Freelancing from a Woman's Perspective

Alright, let’s be honest here. Nearly everything in the dance world is easier if you are a man. Not to say that those of us at the top of our professional game haven’t worked our butts off to get to where we are. But it is easier for boys to get scholarships, there are fewer guys at most auditions, and males are often given a bit more leeway in a professional work environment. Although this is a grand generalization, women definitely have more difficulty finding work due to a larger pool of competition. The challenge of finding work as a female dancer can be magnified when starting up a career as a freelance dancer.

Since all of my posts clearly come from my experience as a man in the freelancing world, I want to offer my viewers a chance to hear what it is like from a female perspective. I reached out to my friends Kathryn Morgan, Allynne Noelle, and Miriam Ernest to offer their experiences, thoughts, and advice for any woman trying to break into or sustain a freelance career. Enjoy!

The Freelance Artists:

Kathryn Morgan (New York-based): Former Soloist w/New York City Ballet. Youtuber. Writer of popular monthly advice column, Dear Katie, in Dance Spirit.

Allynne Noelle (Los Angeles-based):  Former Principal w/Los Angeles Ballet & Soloist w/Miami City Ballet.

Miriam Ernest (New York-based): Former dancer w/Grand Rapids Ballet.

The Interviews:

What type of freelance work have you performed?

Kathryn Morgan in Sleeping Beauty w/Tyler Angle (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
KM: Freelancing has been quite a new experience for me. At first I was just trying to get well from my illness, so performing wasn’t the main focus. But it actually helped me heal, and I rediscovered my love for ballet. Since leaving NYCB, I have gotten to do some really great performances. I have danced Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, guested in various Nutcrackers as the Sugarplum Plum Fairy, and performed in the world premiere of Snow White in the ballet's title role with Mobile Ballet. I also put on An Evening with Kathryn Morgan in Cleveland, where I shared my most personal experiences in an intimate performance.

AN: I currently dance with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Suzanne and her company are everything I have ever wanted in my professional life. Being a part of her company led me to make the decision to leave Los Angeles Ballet and supplement the rest of my year with freelancing. In the past, I have worked as a principal guest artist with Sacramento Ballet, State Street Ballet, and Inland Pacific Ballet. I have also guested for numerous schools and pre-professional companies.

ME: I have danced with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet for four seasons. In addition to this, I have freelanced with Emery LeCrone Dance, New Chamber Ballet, Ballet NY, Kathryn Posin Dance Company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, and Texture Contemporary Ballet.

How did you get into freelancing?

Photo shoot (Photo: Rachel Neville)
ME: Each season with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is short, usually about a month or so per year. My first season with Ms. Farrell was so wonderful and inspiring that I knew I wanted to keep returning. I realized I needed to find a place to continue growing as an artist, generate income, and stay in shape while TSFB was out of season. Freelancing was the natural choice.

Being new to freelancing, what have been your biggest challenges?

AN: The idea of freelancing sounds relatively simple when you think about it with the security of a full year contract. During my time under contract with Los Angeles Ballet, I was approached to guest with Sacramento Ballet, Inland Pacific Ballet, and Imagine Ballet Theatre (plus various Nutcrackers). I had to request time off during rehearsal weeks in order to accept outside work. I performed at the annual Dizzy Feet Gala performance one summer in LA, which fell conveniently during a layoff period. It all seemed simple and fluid. It's very different when you look at freelance work as a full-time job, requiring a full income to live, as opposed to when you see it as bonus or supplement to an already existing contract and income. I'm a planner and I like to know things far in advance. That really isn't something that comes with the freelance/guest artist life. I think when you're in a company, especially at the top end of the ranks, you're naturally relevant. When you no longer have that company affiliation to your name, unless you're working and performing you aren't really relevant at all. You're only on the radar when you're busy. It's like you disappear in between work. I was never big on social media, but I have found that it is an essential tool to keep people apprised of what I'm doing currently, my past contributions I have made to the art form, what lies ahead, etc.

Do you think that company credentials are necessary or helpful to work as a freelance artist?

