Essentially, show up, take class, come to rehearsal, do your job, and go home. Don't question authority, corrections, or advice. As a pro, your role as dancer changes to a degree and you have a bit more say in how you approach your work. But for the most part you must still remain subservient, even as a fully grown adult. At what point does this mindset help one's career and when does it begin to hinder your pathway to success?

When I am teaching a class, I fully expect my students to hang on every word I say. I've been through rigorous training at world-class schools, I have danced on many great stages, and I have had lasting power that has allowed me to continue dancing for 10 years and counting. My students are more than welcome to ask questions. But when it comes to questioning my approach, knowledge, and corrections, I am not open to holding a debate about my reasoning with a student in class. What it comes down to is this. A student is somewhere between a blank canvas and an uncolored outline of a beautiful picture. They still need the tools to determine what colors to paint the picture, what brush to use, and the appropriate technique to combine these things into a piece of art. Very rarely does a student have a natural knack to complete the image without any instruction. For the most part, a student needs articulate guidance to help them along their path to success. This idea of blind following is a necessary aspect of a student's training.

Because many dancers begin their career at a young age, the concept of blind following tends to bleed over in the transition from high-level student to professional dancer. As a pro, it is assumed that you will be that blank canvas I mentioned above. The expectation of a dancer is to walk into a studio, have previous choreography/new work transferred to their body, and then to go onstage and do exactly what they have been told to do in rehearsal. For the most part, the dancer is performing under great influence of those that they are submissive towards. Typically, the only influence dancers have in the choreography comes from their personality and individual nuance. It is not common for a dancer to be given liberty to make largely personal choices in the studio or onstage.

Dancing "Gold" in "Sleeping Beauty" - SAB workshop '03
I often ask myself whether adult-professional dancer submission is due to the nature of the work or the nature of the training. There was great controversy back in 2009, when New York City Ballet's Ballet-Master-in-Chief, Peter Martins, was called out by a dancer that had been laid off and felt the need to speak about certain aspects of dancing for America's largest dance company. In this article, former dancer, Sophie Flack, stated "we’re referred to as kids by the administration. Some of the people they’re referring to are 35-year-old women with children." I often question why this happens. For many dancers, especially within New York City Ballet, they are hired as teenagers that have come through the School of American Ballet. Peter Martins often taught at the school when I attended in 2002-2003. When students come through training programs as teenagers and transition to professionals at a young age, the leadership still has the memory of the dancers as students. I feel it can be difficult to make the mental transition, on the artistic staff's side, from aspiring child to working adult. This is not always the case, as many dancers move on to dance with companies that didn't see this progression. But the idea that most dancers don't have a transition in the most common sense, like going from high school student to college student to intern to working professional, blurs the line between submissive, child-like attitudes and more aggressive, adult-like independent thinking.

It is quite difficult to work as a freelance dancer because of the submissive nature that is instilled in dancers at an early point in their training. At times, one can feel like they are fighting against their very own being. When a dancer chooses to freelance, they are finding their own work, promoting oneself, and looking out for their own needs. Much of this requires an aggressive streak. Dancers that remain submissive will find that they have trouble convincing employers that they are the right person for the job. The act of negotiating a contract is also an activity that requires the dancer to act more aggressively to have their needs met. Following these more aggressive behaviors, a dancer arrives in the studio and is expected to be completely submissive. To add to the confusion, if an issue, whether relating to comfort or safety, needs to be handled, it is the freelancers necessity to speak up for themselves. It can be quite confusing and cause problems if one can't determine when it is appropriate to be submissive or aggressive.

What I find works best for me is to get my most important needs written directly into a contract. This prevents any question if an uncomfortable situation arises and I need to address it. Responding aggressively to an action that is in opposition to expectations seems less aggressive if it is put down in writing prior to the issue. I find that it is easier to remain submissive in a studio if you respect the people you are working for and if they provide an atmosphere that is comfortable and safe. As it is often said, respect breeds respect.

To be completely honest, I find myself happiest in a studio where I feel that I can remain submissive. When I feel the need to step into a more aggressive role, it is usually because I feel disrespected or endangered. Moving away from my place of submission makes me horribly uncomfortable. Certain situations do arise that can push the boundaries of a dancers' reaction. For instance, if an employer makes last second changes to a rehearsal schedule, how is one supposed to react? What if rehearsals continue longer than they are supposed to? Or if the warm-up class is not what is expected or appropriate? What if there is a last minute costume change that could be potentially dangerous without any time to adjust? When is it appropriate to speak up (an aggressive act) and when is it time to let it slide (a submissive act)?

