You Can't Please Everybody

I had a very interesting experience last week. Something happened to me that has NEVER happened before. It took me awhile to figure out exactly what was going on and to determine how to digest the situation. A disgruntled student contacted one of my many employers and wrote a scathing three paragraph email attacking my integrity as an instructor and my personality outside the dance studio. I won't go into specific details about the message that was clearly meant to disparage my employer from continuing to work with me. But what I can tell you is that I was completely and utterly blindsided that a student who has only taken my class a very few times would go as far as trying to affect my employment because they disliked my attempt to share my art with them and improve their skills. Luckily, I have amazing friends and peers who have helped support me through this situation. And as a few of them have said, I officially have a HATER, which means that I must have made it! 😂

The dance world is a place that is brimming with judgment. We judge ourselves every day in the mirror, while teachers and peers are judging us, as well. Now, this judgment doesn't always have a negative connotation. A majority of judgment in a classroom setting comes from your instructors, whose job is to give you combinations, judge your execution, and offer corrections to help put you on the right path towards success. Your peers may judge you in order to determine what you are and aren't doing well to help them along their path, too. Once you leave the studio and step onstage, you are putting yourself on a platform that opens up a whole different world of judgment from the general public. Some of these people are critics, some are couples on dates, and others are ballet aficionados that spend as much free time as possible sitting in the anonymity that the darkness of a theatre provides. A performing artist is setting themselves up to be critiqued constantly.

Judging Art
One difficult reality that dancers must face is that judgement of their work often feels like a personal attack on one's character. A dancer creates their art by physically exhausting themselves and tapping into emotional parts of their life experience to portray certain roles. When a bad review comes out, a dancer may feel that their own being is under attack. This often isn't true, but that doesn't take away the pain of a negative critique.

There is a great deal of judgment and critique in our careers that is never intended to be malicious. But, then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, somebody comes along who just doesn't like you. Whether it is a critic that never likes how you perform a role compared to other dancers, a colleague that you always rub the wrong way, or somebody who you somehow offend with any and every action you take, there will be some people that you just can't please. This has been the great lesson of my career as of late.

As an instructor in dance, I have passed beyond the sometimes selfish period of my performance career. When I am in the studio working with my students, class has nothing to do with me and everything to do with getting my students to achieve the impossible. I am heavy in the correction department, try to inspire honest conversation among students, and try to provide valuable feedback to each student in my classes. Where a performance career involves a great deal of focus on oneself, a teaching career is the complete opposite. In fact, I say that the only way I can be successful as a teacher is to help my students become successful. Being a teacher of dance differs from a performance career in the sense that an instructor's sole focus should be to give fully to their students.

Working w/dancer on my new work for Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photo: Eduardo Patino)
At the end of my time teaching a class, I often wait afterwards to talk with students and answer any questions that have gone unanswered in the fast-pace environment of a technique class. During this time, I also often receive feedback from my students. Nearly all of this feedback is positive. It is rare to never that a student comes up to a teacher with a complaint (they usually reserve this type of feedback for management). But it seems that while many students enjoy a class, it isn't uncommon for a student or two to have an opposite experience. If these students choose to express their discontent, having received opposing positive feedback, an instructor may find it difficult to understand where things went wrong and how to resolve it. The same can happen with a performer. Perhaps, after a show, a dancer receives a plethora of gracious comments and positive attention from peers, management, and friends who have watched their performance. But when that review comes out and tears them off of their performance pedestal, it can be painful and confusing to read something written for the public and to assess where things went wrong.

What I have learned in my most recent experience with my hater is that it is impossible to please everybody. As a friend recently told me, "I am not everyone's cup of tea." As dancers and former dancers, we tend to strive for this ideal that everybody around us will like us as people and artists. I feel that many people, non-dancers included want everybody to like them. But this is just completely impossible. There are so many people on this earth with so many different personalities, lifestyles, expectations, tastes, and more. And to have the expectation that you can please everybody and leave this life with every person you touched feeling positively about their experience with you is one hundred percent impossible. For instance, some students prefer an aggressive teacher that really pushes a dancer outside of their comfort zone. While other students want to attend class to have fun and prefer not to be corrected once. It is impossible to please everybody in the room, in the company, in the theatre, and in the world.

