The Freelance Gamble: Dance the Way out of Conventions

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What is the first thing that comes to you when you think of dancing? From television shows like the prominent American series So you think you can dance and movies like Billy Elliot and Step Up, to the more locally acknowledged Joint University Mass Dance presented by Dance Societies of 10 universities in Hong Kong, dancing is always regarded or portrayed as something that is “very cool”. We see dancers as free souls who can express themselves and make energetic moves on stage,  we scroll over and admire pictures that captures the perfect dance poses, but do we know much about the stories behind all these glamorous depictions? As we always pay attention to the positive and beautiful things, what are the sides that are less shown to us?

Shum at Poly U Mass Dance 2016 (Photo provided by Shum, Credits to Ifangraphic)

“When I dance, I don’t have to control my emotions,” says Shum. “I can create and express myself freely according to the music.”

This is probably the most common and fundamental reason why dancers choose to do freelancing, also some common perceptions about dancer life. Shum Shum is a recent graduate at the Polytechnic University Hong Kong (Poly U), majoring in English Studies. She has started learning ballet since a very young age and has been in touch with a wide variety of dancing styles as she grows up. With great talent and potential, she is a frequent award-winner at various dance competitions and a high-achiever in the Royal Ballet and other dance examinations.

Shum at the Joint University Mass Dance station at Open University (Photo provided by Shum)
Shum at Christine Liao School of Ballet’s Performance (Photo provided by Shum)

Now, reaching the age as she has to face the dilemma of choosing the right career, she recalls that she has been through some serious consideration before deciding to become a full-time freelance dancer.

“I have had struggles before,” says Shum. “But what I am earning now (from teaching classes) is actually similar to the amount I think I can get from a mundane office job, or even better because it’s what I am good at. So I just thought, why not do something that is more flexible, and also what I am passionate about?”

Below is a Facebook Post released by SHOW DANCE to promote Shum’s adult ballet class:

Sacrificing stability for freedom, Shum says she just has to try hard to make ends meet now by teaching more dance classes. While people think that those who teach dancing might be having a full-time career with very stable income, yes, it can be considered as a more “stable” option in the unstable freelancing career, however, variability still applies.

Shum usually has very packed schedules on weekday nights and weekends. She teaches classes of ballet, contemporary and jazz; and her students are from different age groups, ranging from little kids, teenagers, adults to retired people. However, apart from teaching a few regular classes at dance schools or studios which she has managed to establish a trustworthy relationship with, a big part of her classes are irregular, meaning it may just be one-off or for a couple of times and that this week she can have a full-on Sunday, the next she might just be hanging at home.

“Now as I know more people, sometimes I will be asked to substitute classes suddenly. Then, I might have to travel to different places like within an hour, ” says Shum.

Indeed, as more people want to learn dancing now, there is an increasing demand for dance studios in different areas as shown by the above map. Yet, the diversity also suggests how hectic it can be for freelance dancers to transport from one studio to another, either to teach a class or to attend one as a student.

Shum says that most of the time, she can only chew a bread on her way. As she jokingly mentions that bread can be very nice too, she admits that being a freelance dancer is not easy. Her short-term goal for now is to earn more. In this industry, your every endeavour and effort matters, just like what the Chinese slang says, “hand stop, mouth stop”.

Photo from The Deviser’s Company Project Two: Puzzle (Photo provided form Shum)

Though she spends most of her time on teaching and doing minor performances, Shum still tries to squeeze some time out of her unstable schedule to do dance projects with her friends. By producing dance videos, they wish to express themselves through innovative forms of dancing and shed light on specific issues. They use different online social platforms like Youtube, Facebook and Instagram to reach out to the public.

Now, if you still remember, other than teaching, there are also other things that freelance dancers do, also those most known to the public: performing in functions, events and concerts.

Lau at the HKU Space Annual Performance (Photo provided by Lau)

Lau-ying is a full-time freelance dancer who has been working in the industry for almost two years now. Overwhelmed by the spirited and dynamic vibes of street dancing, Lau coincidentally joins a dancing course upon graduation from tertiary education and then becomes a full-time commercial freelancer.