As I have already said, I am happiest in rehearsals where I can remain submissive. Unfortunately, working as a freelance artist, there will be times when one must stand up for themselves. This has been a challenge more than I would like to admit during my tenure as a freelancer. Dancing with an AGMA company, the dancers had a 40-something page contract that clarified every detail of expected conditions and terms listed. In the freelance world, there is no such thing. For the most part, you are at the will of whatever the employer asks you to do. If you don't feel safe and you choose to act submissively, you may be jeopardizing your own well-being. But if you respond aggressively, you may be upsetting the management and creating an insubordinate image. Essentially, it takes great judgement on the freelancers part to decide when it is appropriate to let something slide and when to speak up for oneself.

In the end, due to the nature of expected dancer submission, if one chooses to vocalize their concerns, they may risk souring the director's view of them and destroying potential for future work together. Whether the issue is small or large, an aggressive discussion (whether mild or severe) to resolve conflicts of interest can end in resolution or disaster. Unfortunately, I am not in a place to give advice on what is right and what is wrong. It is as personal as it gets. The only advice I can give would be to judge your relationship with the person you are bringing an issue up with, think about how important the problem is and how much it is affecting your well-being, and avoid entering into a discussion with anger and resentment. Keeping these things in mind, it will be easier to have a civil conversation. Essentially, be aggressive with a hint of submission. And if you see that the opposite party isn't responding well, have an exit plan. If the item is important, stand your ground. If it is anything less than important, consider taking a step back or compromising.

Many engagements come and go smoothly with both parties pleased with the work done. There are times that things don't go as planned. Working as a freelancer often means that an employer can request a dancer to do anything beyond the scope of their contract, which is often short and limited in language beyond pay, status, and expectation. Any dancer should be aware that they are expected to act submissively on most occasions. But as a freelancer, one can't be afraid to have aggressive moments. Work aggressively to find work and protect your comfort and needs, but keep a close gauge on managements responses and reactions to help maintain a good working relationship. In the end, if conditions are bad enough that you feel the need to play the aggressive card too often, it is likely that you won't be returning to dance for that employer again in the future.

Submissive dancers in the front - Aggressive dancer in the back


Doing your taxes as an independent contractor

Elizel Long & me rehearsing Amy Seiwert's Monuments (Photo: Gutierrez Photography)
I was having a conversation last night over food and drink about freelancing with a dancer who has essentially been my main partner since I began this season with Alaska Dance Theatre. As Elizel Long (pictured above) and I were eating dinner, a live band sang "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash, which we performed a duet to in ADT's last program. After a few memories and laughs, we got back down to business and continued to discuss what it was like to work as a freelancer in the US. Elizel only moved to the US a year ago. Since she was born in South Africa and spent much of her still young career with the Rambert Dance Company in London, she must quickly figure out the contemporary dance scene in the US to find work and keep her career moving forward. As we approached the end of our meal, I mentioned that she should save her receipt. Her eyes flashed back at me with an inquisitive look. I explained to her that a lot of our conversation was spent explaining how to go about freelancing, who to contact, and how her new website I helped set her up with can be used to promote herself. Now that she is gearing up to work as a freelance dancer, this dinner was clearly a business dinner and can be written off for tax purposes.

There have been many lessons I have had to learn over the past year as a freelancer. One of the bigger items on that list would be saving, documenting, and preparing for my taxes. Freelancers most frequently work as independent contractors. Essentially, I think of myself as my own business. Being an independent contractor means you are not hired by a company as an employee. They are not responsible for you even though they are handing you a paycheck. Essentially, it would be the equivalent to hiring a professional to remodel your kitchen. You pay them directly for their services, but you are not responsible for their health insurance, worker's compensation, unemployment, and you don't have to take taxes out of their pay.

How do you know if you are an independent contractor? First, take a look at your contract (which you should always read extensively prior to signing). There should be a clause in the agreement that clearly states, "Contractor is not an employee," or something along the lines of,"Barry Kerollis is not an employee of (organization)." A requirement of companies who hire independent contractors is that they provide a "1099" tax form prior to the first pay period, which only needs to be reported (and paid taxes towards) if you make more than $600. This form tells the government that you are not an employee and that taxes will not be taken out of your paycheck. In other words, it will be your responsibility to save a portion of your salary and pay these taxes yourself.

One important piece of information that I had not been aware of was that an independent contractor is expected to pay estimated quarterly taxes every 3 months. The IRS expects you to estimate how much you will work based off of the previous year and pay that amount in taxes by the 15th every third month. For me, I had only worked in freelancing for a short period of time prior to the 2012 tax year. I had no idea what I should pay. Much of my work pops up last minute, so I don't have a good gauge of what my take-home pay is going to be more than a few weeks to months in advance.  If you don't pay enough into your quarterly taxes prior to January 15th of the following year, you can be penalized a certain percentage on top of what you owe when you pay your yearly taxes in April. In the end, you won't know if you hit the mark until you file your taxes.

