When the Dollar and Dream Don’t Match

MFA Mondays
photo by Lynn Lane
photo by Lynn Lane

As I was sitting in my first interview for an adjunct dance position my potential boss warned me that this would never, ever become a full-time position. He said the “higher-ups” did not believe that dance was an actual career. I proceeded to argue the opposite, enlightening him on the several ways one could have a career in and around dance. He thanked me for educating him throughout the interview and told me to “not be surprised if one day he asks me to repeat my argument in front of others.” I am still awaiting that day…

If you are anything like me, then you have probably found yourself in a situation where you are faced with the decision to either work for free, or turn down an opportunity. As an undergrad I did anything and everything for free in hopes of building my resume and networking. When I finished grad school, I found myself with the complete opposite work ethic; I wanted to be paid. I spent an entire year questioning whether I would be a hypocrite if I chose to work for free while fighting for funding for the arts and defending the importance of dance in higher education. This ultimately led to a year of simply teaching classes at community colleges and local studios, but never entering the studio wearing my choreographer hat. For those of you who know me, choreography primarily defines me. I found myself feeling like a teacher only, and not like an artist; my ideal setting is one that I can be both. Looking back I did not create choreographically, partly of fear and transitioning out of the safety net of grad school and because of my determined decision to not work for free; because choreographing and being creative didn’t provide a paycheck, I simply didn’t do it.

It wasn’t that I disliked any part of the work I was doing, I just knew I needed to establish a better balance before I found myself resenting my MFA rightcareer choice later down the road. About this time, I reconnected with a fellow artist I had met a little while back but had lost touch with over the course of that “non-creative” year (go figure!). She asked me if I would like to collaborate on a new arts exchange project she was working on- you might remember me talking about it on my last blog! At first I was hesitant to give up time where I could potentially be making money, but I trusted my gut and took a leap of faith and began getting involved. In a nutshell, this project was an artistic exchange in Nice, France, a sister city to Houston, sharing through outreaches and performances the message that art saves lives. She was very honest and upfront with the fact that she was not sure if I would be compensated for my time or even get to travel to France, but what she could promise was that my choreography would be shown in Nice. I respected her honesty and happily moved forward with setting my work and helping out where it was needed. I am very fortunate that funds were raised in order for me to travel to France and participate first-hand. Not only was the trip paid for, but I also got a small check for the administrative work I had done. Was every minute I spent on this project compensated for? No, but it instilled hope that I could get paid to be creative, and also reminded me that experience, opportunity, and changing lives through art is also an important form of payment. It felt like I had hit the jackpot, ha! In fact, some days I still ask myself, “Did I really get paid to go to France and work as an artist?”

After this first experience of opening myself up to opportunities that were not payment driven, I began craving more creative outlets. It was then

photo by Salted Hart
photo by Salted Hart

that I was approached to be a guinea pig for a program that supports emerging choreographers. This opportunity marked the first time I created something new since graduation. I was terrified and procrastinated until I absolutely had to begin creating, simply out of fear… but that’s besides the point of this blog! The support of this program covered the production and publicity costs; so essentially, I did not make money, but I did not lose any either, which is huge at this point in my career path. While I had begun to feel more confident with where I stood on whether or not to work free, I felt very unsure about asking professional dancers to do the same. I felt an immense amount of pressure to find money to pay them for their time. Luckily I was blessed to work with seven of the most amazing, gifted, and beautiful human beings who also recognized that sometimes the experience of something new, or a particular opportunity can be a form of payment. I am not sure what I did to deserve this opportunity and the pleasure of working with these amazing artists, but they will always hold a special place in my heart.

I am really fortunate that these decisions to work without monetary concern have paid off in such a positive, life changing way, and am also aware that every opportunity might not have the same outcome. In hopes of avoiding this and knowing when to say yes, and when to say no, I ask myself questions like:

  • What do I want out of this opportunity?
  • What are the gains? (money, positively affecting others, artistic/therapeutic experience, professional growth, networking, creative expression, etc.)
  • Does my schedule allow me to confidently commit to this opportunity and the work involved, while still carrying out my day-to-day work and being financially responsible?

