Using Independent Contracting as a Trial for Full-Time Employment

Often, independent contractors work for organizations to fulfill work on their own terms. But it isn't uncommon, especially in the dance world, for these specialized self-employed workers to use independent contracting as a trial period with companies that they might consider joining as a full-time employee. Many people work for themselves because they chose to do so a long time ago. While other people who work in this way are only doing it to make ends meet or because they have had a work experience that turned them off from full-time commitments. Using independent contracting as a tool to test the waters can be a very effective way of auditioning a company to see if their work environment is a good fit for oneself.

My view on the way home from Homer, AK
I have been keeping a secret from my readers for a few months. While I haven't been freelancing or working as an independent contractor, I took a job that mimicked the lifestyle/workstyle that I have been living for the past few years. Back in August, I accepted an offer to work as Interim Artistic Director for Alaska Dance Theatre. I moved to Anchorage on a 4-month trial contract towards the end of the subarctic Summer and began working to lead this important arts organization. I never applied for the job and was quite honored when they called me up during my time at the National Choreographers Initiative back in July. It has always been a dream of mine to lead a dance organization and the potential for this to happen at the ripe age of 30 was extremely enticing. While I found this exciting, I also needed to keep a level head about the situation.

As many of you probably remember, back in 2012, one of my very first posts was about freelancing with Alaska Dance Theatre. Dancing with this newly formed company was my first foray into traveling as a freelancer. I had danced in one or two gigs prior to this, but they were always in familiar places that were close to home. This was the first time that I had been offered work in a place that was foreign to me and, to be honest, I was scared shitless. It was the first time that I would reside in a smaller city. It was also winter; which meant it was going to be cold, snowy, and dark. Lastly, everybody talked about it being an extremely conservative state where Sarah Palin reigned supreme. I was pretty sure that I was going to be gay bashed or lynched by some pioneer with a huge beard and a passion for hunting.

A few weeks before I flew to Alaska for the first time, I had a nightmare where I was driving to the rehearsal studios on a snow machine. In my dream they were located up a tall, steep, and snowy mountain. In blizzard-like conditions, we got about halfway up the mountain when it became too steep to continue on the snow machine. We had to get up and ascend the mountain by foot. Before I ever found out if we successfully reached the studios or succumbed to the frightening weather, I awoke from my dream. I was clearly dealing with some internal stress about spending five weeks in the "Last Frontier."

I dreamt the Alaska Dance Theatre studios would be here (they're not)
When I finally made it to Anchorage, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my nightmares were only that. Yes, it was cold and snowy. But it wasn't as cold as people would think and the snow was quite beautiful. Yes, it was dark. But every day it got lighter by 5-10 minutes. Yes, it was a small city. But it had more culture and acceptance than I ever expected. Everybody hates Sarah Palin and the people are way more community-oriented than most other cities in the United States. I had a great experience in Alaska and gained a lot of respect for the place. So much so, that I returned a year later to dance with the company for three months.

While my first experience in Alaska was quite a nice surprise, my second time around was a bit different. Most of the positive light from my previous time in the state was still there, but the organization was displaying symptoms of financial instability, cultural challenges, and green leadership. By the time the three months were complete, I was ready to get back to Philadelphia. Nonetheless, I still left with a strong affinity for a place that probably would've never been on my radar had I not been working there as an independent contractor.

This past July, I received the call from Anchorage during an ideal moment in my life for this job opportunity to become a possibility. I was recovering from an injury and was working in a role that required more leadership as a choreographer for NCI. If a perfect storm of events hadn't aligned, I would've likely moved back to Philadelphia and continued working in the same capacity as I have been for the past few years.

While I knew the organization was trying to find its path when I left, I wasn't quite sure where the organization was today. In negotiations for my contract, it was mentioned that I could take the role as Interim Artistic Director to see if I would be a good fit for the organization. While I was hired as an employee, this setup mimicked the same work agreement of an independent contractor. Instead of being locked into a situation for an extended period of time, I was given a trial period to see if the organization was a good fit for me and me a good fit for them.

