Well, I’ve arrived in Brisbane and am SO excited to be bringing First Things First to the stage at Brisbane Powerhouse.
Feb 10-13th BOOK TICKETS HERE
Are you coming?
Well, I’ve arrived in Brisbane and am SO excited to be bringing First Things First to the stage at Brisbane Powerhouse.
Feb 10-13th BOOK TICKETS HERE
Are you coming?
You’re in the dance studio. The class is spread out across the room, waiting for the next instruction. The teacher is at the front. They explain the next exercise. It’s a little unusual, perhaps a little difficult. Suddenly, there’s a side comment. And a few giggles. Some of your friends behind you have decided that what the teacher wants the class to do is stupid.
At this moment, you have a choice. You can giggle along with them, and regard the exercise as ‘too weird’ and not worth trying. Or, you can shut out the giggles, trust your teacher and give it your best shot.
You can see where I’m going with this. Obviously I’m encouraging you to take the second choice, trust your teacher, and ignore your friend’s lazy behavior, but sometimes this is easier said than done.
Friends are awesome. Friends are so fun to hang out with, laugh with, share stupid feelings with, share important feelings with. Brilliant. But be warned: friends in the dance studio can be a bit of a trap. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying you should dump all your friends right now. But it’s important to recognise when your friends are a negative influence.
When a group of friends get together, there is inevitably a ringleader. Someone who influences the others, and dominates the group. Now, this doesn’t always mean that they are going to influence the group negatively. Sometimes the ringleader is able to inspire the group to work hard, and encourage healthy competition. Of course, just as easily, if there is a negative ringleader, it can pull the group down into laziness, side comments, and a bad attitude.
I’ve done a lot of guest teaching over the years. Guest teaching can be particularly tricky because you don’t know the students and the students don’t know you. When I give a workshop, I like to push the dancers, to give them something they are perhaps haven’t tried before or to expose them to new ways of thinking about dance. As a result, I’ve discovered two very different responses.
The first response is a group of dancers who see something new, decide that it’s too strange, too unfamiliar, and are unwilling to give it a try. They seem to merge together to create one collective brain, and when this collective brain has decided that this particular exercise (or class, or teacher) is not worth working for, all systems shut down, and the whole class can turn a bit sour. From a teacher’s perspective, this is very disheartening. There is nothing worse than teaching a group of young dancers who are making faces at each other as if to say ‘can you believe this guy? He wants us to do what?!?!’. But teacher’s perspective aside, by choosing to side with your lazy friends, you’re actually cheating YOURSELF out of the benefit.
Of course the other response is when the group takes on the new challenges with gusto, giving everything a try, and even if not instantly successful, they create an environment where everyone is working hard, and everyone is encouraged to do their best.
Let’s go back to our little image of you in the dance studio, your friends having a giggle behind you. Whether you are a ringleader in the group or not, there is one important thing to do that requires a lot of practice: think for yourself. When you’re in the professional industry, being able to think for yourself is one of the most vital skills you can have. Following the crowd can actually be very dangerous when you’re freelancing, because you run the risk of fading into the crowd and getting lost.
To be able to be a successful freelance dancer/performer/choreographer/director (or whatever you want to be), the way to forge your own path is to take notice of what the crowd is doing, and instead of blindly joining in, be able to observe, analyse, and then make your own decision. It requires a pioneering brain to be a freelance artist.
And the best place for a young dancer to start thinking for themselves is in the dance studio. When there are lazy dancers around you, even if they are your friends, be brave and ignore them. If you want a career in dance, put your focus on the teacher. They have so much information to pass on, so allow them to inspire you. Work hard in the dance studio, or let your friends distract you? The decision is yours.
I’ve been thinking lately about all of our dance teachers around the country, where they came from, and how they started out.
Like most of us, they probably started dancing from a young age, discovering the joy dance can bring, getting obsessed with the feeling of being onstage, and understanding the discipline required to become a great dancer.
Some teachers realized quite early that their passion lies in passing on this joy, this love of technique, and giving others the opportunity to perform. They stepped out of dancing for themselves, and into teaching because they discovered that that was where their passion lies.
Others go on to become dancers, sometimes even great dancers, but it’s a career that has a used-by date. And whether we like it or not. There are only so many years that your body can take the Jump! Kick! Roll! Turn! pressure that you put on your body when you’re younger. Because of injury, or simply getting older, dancers often turn to teaching to allow them to stay involved in the industry.
And then there’s the freelance dancers. Those who are still performing dance, but because of the nature of the freelance lifestyle (constantly in and out of projects, and irregular work calendars) teaching often becomes a crucial part of filling in the gaps in your diary.
All three of these kinds of dance teachers have come to pass on their knowledge of technique and performance. They’ve all come to teaching for different reasons, but all are completely valid, important, and all of them have something to teach young dancers.
So, with teaching such an important part of our industry – and on so many different scales, one thing is certain: You need to be able to teach a dance class.
I’ve said before that a good dancer doesn’t necessarily make a good choreographer; I’d like to also add that a good dancer doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher. They require different skills, and while some people are blessed with natural public speaking ability, it is totally possible to become more confident in front of a dance class, and be able to deliver clear information in a way that will stay with the dancers.
Being able to communicate ideas and concepts in dance is an important skill. You need to find different ways to say the same note. Often you’ll see teachers trying to explain the same thing, but come at it from a different angle. This is because our brains are not alike and people learn differently. As a student, when you get given a note or a correction, you may understand it, but the dancer next to you may not. As a dance teacher, is crucial to be able to describe a movement, or a sensation in a different way, to allow the ‘penny to drop’ for all dancers.
