LOFD Listed Among 49 Creative Geniuses

A little over a week ago, Life of a Freelance Dancer received a major mention on renowned blog, Boost Blog Traffic. This site offers advice and tips to improve one's public writing and to broaden one's online audience. BBT has over 32,000 loyal subscribers following its' content.

Last Wednesday, BBT posted an article titled "49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art" and LOFD just happened to make the cut. If you scroll down the list, bloggers included are Sci-fi actor, Wil Wheaton; FuBu creator and Shark Tank investor, Daymond John; and other artists that have published New York Times best-selling books, written articles for established publications, spoken for TED talks, performed at multiple venues, and much more. LOFD is very honored to be included on this list of successful artists and established bloggers. Scroll down to #24 to see what they had to say about Life of a Freelance Dancer!

 49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art


The Glory and Challenge of Young Success

Bowing 2nd from the left (cat outfit) w/many other successful teenagers - School of American Ballet workshop '03
Every one of us has heard these stories. 16 year old dancer is discovered by Peter Martins and named Principal dancer with New York City Ballet before she even turns 20. Preteen posts video on Youtube of himself singing and gets signed for a record deal. In fact, most of us were inspired to begin training in our art or began to pull more focus into our studies after hearing similar glory stories. While we may not all strive to be these people, who doesn't want to be showered with accolades under the premise that they are a youthful prodigy? As a culture, we glorify these kids and emulate their gifts. But more often than not, we indirectly engage in what is the downward spiral of these prodigious artists. Why is it so common for young, talented artists to struggle with their art, their decisions, and their lifestyle choices as they grow into adulthood?

While I wouldn't consider myself to be one of these prodigies, I have experienced the pressures of being very successful at a young age, as have many of my colleagues. Many professional ballet dancers are hired before they are legally adults and even more are considered seasoned before they can purchase a drink at a bar. By the time a dancer enters their 30's, if one even makes it that far, they are considered over the hill. Due to the spotlight and short span of time our careers cover, successes are usually great, lauded publicly, and die out fast. Just making it into such a cut-throat profession is a great success. And since this all happens at such a young age, nearly all dancers are used to the feeling of success and the impression it makes upon non-dancers around them.

Abby & me motivating for a performance of Swan Lake
I was speaking to one of my dearest friends, former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Abby Relic, via text the other day. She left the company a year after I did to pursue a broader perspective in the world of dance and acting. We have both endured struggles since we left the comfort of a big company. Some simply being life-related and others relating to our struggle to find our new place in the dance world. In the process of being each other's support system, I had responded with what was just a thoughtful response to a comment. Her response was, "So insightful!" That thought is what inspired this post and I would like to share it with you. "Being super successful young is a lot of pressure as you get older. Maintenance of those feelings becomes exponentially harder to maintain." As professional dancers, we are all super successful just for achieving a position in a world that offers few job opportunities.

It is human nature to keep pushing forward and growing. People want cities to become bigger with taller buildings. People seek to find the most cutting edge science and technology. And people want their salary to continue growing. We are innately wired to push forward and want more. If a teacher makes $50,000 a year and decides to leave the profession, they probably don't feel very good about taking a job that only pays $30,000 a year.

Feeling Puck-ish backstage w/my friend Joerg
I experienced this struggle after leaving my job at PNB. Not only was my salary one-third of what it had been, our productions didn't have a live orchestra, Pointe magazine wasn't writing about us, and our audiences were, at most, 400 people (compared to the nearly 3,000 I was accustomed to). As I began freelancing, even my successes started to feel like failures. The first time I got hired for a job, which I made happen on my own, I felt elation. By the tenth time, I wasn't happy with the quality of jobs I was being offered. At another point, I danced one of the most accomplished performances of my career. But there were only 60 people in the audience, making me feel it was less valid. Everything started becoming a comparison game. Well, this success wasn't as big as my thrilling debut (or so I was told) as Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so it must have been a failure.

