The "R" Word - Retirement

The Nutcracker (Photo: Ruth Judson)
There really are few careers out there that are as strikingly unique as a performance career in dance. Those of us lucky enough to dance for a living chose our career path somewhere between the age of teen and tween. Plenty of my peers and colleagues left middle or high school early to attend a boarding school or finished their academics online. From the lifestyle required to maintain the elite level of an athletic artist to the odd set of job requirements, there is nothing normal about the life of a dance artist. One of the most defining aspects of our careers is a word that begins with the letter "R" and is a word almost as dangerous as the name Voldemort. Like many of the most beautiful things in our world, a dance career shines brightly and quickly, then usually fades as fast as a falling star. Like putting together a last will and testament, talking about retirement feels like a daunting task. But at some point, every successful dancer will retire. And only in the rarest instances will this retirement lead one into the sunset of their lives.

Martha Graham was once quoted as saying, "A dancer dies twice." I can tell you from experience that this is one of the most credible statements that has ever been spoken about the pathway a dancer takes as they end their performance career and transition forward into the next stage of their lives. I have been told that one of my most defining attributes as a writer is my level of candor in talking about the realities of our wonderful dance world. But I don't feel that I have been completely candid about where I am as an artist today. And I finally feel that I am ready to change that.

If you have shared the journey of Life of a Freelance Dancer, you have walked hand-in-hand with me from the commencement of my career as a freelance artist. If you look back to 2014, where I posted about dealing with injury and working my way back from burn out, it was quite clear that I was working through a difficult period of my performance career. I had been traveling non-stop for 4 seasons and felt that I was beginning to forget who I was at my core. While I recovered from injury and worked to figure out how I ended up so emotionally lost, I took a job with Alaska Dance Theatre, created my own choreography project, and began working to transition my career to New York City. While I spent a great amount of time giving myself technique class at the gym and dropping in to take classes from other instructors, my performance career remained on hiatus. And, for the longest time, I didn't even know why.

Throughout this period, there were a handful of times that I found myself giving awkward explanations about the state of my career. I've been lucky enough that this blog has given me a great deal of credibility and has offered me visibility to other artists in my field. I've been approached a handful of times for work through this blog or in person from those who have read it. I felt awkward turning down these kind offers, as my persona has become understood as that of a highly sought, successful performer.

But more difficult than turning down the work was trying to find the words to explain why I was turning it down. More often than not, I would offer to pass jobs on to my peers because I didn't feel I was in appropriate shape to take on a performance at that moment. But in all honestly, I just wasn't able to bring myself to get back into a rehearsal studio.

Often, I would find myself at social events and people would ask me what I did for a living. My natural response was that I was a dancer. But as my choreography, teaching, and media career started to take off, I found myself in an awkward situation where a friend corrected me mid-conversation about my position. Sipping a glass of wine after telling a party-goer that I was a dancer, this friend interrupted me and stated, "Actually, he is a choreographer. He isn't performing anymore." I sheepishly smiled at this person and nodded my head, but what they couldn't recognize was the rush of adrenaline flooding my body. That rushing of natural chemicals flowing through my veins mimicked the feeling you might get when you receive extremely bad news; like finding out about an illness or a death. In that very moment, I was forced to come to terms with the creeping, slow death of my performance career. My body's reaction reinforced the statement I posted earlier about the death of a dancer. A dancer dies once when their career is over and again when the person passes on.

Now, I know that I was deeply affected by this experience. But like many occasions when you receive bad news, you go into denial or silently acknowledge the issue while maintaining a certain level of public mum surrounding the item. After toying around with the idea that I may be officially retiring from my performance career for many months, I finally decided to work on transitioning my career base to New York City. This transition has finally allowed me to come to terms with what I am trying to tell you. Once I finally started getting into Nancy Bielski's class on a regular basis, I began to feel my body returning to it's normal ballet shape. While I still had aches and pains from the devastating injury I experienced dancing with Oakland Ballet, I was able to maintain my body and return to class daily. A few more offers for work came to me and I graciously turned those offers down. As you also know, I've been given a handful of teaching opportunities during this time, as well. Whether at Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, or teaching master classes across the country, I have found a great deal of excitement and growth in this facet of my career. With the addition of having my choreography sought out more and seeing my media work from my blog and podcast explode, things started to become clearer and clearer.

I don't know exactly when it happened and I don't know how it happened, but in the past few months I have finally been able to say it. And maybe the reason I hadn't been able to say it was because I didn't want to admit to myself that I had already moved on. Or maybe it was because it is the only thing I have ever known since I was a young child. And while I have finally admitted it to myself and in private conversation, I still feel slightly choked up writing this post to share what this experience is like for me and may be like for you. And I promise you it's coming. And it's coming right now. I am officially retired from my performance career (and my heart is racing just typing this).

