Talking to People You Don't Know at Events

Dancers at Contact: A Networking Event for Freelance Dancers
After teaching at Steps on Broadway this past Sunday, I picked up a coffee and started walking the 30 block trek from the Upper West Side to Broadway Dance Center. Around the point that I walked past Lincoln Center, a gentleman stopped me to ask if I was somebody he had taught a decade or so back. In a break from my typical metropolitan self, I turned to him and stated that he must have the wrong guy since I was raised in Philly and didn't attend academic school in the city. I'm not sure how he did it, but he managed to entice me into a conversation that lasted exactly 20 blocks. While my mind was racing back and forth as to this guys intentions and whether I should bid him adieu, his conversation skills kept me engaged as he strayed (for the most part) away from creepy or utterly odd. While I eventually determined that this sexegenarian's initial reasoning in reaching out to me was physical attraction, he was compelling enough to defer any uncomfortable intentions. This guy had impressive skills when it came to talking to a complete stranger and, in the wake of this interaction, it struck me that dancers also need to have similar communicative abilities. Whether in the theatre, at a public venue, or even on the streets, we will often have to engage in conversation with new colleagues, donors, visiting choreographers, and arts lovers alike. So, in response to this experience, I figured that this week, I would offer some tips and tricks on how to engage with people you don't know in the event that you find yourself in a conversation with a new colleague, somebody who could develop into a supporter of your work, or anybody beyond your typical passing conversation.

1. Don't be afraid to walk up to an individual or group and just say hello. The first step of engaging with people you don't know is to calmly announce your presence. From there, you can usually find your way into a talking point to become a part of the conversation. Obviously, you don't want to abruptly interrupt or interject before you have been appropriately welcomed. But stepping up to an individual that is standing alone or a small group of people in conversation and saying, "Excuse me, do you mind if I join you?," is a perfectly acceptable way to join a conversation or to introduce yourself without feeling too intrusive.

2.  If the person/people you are greeting is/are already in a conversation when you enter, be sure to give the participants space to complete what they are talking about. Sometimes they will take that route. At other times, a new participant can completely alter the direction of the chat, especially if the conversation was deeply personal. Be sure to leave room for that natural evolution to take place. But don't be unprepared if you are going to step in to introduce yourself, as the conversation's focus may quickly turn over to you. In the event that the group doesn't ask you to properly introduce yourself (beyond your name), I always suggest that you have a follow up topic in the event that your entrance turns the spotlight over to you. For instance, if you want to engage with a visiting choreographer after a performance, throwing out an, "I love your work and would love to discuss your inspiration for the piece," may work well. For a patron that you have yet to meet, it is always appropriate to ask them if they enjoyed the show. And when they say yes (which they almost always will), ask them what their favorite part was. There is no easier way to spur conversation with a stranger than to relate to the reason that you are both attending an event. If you are at a philanthropic event, ask how they got involved in the organization. If they are at an art gallery, ask them what type of art they like. If you were in a performance and they attended that performance, ask them about the show. If you directly relate to the reason that you are both in attendance, that can be an easy launching point to eventually lead into a more meaningful conversation.

3. The best tool to cultivate in becoming a compelling presence at any event is to have a toolbox of general questions prepared to ask people of all kinds. While the artists who are part of a production are obviously going to be asked questions about themselves and their work, all people like to feel interesting enough to be asked about themselves and their life's work. Once you have engaged somebody in the idea that you are both mutually interested in the reason that you are attending the event, you will need somewhere to go from there. There are a range of topics you can discuss once you've broken the ice and had an initial connection of interests. Go ahead and ask questions like: "How long have you been coming to see our shows?" "What do you do for a living?" " Are you originally from (the city you are in)?" "What else do you do for fun aside from attending the ballet?" There are a range of simple questions that you should always have in your back pocket to avoid awkward silences or the subsequent response to that silence, "Excuse me, I told my friend I'd head over to see them."

4. This is something that I'm actually quite horrible at because I'm always afraid that I am going to be perceived as disingenuous. I actually have to practice being complimentary of other people, as it is easy to discredit simple things that may not seem exciting or compelling to me, but may be meaningful to others. I think that, as dancers, we often are used to accepting compliments from people outside of our field. But as never-ending critics of our own technique, we tend to be extremely critical in general, which leads to difficulty in offering positive reinforcement to others. If somebody at an event bought tickets in celebration of their anniversary, be sure to wish them a hearty congratulations. If somebody thought they wouldn't enjoy a dance production and was surprised that they found it compelling, reaffirm their achievement in overcoming an obstacle in them becoming supporters of your art. Again, all people enjoy feeling special and accomplished. A little nod or a few kind words can go a long way in having an enjoyable conversation and potentially growing a relationship with people you meet at events.