This can be the biggest challenge of being successful. Comparison of successes. Is a success a success? Or is a lesser success a failure because it is not a step up on the success ladder? Today yields a great example of this thought. Justin Bieber, love him or hate him, is an incredibly talented guy. He was discovered on Youtube, at a ripe young age, singing and playing the guitar. Being discovered was his first great success. Next, he dropped his first album. Further ahead, he had his first tour. He has won awards for his music, crossed over into a more adult fan-base, and garnered millions of dollars. But today he was arrested for a D.U.I in Miami. Over the past year, we have watched this talented young artist become the male Lindsay Lohan of the tabloids. He's considered out of control, hanging out with bad people, doing drugs, having a god-complex, etc. But if we take a step back and see what is going on, he is a victim of his own success. His successes have been so great, that it is becoming hard to live up to his own record. To the public eye, anything that he is achieving which is not perceived to be greater than what has happened before is a failure. The stress of success is great. How does one cope with that?

Bieber's story is not the first, nor will it be the last. On the dance side of things, we can look at Gelsey Kirkland's rise to stardom, drug addiction, and fall from grace. This story is documented in her book, Dancing on my Grave. Gelsey was lucky that she was able to survive the demons of her own success. Not only did her career end way too early, she fell off the face of the Earth in regards to the dance world, only to reemerge many years later to open her own school, the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. Probably enough time for her to stop comparing her former successes to her current successes. Recently, Darcey Bussel, famous former Royal Ballet ballerina, stated, "At least I'm not being compared to everything I've done in the past," in a recent article that spoke about a deep depression that she went into after retiring from the stage. Inevitably, the pressure of other's expectation of her ever-growing success became too much to bear. And I get it.

The biggest challenge of being successful is the way that people view you. At first, gaining praise for a success feels good. This motivates us to push harder to continue the flow of positive feedback that received praise. If one continues to achieve on a linear level, praise will disappear as the achievement loses it's excitement and becomes old news. As one's accomplishments grow larger and more exciting, there is less room to grow and greater expectation to continue that growth pattern. By the time an artist reaches the pinnacle of their achievements, there must be a fall. Success is fleeting because a singular success is not sustainable over a long period of time. Public pressure, whether national or local, can put so much stress on a person that they may begin to collapse. This leads to depression, burn-out, and/or self-destructive behavior.

How does one avoid the pitfalls of young success? It is challenging. First and foremost, we successful artists need to surround ourselves with people that love us for who we are, and not what we are. At times, artists may come off as cool and awkward upon meeting them. This is usually their way of assessing whether somebody wants to get to know them or get to know what they can do for them. Assessing friendships and finding people that one can trust are pertinent to keeping a level head. The next step is to stop comparing successes. This is most challenging for me. When you start comparing successes to one another, the excitement of big successes doesn't last as long and the smaller successes don't hold you up to keep you on a straight path to the exciting, big successes. One of the last things that helps keep oneself on track is to find a third party to speak to that has no stake in your success. I have recently started seeing a counselor to help me cope with the stresses of working as a traveling freelancer. My counselor doesn't just listen to what I may not be able to share with most people, they offer support, insight, and exercises to help me cope with my successes and failures.

While our culture looks at young success with wide smiles and high praise, it also relishes watching the downfall of the adult version of these young, successful artists. Many of us strive to become those artists that are at the top of their game at the earliest age possible, but steady success as we grow older seems to be underrated. Glory is good, but stressful. Surround yourself with trust and love and stop comparing yourself to yourself. You are who you are today, not yesterday. The biggest lesson I have learned in the past 3 years has been that my big successes are my trophies and my failures are, most often, actually successes that I didn't give enough value to when comparing them to my bigger achievements. Be kind to yourself and enjoy all of the success that you have had!


HIRE ME!!!! - Desperation vs. Patience

Performing Scales of Vertigo by Connor w/ Rachel Kantra Beal (Photo: Bill Hebert)
Dancers experience their market much like retailers do. Business booms during the holidays and then crashes to a halt after the new year begins. While many dancers can save up some money during Nutcracker season to get them through the month of January, by the middle of the month, if work isn't picking up, one might start to feel desperate as their savings run out. After contacting an employer to let them know that you are available for work, you may not hear from them for days, weeks, or at all. When does patience benefit you and when do you have to give in to desperation to ensure that you can continue to pay your bills?

