Money Talks - Determining Your Value

My student, Emiko Inskeep, created this image of me
Dancing for a full-time company is a great gig, but it can really leave one lacking maturity when it comes to self-determining one's value. Most company dancers pay into a union from the first day they step into the studio that denotes their rank, seniority, and pay (and if they don't, they are at least offered a pre-determined contract). The union takes on the challenging and, often, uncomfortable responsibility of negotiating these factors and what their value is. The dancer's choice is clear cut. Do I accept the rank and pay that has been offered to me? It is a simple yes or no answer. As freelancers, we are rarely offered this luxury, as we must negotiate our worth and salary on a regular basis. How does one determine their asking price for a job, often considered the marker of how much value they bring to an organization?

First things first, we need to approach this question from back to front. How does one determine their value? This is a difficult question. Dancers are trained from a young age to keep their mouths closed and their egos humble (at least verbally). One could look at many factors in their career to determine their worth. How many years have I danced professionally? What companies have I danced for? How diverse is my experience? What is my repertoire? Am I female or male (not that this should be a question, but it is a commodity-based reality of the dance world)? While these are great questions to ask oneself prior to entering the freelance world, the truth of the matter is that you don't get to determine your value. You only get to influence the perception of your value.

Each dancer's true value is fluid, especially as a freelance artist. It is easy to feel that your worth is the same across the board when you dance for a company regularly at a consistent rank. But there are situations that can alter that consistent value, as well. For instance, if a new director steps in, your value changes. If you leave your company as a Soloist and join a new one, you may not be asked to join at the same rank. Your value, unfortunately, is not fully declared by you or your dancing. Instead, it is determined by the opinions of those who are responsible for hiring, casting, and paying. Only you get to choose if you accept that valuation.

Now that you have decided to find work outside of a negotiated company contract, you are forced to come to grips with the fact that your value is not a simple, concrete determination. Still, you have to decide what you consider your lowest value to be. I'd like to say that your highest value should be the marker to pay more attention to. But in our underfunded dance world, it is more important to have a base integrity value. This is the marker that will determine whether you accept a job or not.

When I first started taking freelance work, I thought that my base value was in line with the negotiated weekly rate that I received while dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that my cushy, big-company paycheck was not my lowest asking price for most of my gigs. While I had a lot of great experience on my resume, I learned that my original base rate needed to be the minimum wage I had to make in order to cover my monthly bills. I knew that I couldn't work a job that didn't cover these costs out of pure practicality. Unless I had a cushion of money from a feast-period of work, I could only accept work that met this minimum.

While I didn't ever ask for my baseline rate of pay, I knew that I would only consider work that I could negotiate to that rate or higher. It took me a period of time to increase my value in the eyes and mind of future employers. A great deal of that bettered perception in value, surprisingly, didn't come from the additional experience I was getting as a freelance artist. The experience was there. Instead, my value spiked the more popular this blog became. As I grew a following on this platform and began to have a greater social media presence, employers started seeing me as a more experienced and trusted commodity. All of a sudden, I went from a dancer who was quietly accruing achievements and experience to somebody that could be seen visibly as valuable and trustworthy in my work and credentials. Essentially, my value increased in the opinions of others.

Once I began to get more exposure as a freelancer, I was able to bring my base value up to a higher rate than my original minimum-to-pay-my-bills rate. While my rate had improved greatly over time, there were a few experiences where I had to rely on my base wage during famine-periods. While this became less common, there were still a few gigs each year that I would take at my lower rate. I did this for multiple reasons that ranged from wanting to dance with a certain choreographer to just wanting to be working. So, as you can see, my value became fluid dependent upon the time period, work load, and experience offered by dancing with a company.

