Finding your comforts in a hotel

Unless you live and freelance only in New York City, a majority of the freelancing that dancers do takes them away from home. Sometimes, you will stay with a host family. At other times, like I am right now, you will be put in a hotel for weeks at a time. While staying in a hotel sounds fun, exotic, and vacation-like, it can leave you feeling quarantined from society and lonely. To fend off these feelings, I have compiled this list of things you can do to find your creature comforts and to feel like you are still an active part of society.

- Sitting in a hotel in a suburban location can become a redundant experience. It is easy to get stuck in boring patterns due to an inability to get around much on your own. Try changing up your routine. Eat out some days, eat in others. Call an old friend that you haven't talked to for a long time to reconnect. Take a bath. Use the pool or hot tub. Watch TV. Schedule a movie night and rent a pay-per-view movie. Interact with the hotel staff. Go for a walk. Try to get out of your mundane patterns and do something different every day.

I went for a short drive along Lake Ontario before rehearsal
- Staying at a hotel rarely allots you a stove or a microwave to prepare your own meals. This usually leads to one of the least comfortable situations for many people. Eating alone at a restaurant. When I first started writing this post, I was doing exactly this. I walked into the restaurant and the host insisted that I would probably enjoy (or...erm...feel more comfortable) eating at the bar. But I wanted to sit at a nice table in the main dining area...by myself. Then, when my server walked up to me, he stated, "you must be waiting for a pretty lady." He must have missed the memo, or multiple memos. Any newbie at eating alone might have felt embarrassed or extremely awkward in this situation, but after a few years on the road I am a pro at eating alone. Bring a book or newspaper. Bring your smart phone and catch up on social media or download a new game to play. Or, like me, bring a pen and paper to journal, log, blog, or anything else that you would like to document or write about. A nice glass of wine will help relax your discomfort, too. Or just sit back, breath, and take in the characters sitting around the restaurant having dinner. I always find great entertainment watching how locals interact with one another.

My items from home
- For me, one of the least comfortable things about staying in a hotel is the sterility and impersonal feeling that most rooms share. You don't have any personal home-y touches. You didn't decorate the room. What I always try to do is to bring a few things from home that make me feel like I am closer to home. It would weigh your luggage down if you carried your favorite piece of artwork. What I do is carry a very few lightweight items with me. I always bring one or two unframed 4x6 photos with me to decorate the room and remind me of loved ones. The pictures tend to get beat up a bit, but they still make me happy. I also have a stuffed sock monkey that my partner gave me as a gift. Yeah, I'll admit that I sleep with it. I haven't slept with a stuffed animal since I was 4 years old. But, only when I am traveling, I sleep with this stuffed creature.

- I always go on an extensive search for new music on ITunes in the days before departing for a gig. That way I have some new music to go along with my old music. I have an IPhone, which has a speaker loud enough for me to listen to music. But if you don't have a phone with these capabilities, consider buying cheap, portable speakers that connect either to your computer or MP3 device. I know I am late to the game, but I have also recently discovered the joys of Pandora. You can type in your favorite artist, song, or genre of music and it plays random songs, like a personalized radio station, for free. I feel music drowns out the stifling silence of sitting in a hotel room.

- One of my biggest issues when staying at a hotel is that I get lonely. After a long day at work, dancers often want to vegetate and rest their body and mind for the next day. It isn't uncommon for dancers to reject invitations to hang out. Sometimes, it is necessary to fight the urge to act like a hermit and enjoy some company. While an invitation from a co-worker may not always sound enticing at first, most of the time you end up enjoying yourself more than you would have staying by yourself in your room. Getting out and being around people will not only keep you company, but it will forge new friendships and relationships.

- You won't have the luxury of having a DVR to record and watch your favorite television shows when you are at a hotel. Sometimes, the wireless doesn't always work well enough to download video. In the worst of situations (for me at least), there is no internet. Always come prepared with a handful of your favorite DVD's. I always bring a few seasons of different TV series on DVD of my favorite shows; like American Dad, It's Always Sunny, and South Park. I like to take a relaxing bath for my muscles, pop a DVD in my computer, and have a good laugh.

