In the first part of this series, I discussed the importance of communication for dancers with management, one another, and members of the press. I addressed the inconsistent behavior many dancers exhibit when responding to others, and I directed some of the blame to the invention of the text message. In this edition, I will delve into the importance of establishing genuine relationships with people, and how it is of dire importance to our industry.
This involves a word I hate, but I can’t get away from, networking.
It makes me cringe yet I use it a lot. I hate this term because it sounds cold and fake, drumming up in my mind the voices of a holding room full of auditioning artists sucking up to each other for personal gain.
Networking can be intimidating to many. As dancers, we are used to communicating with our bodies. While dynamos on stage, many of the most talented artists I know are extremely shy. The idea of “schmoozing” is frightening. But what we do onstage is not always enough; networking is vital for establishing and sustaining a career.
Throughout my career, I have found some key rules to play by that can make networking genuine and not as horrifying.
RULES I TRY TO LIVE BY
Number 1: Be sincere.
Meeting and talking to people is important.
Life as a freelance dancer is one of the hardest experiences I have ever known, and without the relationships I made during my career with Kansas City Ballet, I would be floundering for control.
Key word RELATIONSHIPS. When new dancers would join KCB, I always enjoyed introducing my city to them. Once, while hanging out with a group of newbies, one of them remarked, “Man! How is it that everywhere we go, we run into at least three people who know you?” My response was simple, “It’s because I don’t just hang out with you!”
Dancers, I have to give you a bit of Matthew Donnell tough love. You know those opening night patron and board parties? You know, the ones where you stand in the corner clustered with the same group of colleagues with whom you rehearse thirty hours a week? If you eat, breathe, and sleep with these people all of the time, then for Pete’s sake, going and shaking the hands of the people who are raising money and supporting the show you just did is not going to kill you! I was always surprised and blown away by the response people gave me when I gave them the chance. Most importantly, I learned new things about life from getting to know these individuals. I knew them first as board members, then they became “fans” (if you will,) then they became some of my closest friends. Now, I’m overjoyed to still be in touch with many of them.
Investing in others is an investment in yourself.
Number 2: Don’t perpetuate the stereotype.
It’s impossible not to address a key issue that is a direct piggyback off the last. Dancers are often perceived as elitist and untouchable. I find this to be especially true of ballet dancers. It is completely possible to maintain the rich heritage of dance without being a snob or a jerk.
The most successful artists I know are gracious and humble to a fault, and in their communication with others, they are polite, courteous, and prompt. These are the people who transition gracefully from stage to the next phases of their lives with out bitterness. These are the ones who, when the inevitable end of their performing careers arrive, are missed for more than their dancing.
I realize that not everyone is an extravert, but one can tell the difference between shyness and ill-intended aloofness. If socializing is out of your comfort zone, work at it.
I want to crush the stereotype that most dancers are snobs because it’s not true!
Number 3: Find a mentor.
Dance is passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, I think it is vital that we be open to having mentors for our lives when it comes to networking. I believe that if we keep ourselves open to learning, the right people will present themselves. For me, it came in the form of my executive director with Kansas City Ballet.
I am passionate about fair treatment for dancers, and I made the initial call that resulted in the unionization of Kansas City Ballet. This call was placed because the dancers wanted to put a mechanism in place to ensure the already strong working environment would remain and continue to improve, no matter what change may happen under future leadership of the organization.
Countless hours were spent on negotiations between KCB officials, the union representative, and attorneys on both sides. The process was long and tedious. However, in the end, I walked away with a renewed and different type of respect for my boss.
A leader is only as good as the people they are surrounded by. Sometimes the right people come into our lives by chance, but sometimes the best way to be surrounded by good people is to reach out to them. This is a small piece of my story. Not everyone is called to spearhead a decision such as this, and I didn’t do it alone. My point is, this was one experience in which I left myself open to a new social opportunity, and I gained a “mentor.”
If I had only one piece of advice to sum up networking, it would be to remain open. Remain open to people and the knowledge they have. Don’t assume you know everything or give off the air that you do. By establishing honest connections, you will find that you are no longer schmoozing. Rather, you are creating friendships. Some friendships will lead to jobs. Most won’t, but they’ll lead to something that is harder to come by—happiness.
Networking takes time and practice no matter what the profession. I still hate the word, but since it’s not going anywhere perhaps we can enhance it by infusing it with genuine professionalism.