After moving from a company with a 40-week contract to one with a 22-week contract to having no long term contracts, I have had my fair share of desperate moments. I have a little calendar on my website that lets people know when and where I am working (mostly in case someone wants to attend my performances, but also for employers to see my availability).  At times, that calendar will say "No shows booked at the moment." This means that I am either free to work or have been too busy to update that page. More often than not, though, it denotes that I don't have any contracts signed, which also means that I have very little income coming in. Teaching twice a week, picking up sub work, and teaching master classes is not enough for me to pay my bills. After a period of time without any prospects, I may start to feel a little panicky.

Often, when I feel panic starting to set in, I go into overdrive looking for work. For instance, this past week, I sent out 27 emails checking in with companies. Out of those 27 emails, less than one-fifth of those organizations returned my message. And a majority of those emails stated that the companies don't typically use freelance dancers. Then, out of nowhere, one potential job becomes available. But the time between contact takes a bit longer than my current comfort level. Maybe it took a normal amount of time, but, feeling panicked about how I am going to make rent for March, I start to feel like the employer isn't interested. Or maybe they are interested, but something is wrong with my email account (which has happened before). Or maybe I waited too long in my response and the employer got a bad taste in their mouth. Or maybe...or maybe... or maybe....I'm starting to feel a little desperate.

There will be times that freelance artists feel that nothing is ever going to formulate in terms of employment. This is a hazard of the trade. One must always push to get work, while having a backup plan in case nothing appears. The point here is that we all need to be practical. The moment that we start to lose our ability to be practical, we start to panic, lose our patience, become desperate, and possibly make poor decisions.

When independent contractors become desperate, their poor choices can take on a variety of faces. Perhaps, a dancer may focus too much on finding work and forget to keep in shape, so they aren't prepared when work comes along. At other times, someone may check out completely and ignore what they have to do because it is simply too much pressure. It is also common for people to start looking for work well below their skill set and salary needs. Not only does this act of desperation devalue the artist, but it also takes more time to make a smaller amount of income. Then, when a proper job becomes available, you may already be working. Or you may respond too aggressively or come off too overexcited and turn off the person with whom you are in contact. There are many things that people do in these moments of fear.

It is important to keep a level head when work is coming in at a glacial pace. Patience is the key that will get one through these cool periods. While it may not be easy to feel patient, it is always important to act patient. One may feel that they need to take a job the moment that it appears. But, now more than ever, it is pertinent to take some time to do some research on the job that you have been offered. Look at their website. If they have a Youtube presence, watch a few videos. Ask a few questions before offering a "Yes! I am AVAILABLE!!!!! HIRE ME!" While you may be feeling this on the inside, you still need to make sure that the work you are accepting is legitimate. In the worst case scenarios, you could even find yourself fighting to get paid without having done proper research and assessment. Patience is the virtue that will keep you on track. It is your ability to assess. Beyond all of this, it will keep you sane, level-headed, and happier with your choices.

While patience is extremely important when seeking and accepting work, becoming too patient can also work against you. Leaving too much time between contact can lose a job opportunity for you. Not all employers will send you a message that asks if you are still interested. If they have a deadline to meet and they feel that you may not accept an offer, they may find another dancer without letting you know that they are doing so. Patience is a two-way street. I find it best to offer a time frame when giving yourself a cushion to make a decision. For instance, this past week, I was offered work for a month between April and May. I am waiting to have a conversation with another employer and don't want to make any decisions until that happens. When speaking to the director of the April-May job, I mentioned that I needed to check on a few things and that I would get back to them by Tuesday. This way, the director doesn't feel that I am going to take my time only to say no. But if they don't hear from me by Tuesday, they can choose to call me to check in or start looking for another possibility.

It is also important not to be so overly patient that you hold off on something that really excites you. I tend to be the type that wants to make sure that every aspect of a job is going to be perfect. I've also been in situations where there is a very small chance of a very unlikely prospect coming my way, but I don't want to commit to something unless I know that the potential opportunity is 100% not happening. Holding off is not wholly bad. But, for some reason, the dance world operates more along the lines of "I really want to work for you," instead of "I am more than worth you waiting for me." Be patient, but don't completely lack desperation.

Find balance in your business practices (Photo: Brian Mengini)
In the end, like most things, it is most important to find a good balance of patience and desperation. Desperation is here to make sure that we don't find ourselves without a rent check. While patience is around to make sure that you don't react on a whim and find yourself in a bad situation. It can become difficult to recognize when each is benefiting you or pulling you away from reaching your goals. I have learned that it is always best to give a moment before reacting to any offers, as my initial reaction is usually just that. A reaction. After the initial excitement or exposure of red flags is complete, it is an easier decision that you can feel more comfortable about making in the end.

