Partner dance is a world where up-and-coming artists are plentiful, the competition is stiff, and opportunity limited. Much like many other artistic ventures, a small percentage of artists end up very successful – while many others struggle to get their break-through.
When I’m acting as an organizer, I’m on the other side of the divide: a limited budget, limited space, and many, many great artists. So, how do I choose who to hire out of so many amazing options?
Of note, this article focuses on my personal perspective on artist selection and does not speak for organizers as a whole. It’s also primarily targeted at up-and-coming dancers, but much of the same logic also applies to media or DJ staff.
Headliners vs. Rising Stars
Generally, artists at an event are either headliners or rising stars. To an ethical organizer, the role these artists play in a lineup is different – but both artists should be treated well and professionally in the context of employment.
This includes exposure on the website and promotion of classes, a clear understanding of their contract with the event (whether verbal or written), and professional treatment during the course of their time at the event. While the terms of employment may vary extensively between artists, the respect and relationship should not.
This goes both ways: I expect a more junior artist at an event to hold themselves to the same professional standard as my headliners that have 15+ years of teaching experience.
For all artists, my criteria include:
- Our confidence in the quality of what they will deliver (workshops, social dancing, shows, depending on event)
- Our budget
- Cost vs. Value Added (fees + other expenses)
- Their fit with the rest of our selected lineup and our event’s vision
When I’m choosing a headliner, I also consider the “star power” of their name to bring people to the event and whether other local events are already hiring them at other times. When I’m choosing rising stars, we primarily look for people whom we think:
- Are growing into positive and contributing members of the dance scene (in particular, helping to contribute to the growth of a community); and
- As a bonus, may help to promote and bring people to our event.
These are important to headliners as well, but it’s even more critical when we’re choosing rising stars that do not yet have the same level of “star power”.
Last is the key factor that has made or broken more working relationships than any other, headliner or not: Professionalism and Attitude
Professionalism & Attitude
Attitude is one of the biggest things that impacts my desire to hire (and re-hire) an artist to my events.
To be clear: there are many other reasons I may not hire or bring back an artist (budget, workability, event needs, space), but this is close to being the ultimate dealbreaker. I can love your work, I can think you’re competent and will bring 30 people to my event, and you may be great at dancing with people in the community.
But, if the attitude is suspect, I’ll very likely go another way.
Moving from Amateur to Artist
In my opinion, when you begin teaching or representing an event, your relationship to the event changes. Where an attendee is there to have fun, an artist is there working and representing the event (and ideally having fun at the same time). So, while I have nothing against dancers who want 1h marathon dances with a few advanced partners a night every night, if a hired artist is doing that at my event, it’s unlikely they’re going to be at the top of my list the next time.
It also means a shift in behaviour and presentation. If a person is a hired artist, that has to reflect in the behaviour you have with attendees because you are now in a position of authority. Dark-corner cuddle puddles that are turning into something more are not going to inspire me to have a person representing my event. Same thing with becoming so enraptured in social dancing that they forget to check-in for judging, shows, or other aspects of employment.
I get that sometimes it can be hard to pull back from some of these desires, but if you’re holding yourself out as a professional, it’s important to recognize the change in your relationship towards attending events you’re employed at. Otherwise, it’s probably a better idea to remain a social dancer.
The Vibe Check
Part two of attitude is getting a feel for who someone is as a person. This can include:
- Their behaviour online and in-person towards members of the community;
- Their attitude and friendliness towards non-professional dancers; and,
- Their attitude and treatment of other professionals.
I’m not interested in hot-shot dancers who hang around the professionals all night and may dance two songs with a beginner throughout the weekend, or people who become judgemental of casual or lower-level dancers who are just there to have fun. I’m also not interested in people who talk to me only when it’s of value to them. Relationship maintenance with professionals and social dancers alike is part of building your professional network.
The other thing I sometimes see are artists who struggle with graciousness, along with recognition and awareness of others’ contributions. This can be failing to mention the contributions of others to their success, the support of other teachers, or even thanklessness in casual conversations.
Most of these aspects come down to a sense of perceived (as opposed to actual) selfishness in the person’s interactions. While it is super important that artists honour their boundaries and bodies, attitude is a big part of how that is perceived. If I see a pattern of taking more than giving within the community, I don’t have confidence in the person representing the community well at my event.