Ask any professional freelance dancer, and they’ll probably tell you that they’ve done some guest teaching in their time. Being a guest teacher can be particularly difficult, because you don’t have the luxury of time to get to know your students. You need to be able to walk into the room, get them moving, and hopefully leave some little gems in the students minds that will change the way they dance forever. A difficult task! But with practice, I believe any dancer can become a great teacher.
So, how can you develop your teaching skills? The simple answer is start teaching! The most common way for young dancers (usually from the age of about 14/15) is to talk to your dance school principal, and ask for the opportunity to lead a class, or part of a class. Sometimes, this will be assisting the dance teacher with the tiny ballerinas (with a room full of 4-6 year olds, they’ll need all the help they can get keeping those little ones focused!) Assisting a teacher is fantastic, because you can observe how they work with the dancers, and how they communicate.
If you’re a little older and a bit more experienced, you may even get the chance to become a ‘student teacher’, where you’re still a student in your own age-group dance classes, but will then go and teach a younger age-group all by yourself. This is the perfect way to build up your teaching style and be able to speak loudly, clearly, and to get your thoughts into the heads of the dancers in front of you.
Whether you’ll be a dancer, choreographer, or principal of a dance school, whether in ballet, contemporary, tap or jazz, we all need to know how to be confident in front of a dance studio. So start developing this skill for yourself. Discover your own personal teaching style, and become comfortable with running a classroom. If you’re going to be in any part of the dance industry, you’re likely to need it.
When I finished high school, I ran out of the front doors screaming with relief and chanting “No more deadlines! No more word-count limits! NO MORE WRITING!”A paper-burning ritual may or may not have occurred. Of course, I was totally wrong, I then went to study dance at university where essays and assignments were a constant part of my life.
When I finished university, I sprinted out of those front doors and began shouting from the rooftops “No more deadlines! No more word-count limits! NO MORE WRITING!” Wrong again.
As a freelance dancer, because you’re not working with a full time company, you don’t have the security of a regular pay check, or even have the opportunity to dance on a regular basis. However you’re suddenly offered an exciting and wonderful chance: to make your own work.
Making your own work – as a choreographer, filmmaker, or artist – is a rewarding and satisfying way of life. Many people prefer it because it allows an opportunity to make your own decisions and call the shots in your career. What it often means is that you’re going to need some money to make your own work.
Yes, there are organisations out there that actually offer money to worthy projects to help them come to life! All you have to do is apply, clearly tell them what you want to create, offer a prospective budget, include some support material showing that work you’ve done previously is of high quality, and make sure you’ve got one or two letters (sometimes more!) from important people who are able to recommend you. Sure, applying for arts grants means more deadlines and word-count limits, but applications of this kind are necessary if you’re interested in creating new, amazing dance without going bankrupt.
It’s something that rarely gets taught in universities, but grant writing and application writing is probably one of the most important skills a freelance dancer can have.
This requires a fair amount of keeping your finger on the pulse. There’s a certain amount of dedication needed. You need to keep up to date with different organisations, how much they are offering, the kind of projects they are looking to fund, and when the money is being given. But if you match the criteria, write about your killer idea and send it in on time, you’ve got a chance at being given the cash you need to make it happen.
Sounds awesome right? It’s kind of like when you write an essay for school, but this time you’re writing about something that you genuinely care about. However the difference is that this time, there’s no teacher at the front of the room demanding it be handed in. No one is forcing you to make this happen for yourself, it’s all your own responsibility. While it may seem like a good thing, let me assure you, it’s actually a VERY BAD THING.
Which brings me to the most common problem in this whole application-writing business. If you’ve ever been forced to write…well, anything, then you’ll know it well. Procrastination.
Suddenly the fridge becomes ridiculously interesting. Suddenly the whole house looks like it needs a vaccum. And a polish. And when did I last re-organise my wardrobe? Procrastination is the devil’s work.
Like my drama teacher always used to tell me at school, ‘Get Up and Do’. Don’t worry about it being perfect, just start something.
The thing about grant writing, or writing a proposal, or entering a competition, is that if you know what you want to do, then you just have to tell them.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is to start an application with an ‘elevator pitch’. Imagine you’ve just stepped into the elevator. There’s one other person in there, and the second the doors close, they turn to you and ask “So, what is it you want to do?”
In the time it takes to ride to the second floor, and the elevator doors open again, the other person should have a crystal clear idea of what you want to do with the project. No extra information. The ‘elevator pitch’ is a very handy tool. In writing terms it usually means editing your ideas into one or two brilliantly formed sentences. From there, the rest of the word-count is used to elaborate on those two sentences, going into a little more detail and telling the assessment panel why this is such a wonderful idea that they just have to fund.
I certainly don’t want to sugar-coat the grant application process. It’s hard work and rejection is always possible, but making your own work is truly exciting and rewarding experience, and being chosen to receive the money? Even more rewarding!
Grants are not only for older, established choreographers. Just a little bit of research will show you that there is opportunities for people of any age or circumstance to get help making their ideas a reality.
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.
Well, get your red jeans and white t-shirts ready because First Things First has finally hit the road!
We’ve just completed our remount period for this solo work, and now I’m SO excited to be bringing to to Australian audiences.
We’ll be heading around VIC, NSW, QLD and SA. Have you got your tickets yet?
Miss Saigon only has four shows remaining! Have you got your tickets yet? I’m extremely proud of this show and the cast in particular. Tickets are available from www.gpac.org.au