An additional item to note when considering your value, determinations may also depend on the financial state of a company. If one company has a smaller budget than another, their lower monetary offering may hold the same bearing as another company with better fiscal options. For instance, while one company may pay you $800/week to dance with them, you may not be their highest valued dancer. But if another company offers $500/week, you may be their highest paid and valued dancer. All organizations are not created equal. For instance, when I danced with the now defunct Alaska Dance Theatre, I was the highest paid artist at $530/week. While it was far below my minimum asking price (they supplemented my salary by giving me classes to teach in the school), I knew that they were doing all they could to give me the highest value that they had available to offer.

Now that you have a gauge to determine your value, you can go into negotiating pay from a few angles. I prefer to let the hiring organization make their own offer of payment. My reasoning for this is because I like to have an idea of what the organization has to work with. If I go into a negotiation asking way too high, it may turn the organization off from wanting to work with me. But if I go into the negotiation asking way below what the company was considering, it hurts my bottom line. It's not so much that I'm losing value. Instead, being able to create a cushion of cash flow helps me pay my self-employment taxes at the end of the year, pay off debts that I accrue during famine periods, and keep myself inspired to continue working in this challenging career-style.

While some organizations immediately offer financial considerations, I have found that admin who are in charge of offering a rate are often just as uncomfortable as dancers in talking money. It has been common to have employers ask me to tell them my fees. If I have to do this, I have come to learn that it is best to let the organization know that my fees are negotiable from the start. This let's the company know that I am willing to work with them on finding a pay scale that works best for both of us.

As you can see, it is important to approach the freelancing lifestyle with a sense of fluidity. Many of us feel worthwhile and confident because of our own perception of our value. And I continue to encourage dancers to feel this way. But freelancers can't approach negotiating work purely based on their own idea of their value. One must be willing to judge their financial value separate from their perceived value. Attaching your worth to the height of your paycheck will do nothing but affect your ability to enjoy the work that you are doing.


New York Called

My view from the Bolt Bus as I wrote this post
Nearly 15 years ago, I sat in the backseat of my mom’s car with my luggage packed in the trunk and stars in my teary eyes. We were waiting in line to pass through the bottle-necking entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. I had just completed my final year of pre-professional training at the School of American Ballet, was embarking on an exciting career journey, and had just offered goodbyes to many friends that I still remain close to today. While I was sad to say goodbye to my friends and to move on to the next stage of my dance life, I wasn’t crying for either of those reasons. I knew then that it would be quite awhile before I called the city that I felt so closely connected to home. The city that inspired me to work hard. The city that showed me art mattered. The city where I grew from child to man. There I was, in the back seat of the car talking out loud as if the city had ears, “One day you’ll be home again. I’ll be back!” Well, I’m not one to say things that I don’t mean. Today is that day.

Awhile back, I wrote a post titled “New York Calling,” where I considered the fact that New York seems to hold some strange gravitational pull for any artist that calls themselves dancer. At that time, I was caught in the middle of my freelance performance career floating from gig to gig with little direction but the wind. I wasn’t necessarily getting much work in the city, but I was receiving little sparks of possibility as I began dreaming of settling down from traveling for a little bit. While I started feeling that pull to return a few years ago, circumstances just seemed incorrect or impossible to move the hour and a half hop, skip, and jump north of my hometown.

At one point in my life, I would have probably just run with my gut feeling and moved to the city without furniture, job, or care for how I was going to make something happen. But things changed at some point along my artistic journey. When I first met my partner, I gave him the daunting ultimatum, “Don’t make me choose between you and my career...because I won’t choose you.” After agreeing to this intense consideration, he moved to Seattle to be with me (I claimed 2 weeks after he moved that I was auditioning to leave PNB, which took nearly 5 years to actually happen) and later relocated to Philadelphia for the next stage of my career. But by the time I started realizing Philly wasn't working out, I couldn’t choose between him or my career. He had already given up so much just to be with me, so I needed to give him a chance to develop himself and his career. So, I’ve freelanced out of Philadelphia for 4 years and ignored the pull of the dance capitol.