How do you handle your own moments of desperation?


LOFD makes Dance Magazine

If you've seen this month's issue of Dance Magazine, you may have noticed that I was interviewed for an article on health care. I blogged about how I found my own health care after leaving Pacific Northwest Ballet a few years ago and it apparently got noticed by a writer for the publication. Looks like people are reading Life of a Freelance Dancer all over the place. I'm very excited and proud to share this article with all of my readers. Enjoy!

Dance Magazine (January 2014) - Your Body, Your Health Care


The Principal Problem

Don't get me wrong, I love Principal dancers - one of my favorites - Carrie Imler in Apollo (Photo: Angela Sterling)
I was making over $60,000 a year, dancing world-famous ballets with a world-class orchestra, and surrounded by exceptional dancers most of my waking hours. Why oh why would I ever pack my bags and leave the Pacific Northwest Ballet? I am not posting this to dwell on regrets from my past. In fact, I don't regret leaving Seattle at all. But what led me to feel stagnant and unhappy, eventually seeking to leave this life? It was highly unlikely that I was ever going to be promoted beyond the senior Corps de Ballet position that I held, even though I often performed principal and soloist roles.  And while this wasn't a bad position to be in, it isn't uncommon for the ballet world to overlook dancers that are in the same position.

It is nearly every ballet student's dream to join one of the big, prestigious companies in the country. Very few get the opportunity to experience such a thing. Once a dancer joins one of these companies, their trajectory either speeds forward, as is common to big-company-bound dancers during their training years, or slows down fiercely. This meteoric rise only happens to about 5% of the dancers that enter a large company, if that. If you aren't one of those dancers that we have all heard glamorized stories about, then you are likely to experience a slow crawl to the top or a slow realization that there will eventually be a ceiling.

Even dancers that are chosen by an artistic director to have a limited trajectory can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, periodic plum roles, and less pressure than those at the top. What in this could be so bad that a dancer feels the need to jump ship? Aside from limited chances to gain experience in this short career, it is what I call the "Principal Problem" that causes lower ranked dancers to move on from cushy company positions. And in no way do I say this to defame any dancers at this rank. I have the utmost respect for Principals and call many my friends. In fact, it has nothing to do with Principal dancers and everything to do with people's perception of artists who are not top ranked.

Principal dancers are the face of dance organizations. They perform leading roles that the audience falls in love with, their faces are all over marketing materials, and they are most likely to share their story while being interviewed for press. Why wouldn't a dancer want to hold this position? When a company wants to woo new donors, it isn't uncommon to have a principal dancer around to sweeten the pot. Most likely, these dancers have earned their positions, and, sometimes, they fall upon luck and timing to push forth. Either way, their status earns them public accolades and respect. All of a sudden, distant audiences, directors, coaches, teachers, administrators, and board members unrelated to the organization begin to think that these superhuman dancers have other marketable super powers. From there on out, as is often said, "it is all in the name."

Where am I going with this? Let's start here. Looking back at the last ten or so years, how many Principal dancers with the top 6 U.S. companies have been hired as Artistic Directors to take over medium to large sized ballet companies?

Vladimir Malakhov - Staatsballett Berlin - former Principal ABT
Nikolaj Hubbe - Royal Danish Ballet - former Principal NYCB
Peter Boal - Pacific Northwest Ballet - former Principal NYCB
Ethan Stiefel - Royal New Zealand Ballet - former Principal ABT
Ashley Wheater - Joffrey Ballet - former Principal SFB (among others)
Christopher Stowell - former Oregon Ballet Theatre - former Principal SFB
Angel Corella - Corella/Barcelona Ballet - former Principal ABT
Gil Boggs - Colorado Ballet - former Principal ABT
Benjamin Millipied - Paris Opera Ballet - former Principal NYCB
Jose Manuel Carreno - Ballet San Jose - former Principal ABT
Mikko Nissinen - Boston Ballet - former Principal SFB (among others)

Take a peek at this short list of newer artistic directors and it is clear to see that many recent company appointments are male and former principal dancers with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, or San Francisco Ballet. Looking beyond this list to most of the other ballet companies across the U.S., it is clear to see that most directors were Principal dancers with these companies as well (a handful were leading old-school Joffrey dancers, but the company is unranked). Who is missing from this list? Female principal dancers and lesser ranked dancers. Let's look into this.

