Freelancing in the Desert – Being A Dance Artist in 2023

Words by Maxine Flasher-Duzgunes and Sarah Lapinsky.

It’s been three years since the dance world went on indefinite hiatus during the Covid-19 Pandemic, a time of fear and uncertainty but also of innovation and resilience. Returning to studios and theatres with various precautions, we tried to get back to normal and pick up where we left off. Some fortunate performers had jobs to return to and others received support being newly welcomed into the field, but there were many artists unable to regain the momentum that was lost in the great pause. These artists were emerging before and are still trying to emerge, but some might wonder if their break will ever come again and if they’ll be able to forge the careers they were looking for.

To get a better understanding of the current state of dance, we created a survey that was completed by 15 dancers, choreographers, and teaching artists between the ages of 25 and 44 working across the US, UK, EU, and Australia. Over half of the artists polled claimed they were not satisfied with their career progression. We also interviewed Tony Award winning producer and dance consultant, Fran Kirmser, whose course Making Dance Your Business helps dancers transition to professional life post-covid and understand the nuances of working in the arts in a capitalist playing field. From these sources, we’ve identified various obstacles facing artists of today and want to start a conversation that may help us better understand our new reality and perhaps find some solutions (or at the very least some hope).

Digital Dance Hubs

For one, opportunities seem to be few and far between in many dance hubs as compared to pre-pandemic. The dance field has always been competitive, but with more qualified dancers available than ever before, it’s discouraging to find auditions seeking only one dancer. Even if you do land the job, chances are that it; only lasts a short time without guaranteeing any future security of work, may not be the best environment, or won’t be able to pay you what you deserve (don’t get us started on the auditions that ask you to pay to apply…)

“I wonder if it is possible to break the system and give more value to arts”

While some companies are slowly beginning to waive their fees, many dance residency applications maintain their fee (some up to $50). Fran points out, however, that “dancers can get so many more places that they weren’t able to get to before because 90% of auditioning starts with a digital submission now.” So as the network expands, so does the opportunity. But it’s this same network, a social network, that holds important information about the industry, only bits and pieces of which are relayed to the artists who need it most.

Furthermore, maintaining an active social media presence becomes yet another necessity to stay relevant and employable in the field. How many dancers and choreographers are found from their social media followings, and how many applications now ask for our handles in addition to our CVs?

Cuts and More Cuts

Kirmser highlights that today’s artists should not expect to follow the model that they’ve seen before, because it just won’t work. “The art world is not a secure, stable work environment and it’s completely fine to have other kinds of jobs as long as we take time to feed our lives with our art and dance,” says an EU-based dance artist. Survival is paying the bills but for artists, it’s also taking classes, seeing shows, and paying for rehearsal space to engage in our processes. 

And with that we come to the financial obstacles confronting the up-and-coming artists, which cannot be understated with recent cuts of funding from both the National Endowments for the Arts and the Arts Council England taking a toll on established companies as well as the individual artist. With a lack of available grants, the competition increases and so the time and effort invested in preparing the application can be disheartening. Some artists find a possible solution in establishing a non-profit company or finding a fiscal sponsor, but this can also create other problems in maintaining the necessary structures to qualify as a 501(c)(3) – a charitable company that holds tax-exempt status – or having to share and bend their vision with a separate organization.

Redesigning the Model

Regarding this new funding model, Kirmser suggested a combination of profit and nonprofit operations to boost support: an optimal situation that both protects the arts and prioritises the dollar. (NYC-based contemporary dance company J CHEN PROJECT, led by Artistic Director, Jessica Chen, is one example of this model). New artists can engage with the prevalence of online work now by using digital memberships and platforms like Patreon along with crowdfunding to support projects while building awareness for shows with postcards, press releases and audience engagement. Still, Kirmser says “companies that have been established for a longer period of time, arguably have an easier time of garnering income.” The company can then use these funds to commission an emerging artist who wouldn’t normally be able to raise that money themselves and lacks the resources to present new work. By directing their funds towards more emerging artists in the form of financial assistance as well as mentorship opportunities, established companies can support and give back the next generation of voices.

Survival of the Fittest

New York-based dancer, choreographer, and teacher Emilee Pratt states that “there are so few opportunities to showcase work in the city right now it seems as though there’s more pressure to create something that’s fully refined and complete.” Ira Ferris, a Sydney-based dance and somatic practitioner agrees, “I see it as a condition of the art world in general, and that obstacle is: the pressure to constantly produce – to stay in the game, as they say.” It’s with this mindset that emerging artists are constantly seeking opportunities, from programs to auditions to festivals to residencies. “And in that game,” continues Ferris, “there is little time to pause: restock, reflect, recharge. It sometimes feels like a survival of the fittest; a race. But what are we racing towards?” The unrelenting wave of open calls and application deadlines makes it seem like we can never stop, a ceaseless burnout that can never seem to be revitalized by any number of successes. And worst of all? All of that sacrificed time goes uncompensated. But imagine if we lived in a world where we could stop. Imagine if we lived in a world where we could create those opportunities for ourselves, and support ourselves while doing it.

Advocacy in Community

“We love what we do, but it shouldn’t be such a struggle to be supported while doing it!” says New York-based performer and teaching artist, Lauren Twomley. Organisations like the Dance Artists’ National Collective have been popping up around the world to try and take on some of these issues in addition to growing acts of protest within educational institutions and equity groups. “I wonder if it is possible to break the system and give more value to arts,” says London-based dance art journal writer and dancer, Paula Catalina Riofrío. It seems as though the best solutions we can find will be forged by coming together as a community to agree that we can do better and finding the way forward through advocacy and conversations. Growing our connections with our colleagues and fellow-class-goers while developing our skills to better cultivate and manage our stake in the field will help us to make overdue changes, if not for us then for the next emerging artists.

So What Can We Do?

For the individual, Kirmser advises to “get very specific about what you’re curious about, about your strengths, what you can bring to the table, and then really craft a career around those things.” In 2023 it’s more about being an artist entrepreneur than an artist, a game-changer than a game-player. And Kirmser is offering her online course for free for any artist who wishes to learn more about fundraising, money management, getting an agent, and essentially making dance your business. Visit her teaching site at: When you enroll, use this code: MDYBFREE