More information that I have only recently learned is that outside of your federal (national) taxes, you have to pay taxes in each state where you worked and earned more than $600. For instance, I live in Philadelphia, PA and outside of my home-state taxes, I worked as an independent contractor in Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, Virginia, and South Carolina. This means that I must file taxes in each of these states. That adds up to about $30-$60 per state just to file, not including the actual taxes that I owe. It is also important to note that the government enforces a self-employment tax for independent contractors. The purpose of this tax is to take care of social security and medicare that would typically be taken out of your paycheck by an employer. If you signed a W-2 form when you were hired, you are considered an employee of that company. Even if you have a short term contract, often deemed seasonal, you can be considered an employee. In this instance, taxes will be taken out of your paycheck and you don't have to worry about the self-employment tax. Be sure that you are aware which status your employer has hired you as.

Since you are likely hired as an independent contractor, and not an employee, as a freelancer, it is more important than ever to keep very detailed and deliberate track of all of your spending. To offset the costs of filing in different states and the self-employment tax, it will be necessary for you to save all of your receipts and to keep track of all of your spending. I like to use two Excel spreadsheets that I have created. One is set up to document the employers I work for, the dates that they pay me, how much they pay me, and whether taxes have been taken out or not. The other one includes detailed information about deductions, which I can back up with receipts that I have saved and filed.

There are a handful of items that you can write off as business expenses. Always keep an eye out for items/services that can be used to offset how much you owe, but be sure to make sure that they are for legitimate expenses. I write off any costs that I incur for taking class or working out to stay in tip-top shape. These expenses include open dance classes, yoga, gym memberships, pilates, and any other equipment I purchase to stay in shape for my work as a freelancer. Another cost that is important to document is physical maintenance. Physical maintenance is any service or item purchased to keep your body in top performing order. You can write-off medical and chiropractic care, massage, acupuncture, epsom salts, muscle care (arnica gel, tiger balm, icy hot, etc), or anything else, within reason, pertaining to the care of your instrument. You can deduct the cost of apparel for your work as well. If you purchase tights, leotards, warm-ups, dance shoes, or sneakers to cross-train in, be sure to keep track of these expenses. I also keep track of my spending when it comes to dance enrichment. Keeping up-to-date, researching companies for possible future work, and inspiring choreography are all a part of my business. If I see a performance or purchase a dance publication, I consider these important parts of cultivating my business and finding work. If you teach or choreograph, you can write off any music that you purchase and use in class or performance. If you attend auditions, travel and meals can be included on your expense list. Also be sure to keep track of your travel, parking, and gas expenses while freelancing. I often have to pay for my own parking if a car is provided for me during performance weeks, as city parking is almost never free. If you purchase thank you or merde gifts, you can only write-off each purchase up to $25. One of the clearest write-offs would include direct business expenses. For instance, I can write off my personal website, business cards, and other related expenses. If you are working from your home or conducting business on your cell phone/email accounts, you can write off a portion of your rent, phone, and internet bills. I also keep track of any major losses. For instance, I was hired by a competition to teach at their convention. Thirty six hours prior to the convention, they emailed me without apology and told me that they lost their space for my workshop and wouldn't need my service. Since I had already booked this time, and given the short notice, there was no way that I could make up the lost income that this company caused. Lastly, as I stated at the beginning of this post, dinners where work is discussed with the intention of action taking place can be written-off. I always write directly on the receipt what was discussed for my records. You can't just sit at dinner and gossip about happenings at work for it to be considered a business dinner. In last night's case, I helped Elizel obtain a website and gave her direct contacts to research, emails, and advice to look for work. There was a clear and concise passing of information. Make sure that you keep clear records of the location that each of these expenses took place. You will need to write off these expenses in the state that they occurred.
Mom, myself, and her friend in the lobby of the Joyce Theater in NYC after I performed there in 2010
I have been lucky that my lovely mother has done my taxes for me every year aside from this current one. After doing my taxes since I was 18 and having done them last year with returns in 4 states, she realized that the extent of my return this year would be too overwhelming. I was strongly considering doing my own taxes this year, but the prospect of working as an employee with 2 companies and freelancing/teaching with at least 10 others was daunting. I am lucky enough that a member of my extended family is an accountant and willing to help me out. Otherwise, I would probably spend days working with TurboTax to figure out whether I owe money or will be receiving that giant return that we all dream of. I know that the deadline to finish our taxes is near, but I hope this posting helps to clear up any confusion you may have while filing. And if it is too late, it is always helpful to have a better understanding of how the tax system works and how to minimize the amount of money you have to pay in taxes through deductions of your business expenses.