Me with the pre-professional company of Alaska Dance Theatre
I have had a mixed bag of an experience trying to lead an organization that is still trying to find its' distinct path towards excellence. And while I have loved my time working with the students of Alaska Dance Theatre and educating the community, it became clear that the puzzle pieces for me to continue with the organization weren't fitting together properly to keep me on board for a long-term contract. Had I taken the original offer for a year of work, I may have been left in a situation that wouldn't have been conducive for the growth that the organization is seeking. So, at the end of my term in December, I will move back to Philadelphia and begin to build a plan for the next stage of my career.

While my current experience isn't technically that of a freelancing independent contractor, it is functioning in the same capacity. Most of my freelancing work has given me the opportunity to work with companies that could eventually become my full-time job and home. I have had a handful of enticing offers that just didn't work out logistically, financially, and living between two cities with my partner. But while working with companies as a freelancer, I have always had this thought in the back of my mind that each and every experience could be the one that pulls me out of this nomadic lifestyle.

Looking forward to what's next!


The Rules of Company Class

I started writing this post back in July while creating at the National Choreographers Initiative, but quickly got distracted by the intensity of the choreographic process. It has been awhile since I posted, as I have been swamped while working the past few weeks in Anchorage, Alaska. While it is a few months since I started writing this blog, I feel that this topic is very relevant and hasn't been addressed much. So, I'd like to share. Enjoy!

National Choreographers Initiative dancers taking company class onstage
Back in October, I posted the rules of taking open class while prepping to dance with Barak Ballet in Los Angeles. Nine months later, I am back in the LA area having a completely different experience working as a choreographer for the National Choreographers Initiative. Each of us four choreographers have been offered the opportunity to teach company class for the professionals that have been brought in for this 3-week choreographic laboratory. I love teaching, so I happily took the director up on her offer. Having spent my first hour and a half on the other side of company class and digesting my vast experience taking class in an array of company cultures through freelancing has inspired me to gather a list of general rules for company class from both the teacher's side and the professional's side.

- Company class is a time for dancers to warmup their bodies and to improve their technique. This should generally be on their own terms. Some days a dancer is exhausted and just needs to wake their body up. Other days, a dancer may not have much rehearsal or may be understudying much of the day. During these periods, a pro may use class to push their technique to the next level. Company class is not an equal effort day to day.

- Company class instructors should approach class from an external perspective. Warmup should be approached very differently than classes that would be given to academy students. Yes, professionals need to be pushed, corrected, and kept on task. But company class should be nothing about the instructor and all about the dancers.

- It can be really effective for an instructor to offer combinations that relate to the work that is being prepared for performance. This offers the dancers an opportunity to perfect challenging sequences in choreography.

- Expectations of a dancer in company class should be very individual. If there is not a developed relationship with a group of dancers, it can be rude to make assumptions about why a dancer is acting a certain way in class. If a dancer changes my combination, I am assuming that they are making an important decision for themselves. Back to the first rule in this post, some dancers may be tired or hurting. Company class is a vehicle for the rest of the rehearsal day. Their is often an assumption that dancers must take class like they are students until they retire. Do every combination 100%, even if it doesn't feel good on your body. Of course, it is the dancer's responsibility to remain reasonable about their choices. For instance, if my back is sore from my recent injury, I may not perform arabesques or attitudes derriere in adagio or grand battements at barre. I am not being lazy. I am being smart about my body and extending the length of my career by making an educated decision to leave a combination out.

          (My mom sneaked video taking company class at PNB circa 2008)

- Apprentices and less experienced professionals should approach company class like they approached school class. It takes time to develop an understanding of what your body needs. I didn't start altering my approach to company class until I had my first injury three years into my career. At that point, I recognized that overworking any position in arabesque may be more detrimental to my dancing than beneficial.

- Instructors should try their own combinations with the music to make sure that the tempo is comfortable, doable, and what they imagined the exercise to be. To speak and hear a combination versus executing a combination is a very different experience.