ME: Yes and no. I think company credentials help a lot. I also think staying in shape and being your best self in class and interactions with choreographers/directors are just as important. I’ve seen men and women with impressive company credentials get fired because they were unpleasant to work with in the studio.
Allynne Noelle (Photo: J. McMerty)
AN: I don't think more or less marketable would be how I would look at it, so much as the degree of ease I previously thought I would experience marketing myself. I know my value set, my work ethic, and my talent. When you're in a full-time company, all that information is known and speaks for itself. When you freelance, you have to remind the ballet world of all you are as a dancer and person, and advocate for the strengths you can offer any institution.
Have you had any difficulty finding freelance work?
KM: Thankfully, most of my work has been offered to me at this point. I have been very fortunate in that. And when I was ill. I wasn’t interested in doing a ton of guesting anyway. So up until now, it has been a perfect amount. 
ME: I don’t necessarily find it difficult to find work. I do find it more difficult to find work that I am genuinely interested in and that pays well. While I am appreciative of every offer, I have learned to be selective to ensure safe working conditions and adequate pay. I babysit on the side to supplement income. It is something I love doing that isn’t too strenuous for my body.
How has your perspective changed since you started freelancing?
AN: I definitely realize now that the act of obtaining freelance work is very much a job in itself. Under a full season contract, freelance offers came occasionally and were always a bonus. I assumed that simply having an open calendar and being more readily available for freelance work would directly boost the number of offers I received. You absolutely need to seek the work for it to come to you. People show interest in me and seek me out based on my resume. Also, previous relationships and connections work in my favor. But, I still have to remind others of my availability. 
How do you promote yourself/find work?
Kathryn Morgan in Balanchine's Nutcracker (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
KM: I promote myself through social media, my website, and YouTube. I actually probably need to do a better job promoting myself to actual employers. I do find it difficult posting about myself all the time or reaching out to people basically saying “Hire me!” I have never been good at that, but I am working on it. While I was still sick, I started watching YouTube videos as a distraction. It suddenly occurred to me that for the thousands of beauty gurus online, there were no ballet dancers on YouTube. I wasn’t under a company contract at the time, so I thought I would make a few videos and see what happened. I never expected it to turn into what it has!
AN: I quickly realized that I wasn't very accessible or search-able to those I don't already know. I was never much for social media. I quickly realized the importance of branding myself and creating a solid social media presence. So, I have been working on that, as well as my website (which will launch very soon). I signed with a ballet agent based in New York City, and hopefully he will bring work that I wouldn't otherwise find for myself. A lot of this career is networking. I am a believer in cold-emails; introducing myself to companies who might need a principal female. I think it's hard for most dancers to become their own agent and advocate for themselves. We are trained from such a young age to do as we are told and deliver what's asked of us. My dancing has always spoken for itself. All I have ever had to do is dance in front of someone to get the job, the role, etc. Now, as a freelance ballerina, I have to speak out! I have learned to advocate for myself.

Tell me about freelancing in New York City.

Miriam Ernest (Photo: Joerg Didlap)
ME: I knew New York had a huge dance scene and several of my friends were already freelancing there. New York has plenty of places to take quality dance classes during and in between gigs, which can be difficult to find elsewhere. Most of my work is in the city, although I do travel to and from Washington, DC at least once a year to dance with TSFB.
What is your ideal job?
AN: My ideal jobs are mostly those I have been fortunate enough to do thus far. Short stints with professional companies in need of a principal female. My hope is to build a lasting relationship with these companies and return for future programs. I love the nature of guesting/freelance work. It's exciting, and also extremely beneficial as an artist to be constantly exposed to different dancers, new partners, and fresh eyes for coaching. I also really enjoy guesting for youth and pre-professional companies. I find it extremely gratifying to interact with dancers approaching that time where they may potentially make this art form a career. I can inspire them and offer any helpful insight I can!

ME: For me, an ideal gig is dancing for someone who believes in me and trusts me as an artist, and whom I respect in return. It includes getting paid an appropriate amount and provision of or reimbursement for pointe shoes and physical therapy.

What are the best/worst things about freelancing?

