On The Life of A Freelance Dancer
6:44 a.m. on a Monday my mind is up and racing. I roll over into the warm body next to me listening to my head say “time to get up” as my face presses further into my boyfriend’s chest. I wish every day started with a beautiful elegant dancerly stretch but usually it’s me stepping on dirty laundry kicking in the leg on my Ikea desk that I never power drilled properly as I make my way to the bathroom. Today is not a dance day, unfortunately. Today I work at the restaurant for six and half hours. I take a luxurious 30 minute break to bike up a massive, yet picturesque, San Francisco hill to sit in Business Law and then Great Philosophical Questions at the University of San Francisco in pursuit of a prestigious (and longtime coming) undergraduate degree. The best part of the day, if I haven’t run into my favorite German Shepard puppy friend at work, is biking back down the hill at 8:15 p.m. to watch Netflix until 9:30 when I finally have enough time to let myself realize exhaustion and consider bed. Tomorrow will be a dance day. Tomorrow will be the day when I channel the Katie that’s dancing for Anomalous Dance and auditioning for free lance projects and teaching ballet classes. And the only difference will be the beautiful 2-hour window of sweat and tendus that wedges its way into the usual chaos. I am a dancer. And I am many other things as well. Lucky me.
The beauty and discord of the dream of ‘being dancer’ is that we rarely find one marked spot on the wall to drive our pushpin into. Speaking from the sweet edge of the beginning professional, I know that many of us ‘younger’ dancers have these goalpost dreams. They are an answer to: what do you want to do? Whether it be the name of a company or choreographer, these goalposts fill in the blank: “I am going to work for ____ .” For someone like me, who needs to stick the tack, these dreams are clear, defined, and safe rest stops for our imaginations. And instead of this grey vibrating intention and self-endowed mission that is ‘dance’, success and failure are clearly defined by the decision made by those in charge of your fate sitting at the front of the room. Either you dance for that company, or you don’t.
But unfortunately we quickly realize that the chances are slim and riddled with politics and there are hundreds of other dancers who have squeezed their pushpins uncomfortably close to ours. And do you want someone else to always be the one telling you yes or no?
The beauty of these goalposts is that we can place the responsibility in someone else’s hands. Sometimes (a lot of times) I wish I could just hand my life to someone and hear a yes or a no. Recently, the reality of being paid (enough) for work seems to come in so many small pieces. This past February and March I found myself teaching ballet classes and rehearsing and performing for two very distinct choreographers. All of these things have been rewarding on their own terms. They are all instances of why I keep doing a thousand a things a day to maintain life in a very expensive city. Usually there are other jobs and responsibilities that we tend to which are of a totally different species. This is the norm though. These “other” jobs are what pays the bills and reminds us that there are living, breathing, working people who exist outside of our struggling creative endeavors. Remembering this and finding meaningful relationships with people outside of the dance community is one way I keep my balance. My non-dancer friends are the ones I call when I want a pat on the back about what I’m doing with dance. They are not jaded by my lifestyle or sharing in the misery of how poorly funded the arts are. They think it’s cool to brag to their friends that they know a professional dancer. Which I think is hilarious and awesome and some days exactly what it takes to get me from 6:44 am to Netflix.
One of the most exhausting parts of working with so many pieces has been constantly making decisions for me, about myself. The fantasy of the goalpost dreams, for me, is their finiteness. As a freelancer it sometimes feels like there are no endpoints, no boundaries, no ‘one’ outside voice guiding you. Liberating? Yes. Really annoying? Sometimes.
So what does it take when it works? When it fails? How can we choose to craft a barometer of success and failure, if we need one at all?
In moments where I’ve been forced to let go of the goalpost dream and look at myself as an artist, as a singular body of talents, I feel naked and bare to the world. I even still feel a little odd describing myself with such a bold, assertive term. ARTIST! But retrospect instructs that these bare moments pare me down to the finest point of who I am simultaneously as a person, in all the forms of daughter, girlfriend, sister, etc. and as a dancer. (Because the two are inseparable). These bare moments are the most informative as a starting place, or a place to return to when we are tasked with creating our own surroundings. One of my ‘successful’ dancer friends in passing said that you have to view things you can’t control as difficult opportunities. Those bare moments when I have no main project or even side project and am floating between open ballet classes and restaurant job waiting for the next thing around the corner, this is when I reach my critical mass. Stripped of rehearsals, and schedules and contracted dance responsibilities, what do I want as an artist? Yes, me. I am in charge and I get to decide what would it take for me to feel like things are ‘working’. This is where difficult becomes opportunity.
