Clearing up the fear of going to classy events

Attending a gala fundraising event for Alaska Dance Theatre w/fellow ADT dancer Sarah Grundwaldt
One of the most interesting things about being a dancer is that you, at times, get to experience the life of luxury. While most dancers can barely afford a modest 1-bedroom apartment, a car, an acceptable computer, and a few dinners out a week, they are expected to dip their toes into the lives of the wealthy and act accordingly. I remember my first event at a donor's house when I was an apprentice with Houston Ballet. Everybody was dressed to the nines, holding a glass of wine in one hand, and grabbing hors d'oeuvres with the other. As I tried to find that balance between figuring out how to act and pretending like I had attended hundreds of these special events, I began my journey into adulthood and the life of a professional dancer.

Most of these events are greatly important to organizations that employ you and pay your salary. At these fancy venues, companies inspire interest and develop relationships that may eventually or already have funded programs, seasons, and artists like myself. While many artists prefer to sit in the corner talking to their friends and colleagues, it is greatly important as a dancer and person that we learn how to reach out and properly conduct ourselves in these situations. For this reason, I have compiled a list of proper etiquette, behavior, and the best ways to approach multiple angles of these events.

- Always read the invite to make sure that you understand the time, location, and type of event.

- Different types of attire:

Casual - Wear something comfortable, but avoid t-shirts and inexpensive jeans that look worn, torn, or old.  Men - maybe a collared shirt or something that isn't a t-shirt. Women - A relaxed dress or nice slacks.

Cocktail - Wear something classy, but nothing like you would wear at a wedding. Men - no jeans, definitely a collared shirt or classy top. Women - same as men with jeans. Wear a cute dress that you
Baby version of me in cocktail attire.
might wear if you were going out with your friends. Add some nice jewelry for flare.

Gala/Black-tie - Men - Wear a suit and tie, blazer, or, if you really want to show off, a tux. Women - A very classy and nice dress or a fancy suit. More refined than something you would wear out on a Saturday night. 

- Arrival - I always love when the first person who shows up to a party is exactly on time. Unfortunately, having been to and thrown many events, I have seen the discomfort on that person's face when they realize they are the first and only person/couple there. If you aren't privy to break the ice with the host or have a conversation with more strangers than friends, being the first to arrive is probably not for you. I would suggest showing up about 30 minutes late if you feel this way. Within an hour to an hour and a half of the party starting, there is usually a speech or something important happening. Try to arrive by the end of the first hour at the latest. As long as you show up by a reasonable time, though, nobody will bat an eyelash at you. Just have an, "I had another amazing event to go to first," excuse.

- How To Act - One thing that most people are worried about is that they have to be on their best behavior. Yes, you have to be respectful to the host, come off as interested and knowledgeable about your field, and remain social. But you shouldn't change your personality, completely avoid disagreeing with a view/opinion, or worry about doing the wrong thing. Don't pretend to talk about something that you don't understand. If you don't understand, ask for more information on the topic. This will show you are engaged and eager to get to know somebody. In the end, while people at these events may feel elite, they are still human beings with concerns, faults, and eccentricities.

- Don't get wasted. If you accidentally go a little overboard, though, it is not the end of the world. Unfortunately, you will find that there are a few people at every major event that get a little too toasty. If this happens at each and every event, you may start to get looks and become the avoided one (maybe consider checking into AA). But nearly everybody at these events has had a moment. Just don't knock over any million dollar vases. And, of course, make sure that you have somebody to drive you home safely.

- While this isn't a requirement, most people feel most comfortable with a drink in their hands. If you want to slow down or don't drink, get something non-alcoholic. If you don't want to feel pressure from people, lie to them and tell them that your water is a vodka soda. Nobody will ever know.

- One thing that drives me nuts is how people get embarrassed about eating at parties, especially with a drink in their hand. If you are hungry, eat. Alcohol is often flowing at these parties to liquor up donors and convince them to donate money/relax and enjoy themselves more. If you don't eat, you may have one of those moments I was talking about above. There is nothing wrong with finding a corner where you can put your drink down to use your hands to eat. It can be difficult to eat at a stand-up party. If somebody asks you a question while your mouth is full, hold a finger up, laugh it off, and joke about it. There is no reason to be uncomfortable eating, as everybody is in the same position and it is not easy to eat with one hand free.