ME: The best thing is the freedom to pursue whatever movement and choreographers interest me. The worst thing is not having a constant income and having to pay for physical therapy, daily ballet classes, and pointe shoes on my own.
Do you have any advice for women that are interested in freelancing?
KM: I think the advice I would give to women who are freelancing is the same advice I need to hear. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! People need to be able to find you and see your work. You can still be kind and not pushy, so go for it!
Allynne Noelle in Agon w/Ulrik Birkkjaer (Photo: Reed Hutchinson)
AN: I'm still learning myself! But thus far,  I would say a most important piece of advice is to always be prepared. Work can come when you least expect it, and you want to be ready. You want to feel good about yourself and your dancing and put your best self forward. First impressions are important in any career, especially ballet. Stay in class and stay focused, even if you're frustrated. I like to spend my downtime taking class and supplementing it with barre, Pilates, or yoga and time at the gym.
ME: Don’t be afraid to inquire about pay and politely decline offers if gigs don’t make sense for you financially or interest you artistically. Use time between projects to cross-train, network, and market yourself. Be kind to everyone you meet. You never know who someone is, especially in an open class. Freelancing is challenging, but can be artistically and personally rewarding.
What upcoming gigs are you looking forward to?
KM: An organization called Ballet in the City is presenting me at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, sponsored by Bloch dancewear. It is an entire evening about my life and career. I will be dancing a wide variety of pieces; some classical, some Balanchine, and a few new things. Performances are on March 29 & 30th at 7pm. I will also be teaching master classes at Washington Ballet on March 31. Here is the link for tickets: https://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/RQXBN 
AN: I will be performing with Sacramento Ballet all month in their Bach to Now and Beyond program (March 17-April 2). I will be featured in a workshop performance, premiering excerpts of a new ballet by Melissa Barak, in New York City (May 2) and then working with Barak Ballet after that in Los Angeles. 
ME: Currently, I am looking forward to performing with Emery LeCrone Dance at Jacob's Pillow on June 23.

If you would like to check out more information about these lovely freelancing women or contact them for work, check out their information below.

Kathryn Morgan
Website: http://kathrynmorganonline.com/
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/Tutugirlkem
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kathryn_morgan/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Kathryn_EMorgan

Allynne Noelle:
Website: www.allynnenoelle.com (coming soon)
Email: Allynne.noelle@gmail.com
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/allynnenoelle/

Miriam Ernest:
Website: www.miriamernest.com
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/miriamernest/


How to Come Back After an Injury

I have been living between New York City and Philadelphia for nearly 2 months at this point. And while I am still working hard on finding stable teaching and choreographic work, it has allowed me plenty of time to ease myself back into shape with my favorite NYC ballet teacher, Nancy Bielski, as well as trying some new instructors and dance styles (I just tried Gaga at the Mark Morris Dance Center) to expand my scope of the scene up here. While I have been getting a great many questions about what I'm auditioning for or where I am performing, I've found it nearly impossible to explain my situation. In fact, I don't really know what my situation is and where the performing part of my career is leading me. For a long time, I tried to force myself back into shape after suffering such a severe injury in Oakland nearly 2 years ago. At times, I went about this in the appropriate ways. But at other times, even with 13 years of dancing professionally behind me, I fell down a path that was not most conducive to repair. I found it difficult to appropriately strengthen a body damaged by years of wear and tear and a mind weakened by too many daunting situations in too short a period of time.

The inspiration for this post? The other day I found that one of my former students had posted three photos of herself on her Facebook account. Initially, I was cheerful to see this talented student posting some photos. But I quickly realized that these images, which included big jumps and extreme extensions, had been taken only one day after returning from nearly 6 months off due to injury. Granted, this student is a child, I was mortified to think that she had spent so much time off in order to return healthy to dance and out of pain. Whether she was motivated to post these photos online out of excitement or ego, I'm actually glad that this happened. Not only did this allow me to intervene to keep this dancer on the right path. It reminded me that I (ripe into my 30's) have committed such acts of excitement, even if I didn't post images of it online.

There is no guidebook for returning from an injury. Every injury is different and every person's body will react differently to therapy, conditioning, and exercises. But what I have learned is that there is truly an appropriate way to come back from a long-term injury. After your doctor has given you the OK to return to class, you must resist the urge to jump into class full force. Getting the green light to return to dance doesn't mean that the work of recovery is over. It means that you are in a safe place to start producing the building blocks of your technique.

My "barre" at the gym
After getting approval to start taking class again last May (after nearly a year off from taking full class), I started things off correctly. I feel that there is often a lot of pressure to take another's class the first few times that you start executing your plies and tendus. Not everybody is like me, but I always feel pressure to follow the instructors combinations to the T. Now, as a professional, I may alter a few things in class, I still tend to do things that I shouldn't be doing if I am taking somebody's class. For this reason, my first week back to class I prefer to find a space either in a studio, gym, or at home where I can start with some simple plies, tendus, and jetes. I focus this first week on remembering what it feels like to pull my inner thighs together, to support my spine with my core muscles, and beyond. By the end of this first week, I may progress to rond de jambes. But I am reluctant to push too fast, too soon because I want to remain healthy.