What I LOVE to see are artists who treat others with respect, who value the relationships they’re building with other professionals and community members, and that are constantly looking for ways to uplift others. When I see a giving spirit in a rising star or a headliner, it makes it much more likely that I will prioritize hiring them for our event.
Professionalism in the Organizer/Artist Relationship
Professionalism has a lot to do with the actual construction of the relationship between organizer and artist. In contrast to attitude, it’s less about their general demeanour and habits, and more about my ability to trust them in a working relationship. Here are some of the big ones for me as an organizer.
Good Pre-Event Communication
Generally, this does not become apparent until after the first time you work with an artist, but it can have a large impact on re-hiring. I expect that artists I’m hiring have a reasonable response time to communications and requests for things like pictures, bios, workshop descriptions, food, and t-shirt size.
While there are a few artists who can afford to be lax in this area, they are the exception – not the rule. Their attitude, classes, performances, and social dancing have to be so good that the value-add to my event is worth the additional organizational stress of slow response times. And, those exceptional artists are almost always so extremely easy to work with once they get to the event.
So, if you’re hired, please respond in a timely way. It’s OK to state that you have a preferred mode of communication, but I really do expect a response within a couple days maximum (or at least, letting me know if it may take longer) for employment-related things (even if just to say “hey, I’m at an event this entire week and won’t be able to get this to you for 10 days.”)
Setting Expectations Clearly
This is how well I can rely on the artist’s expectations to be clear as far in advance of the event as possible. And again, this is a major re-hiring blocker if it goes off the rails.
Generally, as an organizer, I want to know the following as far in advance of the event as possible:
- Your workshop/DJ/Media/etc rates, and any min. hours
- Your hotel/accommodation needs
- Your food needs
- Your travel needs
- Anything else I need to know for planning.
We usually have a written contract for our artists, but this is even more important to clarify up-front if it is a verbal agreement or if your needs since the last time you have been hired are different.
- If I know in advance that you don’t want to share a bed or want to stay with friends and have a reimbursement, I can plan for it and negotiate it. But, if the contract says one thing and then I find out a few weeks before the event (or worse, at the event) that you were expecting something else, it’s hard to do.
- Knowing you’re travelling with a child/partner/spouse (and who is responsible for things like child care/carseats) is critical and is almost impossible to arrange at the event. Never, ever show up with an undisclosed partner, child, or other individual and expect the organizer to be able to pivot to accommodate them.
- Catering can usually be planned around a dietary restriction unless it’s a super complex need – and then a per diem can be discussed. But, this needs to be done in advance.
- If you have flight requirements or expectations that may impact whether it’s possible to bring you to the event, explain them in advance (and clarify which airport you’re flying from)
- Generally, festivals have a certain amount of “unplanned work” that is part of employment (an intro demo, expectation of at least some attendance at parties, jack and jill participation, etc.) This varies from scene to scene, but if you have a limit or require additional payment for such things, make it known before committing.
- Ceiling height or technical requirements, if applicable.
A note about reasonableness…
When you’re thinking about requirements, you need to know and understand what you need from an event, versus what you prefer from an event. It’s also important to think about logistics, and to remember that the more unconventional your request is, the more explicit it needs to be.
If an artist tells me “I require these absolute minimum breaks between workshops/parties etc.”, I may decide not to hire them if I don’t think I can meet those needs. This is because when I see the needs an artist has, I have to decide if they’re logistically possible and realistic for my event.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll resent an artist for having those standards, but it’s important to recognize that the more stringent your needs are, the fewer opportunities you’ll have that can accommodate those requirements. It’s also usually tied in to how much draw an artist has: someone at the top of their game may be able to command a private room because they’ll draw enough people to the event for it to make financial sense for the organizer, while a rising star may not be able to command the same.
I have always preferred working with artists that understand these negotiations and are able to do so in a respectful, business-orientated way to people who say “it’s fine!” or change the goalposts.
The Difficulty Factor
While this is somewhat related to communication and expectations, it also is about how easy a person is to work with. Sometimes, you’ll see people on the meteoric rise, until it suddenly… stops. The public may love them, but yet, they’re not getting hired. Often, this is because organizers are really tired of working with them.