5. This may seem unnecessary, but always have an exit strategy for uncomfortable conversations or for people that are outstaying their welcome. Unfortunately, especially for female dancers, some patrons only attend events in hopes of meeting dancers for romantic reasons. Especially, if alcohol is flowing, there are the rare guests who can become inappropriate towards dancers. Not to validate this activity in any way, but this makes sense since dancers are often seen as untouchable creatures onstage, often wearing form-fitting costumes that leave little to the imagination. It is always a good idea to have a friend with you or nearby to help you exit a conversation as quickly as possible, if necessary. If you find yourself alone with a patron that is crossing certain boundaries, it is alright to tell them that they are being inappropriate and that you are uncomfortable and leaving. Yes, you don't want to be oversensitive. But you also want to be respectful to yourself and remain safe. Know what your line is, whether mild flirting is comfortable or an arm around your shoulders bothers you. But the second that lines are crossed, immediately exit without niceties or explanation and be sure to mention to somebody in a management position that a patron crossed a line with you to avoid situations like this in the future for yourself and/or others.

Talking to dancers at Contact: A Networking Event for Freelance Dancers
6. Most importantly, take a breath, grab a glass of wine (if you are of age), relax, and enjoy yourself. Most social interactions with people you don't know at events are calm, simple, and happen quickly. And we are our most compelling self when we allow our true personality to shine through. If you attend enough functions, you may find that you are in conversation with the same people from a previous event. And, if you are lucky, you might even create long lasting relationships that lead into friendships, romance, or benefactors who support your work. Life is a party and if you put yourself in the mix, you are sure to meet a few people that enrich your life in ways well beyond a simple, passing conversation about the weather.


Finding What Makes You Unique & LOFD Writes for Dance Magazine

My story on the all-new Dance Magazine website
I really can't express how grateful I am to be having a whirlwind year when it comes to opportunities and achievements. To be completely honest, I had wishes and dreams of this stuff happening in my performance career. Little did I think that I would actually find what I was looking for and more in only the first year following the end of my time onstage. Last week, I had both the honor of being featured by Dance Magazine and writing for the same periodical in one fell swoop. It has been on my goal list for a few years now to write an article for this major publication and to have my work in the studio and on the stage highlighted, as well. If you want to check out that article, you can click this link right here to be swept over to Dance Magazine's new website to read my article.

The Graduating Class of the dance department at Hunter College
I'm currently riding the Bolt Bus back from New York City to spend an evening with my husband and a night in my own bed. At the moment, I'm currently riding off the high of sharing my knowledge and experience with the graduating class in Hunter College's dance department, where we discussed marketing oneself online and in-person, how to prepare materials for auditions, and techniques in cultivating social media for self-promotion. We talked about many things throughout this 2-hour interactive workshop that I curated especially for these students embarking on their first year out on their own. One thing that we addressed that I haven't talked about in great detail anywhere is how to find what makes you unique and how to use that to stand out in a crowd. So, I thought why not discuss that right here, right now.

This concept kind of drives me nuts, but every one of us is unique. In fact, the only thing that is normal about every human being is that we are all unique. While some dancers have amazingly high leg extensions or perfectly centered pirouettes, others have artistry that really shines through and can move people to tears. But there are other aspects of self that help dancers become visible. Perhaps, its your hair color, your fashion sense, your interests offstage, or your upbringing. There are unique characteristics that we are born with and different personal experiences that we all have had that distinguish each of us from one another. While many of us try to find success through our technique and artistry, it is more common for those who rise to local, regional, national, and international attention to be singled out for their uniqueness rather than their technique. This is due to the fact that many people today have impeccable technique, sky-high extensions, and can turn on a dime. Today, people tend to be drawn to artists who are imperfect, but intriguing, relatable, or any combination of the two.

