The Reinforcement Gig

Arts United Center - Home of the Fort Wayne Ballet
Throughout one's freelancing career, a dancer may experience a handful of different work situations. Some may be quite professional, while others may, sadly, burgeon upon frightening. We can do our best to cater our job choices towards a more professional atmosphere. But it is more common to have a middle of the line experience. After one too many rougher gigs, it isn't uncommon for a dancer to start asking themselves why they are holding out as a freelancer. Performing mediocre work for pennies when one could be working for a company or moving on to the next stage of their post-dance career can easily derail anybody's drive. Then, it happens! You jump on a plane, crash blindly into a new company, and have an incredible experience.

I really can't complain much about my performance season this year. My schedule has generally been booked up. I have danced in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a handful of venues in smaller cities. And while I really enjoyed a great many of these experiences, no single experience shot me over the moon as a whole. As I discussed awhile back, I have been thinking about moving out of freelancing and moving back to company work or attempting to get on Broadway. But then, I had the most reinforcing experience in, of all places, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Around the same time that I got that frantic call to replace injured dancers with Company C Contemporary Ballet, I found an audition notice on Pointe Magazine's job posting page. Fort Wayne Ballet was holding auditions for their 2014 - 2015 season. In my typical search for work, I sent my information in to see if the company had any need for a guest dancer for their productions. Surprisingly, I received an immediate response to my inquiry. An old friend, David Ingram, that I met at Houston Ballet's summer program over a decade ago had taken over the position of Artistic Associate for the company. He called me up and told me that they are looking for a Principal guest art to perform the role of Romeo for their production of Romeo and Juliet. I was available and agreed to fly out a few weeks later.

At first viewing, it seemed like this would be like most of my typical gigs. I would be entering a new atmosphere, staying with a host family, and leaving after a couple of weeks. There were also a few bumps along the way. The first housing situation I was supposed to stay in had dogs, I only had one week to learn an entire full-length ballet, and communication was not always clear. I find that when you go into an experience with lower expectations, your concerns are either going to be reinforced by actions or you will be pleasantly surprised by what can actually happen. I am happy to say that my time with Fort Wayne Ballet was the latter.

I usually have most details lined up before arriving at a gig. Prior to arriving at Fort Wayne Ballet, the frantic period of time I spent salvaging the production with Company C in San Francisco and an unexpectedly bad sinus infection upon returning home to Philly kept me from lining everything up as I typically would. I actually flew to Fort Wayne without knowing the address of my host or if somebody would be picking me up at the airport. For some reason, though, I was calm about this. The moment I got off the plane and walked beyond the secure area of the airport, I saw a tall, nervous-looking blonde woman waving at me and a sweet, but shy-looking 14 year old staring at the floor behind her. I was tired and, in my mind, not at my friendliest, if not a little annoyed that I wasn't given more information about my arrival and accommodations. But my host family instantly began treating me in a way to ensure that I was as comfortable as I wanted and needed to be.

My host family's home
As we drove into the long driveway of my host family's house, I realized that I wasn't staying in a small side bedroom of a city-like home. The house was gorgeous with an arch over the driveway. My bedroom was actually a small apartment above the garage that was attached to the house. If I wanted my own space, I could have it. If I wanted to be surrounded by family, it was readily available. Delicious dinners were generously offered to me and I often took leftovers in for lunch, where lunching coworkers noses lifted into the air and eyes grew big as I started consuming the tastiness. There was a sauna in the basement to rest my weary body and plenty of fun space for some of the other dancers to come over and blow off some steam. But, most importantly, my host family gave me emotional support and a beautifully, familial atmosphere.

This was definitely one of my most stressful gigs. I started rehearsing on March 10th, had my first run-through of the ballet on March 15, had my first dress rehearsal on March 19, and performed two shows on March 21st and 22nd. Looking at that schedule, you can see that I learned the role of Romeo, one I had never performed before, in 5 days. All in all, I learned a little less than an hour of choreography in that short period of time. And while I should have been stressed like no other, my host family made me feel so at home that I was eerily calm. I don't think I could have succeeded in my effort if it weren't for their care.

Not only was my housing situation great, but the group of dancers that are a part of the company and the 10, or so, male guest artists that the company brought in for the production made me feel proud to lead the company. I have rarely felt as much of a support system leading into a production as I did here. My partner, Lucia Rogers, and I connected quickly (not that we had a choice) and developed a strong partnership within about 3 days. And all of the other dancers helped provide levity, emotional support, and information to help streamline the process of leading this production. It was quite heartwarming to see a brand-new community of dancers holding one another up and helping each other out.