- Make sure that you don't venture into a part of the house that may be off-limits. Many donors have expensive items that they want to protect or they want to keep the party compact. You don't want to be the reason that a donor stops holding events at their place.

- While it is perfectly acceptable to spend some time talking to friends/colleagues, don't stand in a closed circle the entire time. Potential donors come to these events because it is their chance to feel like they are an integral part of an organization. If you aren't comfortable meeting donors on your own, grab a friend and walk around with them.

- To start a conversation, ask somebody how long they have been involved in an organization. My favorite go-to ice breaker when an event is directly after a performance would be, "What was your favorite part of the program?" While you may know nothing about each other, you at least have one common interest, dance.

- Don't talk about yourself the entire time. Donors are usually interested in hearing what a dancer has to say. But they usually connect with dancers that also express interest in what they do. Mutual interest is much more engaging than egotistical self-promotion.

- To exit a conversation, you can say that you want to mix and mingle more. If the conversation has become increasingly difficult to exit, it is easiest to excuse yourself to use the restroom.

- If there isn't a clearly marked end time, feel when the crowd is starting to dwindle. Try not to be the last person at the event, unless you know the person throwing the party or if they have engaged you in conversation. Keep an eye on social cues from people who are trying to be nice, but really want you to leave.

The only ways to truly embarrass yourself at a classy event is to become way too intoxicated or to completely isolate yourself with your friends and stay closed off in a corner while ignoring donors. Everybody has broken a wine glass, been approached with a mouthful of food, stumbled here or there, or made an off-the-wall comment. If you follow these guidelines while attending a high-level event, you should be fine. But if you read all of this information really closely, you'll find that most things are acceptable and that accidents do happen and are most often acceptable. Go prepared to be social and to enjoy yourself. Don't avoid these events. Not only can they be the most memorable events in the most amazing venues, but they can also form relationships with donors that may lead to friendship, promote your career, and support future work inside and outside a company.

Two close friends & donors, Ray Hoekstra & Dan Drummey, at Pacific Northwest Ballet's gala event in 2006


The overwhelming feeling that I ALWAYS need to be in shape.

A typical view driving around Los Angeles
Well isn't this the story of my life. When I worked with Pacific Northwest Ballet, we had a 40-week contract. Essentially, we were handed a schedule of our upcoming year which dictated when we would work, rest, and gear up to get back in shape after resting. One area of my freelancing life that I have yet to get a handle on is how and when to take a break. I find that I have an overwhelming sense of anxiety about taking breaks and getting out of shape because I never know when work is going to appear out of thin air. Well, I finally decided to take a vacation with my partner to his hometown of Los Angeles for a week from July 3-10. I told my anxiety to take a break and let my body take one, too. Of course, the second I let my guard down, an old friend of mine sends me a text message a day before I return home from vacation. "Did you see there is an American in Paris audition in NYC 7/15?" My stomach started to sink, my legs began to shake (maybe this is an exaggeration), and my anxiety rose to the surface as reality started to set in. I had one week to get back in tip-top shape.

One of the most challenging aspects of freelancing is deciding when to take a break. I wrote a blog awhile back about the importance of taking breaks. A majority of the discussion was focused on why we take breaks and how to take them properly. One thing I didn't really touch upon was the anxiety that many dancers feel about getting out of shape. From a very young age, young hopeful children begin feeling the pressure of improvement. At a certain point in most dancer's training, they feel like they can't even rest a day in their training or they will start to fall behind everybody else. Even though I have already had a substantial career, I still fear that if I slow down for a moment I will fall behind everyone, as I did when I was a student. Putting that in writing, it doesn't even really make any sense. Who do I have to fall behind at this point? Myself. This thought of falling behind as a student translates into, "if I am not constantly training, working, rehearsing, etc., I am going to lose everything that I have worked for," as a professional.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about having a dance career versus a normal career. In most non-dance careers, you know that as you get older you will always have the knowledge that you've gained, even if your mind isn't as sharp, you sustain an injury, or you level out. Unfortunately, as a professional dancer, you know that at a certain point, while having the knowledge of all of your hard work, you will lose nearly everything you have worked for physically. Another friend of mine who recently retired from the professional ballet life was telling me that after a year of not dancing en pointe, while her body still knows how to do it, it doesn't have the strength to do it anymore. At her young age, she can, of course, work to get that strength back if she wishes. But in just under a year, one can lose 20 years of strength building. This is the best example of why we dancers fear taking a break so much.

