By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.
Being an independent dance artist is about so much more than just dancing. As a freelancer, you must be resourceful, creative, resilient and pro-active, with top-notch time management and communication skills, all the while keeping yourself in peak physical fitness. So, how do you survive the dynamic world of independent dance?
While many of us would love the security of a full-time contract with a large dance company, the reality is that we will all probably spend at least some of our time freelancing. But wait, this is a positive thing; there are many advantages to being independent. Working with a variety of people and companies, you’ll learn all sorts of new skills and ways of working. No two choreographers or directors will have the same creative practices, so each project will be a new challenge, and a new opportunity to grow. With so much variety, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be bored, and if you do find yourself working on a project that isn’t stimulating, at least you know it won’t last forever. Perhaps most significantly though, you’ll constantly be meeting new people, developing professional contacts, creative partnerships and life-long friendships.
The challenges you’ll face won’t just be creative, though. How will you stay in shape between contracts? What will you do to support yourself, not just to eat and pay rent, but in order to keep up classes, get to auditions, take workshops, see shows and pay for dance gear or physio? What kind of work can you do that’s flexible enough to keep you focussed on dance? What about all the boring stuff like insurance and tax? How will you cope with spending extended periods away from your loved ones? What if you don’t get work for months, or even years? How do you prepare yourself for the future?
I don’t mean to freak you out, but these are the things that need to be considered, and unfortunately are not taught at many dance schools. As freelance artists, we learn a lot as we go along. I asked four successful artists – Paul White, Sarah Foster, Madeleine Krenek and James Shannon – to share their wisdom on being independent. Here are their top tips:
Continue to develop your skills as an artist
The dance world is a dynamic industry, so your learning shouldn’t stop when you graduate. Do as many classes and workshops as you can, and not necessarily just in dance. Think outside the box, like Paul, who has just finished directing his own project in Sydney. “Having briefly studied mask-making in Italy, I was keen to explore more fully the potential mixture of mask-performance and contemporary dance,” he said. All choreographers or directors will be looking for something different, and the more you can offer, the better your chances will be of scoring a job, or funding for your own work.
Develop some other skills
Preparing for your future is vital and there will be a time when you will need or want to stop dancing. I certainly don’t prescribe to the ‘dance careers only last until you’re 35’ way of thinking, but you do need to be smart about your future. Find something else that interests you or that you are good at. For many people, teaching is the obvious choice, and there’s certainly no shortage of work. Consider studying part-time, whether it’s a teaching diploma to give you a competitive edge, or something else entirely. Sarah, for example, is also a part-time postgraduate student at the University of Auckland. You need something to fall back on, and something you can turn to when it’s time to move on from performing.
Find work that is flexible
Again, teaching is a great place to start; it pays well, you’ll be in the studio and working to some degree on your technique, and you’ll probably have time to take class as well. Many dancers work in hospitality or retail, or in dance or theatre administration. Consider signing up with an agency to get TV work as an extra or actor. While dancing in Europe, I began writing reviews for dance magazines, and being a freelance writer and editor now accounts for a large percentage of my income. It’s also something that I can do from home, giving me the flexibility to still freelance as a dancer, and it connects me to many people in the industry. James on the other hand, works in a gym, which gives him access to different types of people as well as a free gym membership to support his dance fitness.
Be positive – and hang out with positive people
Whatever you are doing, surround yourself with good people who inspire you, challenge you and make you laugh. Sometimes you will feel isolated from the ‘real world’, and if you’re on tour a lot you might get homesick. Wherever you are, put your energy into relationships that stimulate you, not negative ones that drag you down. “Having friends outside of the industry can be really helpful, because they can put things in perspective for you,” said Madeleine. Take a leaf out of Paul’s book by putting a positive spin on things; he refers to his downtime not as “unemployment” but as “holidays”.
Go to class
Going to class is important not just for keeping your dance fitness up to scratch, but for making contacts. As Sarah said, “Just keep turning up. When you’re there, talk to people, make some friends and make a show together. Keep making shows. Eventually this will turn into your job, or someone will give you a job from seeing you in one.” If you’re not able to go to class as much as you like, try and stay fit and flexible with yoga or swimming, for example. Your next contract could be just around the corner and you’ll be kicking yourself if you’re not ready!
Remember that auditions are not the only (or best) way to get a contract
All four of the artists I interviewed said that most of their work has not come from auditions. You need to be pro-active and contact companies or choreographers you are interested in. Company classes, freelance classes, secondments, internships and workshops are all better ways to be seen and for choreographers to get to know the real you. Keep in mind how you conduct yourself, wherever you are. “Word of mouth has been huge in my career, so it’s important to always act as professionally as you can,” said James.
Having a speciality is certainly an advantage in itself, but it pays to be versatile in this line of work. “Train in as many genres as you can,” advised Paul. “The more movement pathways you have, the more employable and interesting you might be.” Even having a little experience in certain areas can give you an edge. Try singing, acting, aerial work or different types of dancing, such as breaking or Latin. Most importantly, keep an open mind and be prepared to give anything a go, because in an audition situation, this will be expected of you.
Make your own work
As James said, “No one is going to come and knock on your door.” Don’t wait for work to come to you, because it won’t. Consider forming a collective, like Madeleine, who is part of a group called 2ndToe. “Whether we are in the studio or having a meeting somewhere, we can generate ideas, create movement and always manage to have a laugh,” she said. “2ndToe is also my most consistent work. We work throughout the year, not always full time, but we work on or have a dialogue about different projects, large and small.”
