Five Qualities Every "Dancer-preneur" Needs

As each day passes and I interact with more and more professional dancers, it seems like we are in the age of the entrepreneurial dancer. Some artists are starting their own dancewear lines, while others are creating their own fitness programs. Perhaps, this trend is due to fear of the brevity of dance careers. Or, maybe, we have past generations to thank for empowering us to follow them after they became entrepreneurs outside of their performing careers. Even many dancers that are living the age old tradition of joining a company seem to feel the pull of guiding their own career as a freelancer. Being an established freelance dancer and choreographer, like myself, is surprisingly entrepreneurial. Most of my days outside of the studio are spent developing my brand, promoting my product, and selling my services. Not everybody is up to the challenges of running their own business, whether creating a physical product or selling your dancing. Here are five qualities that every Dancer-preneur should have in order to have a successful career as a freelancer:

(Photo: Shalem Photography)
1. Leadership: Any dancer that is looking to launch a career as a freelancer needs to show signs of a leader. Spending a career with a company requires a certain level of submission. But as a freelancer, you will find yourself in a handful of situations that require strong leadership skills. First, a dancer needs to be strong enough to put themselves out there for employers to hire. Often, dancers are brought into a school or company to show students/company members what it means to be a confident, professional dancer. In order to own your own business, whether you are selling yourself as a dancer or selling a product, it is important to show confidence in that service/product and to convince employers that you are a leader. When you can lead, you will get hired.

Stress Control?
2. Stress Control: Getting to lead your own career may sound like an ideal situation. But there are many challenges and stresses that go along with finding your own work. In a great deal of work environments, you get out of your work what you put into it. Unfortunately, this is not how the freelance world exists. More often than not, you are putting in 1000 (yes, one-thousand) percent of the work and only getting 50-75 percent in return. When you have poured all of your time, energy, and heart into something and your bank account is continuing to dwindle, stress levels can blow through the roof. Whether looking for work, negotiating a contract, rehearsing, nursing injuries, performing, getting paid, surviving financially until the next gig, or a multitude of other items, it is necessary that you are able to handle the sometimes insurmountable stress that is involved in being an entrepreneurial dancer.

3. Social Media Expert: Love it or hate it, we live in a day and age of social media. When I first started using Myspace, people used to talk about what a waste of time and energy that was social media. Often, I heard, "I'd rather be living in reality than sitting on my computer." While I don't disagree with this statement, I have always been rather attached to networking sites. Today, there are people in the international workforce getting hired with large, rewarding salaries to sit on the likes of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, and innumerable other sites. If you are a freelancer, you are unlikely to be rolling in the dough. So, you need to find inexpensive ways to promote yourself. The easiest way to do this is through Facebook fan pages, Youtube videos, blogs, personal websites, and much more. I know for a fact that I would not have had any success as a freelance dancer if it weren't for my social media skills.

Romeo & Juliet w/Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
4. Compromise: As mentioned in the first important quality of this post, leadership is necessary to become a Dancer-preneur. Many of our great leaders have set themselves apart from the crowd with their ability in handling compromise. The challenge of being a leader is knowing when to give a little to get a little. When negotiating a contract, a dancer must approach their potential employer with care about the financial health of the company. At other times, dancers may need to give up some of their professional expectations to work for a choreographer that they have always wanted to work with. Knowing when and when not to compromise is, perhaps, one of the most defining qualities of the best independent contractors.

Performing "Maan Singh" (Photo: Oberon's Grove)
5. Determination: One quality that is naturally found in most professional dancers is determination. In order to guide your own business, you must have gritty determination. Only if you put every ounce of your being into finding and/or creating work can you have a career built from an entrepreneurial spirit. Keep in mind that even if you throw every bit of yourself into your business, it won't always succeed. But the more determined you are to make it work, the better your prospects will be of experiencing a successful, freelance career.

What qualities would you add to this list? 


Video Break - My Choreography - Pas de Deux from Distinct Perceptions

Proud director of these four talented students from Alaska Dance Theatre
This past weekend was quite exciting for me and a few kids from Alaska Dance Theatre. After months of preparation, two of my students placed in the top 12 in the Junior and Senior Contemporary divisions at the Youth America Grand Prix semi-finals in Philadelphia. We also had our male competitor win 3rd place in the men's Contemporary division. To seal the deal, I was recognized with a special award for Outstanding Choreography. It was a very exciting weekend for all of us. Who knew that dance was alive and well in Alaska ;-)

It's been awhile since I've posted a Video Break from my writings. So, in honor of our success this past weekend and to fulfill your ever-growing curiosity about my choreography ;-), I am posting the complete pas de deux from Distinct Perceptions, a ballet that I choreographed at the National Choreographers Initiative this past summer. Enjoy!


How Much Should I Get Paid?

Today, I’m going to discuss a topic that I’ve mostly avoided since starting this blog. It’s not that I’ve avoided talking about money because I’m afraid to share my worth. It is more that money, in this funny dance world, is a very complicated matter that isn’t always affected proportionately by worth and experience. With each experience that we have, our value should grow. But in the dance world, you can be offered to dance in two works of equal value in the same time-frame with the same company with one year in between them and get offered grossly disproportionate sums of money that, in reality, should be a marker representing your true value as an artist. Beyond that, there is always a chance that a dancer will underestimate their worth because they are afraid that they will be turned down for work. For these reasons, salary talk for freelance dancers is a tricky, fickle beast.

