Here's How 3 Dancers Make #FreelanceLife Work

Kylie Shea spent four years dancing with Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater before venturing out on her own. (@underground_nyc, courtesy Shea)

More and more frequently, dancers are embracing their entrepreneurial spirit and eschewing the stability of a company paycheck for the creative freedom of freelance life. Some have been in full-time companies—or could be—but many are choosing to be their own bosses instead. Of course, freelancing is not without its challenges. Dancers are at greater risk for burnout, face unpredictable scheduling, and can struggle with self-advocacy. But as these three successful freelancers show, forging your own path can be extremely rewarding.

The Self-Made Maker

Kylie Shea loved the four years she spent dancing with Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, but the freelance life still called to her. "I had other dreams as an artist and craved work that could bring dance to a wider audience," she says. So, in 2013, she moved back to her native L.A. and a few years later started producing short videos for a project she called the Pointe Chronicles. "It started off really casually with a fun foot-training video," she says. "It's amazing to live in an age where tools like social media and digital video are available to everyone. And if you have the determination, you can create your own space, rather than waiting for the next phone call about a job."

Kylie Shea found success using digital platforms and has more than 475 thousand followers on Instagram. (@underground_nyc, courtesy Shea)

Shea's video shorts have collectively received millions of views and have led to performance work in music videos and TV shows, and collaborations with global brands. But grueling shoot schedules coupled with long hours and unpredictable conditions can lead to injury—a risk typically considered by dance company managers or union reps. "On your own," says Shea, "you have to find the courage to stand up for yourself when, after a 14-hour day, the director says, 'OK, let's hit it again.' " Shea admits this was challenging at first, but she's learned to ask for terms and expectations up front. "You may be hired to support someone else's creative vision, but you can't put yourself in a position to get hurt and potentially sacrifice your own career," she says.

A Modern Mosaic of Gigs

Lindsey Jones may be a regular with part-time NYC modern companies, including Dance Heginbotham and Pam Tanowitz Dance, but she's found freelancing to be not only a benefit but a necessity. "The model for what is doable is changing," says Jones, who, after earning a BFA from SUNY Purchase in 2012, has supplemented her performance work by picking up babysitting or other day jobs intermittently. At other times, though, she's in such demand as a dancer that she overbooks—and rarely needs to audition for new projects. "That comes with its own challenges, like the possibility of burning out," she says. It's easy to feel out of control when you're spread thin, yet taking too much time off can impact your wallet. Jones says it's crucial to know your boundaries and the self-care it takes to manage it all. "For me, that's daily class. I do really technical work—and you can't fake technique," she says.

Lindsey Jones has worked with so many different artists that she rarely has to audition for new projects. (Paula Court, courtesy Jones)

On the flip side, when she's not as busy, Jones says it's easy to let anxiety creep in. "You get into a pace of go-go-go, and that begins to feel normal. So when I'm not doing as much, it feels unsettling. I tell myself that it's temporary and I'll be swamped again soon. I might just have to do a little more legwork to make it happen."

That legwork, however, is worth it. "I love the people I work with and my ability to do so many projects," she says. "A full-time job is really appealing in terms of financial stability, but it's also such a privilege to do a wide variety of gigs and work with so many artists with disparate visions. It challenges me to quickly switch my mind-set and physicality. Sometimes it feels like I can't even walk right when I'm learning something new, but it's a very exciting challenge."

Lindsey Jones performing in Pam Tanowitz's "Four Quartets" at Bard SummerScape (Maria Baranova/Bard SummerScape, courtesy Jones)

Leaning In to Versatility

"I didn't really plan on becoming a freelancer, but the freelance life kind of found me," says Barton Cowperthwaite, a dancer, actor, and model. So far, his untethered career has taken him from dancing for choreographers such as Lar Lubovitch, Pontus Lidberg, and Travis Wall to understudying the lead in the national tour of An American in Paris and starring in Lifetime's 2016 Center Stage: On Pointe. Recently, he even assisted Michelle Dorrance during rehearsals for her American Ballet Theatre world premiere, Dream within a Dream (deferred). "I grew up thinking a career in dance solely meant a contract with a concert-dance company," he says. "Freelancing has busted that box wide open. It's been amazing to learn how wrong I was."