- One of my biggest mental comforts is having access to a gym. The gym is an important part of my daily routine at home. What does one do if there is no gym at their hotel or affordable gym options nearby? This one is hard for me. I tend to associate my place of rest, whether it be my home or a room with a bed, with nothing other than that. I can tell myself that I will work out at some point, but it becomes very difficult once I sit down and start to relax. I find that when I wait until later in the day, this effect gets even worse. So, I have created a set of exercises that simulate what I would do in my regular gym workout. And while I despise them, I can do them all without any equipment that I use in my regular routine. I find if I do these exercises earlier in the day, prior to class or rehearsal, I am more likely to complete them. If I wait until afterwards, I do exactly what is supposed to be done in your bedroom. Rest.

- I always make sure to show up to a gig with a task to complete that doesn't have to be finished by the time I leave. You never know how much free time you will have and it is better to have a backup plan if you have no other options. For instance, my current task that I hope to complete during my time preparing and performing the Cavalier in The Nutcracker with Rochester City Ballet is to start compiling a list of ballet companies and Broadway shows that I find interesting. I have slowly been gathering information to help clarify the next step of my career. While I am lucky to have friends here from last year and a car to drive myself around, there are still times where I find myself pent up in my hotel room. This is one way to be proactive in my down-time and to occupy hours sitting in my room.

Glad to be back in the studio at RCB rehearsing with my Sugar Plum, Jessie Tretter


Freelancing is rarely forever

Maybe I am an alien???
I've said it once and I'll say it a million more times. Freelancing is a very difficult career. I've spent the last two and a half years calling Philadelphia my home, but living with host families and in hotels across the country. I have spent more nights sleeping in guest bedrooms than I have my own. In fact, this past week I turned to my partner and told him, "I'm an alien." OK, so maybe that is a really odd/awkward statement to make. But for anybody that knows me and the way my brain works, it makes total sense. I don't feel like I belong anywhere. When I'm home, nothing seems familiar and when I am away everything is foreign. With all of this said, I was given some wise advice from the father of one of my colleague's early on in my career at PNB. "If you want to accomplish something, you need to put it in writing." So, this has been brewing for a long while now, but it has taken time to hone in on the issue and its' solution. I'm ready to put this one in writing. And with all my efforts to keep the integrity of this blog an open and honest journal and tool into freelance work and living in the dance world, I'd rather share the true experience of a freelance dancer than the glorified, overcoming adversity tale that we, as a society, are trained to enjoy and reward. I need to greatly slow down my freelancing. There. I said it. ::breathes out::

I didn't choose freelancing. I could've chosen not to freelance. There is this saying that "you don't choose ballet, it chooses you." I don't remember who said it first. But however cliche it sounds, it is true. Ballet and technical dance in general are not kind arts. As a child, you are put into this art form because parents think it is cute, good exercise, and fun. This is one of the greatest facades I have ever known. Ballet is grueling, torturous hard work that is generally unforgiving, aesthetically-elitist, and selfish. Those that are lucky enough to enter the professional ballet world learn very quickly if they were chosen by it. I've seen many magnificently talented dancers quit during their first few years with a company due to injury, poor coping skills, burnout, or unhappiness with casting. These people weren't the chosen ones. Those that are chosen will suffer through less than ideal circumstances for three reasons; to defeat adversity, to savor those rare moments when ballet does give back, and because they need to dance. When I suffered my injury nearly two years ago and was unfairly let go from my company job, there was no question that I needed to dance. It was only a matter of how. At the time, my only option was freelancing.