Most people would avoid putting their yearly salary out there for the public to see. I don’t feel it would be effective for me to announce my freelancing salary, but I am happy to share that when I left Pacific Northwest Ballet; after 7 years in the corps, collecting unemployment during lay-offs, and working as a union representative, I was making over $60,000 yearly. It was a cushy job that had great benefits and showed a personal investment by the company in my dedication to my workplace. Each year, whether I got bumped up in status (Apprentice, Corps, Senior Corps, Soloist, Principal), I got a seniority raise that loosely represented my accrued value to the company. Once I left PNB and started freelancing, I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to salary.

When I first started taking freelancing work, I would generally accept the financial offering of whomever was willing to hire me. Whether I was getting paid per show or per week, I wasn’t comfortable negotiating my own fees and I didn’t really understand how to properly define my worth. At the start, it was challenging for me to go from making $1,325 per week to being offered $400 per week. I often felt like I was selling out on my true worth. But what it came down to was this. Do I want to work or do I want to sit on my ass looking for work that made me feel like I was being compensated at my appropriate value?

I was lucky that I had my partner talking me through this challenging period. He kept reminding me this, “You built yourself up to the level that you were at with PNB and that took some time. You can’t expect to jump into freelancing and for everybody to treat you just like that. You need to put in the time and effort as a freelancer and build yourself back up from the beginning.” This advice turned out to be quite true.

People don't just hand you things! (Abby Relic & me wasting time backstage during rehearsal at PNB)
My first season dancing in multiple shows of the Nutcracker, I made less than half of what I make at the moment. Where I used to take whatever offers came my way and leave negotiation for my pay out of the equation, now I have a set rate that is generally non-negotiable (whether per week or per show). If my rate can’t be met, then I will pass the gig on to a friend that may need to build up their freelancing portfolio. While it wouldn’t be wise to share my rate publicly, I will note that I feel that after nearly four years of freelancing, I am getting paid somewhere near what I think my value is as a national-level Principal Guest Artist.

As for programs outside of Nutcracker, this is a completely different story. While I definitely do negotiate my rates for weeks of works and performances, it is trickier to determine what is acceptable for my services. My first freelancing jobs were somewhere within the range of $400-$600 per week or $500 per show. Most of the work that I performed ended up being on a weekly rate (which I always try to negotiate in the event of injury. If you get injured during a three-week rehearsal period and are getting paid per performance, then you are not getting any compensation for the work put in). The challenge of this period was that I couldn't afford to pay all of my bills, saving for self-employment taxes, and paying off debt that I had accrued during off periods at that rate. I took the work because there wasn't a great many calls coming in and because I was afraid to negotiate a different wage that might have changed the opinion of the director offering me the gig. During this period, I essentially ate up all of my savings that I had built before leaving my cushy job with PNB.

After a year of freelancing, I started making more sense of my negotiation strategy. When a company would low-ball me for my salary, I would tell them the absolute minimum figure that I had determined I needed to pay my bills, save for taxes, and put a little in savings for time between gigs. I knew it would be easier to negotiate my rate without feeling uncomfortable asking for more if I told the directors that it was the minimum for me to survive month to month. This went over well and showed that I wasn't greedy. The funny thing, though, is that my first job offering with the Colorado Ballet at the young age of 18 was for $500 per week. With nearly ten years of experience, I was traveling around the country begging companies to pay me just a little more than that base salary.

After my second year of freelancing, I started to realize that my work, my blog, and the validation that my product was very good was becoming better known. When work started coming my way, it was very rare for job offers to come in at the lower end of my survival number. Only two non-Nutcracker gigs came my way that were below the level of salary that I was regularly accruing. I finally hit a place where I felt that my value was being appropriately assessed. In the end, the reason that I chose to take those two jobs with a lower salary rate was because I was more interested in the experience than negotiating myself a higher salary. I was interested in working with the companies, directors, and choreographers that were involved in those programs. I also didn't negotiate with them because I was concerned that negotiating would deter them from holding their offer to me for work.

I always wanted to work w/ this lovely lady! Amy Seiwert running rehearsals at Alaska Dance Theatre
One tricky aspect of obtaining work as a freelancer is negotiating mindfully without overstepping the comfort zone of your possible employer. While many directors have a moderate range of flexibility with their financial offers, others have no wiggle room in their budget. Depending on the director and how much they want/need you, you could get what you want or turn them off from working with you. For instance, if you are working for a gig that will include 8 dancers and all of the dancers are being paid the same rate, it will be more difficult to negotiate a higher wage. Yes, maybe you have a bigger resume then them, but is it fair to pay differently if you are all performing the same load of work? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but there are exceptions. Often directors wont be comfortable giving preferential treatment to one dancer over another. Sometimes, it is beneficial to ask if there is any leeway in a company's budget before asking to negotiate. In these instances, you can only be hopeful that the director is being honest instead of tight-pocketed.

In the end, it is up to the dancer to assess their own value. Look at your experience, look at your recent work, and look at your monthly financial needs to determine what is an appropriate amount to seek. If you danced with a small regional company, don't go out looking for over $1000 per week. If you have a bigger name company on your resume with famous roles in well-known ballets, it will be easier for you to negotiate up. Even those dancers sometimes have to build their freelancing portfolio before they can survive off of this kind of work. Know your true worth, and not your ego's worth. And know that your true worth is malleable dependent upon the budget of the people offering you a job. Unfortunately, our arts world doesn't exist on the same plane as the sports or major for-profit worlds work. Don't accept work away from home (b/c if you are home, you can work multiple gigs, teach, etc.) if it doesn't cover all of your monthly bills, travel, and housing. And do your best to be thankful to those employers that offer you work at a rate that is too far below your standards. While you may feel offended by a low-balled offer, they may be in a building phase and trying to get, you, one of the best dancers they know. Take it as a compliment!

Always be gracious - Dancing Romeo w/ Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)