Right now, after these experiences, I can say that I am willing to choreograph for free for the rest of my life. I would definitely work hard to pay the dancers, but for me, the chance to share my choreographic voice and move the audience is more than enough. I know that is a bold statement and I may not always feel that way, but for today, it’s true.

photo by Lynn Lane
photo by Lynn Lane

I will always defend the importance of dance in schools, higher education, and in life, and will never stop fighting for artists to be paid for what they do. The way I see it is this: I can argue all day long the importance of dance to the administrative “higher-ups” by stating cold hard facts to support that you can “pay the bills” with a career in dance. I can equally stress the importance, validity, and power of dance by sharing my experiences in France, the profound comments of audience members who were moved to tears, or how dance has truly saved my life, and so many, many others. Dance is multi-faceted; therefore the ways in which it is important are endless and monetary gain is only one of them. We don’t live in a perfect world where every profession gets paid what it deserves, but it doesn’t mean that we give up, or shut ourselves off to opportunities like I did during that “non-creative” year. If we do, then we will find ourselves in a world void of art, zero chance of dance ever getting the funding it deserves, and most likely little personal fulfillment as an artist.

I realize not everyone feels the same way that I do, but if you find yourself in similar situations and at a loss of what choice to make, try asking yourself the questions above and establishing boundaries. Don’t become a money-driven robot like I was in danger of becoming; remember at your essence, you are an artist. The experience, impact, and change that you can bring to your own life, and to others through dance is permanent.

Laura Harrell is currently an adjunct professor at Houston Community College, Lone Star College, and San Jacinto College. Laura has presented choreography at The Dance Gallery Festival (Texas and New York City), the Fringe Festival (Houston), the American College Dance Conference (adjudicated and gala), and most recently, in the first ever, Art Saves Lives: A Cultural Conversation performance and educational outreach program in Nice, France. Additionally, she has set work at Sam Houston State University, Booker T. Washington High School, Lone Star College, San Jacinto College, and was assistant choreographer for Recked Productions site-specific project, Up For Air. Most recently, Laura presented choreography in the first ever Next Step Series by NobleMotion Dance.


Fab Ashley in character for our piece Dinner/Dance19.
Fab Ashley in character for our piece Dinner/Dance19.

I would like to take some time to really acknowledge Ashley Horn for her impactful Frame Dance collaborations over the past five years (and more to come!)  She has been my most consistent collaborator, and has had an indelible stamp on Frame Dance aesthetics.  She is so talented and unwaveringly creative.  She understands my interest in color, shape, and style.  This performance of Framed in Five is requiring her to make 34 (or something) costumes!  Here are a few photos of the costumes in progress…



Tearing the Nest

MFA Mondays

Laura_Harrell-JAS_1048Grad school prepared me for many things. I took a plethora of classes that broadened and strengthened my dance training. I was given choreographic tools and opportunities to test them out. Most grad programs, like the one I attended, allowed the opportunity to teach semester-long courses, or take specialty classes like Dance and Technology and Career Resources. The information, advice, and experiences gained are truly invaluable. While grad school gives the “old college try” in preparing you for the real world, and is successful in many areas, nothing prepared me for the loneliness I experienced after graduation.

Grad school is this beautiful little bubble that is filled with like-minded, passionate individuals that inspire, push and motivate you on a daily basis. I found myself collaborating when I didn’t even know it, or set out to. Anytime I had a new choreographic idea or random epiphany there was always someone there to bounce it off of, and I mean ALWAYS. I knew I would mourn not seeing my fellow grads everyday, but I always thought I would find myself in a similar environment, just with new faces.

Maybe it was naïve of me not to come to this realization on my own. Perhaps being wrapped up in thesis madness made anything that was not MFA rightspecifically stated or covered in class unobtainable at the time. I had been warned about the “adjunct hustle,” minimal pay, commuting, etc. and though hearing about it is much different than experiencing it, I still had an inkling of what to expect. Even when I was hired for the first time knowing that I was the one and only dance adjunct, it still didn’t hit me. It was the first day of school that I found myself feeling like the “new girl” from the movies who eats her lunch alone in the bathroom stall. Every commute was nothing but tears. I had no idea the amount of emptiness I would feel after grad school and was at a loss of how to fill it.