How does one find what makes them unique and then use it to their advantage onstage and offstage? This often requires a lot of trial-and-error to accomplish. For me, as a dancer, I had nice facility with very good technique and considerable acting skills. I always felt like my acting skills distinguished me from others since I didn't have incredible facility. But I was never able to gain the national or international attention I had dreamed of attaining in my work as a performing artist with my skill set. Only when I began freelancing and developed this blog had I begun to even tap into a little bit of what makes me unique in this vast, yet small dance world. I didn't realize it at the time, but what was distinctive about me as an artist was the candor and honesty that I am willing to share publicly about my work and our art form. While this has nothing to do with my dancing, it is a distinguishing quality of mine that I seemed to have naturally cultivated. It absolutely has helped me stand out in a crowd. During my performance career, this quality of mine helped me gain employment across the nation as a freelance artist and got me a few nice nods with attention from Dance Informa and a short article about health care in Dance Magazine.

I didn't have to try hard to develop this characteristic in my media and social media work, as this has always been a quality of mine since childhood. I remember sitting with a friend at the Kirov Academy of Ballet who asked me to be honest with her about what I thought of her technique. I remember her pursing her lips, letting out a short close-lipped smile, and stating, "That was mildly painful to hear, but I know that you love me and I now know what I need to work on to get where I want to." And the beautiful part of this story is that she got her dream job to dance with Universal Ballet in South Korea, where her mother had been raised. So, while I have always had this unique quality, it took freelancing and this blog for me to figure out how to use it to benefit my career.

Rose Montgomery-Webb (Photo: Unknown)
Now, let's talk for a moment about what you are really here for? How can my sharing of this story help you. How can you determine what makes you unique and utilize those qualities to help become your most successful self? The first and most obvious place is to look within yourself. I always say that you should start with your story. Where did you grow up? How did you grow up? I remember having this conversation with one of my students from Alaska Dance Theatre who is currently a trainee at Ballet Met. She was raised in Alaska, but adopted from South Korea while she was an infant. While she didn't see these aspects of her life as anything out of the ordinary (and it was beautiful to see that she didn't), in the eyes of others she was having wildly unique experiences before she even had cognizance of it. As she has entered her years of auditioning for companies and finding her way towards becoming a professional, I have always told her to own those two facts and be unafraid to openly share about these things. This has paid off in certain ways, beyond her training opportunities and gaining a scholarship to attend Ballet Met for the summer that led her to this traineeship, she was selected as a guest host for the Premier Dance Network's Becoming Ballet podcast. If you can look into your life and see and share what unique experiences made you into the person that you are today, you may be on the right track to finding your definitive story. Look at Misty Copeland and how her story has catapulted her into legitimate fame.

James Whiteside (Photo: Unknown)
There are other unique things about people that are outside of themselves and their experiences. For instance, Kansas City Ballet dancer Kelsey Hellebuyck has a hell of a knack for fashion. She runs a blog that documents her outfits from day to day, which has had her featured in Pointe Magazine and other media outlets. Kathryn Morgan had a meteoric-rise at New York City Ballet then was struck with a debilitating illness that forced her off the stage. While she already had a unique story, she has found even more ways to make herself distinctive by developing a Youtube channel that offers tips, tricks, and training for young, aspiring dancers. Margaret Mullin (Soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet) has been working as choreographer and director on a film documentary, James Whiteside (American Ballet Theatre Principal) rose to celebrity status thanks to his viral music videos and non-apologetic openness about his lifestyle, and Abigail Mentzer (former Pennsylvania Ballet Soloist & current dancer in the Phantom of the Opera tour) has become well-known for her interest in dancewear and her company that grew from that. Aside from finding what makes themselves unique, these artists have also developed their unique passions outside of the dance studio to garner attention, likes, and an adoring audience.

I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity I had today at Hunter College and the one above with Dance Magazine if I hadn't figured out what made me unique and ran with it. It can be so frustrating for somebody to tell you that everybody and nobody is unique. And while I fully agree with that statement, we can only blossom fully when we learn how to genuinely be our own unique self. Take some time to tap into and cultivate multiple parts of yourself that you feel are distinguishing. But be sure not to get disillusioned when certain things you have worked towards and hoped for don't actually catch people's attention. Practically nobody figures out the key to success on their first try. Keep putting yourself out there, keep fine-tuning your ideas and story, and (if you are lucky) your uniqueness will help bring you to the forefront of attention onstage, offstage, and in communities around the world.