- If a dancer is entering class with an established company, they should ask other dancers if they can stand in any specific barre spot before claiming space. If there aren't many spots available and you are waiting for dancers to show up and claim their regular spot, wait away from the barre until the instructor walks in. Typically, somebody will point you in the right direction of a dancer's place that isn't in attendance.

- I strongly believe that those who teach class should still be taking class. I find that I teach much better when I am checking in with my body and reminding myself what it feels like to dance. 

- If you are going to leave class early, you should always give the teacher a wave as you leave. To walk up and thank the teacher directly, as you would at the end of class, interrupts the flow for those who are continuing with class. Quietly grab your stuff, walk to the door, and wait for the teacher to acknowledge your exit.

- Generally, new or auditioning dancers should pay attention to the hierarchy of individuals in a class. If a dancer has been with the company for many years or is a Principal dancer, let them dance where they want to dance in center. Some dancers could care less about hierarchy, but some are very particular about this order.

- It is the instructors job to be sensitive about when to push dancers in class. I am a dancer that always appreciates corrections. As I stated before, some dancers just want to warm up and focus on their technique in rehearsals. If an instructor feels that a dancer is being lazy, then they can bring that up outside of class and try to push a dancer to work harder. One common error I see is that instructors make judgements about dancers that they barely know. A dancer that is altering a combination or skipping a combination is not necessarily a lazy dancer. Only when their is a developed relationship between a teacher and a professional is it fair to make a judgement.

- Teachers that don't teach to their ego are generally the most respected teachers.

- Do offer corrections to technique, but be careful when offering corrections in style. Once a dancer becomes a professional, for instance, they are very unlikely to change certain parts of their dancing. For instance, if a dancer takes their pirouette preparation from a straight back leg, they may not be willing to execute this from a bent back leg. If they have figured out how to execute a beautiful pirouette from one position, why force them to change it unless it is for choreography that requires unison.

- This is a pet peeve of mine, not necessarily a definitive rule. It is merely a suggestion. Professionals generally don't need to be given specific combinations for plies and stretching. Plies should be about telling the body that class is beginning and stretching should be about limbering your own individual needs. If a dancer doesn't know how to execute these on their own, they probably shouldn't be professionals. I tend to shut down if I am given an extravagant plie combination.

- In most companies that I have danced, it is generally acceptable to wear what you wish for class. When dancers are forced to wear a dress code or to take off their warmups, I have found that dancers are generally treated with a lower level of respect in those workplaces. 

- Instructors should learn to trust the dancers that they are teaching in their decisions. There is not often enough trust in dancers to make their own decisions.

- This is kind of a given. It is more common for dancers to talk in company class, whether catching up with a friend or discussing choreography for a later rehearsal. While it is ok to chat here and there, don't be disrespectful and talk throughout all of center. Show the instructor respect and offer your attention for a majority of class.

- One rule that I am a big advocate of is to support your fellow dancers. If somebody executes a major feat, show your appreciation. I'm also one of the first people to start clapping to the beat when a dancer accidentally ends up having a solo across the floor. Comaraderie and support go a long way in a difficult and competitive career.

- It is acceptable to miss company class here and there if your body really needs a break. Don't make a habit of missing class. If there is an instructor whose class you don't mesh well with, try to find a way to take another class to warm up, like open or academy classes.

- Now that you are a professional, don't approach class like you know everything. There is always something else you can learn.

- While most unionized companies don't require dancers to attend company class, keep in mind that this is more of a technicality than a pass to miss class. Beyond that, a great deal of casting, especially for incoming choreographers, takes place during class.

Company class can be a blur (PNB company class onstage circa 2004)
 - This is my own personal rule. I feel that company class, whether for a classical or contemporary company, should still be a classical ballet class. Ballet is the basis for most technical dance. When company class starts turning into an instructor's interpretation of a mix of classical and contemporary styles, dancer technique will suffer. Keep class as class.

- Whether you like the class or not, always thank the instructor and pianist after class. It is in our culture to clap at the end of class. If you really loved class, hoot and holler. Walk up to the pianist and shake their hand. Walk up to the instructor and say thank you. Instructors appreciate applause and recognition as much as dancers do. Most of them still are or once were in your position.