I came to a realization in the last year, mostly brought on by my first extended period of time staying home in Philly the first half of 2015. During my time at home, I did everything that I could possibly do to find inspiring work and connect myself to the greater Philadelphia professional dance scene. I sent applications to teach at pre-professional training programs, I applied for a ballet master position with PA Ballet, and I reached out to find a way to be a part of the greater ballet scene the city has to offer. At one point, I even applied for a week-long collaboration residency that placed Philadelphia-based artists with others in different genres. My rejection letter was kind, but I was disheartened by the feedback that stated, "It seems you are more interested in meeting artists than collaborating with them."

While there were moments of hope, I was left to go back to my regular way of working; creating my own inspiration and traveling the country to places that valued my work. By the time this summer had passed, I began craving outside inspiration and a place to call my artistic home. And it just seemed that Philly wasn't going to offer that to me. I knew what I had to do. But I was afraid to say it. I was afraid to ask. I was afraid to give myself permission. What if I moved to New York?

I spent much of the fall season working on my Core-ography project and developing my AK-BK Intensive Winter Workshop in Anchorage. But New York was on my mind the whole time. Slowly, but surely, I realized that I had to make this happen. During a quick visit to the city right before heading up to Alaska this past December, I mentioned to a good friend that I have freelanced with in the past that I was looking for a place to live. I was just catching this friend up on what I was doing. And, by chance, he happened to have a room opening up at his apartment.

Fast-forward a little over a month later, and here I am (I started this blog on the bus and finished after I settled in) laying in my brand new bedroom, staring out my window at the beaming George Washington Bridge, and smiling after my first day as a new resident of this incredible city. What am I going to do now that I'm here? I don't know. But I am so excited to have hope, possibility, and dreams staring me straight on. I look forward to looking back at this post down the road and seeing where this risk and adventure takes me.

View of George Washington Bridge from my bedroom window


Catch Up on LOFD (Vol. 2) - Previous Blog Posts

There are lots of exciting things happening as the new year begins. From finishing up Core-ography's Share Your Story fundraising campaign to moving to NYC this week, and being asked to be a part of an exciting project. There is even more exciting news on its way in the next few weeks that I can't quite announce yet. While I can't share this news yet, I am making a preemptive move and updating my past list of blogs for those of you who are joining the freelancing party. I have been blogging about the freelance lifestyle for nearly 4 years at this point and the topics I have written on are vast. Catch up on LOFD and peruse what has come before. And please stay tuned for new content soon. 

List of Previous Blogs:
124. See Blog Posts 1 -123 Here

125. "Create Your Own Project" series - Fiscal Sponshorship

126. Teaching at Peridance Capezio Center - May 6, 13, and 16
127. "Create Your Own Project" series - Writing a Fundraising Letter

128. Core-ography gains attention in Philly Magazine

129. "Create Your Own Project" series - Writing Your Own Budget

130. Travel Post - It is Only an Airport - CALM DOWN!!!!!

131. What Have I Been Up To? - AK-BK Contemporary Ballet Workshop

132. "Create Your Own Project" series - Make a Crowdfunding Campaign

133. 8 Things You May Not Know About Me

134. Cultivating Your Outgoing Personality in New Work Environments

135. A Positive Look At My Recent Failure

136. Help Core-ography Meet It's Goal - Final 3 Days of Fundraising Campaign

137. LOFD Reaches Major Milestone - How My Life Has Changed Since I Began Freelancing

138. Core-ography - "A Global Dance Storytelling Project" Preview

139. Presenting Core-ography - "A Global Dance Storytelling Project"

140. Giving Everything For Your Art (or Not)

141. Core-ography - Our New Artist Preview and Choreographer's Vlog

142. Core-ography Explores Coping with Death

143. Letter to My Teenage Self

144. Core-ography Takes on Substance Abuse

145. 8 Gifts My Career Has Given Me

146. Share Your Story Campaign & My 12 Favorite Experiences of 2015

147. 16 People Who Have Greatly Influenced My Life