The worst part of this gig was the amount of time that I had to get this production together. I sincerely wish that we had more time to delve into this adaptation of Shakespeare's play. But, surprisingly, one of the worst parts of the gig actually ended up being one of the most gratifying things. It was stressful, on my mind and body, to learn so much and perform with so little time or conditioning. But once my partner and I succeeded in completing our performances, my feelings changed greatly. A stressful situation and probable impossibility became a great accomplishment. Never in my greatest dreams did I think I was capable of what I did in such a short period of time. I left our final performance feeling so absolutely accomplished that I am still on cloud nine a week later. Beyond the execution aspect of the performance, I also found a new level of myself as an actor and artist. To share this with my partner, the company, and the audience was revelatory. All-around, I felt that this performance was a great leap for myself as an artist and I am grateful for the opportunity (though did I mention I would like more preparation the next time around ;-).

Bowing after performing as Romeo w/Fort Wayne Ballet
After contemplating leaving the freelance world for the past six months and experiencing gigs that were good but not career-altering, this opportunity is exactly what I needed to reinforce my work as a freelance artist. Getting to live with great people, dance with high-level artists in a supportive and positive atmosphere, and gaining great feelings of accomplishment gives me hope that I can find more opportunities like this that will leave me feeling wholly gratified in my work. We freelance artists must embrace these reinforcing experiences and hold on to them for the times that we feel that it is time to give up on this crazy lifestyle!


Dancing in Fear

As dancers, we tend to live in fear of many things. The physical pain that we experience and the brevity of our careers often cause great stress and anxiety in the mind's eye of most dancers. In recognition of my 11 years as a professional; dancing through fear, happiness, injury, passion, and much more, I offer you 11 fears that I have coped with over those years. Sometimes, we feel like we are the only individual experiencing some of the most stressful moments. I strongly believe in sharing experiences to help others feel that they are not alone in this career's most stressful moments.

Me and James Moore performing Romeo et Juliette (Photo: Angela Sterling)
1. Let's get this one out of the way first. Injury. Most dancers biggest fear is that they will get hurt. This is a factor that every dancer has to contend with at some point in their dancing. Whether minor or major, injury is inevitable. The most stressful part of this job having a high potential for injury is timing. Timing is so important in a dance career. Timing of an audition. Timing of a performance. Timing of paying your bills. The closer one gets to these perfectly timed moments, the harder this anxiety can be to contain. I remember being cast to dance Mercutio in Jean Christophe Maillot's Romeo et Juliette. My fear of injury prior to my big debut became so great that I would knock on wood constantly throughout the day. Anytime I had a bad thought or a moment of fear, I would knock on the dance floor, or a ballet barre, or a lighting boom. I must have knocked on wood hundreds of times over those weeks leading up to that show. I knew that knocking on wood wasn't going to change what was going to happen, but it at least helped me cope with this great amount of fear.

2.  One of the best parts about being a dancer is the way that our art sculpts and forms our bodies. The general population is obsessed with the ballet body and people are not shy about openly discussing it with dancers. For me, I can't deny that I enjoy the attention that I get for the physique that ballet training has given me. But with that said, one of my biggest fears is that I will gain weight and the form that I have created over years and years of meticulous sculpting will crumble. I never really had this fear earlier in my career, as my body was different then. But as a freelancer, I am not always taking class daily and rehearsing for 6 hours afterwards. While I am still in the shape I have maintained over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to keep things going when I am in between gigs. This may be a shallow fear, but it is one nonetheless.

3. When I am stressed about something, I have nightmares. I call them drama dreams. One of these recurring dreams is that I have to perform a ballet that was never taught to me. Somehow, I find myself standing onstage waiting for my entrance and was never given any information about the performance that I am about to do. This dream comes from the feeling that I haven't been properly prepared for a performance. In the land of dance art, where funding is low and expectations are high, there isn't always enough time to rehearse a piece until you feel appropriately prepared to perform for hundreds or thousands of people. Nonetheless, it is all too common for dancers to step onstage with a dark, cloudy question-mark about the outcome of their performance. This lack of preparation creates a great amount of fear and stress that it will negatively affect one's performance.

