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.