Many American dancers choose to join companies in Europe because of higher pay and better benefits, but there are also drawbacks, including dealing with red tape, homesickness and language barriers. DS tracked down dancers who crossed the Atlantic to work in Spain, Germany and Sweden, and asked them to share the pros and cons of working in the European Union—and how to avoid missteps along the way.
Higher pay and health insurance
“[When working] in Europe, you make enough [money] dancing to support yourself comfortably, whereas in the States, dancing for a living often means having side jobs, unless you work for a big company,” says Armando Braswell, who dances for Ballet Theatre Munich in Germany. Dancers working for state-supported theaters in Europe receive about six weeks of paid vacation and benefits similar to government workers. The theater where BTM performs contributes money to a retirement pension for each dancer, which can be cashed out when leaving the country or left to accrue interest until age 45.Â
Being on your own in another country is a challenge that can instill confidence, independence and resourcefulness. “You grow as a person, which makes you more open to things you’ve never seen or done before,” says Loni Landon, also a BTM dancer.
For Braswell, the biggest perk is more respect and gratitude from others compared to his experience in the U.S. “A dancer here [in Munich] is treated like a true artist. When I tell people where I work, they are impressed. They shake my hand; they want to come to the theater to see me dance,” he says. “In the States, I get the feeling that people think dance is a hobby.”
Many American dancers working abroad rate homesickness and loneliness as the biggest obstacles. Costly trans-Atlantic flights and visa restrictions can make taking trips home more difficult than if you work in the U.S. Tip: Purchase a GSM cell phone, which will allow you to make calls within Europe and to your friends and family back home.
Living in a non-English-speaking country can be intense and frustrating. “You can’t do ordinary things by yourself, which makes you more dependent on other people’s help,” says Landon. Isaac Spencer, an American who joined Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet in summer of 2006, attests to the importance of learning as much of the indigenous language as possible. “Don’t think just because most people speak English that you need not attempt to learn the language of the place you live,” he says. Learning the language will make your experience more rewarding, because you’ll be able to participate more fully in the culture. Tip: Take an accelerated language class before you go, and listen to a language tutorial on your flight; knowing the basics will provide a foundation to help you survive the first few weeks.
Braswell was hit hard by the lack of daily conveniences in Munich, compared with what was available to him in NYC. For example, when visiting government offices, he found that they often closed early without notice or were closed for long lunch hours. “Everything is closed on Sundays. [If] you didn’t food shop on Saturday, well, you’re hungry on Sunday,” he says. “Holidays come out of nowhere.” Tip: Buy a calendar detailing national holidays and consult it often.
BEFORE YOU GO
To apply for a visa to live and work in Europe, you’ll need, at minimum, a passport, birth certificate and a contract issued from your employer. Some countries require other documentation, including a record of physician’s exams or immunizations. Make two photocopies of all documents; leave one with your family or a friend in the U.S.; take the other set with you, along with the originals.
The U.S. Department of State recommends that you obtain the required visa from your future country of residence’s consulate in the U.S. before leaving the country, and to seek guidance from your employer in doing so. Surprisingly, not all dance companies—even established ones—take the steps needed to make sure you obtain the proper legal documents to work in their country. Some may have administrators to walk you through the process, while others may expect you to take care of all documentation on your own. Either way, ask a lot of questions.
“I called the company at least five times to ask what I needed and then I did my own research just to be sure,” says Braswell. “If you don’t understand, ask again. They may get a little frustrated, but the steps to work legally in another country are very complicated and official. You don’t want to mess anything up, because you were too shy or embarrassed to ask a question.”
It’s fairly common, especially for dancers hired for short-term projects, to be asked to travel overseas with a visitor’s visa (under the guise of vacationing), which allows you to stay for up to three months. But if you’re getting paid to dance in another country, then legally, you need a work visa. Depending on the country you’re in, if you’re caught without one, you could be deported, fined or even banned from applying for a visa to that country for a year or more.
When Loni Landon joined Ballet Theatre Munich in September 2005, the company advised her to travel as a tourist and apply for her work visa once in Europe. This turned out to be problematic: Because she’d bought a one-way plane ticket, the airline wouldn’t let her board until she had purchased a pricey return ticket, which she never used. Having a work visa would have prevented this expense.