This costume wasn't a highlight of my freelancing career
While ballet can be challenging, freelancing (on it's own) can be equally unforgiving. Put the two together and, at times, this avenue to dance can be wearing. While I have had some lovely experiences freelancing, I have also seen a darker side of our art. The term starving artist must have been borne alongside the term freelance artist. While I have been lucky enough to sustain myself over the past 2 1/2 years on dancing and teaching, most freelance dancers I know survive on hours of work doing non-dance jobs. This takes away from time they could be investing in the studio and it takes away from their energy levels to perform well. My savings account has dwindled well below my comfort zone. And I am beginning to feel the pressure of this lifestyle; keeping myself in shape and motivated, never-ending work searches, neglecting body maintenance, and monetary distress. Conditions, non-professional work, salary, self-negotiating, inconsistent work, and more make the emotional challenges of freelancing overwhelming at a certain point. These things are most likely the reasons that most of my high-level freelancing friends take big breaks from the lifestyle, as well. I do think my time for an extended break has come.

With all of this negative, also comes the positive. I have never felt freer artistically since I started traveling on my own. The good jobs that I get are usually quite professional, where those in charge understand the professionalism that goes along with my credentials. These lead to trusting relationships, where I have been able to have more say in my product. I have seen parts of the world I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And for every 5 to 10 jobs that pay poorly, there is usually 1 or 2 that make you feel like a celebrity. But all in all, it is the people that you meet along the way that make it worthwhile. And the privilege to see that there are amazing dance artists everywhere has been eye-opening; in every company and in every project that I have been a part of. Lastly, it is really gratifying to know that I can make a dance career happen on my own. No company, agent, or individual to take credit, except myself.

So, I guess the big question is what is next? Well, the big plan was this. I was very inspired by the audition process for Chris Wheeldon's American in Paris. I would love to explore the world of musical theatre and Broadway, as I feel that joining that world would be coming full circle with my training. When I was a teenager, Riz-Biz Productions founder and former A Chorus Line dancer, Bob Rizzo, took me under his wing.  Everybody and their mother told me to stop dreaming about ballet and go into musical theatre. They told me this because I was known for my personality onstage and clearly behind in my ballet technique. The only issue with this is that I didn't have proper vocal training and I had fallen in love with ballet. So, included in my plan is a period of vocal training and, maybe even, some acting lessons.

This was my original plan. Im in khakis on the right. West Side Story Suite by Jerome Robbins (Photo: Angela Sterling)
This was the plan until I went down to Los Angeles to dance with Barak Ballet. I've been pulled into conversations a lot lately about my ballet career. If I start to focus on Broadway, does that mean that it could be the beginning of the end of my ballet career? Not necessarily. But when three established people in the dance world; a respected dance critic, a former Balanchine ballerina and Balanchine Trust repetiteur, and well-respected teacher, pull you aside during the same week and tell you that you need to go back into a ballet company, you can't help but think that the universe is trying to tell you something. And even worse, or better, it was echoing a little voice that has been screaming for attention in the back of my head for quite a while now. I miss dancing for a ballet company. I miss being in constant preparation for a production. I miss coming to company class everyday with my colleagues and a live pianist. I miss a regular community. I miss having a live orchestra. I miss a lot of that life.

So what happens with my freelancing? Well, until I figure all of this out, I will continue freelancing. My plan is to start slowing my traveling down over the first six months of the new year. I'm currently searching for teaching work to reestablish my savings account. Eventually, I hope to only take work that I really, really, really want to do. As this happens, I plan on beginning work for both of my plans. I will work towards both to see which seems like a more viable option. My end goal is to either join a ballet company or be auditioning for shows in New York City by September.

My end goal
Does this mean that this is the end of Life of a Freelance Dancer? Absolutely not! One thing I do know, it was a difficult challenge to learn how to freelance. And now that I know the ropes of this segment of the dance world, it will always be a part of my career. I never said that I was going to stop freelancing. I just desperately need to find home, stability, and lower my stress level. Even if I have periods where I am not freelancing or do join a company again, I will continue to write about my experiences and educate future freelancers on the intricacies of this world. And the best thing about a blog like this is that it is not confined to one area of our community. Anybody can be a freelancer at any point, whether they are in a company, doing a long term gig, or freelancing full-time. Thank you to all of my readers for your continued support. I look forward to many years of advice, enlightenment, and experiences. And thank you for letting me share my true, honest experiences with all of you!