The Nutcracker (Photo: J-Ro)
Alrighty. Now that those words are out there, I'd like to elaborate a little more before signing off from this post. I have not been retired from my performance career since 2014. I really only started toying around with the idea at the beginning of 2016. I had dreams of making this big comeback. I had dreams of maybe joining a Broadway show. I had dreams of performing with Suzanne Farrell Ballet and getting to dance a Balanchine work one more time. I continued to dream of sharing my love of dance from the stage. But with the growth of my media work, the greatly positive feedback for my teaching, and the interest in my choreography, I had to give myself a bit of a reality check. I have accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish in my performance career. I danced with two of the best ballet companies in the country in some of the greatest works by the greatest choreographers with live music in every production. Then, I self-managed a traveling career across the country performing on stages large and small. I received some level of recognition and notoriety and I feel pleased with all of that. While I feel that I could push through for another year or two, I feel that I reached my peak and will only be maintaining the same level of work that I had been doing when I became injured in 2014. At the young age of 32, I feel that if I focus my work on choreographing, teaching, and sharing my voice with the world that I can do much, much greater things and with a head start. I may perform here and there on occasions that really inspire me (coming out of retirement a la Barbara Streisand). But for the most part, I'm looking forward to focusing on my growing work and continuing to offer my advice and experiences as a freelance choreographer, educator, and dancer here on this blog. As, even in retirement, I will continue to take class and maintain being a dancer off the stage.

Going through the process of finding the strength to use the "R" word, I feel that I did go through a grieving process. I didn't have a big retirement performance to let fans fawn all over me or to gain closure. There was no exact day I can look back to for the rest of my life to call the anniversary of my retirement. But over the last few months, I suddenly became comfortable with responding to my peers and curious acquaintances questions by proudly stating, "I am a choreographer, dance educator, and advocate for the dance world through my media work." I feel that any dancer working towards or going through retirement can benefit from having something to look forward to, no matter how exciting or mundane. So, when you find yourself approaching this new life of yours, remember this. While we may no longer be on the stage to share our gifts with audiences small and large, we will always be dancers. A dancer may die two deaths, but that doesn't mean they live two lives.

(As I enter this new stage of my career, if any readers are ever interested in booking me for choreography, master classes in ballet or contemporary technique, or for speaking engagements, you are always welcome to reach me on my contact page by clicking here. I am available for local, national, and international work).


A Candid Perspective - Curate This

Performing my own choreography - Gated Lies in Philly Fringe Festival (Photo: Bill Hebert)
When I first started Life of a Freelance Dancer, I didn't really look at this venture as a way to share the strikingly honest truth about different aspects of the dance world. I was an injured, recently jobless dancer with no clue how to go about making a living as a freelance artist. Once this blog really started to take off, I began feeling the need to publicly express different career experiences I had in order to offer a real-life glimpse of the ups and downs of a dancing independent contractor. Over time, I've become that guy who is known to share his greatest achievements and darkest moments. This open-book attribute of mine has garnered me a great deal of criticism. But it has also given me a distinguished voice as an artist in a relatively silent art form and offered me exciting opportunities.

One of a few of my recent opportunities became public this week. I was asked by a lovely dancer in the Philadelphia post-modern dance scene, Mira Treatman, to write an article for a week-long series she was asked to curate on the Philadelphia arts website, Curate This. When Mira asked me to write for her week as curator, she offered a handful of topics for me to write on. The one that really jumped out for me was the subject of why I need to move my art outside of Philadelphia. Once I had chosen my topic, I spoke with Mira and stated, "I am really interested in writing this article. But I will only write it if I can be completely candid about my experience failing to make Philadelphia my artistic home." Gladly (and probably a bit nervously), she accepted my request and I moved forward to write this piece. Please be sure to click the link below to read my personal experience trying to work in the Philadelphia dance scene for 5 years and why I have spent the last 7 months transitioning my choreographic and teaching career from the birthplace of our nation to the capitol of the dance world. Enjoy!

Curate This - Crossing the Border - "Disorganization, Nepotism, and Lack of Community"


The Art of Putting Yourself Out There

An image of me up on the Steps on Broadway board (Photo: Shalem Photography)
I've been enjoying my time teaching at Steps on Broadway the past few weeks. I've had professionals in my classes from big companies to freelancers, received positive feedback from my peers and pianists, and felt a sense of fulfillment in my career that I've been lacking for some time. (Side note: I'm also guest teaching Intermediate Contemporary at Broadway Dance Center the next two Sundays, August 7 & 14,  from 7:30-9 PM. Come join me)  Recently, an old acquaintance offered me their compliments expressing how difficult it can be to break into an established institution like this great school. This got me thinking. While I still have a lot to do in order to get to where I want to be, it took a lot of hard, strategic work to gain the positions and experience I have had in my career. It has been a combination of effort, luck, and timing. But none of this stuff would have ever been possible if I hadn't figured out how and when to put my information out there most effectively.