Luckily I have made some progress, some days it feels minimal, and other days not so much. I began picking up the phone more than I ever had, and instead of crying while commuting, I would talk to other adjunct friends. This is where I express my joys and frustrations with teaching. Over the next two semesters, I picked up additional classes at other colleges where friends also taught. As silly as it sounds, I don’t even have to see them; in fact most of the time we aren’t even on campus at the same time, but simply knowing that I am not alone helps tremendously. If I get to see their face, well then that’s just icing on the cake!

Laura_Harrell-JAS_1226Aside from these small strides, last fall I began collaborating on an arts project. While it doesn’t feed my bank account regularly, it feeds my soul. Believe it or not, I find it very satisfying to work on this project without financial concern. It feels like a small, selfish act of kindness that I do for myself. The satisfaction of payday is short-lived in my world because it all goes towards bills and living expenses, so the reward, or “paycheck” if you will, that I receive from the work dedicated to this project is permanent. This project allows me to collaborate a couple of hours a week, which I love, think outside of the box, meet new artists, problem solve, and change lives through art. While I hope this project continues to blossom and can one day have more of a monetary benefit, I am really content with the opportunity and nourishment of the soul.

Just like most things in life, it gets easier with time. About a year ago, I made the decision to stop comparing life now to life in grad school. It will never be the same, and now, 2 years later, I am really glad. If I were to stay a student forever, which I stated numerous times after graduation, I would have never been able to realize what an amazing experience grad school was and the huge impact it would have on my life. Don’t get me wrong, it was difficult and challenging and several days I felt like throwing the towel in, but the same skills I developed in pushing through school are the very same that have helped me find solutions to not feel lonely.

So if you ever find yourself as a lonely artist like I do some days, try one of the following pick-me-ups:

  • Wipe those tears and pick up the phone! Call someone who can relate to your feelings, or someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with- no time like the present!
  • Build a new community. Though it may not be ideal or as convenient as ones from the past, something is better than nothing! I am part of an ongoing (and rather hilarious) group text thread with some adjuncts in the area… Facebook groups… really anything that can provide a sense of community, even if it is long distance.
  • Find your own small selfish act of kindness and make sure to do it! You owe it to yourself. Whether it’s going to take a dance class for enjoyment, playing hooky from work to go see some live art, or something totally unrelated- DO IT!
  • Most importantly, don’t compare life now to “better” or less lonely times. You can’t change your current emotional state if you’re always looking back…

I have been able to build a new long-distance community, make connections outside of my alma mater, and start a new nest here in Houston.

Photos by Salted Hart Photography.

Laura Harrell is currently an adjunct professor at Houston Community College, Lone Star College, and San Jacinto College. Laura has presented choreography at The Dance Gallery Festival (Texas and New York City), the Fringe Festival (Houston), the American College Dance Conference (adjudicated and gala), and most recently, in the first ever, Art Saves Lives: A Cultural Conversation performance and educational outreach program in Nice, France. Additionally, she has set work at Sam Houston State University, Booker T. Washington High School, Lone Star College, San Jacinto College, and was assistant choreographer for Recked Productions site-specific project, Up For Air. Most recently, Laura presented choreography in the first ever Next Step Series by NobleMotion Dance.

Music for Veterans

Tuesday Tunes

“The arts and creative arts therapies were characterized by Captain Moira McGuire, at Walter Reed as a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘nice to have.'”



Here in Houston, Jane Weiner and Hope Stone are working with vets, offering an 8 week DRUMMING workshop (with the amazing Chris Howard) for veterans…FREE!! If you are a vet? or know a service man or woman please let them know about our workshop.

Classes are Monday, starting March 30-May 18
8-9 p.m. (no drum needed, we will supply, but if you have one bring to the circle!)
The Barn-2201 Preston @ Hutchins.

Info@hopestoneinc.org if interested or want more details.

Music has been implemented more and more in therapy and treatment. Check out this recent article posted on the American Music Therapy Association’s website describes music therapy’s impact on working with the military.

Read the full article here!