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?


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