Sometimes, it is baffling to comprehend that those who choose to express their opinions have seen the same performance. One person's taste may differ greatly from another. Or one person's education and knowledge of dance may be vastly different from the people sitting next to them. The same goes for an instructor trying to impart their knowledge upon a studio of dancers. Some students may thrive under a challenging teacher, while others may collapse into negativity. Luckily, there is great beauty in having so many people involved in our field. Every teacher and every dancer is not someone's cup of tea. And that is fine. There are a range of options for each person to choose from. As long as we understand this concept, we can move forward from negative feedback much quicker. Yes, you should assess whether you feel that feedback is true and could potentially help you grow and cultivate your craft. But you can't please everybody and you absolutely shouldn't lose grasp of the type of artist you want to be just to please somebody who may never actually be pleased with you. You may just not be their cup of tea!


Checklist: Do You Have What It Takes?

Ali Block performing w/Columbia Ballet Collaborative (Photo: Eduardo Patino)
I was sitting in the hallway of Barnard Hall at Columbia University last week waiting for my rehearsal to begin. Per usual, one of the dancers in my new work for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative's 10th Anniversary production showed up a little early to prepare for rehearsal. Ali Block, a former dancer with Eugene Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, is now studying at Columbia while enjoying a freelance career in New York City. As she was preparing for rehearsal, we struck up a conversation about her transition from full-time company work to school and freelance life. I was taken aback (and maybe blushed a little) when Ali mentioned that she had been considering freelancing for awhile, but didn't think she could do it until she found my blog here. It has been really heart-warming over the past year as more and more dancers and non-dancers alike have told me that my work here on Life of a Freelance Dancer has inspired them to push themselves inside and outside of their own careers. I've always written on here to help dancers, artists, and independent contractors walk the tricky path that is a freelance career. But I never really considered that I might be helping people make the decision to launch their freelance career until Ms. Block used those exact words.

In typical LOFD fashion, I'm letting this moment inspire the content I'm creating to share with you. And I figured why not head back to the root of this media platform, helping freelancers freelance. So, inspired by the word that I inspired this lovely dancer to cross that line and embark on a career in freelance work, I would like to offer you a checklist of items to ask yourself if it is time for you to jump into the freelance pool to drive your own career and success.

Have I completed enough of my training to offer my best product possible? Am I anxious to start dancing professionally when I could really benefit from more time refining my technique and skills?

If you have already danced professionally or have auditioned for companies and received interest without solid offers, you may be ready to take the plunge. If you are still in the pre-professional period of your training, don't mistake your intense drive to have a professional career as a reason to embark on seeking employment as an independent contractor too early in the game. Many dancers are willing to forgo pertinent training in the formative late teens and early 20's because they feel like they should already be working. Try to be realistic about your training and skill level and don't be afraid to train an extra year or two. You can make up for time in your career, but you can't always make up for lost training. In fact, I gave up a corps contract with Colorado Ballet at 18 years old to train for a year at the School of American Ballet. The next year I was offered a position with Houston Ballet, which was a nice step up. I would say it was definitely worth the wait and additional education.

Do I have the motivation to make sure that I am taking class and cross-training regularly or do I need the push of an employer/potential casting to keep me coming to class to stay in shape?

Not every dancer is able to stay self-motivated to stay in shape. Just like taking an educational online/correspondence course, some people don't perform well without direct, in-person oversight to stay on track. If you find that you easily fall off track without outside motivation or if your response to feeling down is to avoid the activities necessary to perform at your highest level, you may want to reconsider freelancing or work on ways to improve your self-reliance. The best freelancers are the most self-motivated, driven people you will meet.

Am I outgoing or extremely sensitive when being thrust into new environments?