Introduce yourself to people in class and in the foyer after shows. You never know who you will meet, and where relationships can take you. Part of being a dancer is being able to ‘sell yourself’, but even more than that, you need to be a good communicator. If talking to strangers scares you, even more reason to practice. “Show your interest to the people you’re interested in working with,” suggested Madeleine. Paul agreed: “Waiting for work to come to you is a trap. Go out there and create opportunities through the amazing people you meet.”
Put your health first, always
Your body is your instrument, your meal ticket and your best friend! Treat it with respect by getting enough sleep, eating well, staying hydrated and managing any niggles as soon as they come up, before they become injuries. It is possible to eat well on a budget, you just need to plan carefully. If you can’t afford a massage, offer to swap one with a fellow dancer; I don’t know of any dancers who would ever turn one down!
Accept the challenges philosophically
“I think the pain and heartbreak of working through and rehabilitating injuries have been some of my biggest challenges so far,” said Paul. “I’ve broken plenty of bones and split my skin open during performances or rehearsals, had both my knees operated on, and as a teen I persevered through a crippling disc injury in my lower back. A couple of times, I have had to change completely my training or dance style and take up to six months break from employment. Interestingly though, each time the challenges transformed themselves into blessings in disguise. New career opportunities opened up each time and I was forced to grow and expand my artistry.”
See as many shows as you can to keep you inspired, connected and aware of what’s happening in the industry. Broaden your perspective and your influences by going to plays and art galleries, and reading books. You never know where inspiration is going to turn up.
Do not put up with poor treatment
Yes, you love dancing, but if you are in a situation that is making you unhappy, it’s probably best that you move on. It’s possible that not every gig will be one that excites and stimulates you, and while you should always aim to honour the professional commitment you have made, if you feel you aren’t be treated appropriately, you need to address it. One of the biggest challenges Sarah has faced was making the decision to resign from a company she was working for. “The position potentially offered me some creative stability, but wasn’t a good fit for me as a person,” she explained.
Manage your time well
Not having to get up at 6 a.m. every day to go to a job you hate is a nice feeling, but without a schedule, it can be easy to slip into bad habits. Make the most of your time by creating a routine for yourself; make a timetable at the beginning of the week and stick to it! You have to “learn how to operate yourself as a business,” said Paul. “There’s a lot of skill to acquire in managing your schedule, creating opportunities for collaborations and for negotiating the terms of your employment – it’s your second job.” Which brings me to my next points…
Learn how to manage your money
Like me, your income will most likely come from more than one source, will be of varying amounts and arrive at varying times of the month – and sometimes much later than it is supposed to. Budgeting is essential in order to manage your cashflow, and you should keep a record of everything so you can claim related expenses back at the end of the tax year. Get yourself an Australian Business Number (ABN) and find a good accountant, preferably someone with an interest in the arts. It may cost you up to $200 a year, but a good accountant knows all sorts of loopholes to help you save cash.
Yes, it’s an annoying added expense, but you should consider getting Public Liability and Professional Indemnity insurance, particularly if you teach. If your only income is from dance-related jobs, you may also want Income Protection. Ausdance has some good policies developed specifically for dancers. See: http://ausdance.org.au/products/details/dance-insurance.
Know what it means to you to be a dancer
Finally, some wise words from Sarah: “Figure out what it means to be involved with this community. Write it down somewhere and read it occasionally. This is important, because it’s going to be a wild ride and sometimes you need to remember why you started.”
The life of a dancer, particularly a freelance dancer, is hard work in more ways than people realise. But it’s also one of the most exciting, fun and rewarding paths you could choose. Enjoy your journey!
Paul is currently a full-time company member with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. At the time of interviewing, he was on his way to the Southbank Centre in London to perform a solo he co-choreographed with Meryl Tankard. This will be the 15th venue around the world at which he has performed the piece since its premiere at the Sydney Opera House in 2009. Other highlights for Paul have included “touring works by Tanja Liedtke and joining DV8 at the age of 20.”
New Zealand-born Madeleine graduated from VCA in 2006, and has since worked with Chunky Move, Jo Lloyd, Russell Dumas, Carlee Mellow, Stephanie Lake, Natalie Cursio, Shelley Lasica, Lucy Guerin Inc. and Rogue Dance Collective. She is a founding member of 2nd Toe Dance Collective.
Sarah has been a freelance dancer and choreographer since 1997. In New Zealand, she has worked with Raewyn Hill, Malia Johnston, Michael Parmenter and Douglas Wright. During three years in London she did a variety of random dance and theatre jobs including a couple of BBC radio dramas and a zombie film called 28 Weeks Later. In 2008, she choreographed her first commissioned work on NZ’s Footnote Dance Company, where she is now about to take up a temporary post as artistic director. She also teaches contemporary at the New Zealand School of Dance.
Born in Canberra, James graduated from VCA in 2006 before dancing with Tasdance and Chunky Move. He has created two works for the latter and was involved in the remount of Mortal, which has toured nationally and internationally for several years. He has worked with Lucy Guerin Inc. on Untrained, Human Interest Story and the development of Weather and is currently a dancer for Opera Australia.
Photo (top): Paul White in The Oracle. Photo by Regis Lansac.