Freelancing, Part 1

This post has a few parts and a lot of elements to it. I'm not even trying to pretend that I can wrap this one up in a nice, neat bow. 

It's about freelancing, mostly. And how freelancing can help you discover a lot of important things about yourself as an artist, navigating the world.

Being a freelance dance instructor and competing for jobs on the market is not for the weak. It means that you have to be prepared to drive long distances, cobble together multiple jobs, eat every meal out of your car, be ok with zero job security, chase paychecks from many different people, constantly dig for work and never get enough sleep.

I was a freelance dance instructor "on the side" for about 15 years. It was a pretty serious side hustle, though. From 2003-2006, for example, I was directing the entire tap dance program at the Charlottesville Department of Recreation, while I was going to graduate school. In 2013, before I quit my day job, I was teaching at three different studios at night, while I was also cranking out an 8-hour day at the office by day.

In July of 2013, after some encouragement from funders and presenters, a small but promising  list of private students, and some really wild signs from the universe, at the age of 32, I decided to quit my 9-5 office job and become 100% self-employed in the field of dance. 

What does that mean exactly, when you make such a decision and you have all these dreams of what you'd eventually like to accomplish, but in the short term, you still have to pay the bills and feed your kids? For most of us, it means freelance dance teaching at local pre-professional studios. Large studios all over the country hire specialized teachers to bring the latest technique to their kids. If you're really savvy at it, such instructors can worm their way into becoming "competition choreographers" and make more money at teaching winning routines. Being a tap dancer, I probably had an easier go of it getting jobs in studios than, say, a post-modern performance artist. And I did. For 3 solid years, from 2013-2016, I pounded the pavement and held down jobs at twenty-two dance instruction locations. (I have probably even missed a few).

 At the highest point of the dance season, I'd be double-dipping: teaching an early after-school class from 3-4 pm, and then hightailing it to another gig, in horrific traffic, 20 miles away, so I could teach for 3 more hours. And then, maybe, I'd do a late evening private lesson. Saturdays and Sundays, same thing. I'd be up at 7 am to drive to a distant suburb to teach class from 9 am - 12 pm, and then I'd come home and likely hit an afternoon workshop time from 2-5. When the calls came, I dropped everything, got in my car, and chased the money. I felt like I had to do this to prove to everyone that I could do it, to prove to my family that I would do anything to get it, and to prove to myself that I wanted it more than anything.

As insane of a schedule as it was, my deep dive into taking absolutely any job, anywhere, reactivated and sharpened my teaching skills pretty quickly. I worked at some really crazy jobs. (A separate post on how to choose a dance school is coming..!) For almost a year, I worked at a studio where the owner insisted the kids should wear character shoes instead of tap shoes, so that their sounds would be muffled and mistakes wouldn't be heard as easily. (?) Once, I spent an entire year teaching on a concrete floor with ripped marley on top, and the kids would say to me, "why do my hips hurt soooo bad?" I would drive 2 hours to a froufrou boarding school in Delaware to discover that their dance program organizer decided on a whim to cancel class and not notify me. Chasing down the paycheck for my missed time at that job was one of the worst forms of torture. That's what I mean, when I say, it's not for the weak.

In February 2014, I found out I was pregnant with my third child and that he would make his entrance in September of 2014. His introduction into my life was nothing less than mercurial. He is a rainbow baby. His growing presence came about, though, when I was at the supreme height of my insane dance freelancing juggling act. When I should have been sitting my butt down and resting, I prepared for each day as if it were a battle. Extreme nausea? No problem. Dizziness to the point where I had to lie on my side and breathe deep to get my bearings? No problem. Exhaustion to where I couldn't feel my legs? No F-ing problem. I didn't tell anyone I was pregnant, until the answer became obvious. Even then, when my situation was clear and it became harder to jump up and down, I still had my game face on. I was still taking any job, anywhere, anytime, because I had to prove to everyone that I could do it, I had to prove to my family that I would do anything to get it, and I had to prove to myself that I wanted it more than anything.  

In July of 2014, at 30 weeks pregnant, I was teaching at a summer day camp from 9-3, coming home, and then setting competition choreography at a dance school in a far western suburb about an hour drive from my house. It was the summer, a slow time for dance work, and I needed the money. I rationalized the night job in a couple of ways. Setting the choreography wasn't the most high-impact job. I could sit on a stool if I needed, and the kids were trained well enough that I didn't have to demonstrate everything. More money for baby things.

Until I got to this one particular studio on a hot and humid afternoon, and I was told two things: 1) I'd be in the upstairs studio, which was a non-sprung, concrete floor and 2) the air conditioning wasn't working. Oh, there was a third thing. The windows didn't open. The owner was nowhere to be found, so I dutifully completed my two hours of instruction in a hot, poorly ventilated room, without complaining, and I returned to my car. Once I finally sat down and started driving, I realized that I was contracting, and the contractions were coming about 5 minutes apart. Uh oh. Fast forward a couple of hours, and I was being admitted to the hospital for pre-term labor. 

(Side note: the response from the studio owner when I told her I was admitted to the hospital, due to the working conditions at the studio: "can you send me your cut music?")

My 2-day stay in the hospital won me 6.5 weeks of bedrest, during which time I couldn't teach at all. Dale Michael the IVth made his entrance tap-dancing. He broke my water feet first. He was breech and born via emergency c-section on August 21, 2014.

I already had five jobs lined up for the September 2014 opening of classes. As dramatic as his delivery was for me, Dale's entrance was perfectly timed, in that I could be available for the first month of classes. Every studio that was employing me at that time was owned by a woman, and not one of them was at all sympathetic to the fact that I'd just had emergency surgery.

(Another side note: when I went into the hospital for pre-term labor, a studio owner that had employed me for the following day for an intensive was more chuffed and annoyed than anything that they'd have to find a substitute on such short notice).

Good, trustworthy substitutes were impossible to find at the start of dance season, and none of the owners went out of their way to help me find covers. I was expected to be at class two weeks after I had my c-section. Or, if not, there were many other people who would have gladly taken those jobs. I sucked it up and arrived at my first hours back after having Dale, with a weeping wound in my lower belly, which was covered by several inches and layers of medical gauze and tape. I remember that first Saturday, holding my stitches as I carefully pretended to jump up and down, and then coming home, totally exhausted from the effort of looking like I hadn't just had major surgery.

I started to realize that freelancing, in Philadelphia at least, was a horizontal plane with no upward mobility. If I really wanted to do what I wanted to do, and create the environment for percussive dance of which I had dreamed, I had to open my own studio. I started that process before Dale Michael turned one year old, in June of 2015.