4. This is trivial and silly, but it is a legitimate worry of mine. As dancers, we are often overtly exposing our bodies. Whether wearing tights, or shorts, or even just a dance belt, our art often exposes the body for the public to view and enjoy. While dancers are often viewed as superhuman, we are, in the end, only human. And as humans, we have human functioning. Sometimes, prior to a performance, you aren't feeling that well. But the show must go on. Perhaps, you ate something for lunch that didn't agree with you. One of the most embarrassing things that could happen onstage might just occur before you get onstage. Think along the lines of your digestive system being off and you have to immediately put on a pair of white tights. Or say, a lady is having her time of the month and putting on a white leotard. Ummm....yeah. Enough said!

This was me selling out...
5. One of the main reasons that I decided to leave Pacific Northwest Ballet was because I was afraid that I was selling out as an artist. Often, dancers will take a job that they wouldn't ideally be a part of, but they need a paycheck. At other times, dancers will perform in work that they don't really agree with just to get press. In my final year at PNB, I felt that I was holding on to my contract only because of the great benefits that were offered to me through my union agreement. Looking back, I know now that this wasn't fully, or even half, true. But I was so scared of being untrue to myself as an artist, that it became a driving factor in me leaving the company. In that case, fear won.

6. One fear that I have had to live with is that I will finish my dance career with unfinished business. It is way too often that dancer's careers end early or in a way that the dancer doesn't have a say. Or even, perhaps, they didn't achieve what they thought they could as they entered their career. Nonetheless, I experience great unease about feeling incomplete when I decide to end the performance side of my career. I have seen too many directors and teachers trying to live out their dance careers through their company members and students. I want to leave performing feeling content.

7. The dance community is so extremely connected by people, but so greatly disconnected in practice. One company's culture is going to be completely different than another. Being a freelancer, it can be difficult to remain fluid throughout every gig and within each process. I have stepped out of cultural expectation (sometimes knowingly, other times unknowingly) within a company or two and, sometimes, that leaves people confused, edgy, and/or angry. While my actions may not have been within a company's cultural understanding, I fear that I may burn a bridge that was built over territory with no agreement. Misunderstandings that are purely professional can easily become personal and hurt a person's ability to work within tightly knit social communities of the dance world.

8. I am afraid of being stuck in the warmup class of an old school Russian-style teacher on a performance day. Enough said!

9. One major stress of mine is picking up choreography. Some days I can pick up faster than anybody else in the room. But other days, I swear you could teach the same choreography and I may have trouble latching on. There is nothing more stressful and frightening than being taught a shit ton of choreography and watching everybody else catch on while you struggle your way through the material.
Rehearsing wildly fast & intricate choreography w/ Elizel Long - Choreo: Seiwert (Photo: Gutierrez Phography)
10. It is often taught that you must always continue growing your technique or you are doing poorly. If you are maintaining a certain level of technique, but not improving in any area, you are actually getting worse. I think this is due to the shortness of our careers. But I live in constant fear that I am not getting better, and this was taught. And while we do want to improve, sometimes it is more important to maintain for a period of time than to grow too fast and peak too soon.

11. My biggest fear in my career is the same fear that most people live with at some point in their lives. After putting so much time into my career and giving everything I have had to make it happen, I fear that it will all be in vain. I don't need to be a star. I don't need to win awards. But I do want to feel like I made a mark, an impression, and moved people with my art. People always say, "Dance as if nobody is watching," or, "Dance for yourself." I never agreed with those statements. I dance because somebody is watching. I dance because it makes me feel good to let others enjoy watching me dance. And if I were to only dance while nobody is watching, I feel my career would have no point. I want to leave this career knowing that I gave something valuable to my art.

What fears have you experienced throughout your career?


"It's a Freelance Life" video

I was perusing my Facebook feed last night when I noticed an acquaintance, who is a fellow freelancer, posted this fun video to his page. Sometimes, when you work as a freelancer, you feel very alone in your emotions and harshly judge your own lifestyle. For instance, I really associated with the lines in this video, "I hate myself for waking up at noon" and "weekday drinking life." This humorous parody of It's a Hard Knock Life from Annie is a great representation of how I feel a great deal of the time. And you know what, I always feel better when I don't feel like I am the only one in the world experiencing a challenge. So, with that, watch, enjoy, and laugh!

Does this video speak your truths as a freelancer?