Barton Cowperthwaite loves the freedom that freelancing offers. (NYC Dance Project, courtesy Cowperthwaite)

Not being locked into one style or one director's vision has fed his artistry and opened more doors, says Cowperthwaite. Yet he also sees a big difference between autonomy and control. "Freelancing can feel like just reacting to opportunities," he says. "I'm in control of myself—whether I go to ballet class or voice lessons, how I manage my gym time and diet, when I reach out looking for work, and the jobs I accept. But I don't always feel in control of where my career is headed long term." In a ballet company, for example, a dancer might dream of progressing through the company ranks, from corps to principal—like climbing a ladder. Freelancing, Cowperthwaite says, is more like rock climbing. As you're looking for footholds and weighing your options, "you might make a diagonal move or even go down a peg" for the right project. But still, it's all up to you. And that freedom is appealing.

"I have aspirations and I have to keep the lights on, at the end of the day," he says. "So I keep my dreams broad-stroke and just vibrate at my own frequency. If I can do that, I believe good things will come my way."

Cowperthwaite has worked with a wide range of choreographers, from Travis Wall to Lar Lubovitch. (NYC Dance Project, courtesy Cowperthwaite)

You Know You're a Freelancer When...

…you're over the moon for a free class. "I never take class for granted," says Barton Cowperthwaite. "If you're in a company, class is just a given. Sometimes I think company dancers can forget how fortunate they are."

…you're master of an ironclad budget. "I wish managing money had been part of my college curriculum," says Lindsey Jones. "It's a hard reality."

…you can find a silver lining in every role, no matter its size. "Whether you're an extra in a huge club scene or a featured soloist in work made just for you," says Kylie Shea, "if you're open and humble, you can learn from every single experience."

A version of this story appeared in the February 2019 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Doing the Hustle."

The Conversation
Health & Body
Getty Images

Ever since starting her professional career, Broadway dancer Amber Ardolino has cupped. Using the holistic wellness practice to improve performance and take care of her body, Ardolino cupped before it was cool—even beating the 2016 Rio Olympics' purple polka-dotted athletes to the punch. But Ardolino's only one dancer who has put this therapy to regular use. Dance Spirit asked Carrie Gaerte, PT, DPT, ATC, and performance rehab specialist with St. Vincent Sports Performance who works with Indianapolis' Dance Kaleidoscope; and Thomas Droge, Chinese-medicine doctor and founder of Pathfinder Institute in NYC, to explain the ins and outs of cupping therapy.

Amber Ardolino in "Hamilton" (courtesy Ardolino)

Keep reading... Show less

It's never too early to start thinking about your dream job. And summer intensives are an essential step down the road to achieving your dance dreams—whether you want to perform in music videos, ballet companies or Broadway shows.

With 19 programs across the U.S. (plus additional international programs) Joffrey Ballet School offers options for all types of dancers with all types of goals. Whatever you may be working toward this summer, there's a program that will help you get that much closer. We put together a guide to help you find the right one, based on your dream job:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Inside a Rockette audition (Amanda Schwab/Starpix)

Let's be real: Auditions can be rough. No matter how prepared you are, a lot of variables go into every audition—which means even the best of us mess up sometimes! Here are 7 audition fails every dancer has experienced at one point or another.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Fashion
Photo by Erin Baiano

4 hiring powers-that-be told DS their "do's" for dressing to audition.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Via YouTube

Oh, baby I'm a wreck (wreck) after watching Kinjaz's new music video.

Set to Post Malone's "Sunflower," the lead single from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack, the vid features the dance crew's ever-fabulous men—who appear to have Spidey senses, because seriously, how else do they stay down-to-the-fingertips in sync?—performing Vinh Nguyen's super-tight choreography, with an overlay of comic-book-esque graphics by editor Jonathan Shih.

Keep reading... Show less
See photo credits below

What inspires you most as a dancer? What keeps you going on the days when the motivation just isn't there, and makes you feel like all the hard work, rejection and sacrifice is worth it for the pursuit of your dream? What makes you want to run into an empty studio and create something new?

Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over four decades of experience, often hangs posters with dance-related quotes on the walls of her studio, on everything from creativity to the hustle to the importance of teamwork. Sometimes the right words from dancers who have been there are just the push you need to spark your imagination and remind yourself why you love what you do.

In that spirit, here are 10 inspiring quotes from dancers on what their art form means to them, and why it's worth fighting through the hard parts:

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Photo by Nathan Sayers

Chloe Misseldine has every reason to be nervous as she and her partner run through the challenging wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote. Their performance is just days away and the two American Ballet Theatre Studio Company dancers have only had a week to prepare. Add to that the fact that ABT principal Gillian Murphy, one of the world's most famous ballerinas, is at the front of the studio taking notes.

