Ask any freelance dancer. Or artist. Or freelancer in any industry really. When you commit yourself to a life of freelancing, you are introducing yourself to a life of uncertainty.
There will always be periods where you just can’t seem to get yourself a gig. Those awkward few weeks or months where your diary is a blank, and all you can do is ride it out until the next project comes your way, not knowing when that will be.
But don’t despair, in exactly the same way that you’ll have dry periods, there will also be full periods when you’re working more than you could’ve dreamed of. And it’s this particular part of the Freelance Dancer experience I want to talk about. When it rains, it pours.
When you’ve put in your time, built yourself a reputation, and public opinion is that you’re a great artist to work with, you may start to experience multiple offers. It’s here that I employ a system that I call Contract Tetris. Remember Tetris? Some of you might be a bit young to know the classic arcade game. Basically, it’s a bunch of shapes falling down and you have to use those shapes to fill the gaps. It’s all about tessellating. Fitting everything in perfectly.
When you’ve got multiple offers on the table, Contract Tetris is when you open up the diary and work out the dates of your projects, and if it’s possible to do them. If all of the dates fit, and you’ll be able to finish one project on the Saturday and start the next one on the Monday, lucky you! You’ve just landed the dream situation that freelance dancers everywhere dream about.
But let’s be honest. You’re dealing with different producers, companies and creators who all have different schedules, and more often than not, they don’t fit neatly together. This is where you have to ‘level up’ in your Contract Tetris skills. Sometimes it means contacting one project and explaining that you’ll have to miss the first few days of rehearsals, or contacting another and asking if you can have an early-mark on Tuesdays so you can rush across town in time to throw your costume on and be on stage. Negotiation.
Sometimes, the project you’re negotiating with will be completely understanding. Sometimes they won’t. If they’re not, that’s ok. It’s the freelance dancers job to be gracious and patient. Creative teams have asked for those dates because they are the dates that work for them. And they need dancers who are able to commit fully to their project. In this case, you go back to your game of Contract Tetris and play the second, and much harder, Round Two. You have to choose.
Choosing whether to do one project over another is incredibly difficult. Most of the time, you’ve worked really hard to get offered these two projects. Either you slogged your guts out in a difficult audition, or you’ve been to enough open classes to get that choreographer to finally ask you to be in their show. Either way, because of the dates of both projects, you are only in a position to do one. So you toss up the pros and cons, and make a decision. It’s tough, but you suck it up and let one of the projects know that you are no longer able to be involved.
But there’s an even more difficult scenario. It’s the one feared most by Freelancers everywhere. For freelance dancers of a certain standard, it’s surprisingly common, and it’s hated.
The dreaded situation is this: You got all the way to the end of the audition for project A, and you believe you have a really good chance. You have been offered project B, but you are still waiting on confirmation that project A is happening. Project A is a lengthy contract (always appealing) and will be a great stepping-stone into doing even better work later down the track. Project A and B clash with their dates. But – and here’s the kicker – Project B is demanding an answer now. So you have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to project B before you get confirmation from project A.
Urgh. The panic that sets in! On one hand, you could be doing the fantastic Project A, but if you say no to project B, and then Project A falls through, you’ll be left with nothing! If you make the wrong decision, your diary will have quickly switched from full to empty. And so begins the gamble of the freelance dancer. Where everything seems like a risk.
There’s no easy way to get through this situation, and it doesn’t get easier the more it happens. It’s one of the cruel but constant problems of being a freelancer. I’m not writing this to try and scare you, but to warn you and, ultimately, comfort you that this is a normal part of the business, and that you are not the first person who has had to make a tricky choice like this.
When a situation like this arises, ask your friends, family and agent to talk through your options. Allow them to list pros and cons of each project, and how, with your Contract Tetris skills, you’ll be able to get the most rewarding, fulfilling career, and a diary full of wonderful work. But the final decision is yours to make. It’s difficult, but it’s a common part of being a freelancer in the ever-evolving dance industry.
Projects come and go. The trick is to keep your cool in both dry periods, and when you’ve got multiple offers on the table. Only you have the ability to custom-design your career. And if all else fails, go play Tetris. The actual game. Seriously. It’s really good.