Why "30" is a frightening age for most dancers

Alright. Alright. I turned 30 a few weeks ago. I'm lucky that I still look like I'm in my mid-twenties (or so people have told me), even though I have stepped quietly into my thirties. When revealing my age to other dancers over the past few years, I have been encouraged to lie about my age multiple times. "Why would you tell me the truth when you could easily lie down a few years." While I couldn't imagine telling people I was 25, it does make one consider if age is really that important in dance. Why does it matter if you still look and dance young.

Blowing out candles on my 30th birthday
During the weeks leading up to my mid-October birthday, I slowly spiraled into a bit of a depression. I was, mostly, in denial about the reasoning, but what it came down to was that I wouldn't be home on my birthday, my partner wouldn't be joining me in Los Angeles due to financial constraints, and I had told myself for years that I wanted to dance until I am at least 30. As the day got closer, I became more anxious, stressed, and low. Then, the day came. My host family made me feel special, my new friends made me feel cared about, my phone and Facebook exploded with love, and I was in the studio rehearsing for a show that I was excited to perform. The day came and the day passed. And I was left with a comfortable feeling in my chest. It really wasn't that big of a deal. So, why did I freak out about turning 30?

The number one fear of every single dancer is that their career will end today. We know it will end, but we don't know when. How will I go? Will I get bored? Will I have a traumatic fall? Will my body start giving out? Will I get fired and not find another job? Or will I get to choose when I go and how I go? The reality of it all? Who knows. And while we are enjoying a career in a field that is nearly impossible to become a part of, more often than not, we are trying to put off the imminent end, one plie and day at a time. We have all heard stories of harsh endings to a promising career. Most of us professionals have stood behind a fellow dancer as they take their final bow. The end is almost always bittersweet, but more often bitter and less often sweet. With all of this said, the age 30 represents a lot to many dancers.

During the summer of 2003, I transitioned from student to professional. A week before I left home to start my career with Houston Ballet, I got some very wise advice from a teacher that had just left Miami City Ballet at the age of 24. She told me to stay away from negative dancers. Her advice continued, "There will always be dancers who bitch and complain about anything and everything. If you hang out with them, even if you feel positive about work, they will bring you down and, eventually, you may start to feel the same way." This was some of the most valuable advice I ever received. And with that advice, I set a goal for myself. I want my career to outlast her impressive, but short 6-year career. Once I hit 24, I had to set a new goal because I still felt I had a lot of time. After some thought, I decided that my next marker would be the age of 30. My mentor and childhood dance teacher danced until she was 30. It seemed an obvious age to strive and reach towards. Once I hit 30, I should feel content and successful. Right?

Dancing Mercutio at 26 w/ James Moore (Photo: Angela Sterling)
When I was 26 years old, I went in for my annual artistic evaluation with the director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Peter Boal. These contractually-obligated, yearly meetings are a time to get some feedback and to give some feedback. Peter asked me how old I was. When I said that I was 26, he nodded and smiled. "Yes. Yes. You have a few years left in you." All in all, I think Peter was trying to pay me a compliment. But immediately my insecurities about the imminent end of my career kicked in. What was he trying to say? In my vocabulary, few means 3. Did he just mark me with an
expiration date? How dare he say that. Is he going to fire me when I turn 30? At the beginning of the next season, I decided I would leave the company at the end of that season. There were a few other factors involved, but I honestly think that this one, simple comment stayed with me and was a major factor in my decision to go. I was sure that I would be pushed out of the company by the time I was 30, so I felt that I needed to leave to give myself a chance to continue dancing beyond that.