The only female directors of mid to large sized U.S. ballet companies are Lourdes Lopez of Miami City Ballet (former Principal NYCB), Victoria Morgan of Cincinnati Ballet (former Principal SFB), Patricia Barker of Grand Rapids Ballet (former Principal PNB), and Colleen Neary who is co-director of Los Angeles Ballet (former Principal PNB). It is almost impossible to find any director of a company that has only held the rank of Soloist or Corps de Ballet with one of the top six companies, let alone smaller sized companies. Stanton Welch of Houston Ballet and, recently hired, Edwaard Liang of Ballet Met are among the only state-side directors that didn't reach the rank of Principal in their respective companies (both obtaining the rank of Soloist). They were likely scouted for their choreographic achievements beyond their rank. There are a few other female and non-former principal dancers that are Artistic Directors across the country, but most are not in what I would consider a medium to large sized company.

Looking at this information, it would appear that it is practically impossible to become an Artistic Director without a large company, Principal credential attached to your name. Beyond that, if you look at company artistic staff or directors of respected schools with professional training programs, a majority of these people were upper ranked (soloist or principal) dancers with major companies.

This is where this subject can get touchy. Does the rank of principal dancer automatically assume that this person will make a great director? Although one achieves this status, does it mean that they must be a fantastic teacher? Do public accolades for a performance in a role automatically mean that a dancer will be a great vessel to continue the life of a work? No. But it seems to be quite accurate that Principal dancers have the greatest number of options to continue in the professional dance world beyond their performing careers, solely on their name.

Another favorite Principal, Maria Chapman - Chair of Second Stage
Is this right or fair? It is impossible to give a yes or no answer to this question, as it is purely opinion. As I noticed during my time taking college courses through PNB's Second Stage program, a greater number of students taking these classes were lower ranked dancers. I took a handful of business and marketing courses on my path to getting my AA degree from Seattle Central Community College. More often than not, dancers with a faster career trajectory have great facility and natural ability. I have seen a handful of these dancers who don't have to think about certain steps because they come so naturally. Principal dancers don't usually spend as much time communicating within a corps of dancers; discussing unison, helping others pick up choreography, or learning how to stand up in a
community atmosphere without appearing to be an asshole. Having post-secondary education, exploring how to properly execute a step that doesn't initially work on one's own body, and learning how to communicate are integral skills in being successful at these hard-to-get dance careers. It may be true that a lower ranked dancer has refined these skills, yet a Principal is more likely to be singled out as a candidate with these qualities.

All of the above leads me to believe that hiring committees and administrations are likely falling in love with the future leaders of the dance world for their dancing and names prior to evaluating their skill set. For this reason alone, it is no wonder that lower ranked dancers start to get antsy when they feel that their progress is being stunted by one director with one opinion. Effectually, these search committees are hoping that these Principal dancers naturally have the tools to run a company or are assuming that they can hone their skills at lightening speed.  Lower ranked dancers have been switching companies for years, trying to find a place that will raise their profile, gain them the greatest experience, and potentially launch a renowned career that gives them a name.

There has been buzz in recent press about leading dancers, even, having less commitment to old-style company life. In my opinion, it is becoming especially hard for dancers to make a name for themselves staying in one place and they recognize this. Directors tend to fall in love with one dancer, a la Balanchine and Farrell, and all of the other dancers become secondary. Due to this, leading dancers are jumping ship to find the best way to gain the greatest reputation in a short five to twenty years. If this is achieved, a dancer can appropriately have a dance career, performance and non-performance, that lasts as long as any regular non-dance career.

While most dancers start training at a young age, the actual length of their time connected to dance can be short lived. In the end, it is up to each individual dancer to take their career into their own hands. If a dancer needs to move elsewhere to achieve the alias "Principal Dancer," many, like me, will leave behind somewhat gratifying and comfortable positions in companies. Aside from the desire to perform great roles and gain as much experience as possible in such a short career, this is the principal reason that I believe dancers burn out and have less commitment to companies today than ever.

Do you agree with this view? Share your opinion in the comments section.