My partner (R) and me (L) at the pier in Santa Monica
When I finished my season back in the middle of May, I didn't have a definitive day that I would be returning to any workplace to dance. With this in mind and no contracts signed, I knew that I couldn't just stop dancing for the summer. So, up until July 3, I have been taking regular classes every week and playing around with choreography in the studio on top of teaching. I wasn't in top notch shape, but if I needed to, I felt that I could gear it up and be close within a week or so. I did know that at some point during the summer, I just needed to enjoy the life of a normal human being. When I bought my plane ticket to L.A. I knew that this was that time. I told myself, "if something comes along, you will deal with it the best you can. You are not a robot and you deserve to lay on the beach, eat and drink whatever you want, and sleep in until whatever hour you wish." Unfortunately, and fortunately, life decided to miss my vacation memo and a very big opportunity was thrust in my face.

The view for my jog in Long Beach
As soon as I found out about this audition for a 6-week workshop to create the musical, "An American in Paris," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon was taking place, I knew that I had no choice but to stop vacationing and desperately try to return to a somewhat functional level of dancing. After gaining acceptance to the audition, on the last day of my vacation, I began getting in shape. I did my ab series, gave myself a barre in the dining room of our friends condo, and jogged/walked 3 miles along Long Beach. I flew the next day and began an intense, but smart, 5-day period of getting back into shape.

While I definitely feel caught off guard in this moment, I am going into this audition hopeful and knowing that not only have I done everything that I can for this moment, but also everything I can for my dance career and being. Yes, one of my biggest fears as a freelancer has come to fruition. But at the same time, if I don't attempt to take breaks, my body and mind will probably not continue to love dance the way it does. So, as my Bolt bus is currently driving through the Lincoln Tunnel, I must bring this post to a close. But what it really comes down to is that dancers must take time off. Freelancers don't have the luxury of a regular stream-lined schedule. They need to always be in shape. And although that is not possible, they need to be prepared to not always be prepared as perfectly as they may wish. Although I am very hopeful and excited about tomorrow's audition, no matter the turn out, I will leave knowing that I did the best that I could. And not just for this one audition, but as a freelance dancer trying to exist in this sometimes spontaneous world.

(UPDATE: Although I wrote this on my way into the city, I am now editing it on my way out of the city. I won't say much, but the audition went very well. I was even asked to sing, my first time ever singing for an audition. :-)


New York Calling

Thank you for your patience over the last few weeks as I have taken a break from writing regular blogs. For over a year, I have been writing continuous posts without a break and after throwing a successful CONTACT event (stay tuned for an upcoming blog), I took a vacation to LA and gave myself a true break. With that said, I am proud to say that Life of a Freelance Dancer was recently published in Dance/USA's online E-journal. This honor is a true testament to the content that is posted in this blog and I couldn't be happier with that. Thank you to my viewers and I can't wait to see what is to come. Now on to this weeks topic!

Bowing as "Puss & Boots" at SAB workshop 2003
At the age of 19, I danced in my final workshop performance as a student with the School of American Ballet, packed up all of my belongings, and hopped in my mom's car to drive home for the last time before joining a big company. It was a very emotional period for me. Not only was I saying goodbye to a group of friends that had become family. I was embarking on a journey that marked the end of my career as a student. All I had known was being a student. Not only did this performance note the finishing of my training, it also put a period on the end of my childhood. On the drive back to Pennsylvania, I began to cry within moments of entering Lincoln Tunnel. My mom asked me why I was crying. I replied that other than missing my real-life friends, I felt like I was leaving behind one of my best friends. New York City. I knew then that the city that never sleeps would always have a place in my heart and that I would one day return.

I moved to Texas to join the Houston Ballet less than a month after my exit from SAB. Being thrown into a new environment, hours and hours of rehearsal, and figuring out how to live on my own, I quickly forgot how much I really missed New York City. As the year passed, I came to realize that having come straight from the country's largest metropolis made it difficult for me to enjoy my transition into Texas-living. I missed walkable streets, good public transport, and having thousands of people breeze by me on their own path. I quickly realized that I needed to find another company in a city where I could live happily. Thus, my journey to Seattle began.

