Freelance life is the norm for most dancers graduating from vocational dance schools. While freelancing means freedom and variety, it also means uncertainty and instability and often a transient lifestyle. Entering into it is not for the faint-hearted. Mastering it comes down to diversification and tenacity. The equation is simple: versatility plus resilience equals employability and longevity.
After the basics of affording class and staying free enough to audition while paying the rent are negotiated, other rudimentary factors apply. Self-awareness is vital and extolling qualities such as professionalism and reliability pay dividends – you are building a reputation as well as a career.
As you become more established and your networks grow, word of mouth will become increasingly relevant in helping you stay employed. Invest in making yourself as versatile as you can be: learn to sing, take acting classes; focus on turning weaknesses into strengths. Adaptability is a necessity in showbiz and being able to flex and bend in response to the industry’s trends will be an asset.
Unless you want to do one musical for the duration of your career, or be typecast in the same type of role, transformation and growth is mandatory. A dancer’s approach to the industry and their perception of their role within it is important. Of the dancers who excel and build sustainable careers, it is the ability to diversify and evolve that sets them apart. That, and an entrepreneurial, business-like approach. Their CVs often reveal a portfolio career and a chameleon-like ability to switch between roles in the industry.
Matt Flint identifies himself on Twitter as ‘artistic director/choreographer, tap dancer/presenter and event producer’ and his exhaustive credits justify the multitude of work titles. As a performer, he has appeared in 10 West End shows. He travelled the world with Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! and Highland Fling and has appeared in films (Cinderella and Beyond the Sea) and commercials for PlayStation and Tesco. In 2011, he won series 2 of the BBC show So You Think You Can Dance and capitalised on his success moving seamlessly into the role of dance entrepreneur. He has since worked as a presenter for the London 2012 Olympic men’s football and rhythmic gymnastics and has hosted stages including the Dance Proms at Royal Albert Hall. Co-creator of Can You Dance?, he is also the creative director of Happy Feet Productions and a global ambassador for Capezio.
He explains: “I have always been much happier being freelance. You never quite know where you will end up and as rewarding as being in a company can be, it’s difficult to get other experiences. The most challenging thing for any freelance dancer is staying employed. It’s important to have many strings to your bow to keep you ticking over – be as diverse as possible from the outset. Keep learning and training all the time to stay current.”
For some dancers, diversification can be a process of discovery and necessity. Those who have come through a very focused training route such as ballet may not have had the opportunity to unearth potential in other areas.
Sarah Soetaert’s credits include The Glen Miller Story, The Sound of Music, Chicago, On the Town, Fame and Cats. She appeared in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and has also featured in a number of high-profile commercials. Having graduated from English National Ballet School, her career has been unexpectedly diverse.
“Never in a million years did I imagine that I would end up having a career anywhere but in ballet,” she says. “It was all I knew, loved, and had dreamt of. But once I finished my training and didn’t immediately secure a position at a ballet company, I began to look for any kind of work as a dancer; I needed to pay my rent – and work was work.”
After landing her first job with Disney as The Little Mermaid in one of their pre-movie shows in Rome, Stoetaert found the break from the demanding discipline and rigours of ballet refreshing. Gradually her eyes began to open to other opportunities. She learnt to diversify her performance skills through taking extra classes, but mostly from observing: “I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. Watching the best do their thing, on stage or screen, and being as truthful as can be. Most of my acting and singing has been learnt on the job. As I gradually moved up the ranks from roles in the ensemble to understudying leads and eventually on to playing leads myself, I keep learning, I keep growing. Where once I would have considered myself first and only a dancer I now very much enjoy, and am proud to be able to engage in, all aspects of performing.”
Simone Sault also began as a classically-trained dancer. After five years with Sydney Dance Company, she broke into musical theatre and film. Simone has more than 50 TV, film and theatre credits, including: The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Sinatra, On the Town and Dangerous Liaisons; Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd and Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast (released next year).
Describing her attitude to work, she advises: “Visualise. Always work towards whatever it is that puts that fire in your belly. Stay humble, stay focused, stay driven and stay passionate. I have always accepted the moments of doubt and unemployment as part of the deal. Conversely, there is a wonderful freedom in it all, we never suffer from boredom or monotony attached to the nine-to-five jobs out there.”
Although still performing, her recent credits are increasingly weighted toward creative team credits: choreographer and associate choreographer positions on productions such as Love Never Dies, The Most Incredible Thing, Strictly Come Dancing, London 2012 Olympics and the Sochi Winter Olympics.
For those able to choreograph and lead, the progression into directorial roles can increase longevity. Advancing from the sometimes passive role of dancer into a more directorial role is another way to diversify and means becoming a more active participant in the industry. Pursuing personal development and transformation is not only advantageous for staying employed, it also provides the kind of linear progression often absent in performance careers.
Be a chameleon, reinvent yourself, be willing to take risks and unafraid to evolve. Consider your vocational training as your foundation: where it all begins. But your transformation should be constant. The industry never sits still and neither should you.