Keep reading... Show less
Body Buzz
Getty Images

If you haven't followed through on your New Year's resolution to practice more self-care, then Valentine's Day is the perfect time to start. Below, we rounded up the best ways to pamper, indulge, and heal everything from your muscles, to your skin, to your mind. Your body (and your dancing) will thank you.

Keep reading... Show less

It's never too early to start thinking about your dream job. And summer intensives are an essential step down the road to achieving your dance dreams—whether you want to perform in music videos, ballet companies or Broadway shows.

With 19 programs across the U.S. (plus additional international programs) Joffrey Ballet School offers options for all types of dancers with all types of goals. Whatever you may be working toward this summer, there's a program that will help you get that much closer. We put together a guide to help you find the right one, based on your dream job:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
"SYTYCD" hopefuls at The Academy (Adam Rose/FOX)

"So You Think You Can Dance" just kicked off Season 15 with a fabulous audition episode. Unfortunately, as always, some of the gifted dancers we just met won't make it to the live shows. In fact, so many talented artists have tried out for "SYT," it can be hard to remember standout auditionees from the past who didn't reach the Top 20. But many of them have gone on to have fantastic careers. Here are five amazing dancers who you probably don't remember auditioning for "SYTYCD."

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun

Colder weather is (finally) here, which means it's time for a good dance movie binge. But which iconic films should you put on? To narrow your search, we went ahead and ranked 30 of the greatest dance movies of all time.

Of course, we know a list like this is bound to be controversial—so if you disagree with our lineup, have at it in the comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
State Ballet of Siberia dancer Yury Kudriavtsev wearing Siberian Swan shoes (courtesy Siberian Swan)

As ballet's gender roles grow increasingly blurred, more men than ever are reaching new heights: the tips of their toes.

It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistry. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).

The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News

Are you a college student curious about what goes on behind the scenes at your favorite magazine? You're in luck—because Dance Spirit is searching for an editorial intern for summer 2019!

We'll be accepting applications through March 1. Internships pay an hourly stipend and require a minimum two-day-a-week, onsite commitment in our NYC office from June to August. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)

If you're interested, please send a cover letter, resumé and two writing samples to Margaret Fuhrer at Be sure to put "Summer Internship Application" in the subject line. All attachments must be formatted as PDFs.

We will interview selected candidates in March in person or by phone, and let candidates know by mid-April if they have been chosen. Please note that we do not accept high school students, or any students under 18, and that we give preference to college juniors and seniors.

We can't wait to meet you!

Dance on TV

Need more evidence that K-pop is taking over the universe, one infectiously catchy song and impeccably choreographed dance routine at a time? Look no further than BLACKPINK's fabulous appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" last night.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance on TV
GET IT, Janelle. (Getty Images)

Yes, yes, it's a music awards show, but for us, it's *always* all about the dancing. And last night, the Grammy performers—especially the ladies—gave us everything our little dancer hearts desired. Happy early Valentine's Day to us! 😍

Keep reading... Show less
Rising Stars
Images by Norelle, courtesy Jennifer Falcione

When we asked what her proudest accomplishment so far is, Kiarra Waidelich paused for a moment. That's because she has so many to choose from: In the past two years, Kiarra's earned Mini and Junior Female Best Dancer at The Dance Awards, snagged Youth America Grand Prix's Hope Award, and made it to the divisional finals on Season 2 of "World of Dance." Equally gifted in ballet ("I love the mental and physical challenge") and contemporary, it's the latter that made Kiarra realize dance was her passion. "If something bad or stressful happens in my day, I use contemporary as a way to express and release what I'm feeling," she says. "Dance is a way for me to emote and let things go."

Keep reading... Show less
Branch Out
Adrienne Gregorek working on physical therapy exercises with a patient (courtesy Gregorek)

When Adrienne Gregorek was 14, she injured her hamstring and was sent to physical therapy. "I was super frustrated," she remembers. "I went to a clinic where there were mostly older people being treated and felt like the staff didn't understand the needs of a dancer. When they were re-testing me at the end, they said, 'You're good,' even though I really wasn't where I needed to be for optimal strength and flexibility."

For many dancers looking for their next step beyond the stage, a career that continues to connect them to the art is a no-brainer. In Gregorek's case, her interest in the human body, coupled with her passion for dance, led her to a career in physical therapy and landed her a job at Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC, where she treats dancers, including members of New York City Ballet and students at the School of American Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less



Get Dance Spirit in your inbox