In the EU, visa procedures vary by country, with work visa turnarounds ranging from a few days to a few months. In Belgium, for instance, a company would file for a work visa on your behalf, and the burden is on the employer to prove that there is no other Belgian citizen who can fill the position. In Germany, dancers must apply themselves. In Italy, either the employer or the dancer can apply.
If you must obtain your visa once in Europe, bring along a native speaker to help navigate the red tape. “The people who work at the visa office [in Munich] don’t speak English,” Landon says. “A very nice member of my company came with me and helped with all the translations and the paperwork. Without him, I would have been totally lost.”
A helpful list of contact information for foreign consulates is available at The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ website, travel.state.gov.
“If you have the money to do so, get the official translations of important documents,” says Braswell. (Most foreign consulates in the U.S. can provide a referral to certified translators.) “I’m now trying to find a translator in Munich to translate my marriage license, [and] this would have been much easier to do in the States.” Certified translations come with a special seal and follow country-specific legal guidelines.
Arrive with enough money to survive the first month, in case your pay is delayed or you face an unforeseen expense. “I thought I had enough saved, but there are so many expenses to take care of when you first arrive,” says Landon. “You should definitely have at least one credit card, but many places, like IKEA [furniture store], don’t take them. I found myself at the checkout line with all my furniture for my new apartment and had no way to pay for it. Luckily, my colleagues were generous enough to loan me money until I got paid.”
If you’re leaving the U.S. indefinitely, close your bank accounts and cancel any other services you won’t be using, such as a gym membership, insurance and cell phone. Inform your accountant that you’re leaving the country and won’t be filing your future income taxes in the U.S. “Have your mail forwarded to a relative or friend who would be willing to send it to you every two weeks or so,” says Braswell. “There’s always mail that comes for you once you’re gone.” Take advantage of online payment methods to attend to any financial obligations in the U.S. from Europe, suggests Spencer. “The internet helps bridge the distance when it comes to practical things like bank accounts, student loans [and] bills,” he says.
Braswell’s motto for moving to Europe: “Don’t bring so much stuff!” Pack the bare minimum and leave the rest of your belongings in storage. “No [American] appliances work in Europe; just buy everything once you get there,” says Braswell. “You’ll also see how little you really need—I don’t even care that my favorite coat isn’t here. My [former Juilliard] teacher Alphonse Poulin says, ‘It’s not how much you have, Armando, it’s how little you need.’ This is true in Europe.” Instead of checking tons of luggage, Braswell mailed items ahead of time via surface mail, which is roughly half the price of airmail and takes about four to six weeks.
WHEN YOU ARRIVE
Depending on the country you’ll be working in, you may be need to obtain a separate work permit and tax card (similar to the U.S.’s W2 tax form) in addition to your visa. You must have these documents in order to be paid, and they can take several weeks to process.
In the EU, there’s also value added tax (VAT), which is a tax of 7 to 25 percent on goods purchased there, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Trade Information Center. If you’re working in Europe for a short time and buy items that you’ll be bringing back to the U.S., save your receipts to show custom officials upon your departure for a VAT refund. Some countries have varying minimum amounts you must spend to receive a VAT refund.
Memorize the locations of the localÂ police department and AmericanÂ embassy in case your passport or ID are lost or stolen, recommends Michela Marino-Lerman, a tap dancer who has toured Spain with Rafael Amargo. “Two weeks before I was leaving [to return to the U.S.] . . . my purse was stolen and I lost my passport,” she says. “You have to know where to go. Report the crime to the police, and then take the policeÂ report to the embassy to prove that you lost your passport.” Establishing a few solid friendships with other company members means you’ll have someone to turn to in case of emergency, says Marino-Lerman; a friend who’s willing toÂ accompany you to the police station, spot you some cash or assist with translation can be invaluable.
In addition to having her purse stolen, Marino-Lerman’s apartment was burgled and her cash stolen, during her last dance gig in Spain. If you’re paid in cash for a project and don’t yet have a bank account in the EU, Marino-Lerman recommends either wiring large sums of money home or converting them to traveler’s cheques. This way, your money can be tracked if it gets stolen or lost.Â