During my audition tour, I found a mixed bag of responses in my efforts to obtain a new job. I just spent 7 years dancing with one of the top companies in the country, where I had danced a handful of leading roles. Shouldn't everyone want to get a hold of me? What I found during my tour was that there is a lot more to hiring a dancer than their ability, potential, and/or notoriety. Older dancers are more experienced and they expect to be compensated for that time put in. We are more expensive. And, yes, I was an older dancer at the age of 27. Also, if a dancer goes to an AGMA company after already having danced for one, they can not be demoted. They must enter the company at the same or higher rank than they previously were with their former company. Beyond this, when a student is being hired into a company, they are, most often, hired purely on their potential. When a company contracts a more experienced dancer, they are less likely to hire a dancer for their potential and more likely to hire them if they know they are planning on moving them forward in the company. There are few mid-career dancers hired with the thought that they may be a valuable corps member or that they may have the potential to grow into a higher ranked dancer. For some of these reasons, it was very difficult for me to find a job as a middle-aged dancer.

Although I had a lot of disheartening realizations during my audition tour, there was one moment that really struck me. I have always been interested in the contemporary side of dance. One of my audition stops, which frightened me more than any other, was auditioning for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. This was way out of my comfort zone and knowledge of the dance world. After taking class for a few days and learning a bit of repertoire, I sat down to speak with the artistic director, Glenn Edgerton. Glenn told me that he saw a lot of potential in me and thought if I got more contemporary work under my belt and came back to audition, that I might be a good candidate for the company. Following this, he asked me the same question that had been posed to me a year prior, "How old are you?" I stated my age and Mr. Edgerton quickly responded, "Oh good. You still have plenty of time." I was taken aback. For the last year, I was convinced that my career would be dead by the age of 30. This conversation gave me hope then and it gives me hope today.

As we all know, soon after this audition tour, I took a job in Philadelphia, which eventually led to me freelancing full-time. I've discussed in previous blog posts that it can become easy to live in a state of fear that your career is coming to an end when freelancing. Mine has continued through my late twenties all of my own making. And it is wildly stressful and taxing. So, as my 30th birthday approached, I started to think. "Well, my goal was to dance until I am 30. And this past year was successful, but emotionally and financially straining. How much longer can I do this? Is this it? Is this the goal I'm reaching where there won't be a next goal?" This conversation started playing itself over and over again in my head. And it is a very dangerous conversation to be having. Fortunately and unfortunately, the conversation stopped when the clock hit October 14th and I entered into middle-aged/older-aged dancer territory.

What I have learned since that day is pretty obvious to everyone and everything that doesn't exist inside my head. Nothing has changed. I am still dancing. I still want to dance. I didn't hit 30 and know the exact date of the death of my dance career. I still take class every day. My body didn't instantaneously begin to fall apart like Cinderella's attire when the clock hit midnight. I still look for the next job. I still have hopes, dreams, and aspirations as a dancer. I do feel a bit wiser and that I can truly share that wisdom based off of experience. I think it is best to say I am a more experienced dancer than an older one. I know that full-time freelancing needs to slowly turn into part-time freelancing, as I really miss having a sense of home, focus, and regularity. But that doesn't mean that my career is slowing down. It just means that it needs to focus back into company/long-term gig work (maybe Broadway). But the most interesting realization I have had is this. While I have always been a person to set a marker to reach, I haven't this time around. I don't want to worry about working towards dancing until I'm 40. If I reach that goal, I will feel successful. But if I don't, I will likely be disappointed. I would love it if I'm still healthy, happy, and dancing professionally at 40. But this time around, I don't need to set another goal to feel successful if I reach it. I have been successful and I am successful at what I do and love.

With all of this said, I leave my readers with this amazing quote from Houston Ballet's former physical therapist, Cody Brazos. One of the dancers in the company broke her foot in class after landing awry in a saut de chat. While crying in pain and panicking that her career was ending, Cody calmly looked this dancer in the eyes and said, "There is no timeline to a dance career."

There is life in dance after 30 (w/Ellen Green after the launch of Barak Ballet)