The temptation here, which I have seen too many beautiful dancers fall victim to, is the puffed up beauty of ‘the struggle.’ Sometimes when the creative stability (i.e., being in the studio for a specific reason, or piece, or creation) is gone, you find stability in knowing that you are the prototype ‘struggling artist’ and that’s a real, live thing to hold on. Observing that over the years though, I’ve concluded that that this is a waste of time. And especially in the current environment of freelance dancing, I have no uniquely great struggle it’s just the way things are for this particular profession. Or at least part of the path. My ‘work’ continues as long as I do. And because the golden moments are so fleeting and so satisfying I would never want to use my time ‘struggling.’ How saddening would it be for to miss a difficult opportunity to create something or be something? So in answer to the question of what is success and failure, I’ve found an entire third piece of the puzzle that’s just called: work. Your work lives on through instability and uncertainty of the next steps. Its accessibility is not dependent on circumstance beyond yourself, it is you.
In this state of work, I find myself with the challenge of gathering dancers to build an artistic nest or collective that can offer another (emotional if not financial) slice of stability. It’s important to mention that this ever-shifting collection of people has brought me to the space I am now. I don’t want to pretend that these thoughts came easily and without outside consideration. As a creator and a mover who speaks a common language with so many brilliant people, I have the ability to craft something out of nothing. All it takes is finding the studio time and the interest. Among the artists that I spoke with, the consensus seems to be that the pinnacle of stability and success is when you find the group of people that satisfies your most pared down desire to be an artist and a dancer. Your other ten jobs that have seemingly nothing to do with dance, never feel as burdensome when your nest is built. Unfortunately, this escapes us as often as it comes. I’m learning to accept this as inevitability because I know myself well enough to know that if everything stayed the same, I would be bored. I do my best work under the chaos of a million moving pieces.
So how do we work to understand all of these pieces? I sometimes envy the people who work in the same place every day. These people have the clear answer to the question: “So, what do you do?” But is there really more truth in just being one thing? Would I feel better about myself if I could say I am a dancer and that is all? Maybe. Admitting that I don’t spend 40 hours a week in a studio feels like a deep dark secret I shouldn’t flaunt. I’d feel spoiled I think, at least at the beginning, being able to survive on dance alone. I can say for a fact that I don’t think dance would gain or lose any meaning in my life if it was my one and only. And in that sense, it already is what I’m surviving on. If you took that most pared down part away, the part that requires me to be a dancer, I would disappear. Which is cool and terrifying. I’ve named my ‘thing.’ We are lucky to know what passion burns like.
I am a dancer. And I am many other things as well. Lucky me.
In this culture of more is better I can sometimes fall victim to the pressure to make the most of everything! All the time! Well, making the most of scraping food off of plates will never be greater than sharing a moment with someone in the dance studio. The other jobs are a piece of ‘what it takes’ and that is reality, and that is okay. The struggling artist vision and whining isn’t required to follow. The work that you do as an artist will continue regardless of how many jobs you keep or time you spend outside of the studio. It’s tricky and attainable and, for better or worse, totally mindset dependent.
So let’s focus on the work. The third piece that is the continuing thread. For so many dance artists who live mosaic lives where work and experience can feel like a bunch of shards randomly tossed together, work is the stability. Because work doesn’t care if you’re getting paid or living a goalpost dream or in your carefully crafted artistic nest with the three other dancers in the world who make you you. Work is the puddle that you jump into when success and failure are absent. These two contradicting descriptors are elusive, but work is always there. Trust me, the work is always there. For so many of the dancers who are like me and wondering if this pieced together life is actually working, or wondering about the seeming magic that exists when the switch is flipped and confusion bears success, step into your work. There is no one thing, for now, that I’ve found that keeps me after it. It’s the cracked beauty of all of the pieces fit together that is fascinating and keeps my brain sharp. I can say from where I’m standing is that I am a work in progress and I am grateful for it.