Lucia Rogers & me performing Romeo & Juliet at Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
As a freelancer, you are constantly meeting new people and developing fresh relationships throughout gigs and networking that leads to work. While a shy dancer may take their time to develop relationships once they feel comfortable within a group, a freelancer doesn't always have this luxury. A freelance artist needs to be adept at adapting quickly in the studio, as well as within the culture of the group with whom they are working. For instance, when I was brought in to dance with Fort Wayne Ballet, I had less than two weeks to prepare the role of Romeo. Due to the short period of time to prepare this full-length classic, Juliet and I were already kissing in rehearsal by the second day. If you have issues getting comfortable with your colleagues quickly, you may have challenges adapting to the constant environmental and social changes that are a major part of a freelance career.

Does self-promotion come easily to me and/or am I willing to work to build that?

A popular Instagram post creating choreography at my gym
There are few dancers that are naturally good at promoting themselves for employment. Most of us were taught to speak with our bodies and technique, not our mouths or keyboards. Can you find effective ways to market yourself and the quality of performer you are without appearing that you are an egotistical maniac of a dancer? Do you love or hate social media? Even if you don't enjoy it, you need to be willing to put daily effort into (at least) Facebook and Instagram to keep your face and product on the minds of those in your career field.

Can you stand up for yourself in the studio? What about when it comes to contract negotiations and pay?

Are you a compulsive pushover? Most people don't like pushing too hard when it comes to accepting terms of work. We all want to be working, so we will all be pushovers at a certain point. What I am talking about is speaking up when you are not comfortable with the compromise (or lack thereof) given. It is important that you know how to stand your ground in contract negotiations or how to approach an employer when certain work places issues arise. It is never comfortable speaking up to protect yourself or telling an employer that you aren't comfortable with certain items. As a freelancer, you are responsible for your physical, emotional, and financial health. If you don't think you can handle this type of pressure, you may need to seek work with a company that offers a union contract or an advocate for its dancers.

Are you ready to wear more hats than the word "dancer" implies?

One of the biggest shocks I had after entering my freelance career was the multitude of duties I had to take on in order to become successful in my field. While dancing for a company, all I had to worry about was showing up for class, rehearsing repertoire, and taking care of my body. The last few years I danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I added university classes to achieve my Associates of the Arts degree and union delegate duties as a liaison between company dancers and management.

Playing the role of Businessman
Luckily, these activities outside of my role as a dancer began to prepare me for the life of a freelancer. Once I began working as an independent contractor, my focus had no choice but to spread over a vast amount tasks that are necessary to build and maintain this style of career.  Now, instead of having the luxury to completely focus on fine-tuning my technique and preparing for performances, I found myself maintaining this blog and taking on work in my own marketing, research, managing, negotiating, cross-training, physical maintenance, teaching, promotion, and more. A few years into my travels, there was a point when I really missed the luxury of company life that allows dancers to focus solely on their work in the studio and on the stage. While this was quite an adjustment, I am very grateful for the vast education and experience I have received from having to wear so many hats.

Are you truly passionate about dance or is it just something that you've always done?

One thing that really strikes me about freelance work is how revealing the stresses of this career-style are to an artist. Dancers are greatly unique, but especially so in the sense that almost all of us started our path to professional as children. Some of us asked our parents to take dance classes. Others were put into ballet by our parents who thought we needed to burn energy. And there are certainly some dancers who were forced into the studio by overbearing dance parents hoping to live out their unrealized dreams through their children. Due to the range of reasons dancers begin training, many are only dancing because they were good at it and have never known anything else. Like other artists who have been honing their craft since early childhood, a handful of professionals find that they really aren't passionate when the going gets tough. I can almost assure you that there will be intense challenges at some point in your freelance career. If you know nothing but an easy path, you may not realize that you don't have the passion to push through intense difficulties. I have experienced firings, injuries, famines, transitions, losses, more injuries, burnt bridges, burn out, and much more. But I am still here and I can't imagine doing anything else. How about you?