To be clear: this does not mean that the artist is a bad person; it’s just… extra stress. The one thing I don’t need as an organizer is extra event-related stress.
Things that immediately set off red flags for me as an organizer:
- A need to justify/excuse behaviour, or inability to take ownership of one’s mistakes
- Sympathy negotiations
- Aggressive or demanding interactions
- Unrealistic (and often sudden) expectations
Justifying and Excusing Behaviour
If an artist makes a mistake, forgets something, or otherwise receives critique/feedback, I expect it to be handled professionally. Here are some examples:
- “Oh, sorry, I realize that this mistake was on me. Are you able to help me fix it?”
- “Oh, reflecting, I realize some people were uncomfortable with me using man/woman to refer to the roles; I’ll make a note and adjust my language for my audience, as you have asked.”
- “I’m sorry I was late for shows/comps. Thanks for waiting for us/I understand that you had to start without us.”
- “I appreciate the feedback, but I don’t share the same perspective. Can we talk more about this?”
If I have to deal with excuses or justifications for why something isn’t their fault, it makes me very hesitant to work with the person further because it lowers my faith in their ability to respond appropriately to an issue.
The Sympathy Negotiation
I am very, very aware of the fact that many artists have low incomes and that many people have struggles that impact them. I will commiserate with arts friends about this frequently. I know most organizers are also fighting a bottom line and carrying a large amount of risk.
But, there’s a big difference between commiserating with a friend/peer, and within an employment relationship. There is also a big difference between having needs met, and using issues to justify things that have gone poorly.
For example, here are some professional approaches:
- “Hey! I need a break from social dancing/need someone to sub in for my class because of an injury. Are you OK with NAME?”
- “I can’t do that price because the cost of living means I need to charge more than this. This already includes a bulk class discount, and I think the quality of my work and my professionalism makes this rate reasonable.”
These raise red flags for me:
- “I’m sorry that I snapped at your volunteer, but I’m so tired, hungry, and stressed; you know how it is. Being an artist is so hard!”
- “Oh I can’t go that low! Artists are SO underpaid already, and you don’t understand how hard it is to have people relying on you and how hard I’ve had to work to get here. It’s the artist life, you know?”
As a person, I do care about the difficulties and what artists going through. As an organizer, I still care, but the relationship is different. I also have stuff going on – but it would be unprofessional to use how hard organizing is or how stressed I am to try to justify paying an artist less or treating them poorly. In contrast, budget, logistics, and just overall event fit based on professional reasons are very good conversations to have – at the time of hiring.
As a parallel, I wouldn’t walk into my day job and ask for a raise on the basis of how hard my life is. I might ask for one based on cost of living increases, my hard work and track record, or the fact that I’m working a lot of extra hours. But really, even if my boss is super empathetic… the difficulties of my life are not relevant to the work relationship, unless it’s something that will impact my work.
There are times when the line between friend and employment is blurred. In these cases, it’s the conversation surrounding the difficulty that is important. If it’s used for employment leverage by pulling at heartstrings, it’s inappropriate. If it’s a broader conversation about how life is going that is not tied to employment, then it’s two friends talking.
A hard “no” for me is any artist that is aggressive or overly demanding in their conversations with me or my staff. This includes:
- Yelling at volunteers or me;
- Emotional outbursts that make me or other staff feel unsafe;
- Demanding behaviour that is based in intimidation or anger;
- Actual or perceived threats.
While clear examples may jump to mind first, there are grey situations that really come close to crossing the line. Even if a request is reasonable, if it is communicated in an aggressive or angry way, it’s a hard No for me.
If you wouldn’t speak to a boss, employee, or coworker like that, it should not be entering your conversations with any event staff or volunteers. The same threshold applies whether you are drunk, sober, upset, or calm, with some exceptions for if someone’s physical or mental wellbeing are at immediate risk.
Half the battle of ‘making it’ is about developing your craft. But, seeing so many artists coming up through their journeys illuminates that many do not have a full grasp on what it means to be a professional in a space like ours.
So, if you’re on that journey, think about how you are representing yourself to everyone you come in contact with. You don’t have to be everyone’s friend, and you don’t have to like everyone. But, if you are holding yourself out as a professional, you need to demonstrate that you are responsible enough to manage the duties that come with it.