Being a commercial freelance dancer means she focuses more on taking job offers of events or concerts, but she still teaches class when she is not occupied by the functions. “Luckily the parents understand my job nature and they are ok with me applying leave for like one to two months sometimes,” says Lau. “This has to be built on trust.”

While Lau is very fortunate to maintain the teaching aspect of freelancing, she reveals that it is not easy to maintain a position in the commercial side. “The only way to thrive in this industry is to know more people,” says Lau. “If people (choreographers, studios and companies) know you, they would find you to dance in events and shows and that’s how you build a reputation.”

But surprisingly, when freelance commercial dancers take on jobs, they just make verbal agreements, and as trivial as it seems, they can promise to be part of a show simply through a whatsapp message, “ok”. This is how it works: companies would contact choreographers and choreographers would then directly approach dancers themselves. They don’t sign a contract or anything that is legally binding, just a mutual agreement would do. Sometimes, dancers who would perform on big stages won’t even know if the company has got their insurance covered. 

Lau as part of the dance crew for Sam Hui and Alan Tam’s concerts

Recently, there has been intensifying debates on the topic of costs of dancers after a news article reveals that a dance company in Hong Kong, which helps artists choreograph concert dance steps, are underpaying the dance crew. The related company even notably suggests in their recruitment advertisement hat “little performing experience preferred”, meaning they would hire those less professional just because they want to pay less.

This issue has bring to public attention to the dark sides of the entertainment industry, of which dancers, the least favorable group of performers, are facing a hard time in bargaining for better treatments.

“In fact, no one takes care of our (freelance dancers) needs in Hong Kong. We don’t have any labour association or organisation safeguarding our rights,” says Lau. “If something really happens, like not receiving our salary, there’s literally no one to talk to and nothing to do because we don’t have any paper documents.”

Lau says she has had one experience before which she received her salary one year after the due date, and she was already the “lucky” one.

When dancers decide to do freelancing, apart from accepting the fact that they have to embrace uncertainty every day, that also have to accept the fact that their income could have great fluctuations in different months. The chart above demonstrates the possible monthly income of a freelance dancer.

While the period between November to February is the peak season coupled with festivals and company dinners, more jobs would be available to dancers so the income of those few months is generally better and more stable. Then, if dancers are lucky to be chosen to take part in a concert, for example in May, usually they have to reserve one and a half months for rehearsals and fittings, meaning they will have to save up all the dates from March to April for the show. Consequently, although they will receive a larger sum of salary in May (given that they are be paid on time), the income  for those two preceding months would be minimal, may just be from one or two random classes they teach when they have a holiday. Then, the income for remaining months have to depend on whether they have show or events or if they can teach some classes in dance studios.

Lau performing at a company’s annual dinner (Photo provided by Lau)
Lau teaching a kid’s ballet class (Photo provided by Lau)

Looking forward, Lau hopes that she can try something completely different from dancing if she decides to leave this industry one day. But meanwhile, despite enduring the instability that being a freelance dancer can bring to her, Lau still wants to enjoy dancing and to gain more performing experience.

After all, being a freelance dancer may not look as nice as we think. They may have gained immense freedom as they wish, but they have to make sacrifices as well.

Most of the time, we are not quite aware of the instability and insecurity that people who do freelancing, especially dancers could face. Like what Lau says about the younger generations, we can be easily mesmerised by the fascinating illusions of the show biz and thus neglect the hardships that freelance dancers has to encounter. However, beside of urging the government or related organisation to do something, we as audiences, can take some actions too. To bring more motivation for freelance dancers, try spare some effort to appreciate the hard work freelance dancers have paid behind the scenes when you see them performing on the streets or during a concert. Don’t just cheer for the artists, cheer for the dancers too!

Here are the videos about Shum Shum and Lau Ying:

Special thanks to the interviewees of this article, Lau Ying and Shum Shum and also to other dancers who have contributed in providing related information.

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