There are a handful of challenges when it comes to putting yourself out there. First off, are you properly prepared to put out your best product? Also, are you following the appropriate channels of communication to get an "in" with a choreographer or director? Other things to consider include whether offering yourself up with less experience will invalidate future attempts to obtain work, if you have enough time to put true effort into your endeavors if the opportunity materializes, and whether the timing is right for you to push yourself out and forward in your career field. When thrusting oneself out of their comfort zone, all of these things need to be taken into consideration in order to build or better one's career and life.

The first thing to consider when pushing yourself in a new direction is whether you are properly prepared to accept the position if it actually offered it; whether it be trying out for that big Broadway show, seeking out a company class audition, or applying for that prestigious teaching position. We all have big dreams and career hopes. But if you aren't in a place to fully commit to and appropriately handle the work stresses that come with a specific job, it may not be the best time for you to apply for that position or audition for a new company or show. Especially for dancers, this can be a challenging one since you don't always know what you're getting yourself into until you're in the studio or on the stage. It is important to consider your training, attitude, mindset, and commitment abilities when putting oneself out there. You don't want to get the job before you're mentally or physically ready and fall apart. But at the same time, you don't want to hold yourself back if you are lacking confidence. It's a tricky line to consider.

Walking into Broadway Dance Center to teach my first Contemporary class at this amazing school
You also don't want to apply for a position that you probably can't fit into your schedule due to previous commitments. This can be especially tricky because dancers should constantly be auditioning to fine-tune their audition skills, to connect with those hiring, and to get an idea of whether they are ready to take on certain posts. Don't be afraid to attend a cattle call.  But if you really don't feel prepared for a specific position, it may be better to wait until you can show yourself at your best. Especially if you are very out of shape after an injury or time off, consider whether the chance to gain opportunity may risk further injury. Sometimes, people will remember you from application to application. So, be sure to keep in mind that auditioning for a gig completely unprepared may leave a lasting impression.

A misstep that a handful of dancers, choreographers, and instructors make is trying to use an acquaintance that is already involved in an organization to help you gain easier access to the people making decisions. This is a tricky one, as it sometimes works. But some of my most embarrassing memories are when I have tried to take the easy road and reached out to somebody I met once or twice. In trying to get an insider's advantage in my applications/auditions, I have overstepped social boundaries. If this way of putting yourself out there doesn't work to your favor, the next time you see this contact may be quite awkward.

If you barely know somebody and you want them to put in a good word for you or to forward your information to the person in charge, it could be seen as shady or show a general lack of awareness for the structure and culture of an organization. Sometimes, companies are very disjointed with a clear delineation between positions. For instance, a ballet master may be higher up in the system than a dancer and closer to the Artistic Director of a company. But they still answer to the director as their boss. So, it may not be appropriate (or even possibly offensive) for them to offer their advice on items including hiring, choreographic opportunities, and more. Again, this way of putting oneself out there has worked for me in the past. Just understand that you are taking a hearty risk by reaching out to someone for help that you barely know.

As for offering yourself up for a position that you appear to be under-qualified for, it is a different story. I learned from a good friend that applying for positions you don't feel ready for can act as great practice for when you actually have the experience to back up your application. And, sometimes, you're actually exactly what they are looking for. In these situations, it really comes down to the amount of effort you can put into preparing your materials. I know, for me, I'm tempted to apply for every inspiring position that becomes available. But I am so busy all the time, it isn't always practical to apply for jobs I am nearly positive I won't get. In building my knowledge of creating a cover letter and proper CV (aka resumé), I've applied for Artistic Director positions, Ballet Master jobs, and School Director opportunities. While the closest I've come was 2nd place to direct Rochester City Ballet, I know that I can still use a great deal of growth before I may be right to lead the size and quality establishment I dream of directing. So, when I feel that I have some free time or that a position is really important to me, I apply. And if I'm overwhelmed with work and a position pops up that sounds nice but is likely out of my league, I save my time and wait for the next practice session.

The biggest item out of your control when putting yourself out there is timing. It is true. Timing is everything. Sometimes, it is calculated and other times you have no idea that now is the right time. This is what is most difficult about making decisions pertaining to your career and seeking success. An artist may not feel ready for something they are more than prepared to take on. Or, on the other hand, they may feel that they are the one and only fit for a position that will end up being far out of their reach. This is the one factor you can count on being confusing and out of your control. But don't let the idea of proper timing deter you from trying to reach your dreams. The timing factor almost invalidates many of the points I wrote above. If you put yourself out there with the right timing (even if you aren't prepared, don't have the time, or more), you can get a dream job and prove all of these factors inconsequential.

Dancers, choreographers, instructors, and most artists have a tendency to listen to the nag of never-ending feelings of inadequacy. This can often push their art to new heights as they try to make up for this faux perception. But if your gauge and perception of true self-worth is off, you may be stifling opportunity. I suggest taking a deep, lengthy look at yourself. Then see your reflection in friends, colleagues, and peers reactions to your work. In the end, I always say artists should continuously put themselves out there. So, don't read this post and feel like you should be holding back. I hope you read this and look at it as a tool to help you make better, more informed decisions. Cheers!