In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.
"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."
As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.
Put a Label on It
If you want more lucrative and prestigious teaching gigs, you need to market yourself like someone who's qualified for them. Just like in any other kind of business, marketing your services is a key component of finding (and keeping!) teaching jobs. Erin Pride, an online business coach for dance professionals, recommends drilling down on what she calls your "spark." "Make a list of what you're naturally good at, what comes easily to you as a teacher," she suggests. Get specific about the most obvious value you offer to those looking to hire you. Did you train with one of the dance world's big names? Are you certified in a particular technique or methodology? Are you prepared to offer something unusual, like explicitly body-positive instruction or a rarer discipline (folklórico, Gyrotonic, etc.)?
Pride's next recommendation would be to get serious about social media. As she notes, "Everyone thinks they know how to do social media, until what they're doing doesn't work!" What does work, according to Pride? Consistently posting—whether that's one post a week or five—on a platform you genuinely enjoy (read: Don't worry about TikTok if you have zero interest in short-form video), with a laser focus on your spark. These days, a robust and professional social-media presence is even more important than a website, says Pride.
Figuring Out Financial Freedom
You alone will be the CEO, CFO and chief marketing officer of your freelance-teaching career. As certified financial planner (and former freelance opera singer) Ben Henry-Moreland puts it, "Your job is to make sure the business that is you doesn't go bankrupt. Having a business-owner mentality will not only help you remember all the things you need to do other than teaching; it'll help you accomplish your financial goals."
To that end, Henry-Moreland advises insuring yourself against potential lawsuits and registering with a state government (typically the state in which you do business) as a limited-liability company (LLC). These simple steps, which can be accomplished online in less time than you might think, will place some legal separation—and financial benefits—between you, the individual, and you, the business.
Once you're legally a business entity, you can open a business bank account (which usually isn't any more complicated than opening a personal bank account) and apply for a business credit card. This card should be strictly for work-related expenses, from the shoes you wear while teaching to teacher-training courses. Keeping your professional expenses separated from personal expenses will make it easier to deduct them when tax season rolls around.
Speaking of taxes, Henry-Moreland says that as a freelancer, you'll need to set aside money in advance to cover what you anticipate owing. He also strongly advises enlisting the help of a CPA: "The couple hundred bucks you spend will absolutely be worth it, in terms of maximizing deductions and saving time that you can and should spend on other aspects of your business."
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis
The Mental Shift
Freelancing demands a certain degree of hustle that can feel uncomfortable to dancers, considering how many of us grew up in studio cultures where, as Kerollis says, "we didn't speak much, and we were taught to be humble and respectful and grateful."
But as a freelance dance instructor, you simply cannot afford to wait until the lucrative gigs find you. Have your elevator pitch updated at all times, reconnect with teachers and directors from your past who are in your network, and reach out to potential gigs that you've researched thoroughly and think would be a good fit.
Possibly even more challenging is setting prices for classes, private lessons, coaching sessions and so on. It's true that you don't necessarily need to draw up formal contracts: Kerollis says that as long as all details are hammered out in writing (such as via email), you're in the clear should a dispute arise. But figuring out your value as a service provider and asking for it can get awkward, to say the least.
Kerollis warns that if you're used to a dance-company paycheck, there could be some initial sticker shock. But you shouldn't accept a fee that feels degrading: First, figure out a base hourly rate that you'd be comfortable with. Then factor in commute length and cost, preparation time required, that geographic area's general cost of living, and anticipated difficulty of the gig (level of student engagement, number of dancers, etc.). When asked, state a rate that's somewhat higher than your final calculated minimum. "If they accept it without negotiation, congratulations—that's your new rate!" says Kerollis.
Of course, financial constraints and imposter syndrome can make all these steps seem daunting or superfluous. But as Pride says, "A lot of times, we artists don't get education on the importance of a retirement fund or building generational wealth. If you want to stop living paycheck to paycheck, you need to embrace the mindset that your teaching is a business."