View of the Joyce Theater from the stage
Although I never really fell in love with the city of Seattle, I did find the city a relief from the heat and sprawl of Houston. Again, I had to adjust to my new home and company, but this time I had 7 long years to live, learn, and grow into an adult. By my sixth year in the company, I remember thinking about New York quite often. After joining a small group of PNB dancers on tour to perform at The Joyce Theater, I realized how isolated we really were in the Pacific Northwest. Just stepping foot into Steps on Broadway gave me a great idea of what I had been missing. I consider Steps the Cheers of the ballet world. Nearly every professional I know either takes class regularly or drops into this landmark dance studio when they are in town. There were dancers in class that I hadn't seen in years. Although I realized that these former classmates, colleagues, and friends hadn't forgotten who I was, I felt like I had been missing out on something really important.

I don't know what seed had been planted in me that eventually grew into my yearning to jump ship. But when it happened, I was set. I wanted to live in New York, but I didn't want to join the vast ranks of New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre (if they would even take me). So, my partner and I agreed that I would only audition for companies in cities where we wanted to live. The list was San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia, DC, and Miami. If all else failed, we would move to New York and I would freelance. Although this idea mortified me, it felt like the perfect backup plan. Alas, I was offered a job in Philadelphia and we moved to the Mid-Atlantic.

Although I was very excited to move back home (even though I am really from the burbs), I was even more excited to be close to New York again. I was already on a Bolt bus heading to an open rehearsal with a summer gig before I had even really settled into my new apartment. I got off the bus, looked around, and smiled very widely to myself. I was home. But, after spending three weeks in the city performing in the Guggenheim's Works and Process series a few months later, I had a realization. As an adult, I really didn't want to live in the city unless I could enjoy living there. When I was training at SAB, I was on full scholarship, which included classes, housing, meals, and a few more perks. My childhood in New York was a facade. I didn't have to worry about anything financially. It's a very different story as an adult and I wasn't privy to living in my favorite city and scrounging by. I have friends who live in the tiniest apartments at the highest prices. They often skip out on the finer things the city has to offer due to financial restraints. At the same time, I was happy with my transition into a new style of dancing in Philly. Why would I want to leave.

Well, as I have alluded to in the past, after nearly 8 months in our new home city, everything came collapsing down on top of me. I became injured and couldn't afford what I needed to recover. I could barely pay my rent with the greatly reduced salary I had accepted to try something new.  And now that I was injured, fear was really starting to set in as I continued dancing through the pain just to scrounge by. Finally, when I decided to take time off to heal, everything imploded into me. The company had been hiding workers comp from me for months. I found out and the company responded with anger, threats, and lies. All other details aside, it nearly destroyed me, my career, and being. Not only did I fear that I would lose my home and career, I feared walking the streets of my city because I didn't want to run into any part of the close-knit dance scene that only knew a very skewed version of what actually happened. It only felt natural that I run away from the pain and fear and start anew.

After this very challenging experience, it crossed my mind many times that I should pick up and run to New York. Aside from being a great escape, there were freelancing opportunities galore. But money, my partner, and a handful of other life-items kept me from escaping all of this turmoil. Lucky for me, I had all of these things tying me down to Philadelphia. If it weren't for that, I likely would have been reacting, instead of making a conscious, thought-out decision. For this reason, we stayed in Philly and I started living the life of a freelance dancer.

It has been 16 months since these events happened and I am still happily a resident of Philadelphia. Although I find myself traveling more than half the year, I am always excited to return back home. At times, work has brought me to New York. And trying to connect with the greater part of the New York freelance community has kept me coming back. After last week's CONTACT event, I was asked to attend an audition to workshop a piece that could eventually be developed into a much larger show. I found out recently that I had landed the gig and will be spending two weeks in New York at the beginning of August.

What I have come to realize is that although I am not currently a resident of New York, being that it is the center of the dance world, I will always return. Whether as a student, professional, teacher, choreographer, entrepreneur or more. But what I have also realized is that while New York holds a large place in my heart, for the time being it is not my home. And I am perfectly happy with that. In fact, I love Philadelphia. Part of that is due to its' close proximity to New York City.

Quintessential New York City shot - Columbus Circle
Now that I call Philly my home and don't see that changing at any point in the foreseeable future, I am not yearning to be a New Yorker anytime soon. I see myself picking up work in the city and spending large chunks of time in this important hub of dance. But Philly will remain my home-base. New York continues to call and I will continue to answer. I feel any dance-professional, whether a New Yorker or not, feels this way to a degree. And you know what, when it does call. Answer!