Falling ill as a Dancer - Taking Care of Yourself

I missed class Friday morning and I'm stressed out about it. After my gig with Company C Contemporary Ballet, I spent a few days enjoying the great city of San Francisco. Upon my return home, I let my body have a bit of a rest. After the physical trauma of replacing a dancer at the last second in 2 ballets, my body really needed it. It was pretty wrecked, especially my shoulder, from the lack of build up, so I felt I deserved an easy week. I took two ballet classes, taught a few more (ballet and contemporary), took a yoga class, and went to the gym maybe 3 times.  Yes, that was an easy week for me. Unfortunately, I couldn't have foreseen that by the end of my easy week I'd come down with that bad cold virus that has been going around.

I'm pretty good at gauging how much time I need to prepare for a series of performances. I figured it would take about two weeks to gear up for my next job dancing Romeo in Fort Wayne Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet. Today, I missed class for the second time in one week. I just felt too horrible to get out of bed. And while I know that my body desperately needed the rest, I still felt guilty and nervous that I won't feel perfectly prepared when I leave in a little over a week.

Sometimes, you just need a few extra hours of rest
The idea of being sick as a freelancer is quite frightening. Beyond having limited funds and, possibly, limited insurance, most independent dance artists don't have the benefit of taking a paid sick day. Between gigs, it may be easier to take time off and get necessary rest. But if performing other work, like the teaching job I hold at Koresh Dance Company's school, freelancers need to be present to collect that income. If one doesn't teach, they don't get paid. If a dancer is in preparation mode and gearing up for a gig, it can be stressful to miss out on the routine that one relies on to prep themselves physically and mentally for the work that is to come. Getting sick while working a gig can be all the worse.

When I was guesting with Rochester City Ballet for their 2012 performances of The Nutcracker, I came down with a horrible case of bronchitis. I resisted going to the doctor for awhile, but, beyond my energy levels being depleted, I could barely breathe my way through rehearsals. I have had pretty severe asthma since I was a little kid. It is much better as an adult, but when I get sick my condition can go downhill fast. I was huffing and puffing through rehearsal, coughing, and barely making it through my short rehearsal days. My mindset was that this company had never seen me dance before and I needed to prove to them that they hired who I said I was. And I was who I said I was, just an ill version of him. I finally went to an urgent care center, where I was diagnosed with bronchitis. I was given a breathing treatment on-site, an extended oral steroid treatment, and some opiate cough syrup to let me sleep. While I felt like death, often struggling to breathe, and felt lightheaded from the steroid medication, I still showed up for rehearsal every day and pretended like everything was fine. In fact, I never even considered asking to take a day off to rest.

Me in the front on the right - I was sick during this rehearsal (Photo: Bill Hebert)
One common issue with freelancing gigs is that the hired dancer is only brought in for a brief period of time. Arts organizations are often cash strapped, so they don't bring in a dancer with a cushion of extra time to ease into rehearsals or in the event of an unforeseen issue/delay (illness, injury, weather, etc.). For this reason, dancers are often only given the exact amount of time that it would take to prepare themselves to learn the choreography and put the product onstage. If I had taken a day off, the company may have felt that they were wasting their financial resources or were losing valuable preparation for their performances. I am sure that if I asked to take a day off, it would have been met with an uncomfortable yes. But it is ingrained in our culture to fight any struggles within our body and push forth for the sake of our art.

While this issue is widespread in the freelance dance world, it is just about as common in the unionized dance world; where companies must provide sick and personal days to their employees. When I danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, it was almost frowned upon to take a day off if you weren't feeling well. Although the organization did have more money, the dance art's financial mindset remains the same. With more performance programs offered throughout the year and, at times, multiple casts performing, there is still limited rehearsal time for productions. This time-crunch puts a lot of pressure on dancers, who feel that they already have a time-crunch to fit as many roles into their short career as possible. If a dancer feels too ill to come in for a day or two, they often miss strategic rehearsals where choreography is taught. If the artistic staff doesn't feel they have enough time to catch that dancer up, there is great possibility that they may take them out of a hard-earned role. That role could very well be the one that pushes their career forward. For this reason, I have seen dancers, who may be extremely ill and highly contagious, show up to rehearse for a full 6-hour day. And even worse, people often applaud their effort, from a healthy distance, of course.

