Negotiating Contracts: Tips for Dancers

The past few months have been crazy busy for me.  I’ve been juggling my independent dance career with senior theses, my final performance with Columbia University Bellydance troupe, teaching and performing at Waking Persephone, finals, and graduation (President Obama gave our commencement speech! Read it here.).  I’ve literally been running from class to rehearsal to performance to audition for weeks, and all this running around has taken its toll both mentally and physically.  However, it’s also been deeply invigorating, and amid all the stress, I’ve had some great successes.

In the past two months, I’ve auditioned for two New York City-based bellydance companies, Mosaic Dance Theater Company, directed by Samara and Morgiana Celeste, and BellyTrance, directed by LaUra.   As much as I love solo work and am excited to start my solo career, I still feel the need to grow and learn in a company environment.  Auditioning for these two great companies put me to the test both mentally and physically.  I used to audition for ballet camps every year, and I auditioned for the Bellydance Superstars after one year of  bellydancing just for the hell of it, but this was the first time in years I was really invested in the outcome of the audition.  In addition to endless drills, stretching, and conditioning, I had to quiet my insecurities, learn to focus on myself rather than get wrapped up in my fellow audition goers, and perform throughout the audition so that the directors could get a sense of my personality and charisma.  It was a real challenge, but I’m proud to report that I was offered a spot in both companies!

However, this led to a second level of the audition that I didn’t fully anticipate.  The audition process doesn’t end at the dance floor, there’s still the issue of your contract.  Your contract not only tells you what you can expect from your company experience, but it’s also your last chance to walk away without any hurt feelings or drama from either party.  Therefore, it’s crucial that you approach your contract with these tips in mind:Contract

  1. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.  If you don’t ask for what you want, you’ll definitely never get it.  As long as you are respectful and professional, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to discuss problematic clauses in your contract.  Your potential employer or company director should know where you’re coming from, and in turn, you’ll want to hear their side of the story too.  Maybe they’ve had specific problems in the past that lead to a specific clause, and maybe you can help them reword it so it’s more user-friendly and responsive to your needs.  There’s no reason to sign a contract before you’re ready.  Any negative feelings at the signing of the contract may lead to further resentment and even bigger problems down the road.  Respectfully air your concerns right at the start, and go from there.
  2. Reach out to friends who have experience working with contracts.  In my case, my friend Kendra (you may remember her Ela Rogers interview), who interned at a publishing house where she dealt with various contractual agreements, looked over my contract, as well as her father who is a lawyer.  They really helped me figure out what questions to ask during my negotiation meeting, and pointed out places where the language of the contract was vague and potentially harmful to my career.
  3. Look at the language of the contract very closely.  Remember that any vague language benefits the writer of the contract, not the contracted person.  Read each line thoroughly, and think of all the different ways it could be interpreted.  (This is another reason why it’s helpful to have a friend read it over.  You may see three different interpretations, and they may see four.)  Ask yourself how all those different interpretations could affect your career.  In order to protect yourself, you may need the writer of the contract to be more specific.
  4. Check the duration of the agreement.  How long do your potential employers expect you to work for them and abide by their rules and regulations?  What happens if you need to end the agreement early?  Are you able to break the contract early, or is there no flexibility?  This is particularly critical information for young up-and-coming performers.  You don’t want to miss out on a great opportunity, because you’re locked into a contract for a year with no way out.  If the contract is very strict with no wiggle room, see if you can have the period of agreement shortened.  Perhaps you can re-sign every 4 or 6 months instead of signing for a full year.
  5. Try to negotiate in person.  Although it sounds intimidating, it’s always better to discuss your contract face-to-face.  Cues like body language and tone of voice will help you come to a mutually beneficial agreement.  We’ve all heard horror stories about how someone misunderstood a poorly worded sentence in an email resulting in an ugly argument.  Negotiating in person requires both parties to censor themselves and clears up any confusion right away.
  6. Come to the negotiation table prepared.  It’s always a good idea to prepare your list of concerns and questions ahead of time.  By writing out your points in a pressure-free environment, you can make sure that they are politely worded, concise, and clear.  It also gives you time to think of positive ways to present any conflicts of interest.  For example, the writers of the contract may view your participation in similar groups as negative competition, but you see it as an opportunity for cross-pollination and collaboration that would benefit both groups.  Write that down and make sure that you highlight the hidden potential in the situation rather than any negative consequences.  A well-developed plan of action will help the negotiation move forward quickly and smoothly and enables both parties to voice their opinions in a timely and respectful manner.

Ultimately, I found that the contract for Mosaic Dance Theater was too restricting and wouldn’t give me the space to pursue my dance goals.  After our in depth discussion, Samara, Morgiana, and I agreed that Mosaic wasn’t the right place for me, and we closed our contractual meeting on friendly terms wishing each other the best.  Although I’m sad things didn’t work out, I feel that I have a lasting connection with these women and the company, and I look forward to seeing them at future community events and performances.  BellyTrance, on the other hand, offered a much more open ended agreement, which required dancers to have a high level of commitment while giving them enough flexibility to take on additional projects.  That being said, I’m now a proud new member of BellyTrance along with my fellow Columbia University bellydancers, Bella and Zahra Noor.  I can’t wait to start rehearsals with such good friends, LaUra, and the company dancers.  I can’t imagine a better way to start my post-graduation dance journey!

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