How Freelance Dancers Have Survived—and Thrived—During the Last Year

May 25, 2021

Broadway’s shutdown. Canceled competitions and conventions. Closed studio doors. It’s been a rough year for dancers everywhere since pandemic-related closures began rocking the arts community last March.

But what have the last 14+ months been like for freelancers, dancers who do not belong to a specific company or studio but instead make the majority of their income from booking one-off projects and gigs? Dance Spirit spoke with seven freelancers from around the dance world to hear what it’s been like going at it alone.

Facing Fear and Isolation

As in-person projects and gigs disappeared in a matter of days last March, freelance dancers were forced to pivot their businesses, manage their mental health and navigate unknown circumstances—and they had to do it all solo. In the beginning, it was really challenging.

Shocked by the drastic repercussions of the pandemic, many freelance dancers found themselves withdrawing in the early days of the shutdown. “There was an Instagram message here and there, but I stopped talking to a lot of people,” says native New Yorker Melany Mercedes.

Many freelancers, especially those in major art hubs like NYC or L.A., are used to seeing their fellow dancers regularly at classes or auditions. But because of the pandemic, they lost this connection point overnight, and that hit hard.

NYC-based dancer Brianna Rios says it was hard to feel inspired to create during those early days stuck in her small Brooklyn apartment. But she felt re-inspired when her IG feed began to be flooded with videos of friends and colleagues dancing in their living rooms.

She says that before COVID-19, it felt like dance videos had to be perfect. “You had to be dressed up, in a beautiful location,” she says. Without the ability to go anywhere, dancers had to get creative and make do with what they had. “It was pretty cool to see everyone be vulnerable online like that,” Rios says. The trend helped her feel more connected—and inspired her to start creating again.

Reaching Out for Help

As a freelancer, you are your own business, which means it’s up to you to do all the things that go into running a successful company—product development, marketing, sales, accounting. At times it can feel incredibly overwhelming, especially when your “product” is pulled away from you overnight.

“It was scary,” says L.A.-based dancer Alexis Beauregard, recalling those first few weeks and months. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, and at first, I think a lot of people retreated. I know I did.”

When it became clear that things weren’t going to open up anytime soon, Beauregard made a conscious choice to shift her mindset and start showing up for herself and her business despite the challenges around her.

“That’s when I started reaching out to people,” she says. And not just to other dancers, but to videographers, graphic artists and other colleagues in entertainment. She asked them what they were doing, how they were getting through this time, and if there were any ways they could collaborate.

Those conversations opened up a lot of new opportunities, not just to begin to bring in an income again but to regain the inspiration, creativity and motivation she’d lost during the lockdown. After Beauregard held a few donation-based classes on Instagram Live for her 178,000-plus audience, a friend suggested she start teaching through Zoom, a platform she’d never heard of at the time.

“I didn’t know if I could translate the years of experience I have as a dancer, performer and instructor through a screen. But there was also something comforting in knowing everyone was in the same boat. We were all figuring it out together,” she says.

Eventually, Beauregard decided to build her own online platform so she could offer online tutorials, as well as live classes, and again asked for help from friends and family. “I couldn’t have done all of it by myself, and that’s something I have really learned during this time,” she says.

The last year forced Beauregard to redefine how she thinks about running her business. She says that even when you work for yourself, you are not really by yourself. You always have other people around you supporting you.

Finding New Ways to Connect 

Though dance freelancers may not belong to a formal organization or company, they’re still part of a very important community—the dance community. But the isolation of the pandemic forced many freelancers to find new ways to reconnect with their community.

Last spring, NYC-based dancer and choreographer Anya Katsevman decided to host a series of Instagram Live conversations with other artists within the movement industry, in an effort to bring dancers together and spark conversation and inspiration.

After being forced to cancel her last pre-maternity leave, in-person class due to COVID-19, Sarah Eika Burke decided to release a virtual Baby Mama dance tutorial that now has more than 15,000 views on YouTube. It’s been almost a year since the video went up, and mothers are still finding the tutorial and sending in their own videos. She says it’s been a special experience to share with them, one she most likely wouldn’t have had if the pandemic-related closures hadn’t happened.

Diversifying Income Streams 

Eager to regain a sense of financial security after all of his project-based performance work was canceled last spring, Gabriel Emphasis decided to return to school to get his real estate license last year. He had been thinking about it for a while, but probably wouldn’t have had time to commit to it with the back-to-back gigs that defined his pre-COVID dancer lifestyle.

“I honestly think that towards the end of this year we are going to start seeing a big wave of entertainment come back. I actually have been getting a ton of leads and requests for events during the fall in this last week. People are starting to feel comfortable again,” he says.

Still, he’s excited about having a new source of income in a different industry. “I do think we are going to have a comeback. It’s going to be strong. But whether it’s going to happen this fall…I can’t tell you that.”

Prioritizing Relationships

Now, as in-person classes are beginning to reopen and in-person life is beginning to resume (with some lingering restrictions, of course), freelance dancers are finding themselves focusing on building relationships and really connecting with other dancers in a way they may not have thought about before.

“Having a group of people that I’m around all the time and just being in the studio feels really good,” says Hunter Houde. He realized how much social interaction was present in his dance life before the pandemic hit last year, and he’s now looking at it with new appreciation.

And as post-pandemic life begins to resume, we’re going to see a lot more collaborations from freelance dancers.

“I came out of college thinking I had to go to every audition,” says Burke. But she says collaborating with other creatives is the best thing she ever did for her career, and something she’s going to continue to prioritize moving forward.