The best example of this is shown in Stephen Manes book, Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, which catalogs a year in the life of PNB during my third season with the company. While preparing for our company premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo et Juliette,  a flu epidemic struck the company. Due to scheduling and finances, the company only had about 2 1/2 weeks to learn the production, adapt to a foreign style of dance, and fine-tune the choreography. We barely got this production onstage and the company barely survived this illness. I don't remember exact numbers, but at any point during this 3-week period, at least 1/4 of the dancers had spiked fevers well over 102 degrees, lost their voices, had coughing fits, and more. But people still showed up. And if they tried to stay home for a day, like me, they were given a call by the artistic staff begging them to come to the studio to finish learning the ballet. While they didn't force anybody to come in, the pressure was immense. Beyond slowing down each dancer's ability to get healthy, this also risked spreading the highly contagious virus. And boy did it spread!

Dance training is already mildly to aggressively masochistic. But beyond the physicality of the profession, this shows part of the emotional masochism that exists in the dance world. Looking back to my post about emotional training in ballet, it is evident that dancers didn't just happen to turn out and act in this manner. It is taught. We are supposed to sacrifice all for our art. Stories aren't told about dancers who were wildly ill and took a few days to themselves and got better, which allowed them to dance better the next week and prove themselves ready to promote. How common is the story of the dancer that was so sick during a performance that they had to put trash cans in every wing for them to puke into during their exits from the stage? I have heard this same story from so many different dancers, I can't even count on both hands how many times I've been told it. And while the thought of this is gross and repulsive, these dancers tell this story with a sense of pride.

But this experience should not be lauded. I have said this time and time again and I am going to repeat it one more time. We are humans first and dancers second. Our health stays with us beyond our time as dancers. Beyond illness, there is injury. And while this isn't an injury post, it works all the same. The best way I can explain this is through a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks ago. As dancers, we are supposed to be a blank canvas which choreographers can paint a picture of dance on. A painter will never hear the canvas tell them that their brush strokes are too hard. A choreographer expects the same of a dancer. But if a painter pokes a hole through a canvas, they can still hang it on a wall and the canvas feels no pain. Where we differ as dancers is, if the process of our art "pokes a hole" in our bodies or health, we still have to live our lives and experience our non-dancing hours in pain and poor health. It is very difficult to make a reasonable decision about fighting through illness or pain. How does one determine whether it is workable or pushing into a danger zone? It is individual.

As dancers, we can't open up our computer and perform satellite work from home. We need to be present to retain information, study intricate combinations, and gain stamina. The ironic part of the whole situation is that the work of a dancer is one of the most hands-on and communal work experiences available. We touch each other, hold hands, and talk very closely throughout the entire rehearsal process. It would seem obvious that employers should want to keep sick dancers away from healthy dancers to prevent the spread of illness. But in the end, the dancer makes the decision to show up to work ill, and employers rarely send dancers home for being sick. Beyond this, when a dancer is not fully present in rehearsal or lacking energy, they are more likely to injure themselves or their partners. There are many aspects of being ill that would reasonably point to the concept of letting dancers rest at home until they are feeling somewhat better. Employers should want to give an ill employee a chance to get healthy before returning to the studio.

As I evaluate and analyze this issue in dance, I can't say that I necessarily follow my own advice. In the above story about my time with Rochester City Ballet, I obviously worked through a dangerous illness, especially as an asthmatic. As a freelance artist and a performer, I didn't feel that I had a choice in the matter. Over the last week, I was able to take time to let myself rest because of the intermittent period between gigs. But even without the requirement of showing up to work each day, I felt guilty and anxious. This is greatly due to our emotional training. While I did what any sane person would do and increased my chances of getting healthy faster, I couldn't allow myself to rest emotionally. This is one of the great challenges of a dancer.

I was perusing my Facebook this morning and there was a status update that sprung to my attention. The post was about Jenifer Ringer, who recently retired from New York City Ballet as a Principal for many years with the company. She talked about seeing a puddle of snowy slush on the street in New York and contemplated jumping over this puddle that was blocking her path. But then she stopped herself to consider what could happen if she performed such a feat. What if she slipped and fell and hurt herself? But then, instantly, she realized that she was retired and could do whatever she wanted, even if it could potentially cause injury. She stated, "Finally, my body was my own." And how true that statement is. As dancers, we have more control of our own bodies than any other beings on Earth. But as dancers, our career responsibilities and emotional upbringings take away our freedom to do what we wish, or need, to do with our bodies.