Posing for Instagram, but only working up to tendus this day
Once my first week has passed, I take a day or two off and continue to build on the structure of class. I add rond de jambe, rond de jambe en l'air, fondu, adagio, frappe, and grand battement exercises at a rate of one new exercise per day. If I feel that I need more strength, I may repeat a combination twice or refrain from moving forward to a new exercise until I feel ready. I try to resist the urge to add two combinations at a time. Again, this is all about building blocks. I focus on executing exercises properly with the correct muscle groups versus forcing my way through combinations without noting what muscle groups are initiating action. I know a great many dancers that move too fast in their progression towards being in shape, and what happens is they execute exercises using the incorrect muscles. Not that they don't know which muscles they should be using, but they haven't built enough strength in the right ones to avoid gripping superficial muscles. This often causes new pain or injury. At this point, feel free to enter somebody's classroom, but be sure to tell them that you are recovering from an injury. For me, I still like to work up to this point by myself, away from the pressure of any watching eyes. Keep in mind that it is completely appropriate to start adagio with your working leg at 45 degrees or to only perform fondu or frappe on flat for some time. Give yourself a pass at judgement and offer yourself some empathy towards health.

At this point, now that I can complete barre to a degree, I feel comfortable to finally enter a classroom. Again, after speaking with the teacher before class starts, I feel more at liberty to do things on my terms. For the next few weeks, I work my way towards jumps. Sometimes, I add one combination a day. Sometimes, I choose to only execute combinations like adagio once to allow my body to acclimate. The biggest part of this return game is to make sure that I am pushing myself along my own schedule without holding back everywhere because of fear or pushing too quickly out of impatience or excitement.

I am mostly reluctant to take any dance classes outside of the genre of ballet during my recovery period due to the structure provided by ballet class. Most classes in contemporary, jazz, musical theatre, hip hop, and beyond begin with a warm-up in center, followed by technique exercises and choreography. The structure of a ballet class gives you something to hold on to for starters (barre), a period of time between each exercise to analyze how your body is responding to information, and an easy opportunity to bow out when you have reached your maximum. Dance classes in other genres, at the beginning of a recovery period, can make it difficult to gauge when and where to stop and can potentially prolong recovery or result in new injury.

After I have progressed past center, I spend the most attention coddling my jumps. Throughout this past recovery period, I began to get in shape and then fell off the wagon due to my Core-ography project, traveling for work, and a lack of classes that inspired me. Now that I am in New York and back on track, it has taken me nearly one and a half months to finally finish class. Strength for jumps is the first thing to disappear after a long period off. And since there are so many different things involved in launching yourself into the air and because it is the end of class when your muscles are tired, jumps are the last thing to build back up. The last thing you want to do is jump straight into saut de chats or other large jumps, feel great on the way up, and realize that you don't have the strength to slow down the force of gravity in your landing. TAKE YOUR TIME. Perhaps, start doing a few combinations holding onto the barre. Then, progressively move forward at your own pace. This time around, I spent nearly two weeks only working through petite allegro.

One of the biggest issues in recovery is excitement to get back in class. Whether you missed moving your body, you are responding to end of class adrenaline, or you just can't let go of that ego, don't wait for the instructor to stop you or, worse, your body. Be reasonable and keep your long-term goals in sight. Dancing feels amazing for the mind, body, soul, and ego. But nothing creates more emotional injuries than a continuous stream of physical ones. As I continue to work myself back into what I consider performance shape, when people ask me what I'm auditioning for or where I'm performing I tell them this. I am getting back in shape for me and so that I can fully show my choreography when creating and instruction when teaching, since this is what I'm focusing on. If I feel healthy enough to perform again, then so be it. But this time, I'm getting in shape for me. Not for my ego. Not for the applause of live audiences or for likes on social media. Now that I finally have access to the tools to potentially perform again, I'm pacing myself and doing things on my body's terms and in my own time.

Working on some choreography at the gym
 (Follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bkerollis/)