Saturday, April 5, 2014

No, Really, It's Not *That* Great.

People often exclaim with wonder when I tell them I'm a full-time, traveling dance instructor. What a mythical life I must lead, they seem to think. Visiting new cities, connecting with people around the world, embarking on wild adventures, dancing in different communities all the time constantly, following your passion, doing what you love all the time, living a healthful and full life. It must be light-years better than working an office job in engineering.

No, really, it's not *that* great.

The life of dance instructors can be decidedly mundane, not containing the luster others would presume. For this post, I won't even focus on many other aspects of giving up a traditional job, such as issues with money, health insurance, job security, or stability, to name a few. 

Today, Saturday, is the day before my workshop with Nicole in Delft. A day off, and decidedly sunny outside. You might think these are the moments where it pays off to live as a vagrant, eschewing the traditional work environment to go with the flow and explore cities around the world. Spend the day meandering through the city center, or lounging in the grass, or discussing the finer points of good dance technique, right?

No, really, it's not *that* great. 

The morning started off with an hour or two of working through communication issues that invariably crop up in any traveling partnership. If you're sharing a space continuously for five weeks, you really have to learn how to communicate openly and work through problems as they appear, or you get a lot of crazy problems as symptoms to deeper issues not being addressed. Processing becomes part of your standard work demands when traveling with a partner. 

Following that, it was a quick breakfast, some daily morning routine stuff. Then, working for several hours on class planning and administrative emails. A favorite of every dance teacher. Yaaaay.

By 3pm, it was time for another snack, then off for grocery shopping -- my one opportunity to catch some daylight. The walk was quite pleasant. We crossed a pretty canal. 

Finding the grocery store became its own adventure, as Google Maps reset itself mid trip and lost the marker for the store. Working off the map and some intuition, it was found eventually. But this sort of thing happens all the time: programs fail, directions are obscure, and you're left to your own devices to navigate as best you can without a data connection. It's amazing how dependent we become on always having access to data. In a world of traveling constantly and navigating new and unfamiliar towns, one has to become fluid and more accepting of the inevitable screw-ups, missed connections, lost maps, and incorrect directions, because they will definitely happen with greater frequency. 

In the grocery store, I found a "prize" waiting for me in my carton of eggs. What I did to deserve it, I'll never know. Perhaps they come standard, like Cracker-Jacks?

Purchasing cheese is always an adventure. You might recognize some words, like "Gouda," or identify the blue cheese and Brie on sight, but beyond that its a bit of a crapshoot to pick out something you'll like. And with such a huge selection (the Dutch love their cheese), it seems even more like a random process. 

As with navigation, in food you have to surrender a lot of control over what goes into your body, particularly in a country where you don't speak the language. It may be impossible to find peanut butter that is not "American style" (i.e. loaded with sugar). You may have no idea if your ham has sodium nitrates in it. You may not know what kind of cheese you're getting, you just hope it tastes good. You may not always have access to a kitchen with decent cooking supplies, or even have the time to cook your own meals, requiring you to eat out with far greater frequency. Because you're only in one place for six days at best, you are faced with either buying only stuff you'll eat in a day, or lugging everything around. And if you think it's a chore to go through a grocery store you're familiar with, try doing it with a different store every single time and the layout is always different.

On checkout, Nicole accidentally chose the one checkout line (out of six) that did not take cash; they did credit only. Which is totally backwards from what you normally see. I've known the Dutch do this, but I forgot to caution Nicole about this pitfall. After involving the manager, another cashier station, and much apologizing, we made it out with our groceries. Phew. Please forgive us woefully ignorant American travelers...

A quiet walk back home, and lunch. 

... And then it gets exciting, right?! This is when we train for hours in the afternoon to make the next breakthrough in our dance? We have the time, we have the space, and we have a fantastic dance chemistry and ability to train together and work as peers and push each other in dance in a constructive and healthy way. And we're in the same place! Which only happens once every several months...

No, really, it's not *that* great. 

The remainder of our day until dinner time was spent doing more computer work. What exactly does that entail? Here's a short list:
- Emails to organizers about confirmed events, which includes: discussing class ideas, writing class descriptions, negotiating rates, working out travel logistics
- Emails to organizers pitching for new gigs
- Connecting with teaching partners about these various events for all the necessary coordination, including approval of drafts to organizers, agreeing on what to pitch to an event, etc.
- Processing friend requests on Facebook from students, which includes sorting them into geographical categories and writing a small note to them to reach out and connect
- More emails to organizers just sent back to you in response to your earlier emails
- Pinging email conversations that have stagnated
- Researching and booking flights or other travel arrangements
- Registering for events
- Updating your website -- which is never up to date -- to reflect new competition wins and teaching experiences
- Going through photos on Facebook, picking out ones that might be good promo photos for later (such as these)
- Maintaining a presence on Facebook so people don't forget about you
- Composing, editing, and publishing blog entries so people can connect with you (and you can connect with them in a broadcasting sort of way)
- Making decisions about when to go where, what events to try to teach at, what weekends are available to possibly teach with which partner in what area, etc.
- Reading Facebook announcements or websites to tell of other instructors getting hired for other events you wanted to teach at and maybe even applied for, but weren't accepted, and processing the feelings of envy, comparison, and insecurity that so often crop up from these experiences
- Watching dance videos of yourself and others, analyzing how things can go better
- Editing new dance videos of yourself to publication on YouTube
- Promoting those videos on Facebook so people know they exist, watch them, and hopefully (hopefully) like them and get inspired to have you there as a dancer and teacher

I could go on, but I think you're getting the idea. There's a lot to do, and so much of it involves a computer. It's a common misconception that dance teachers spend most of their time teaching or dancing. Unless you work at a studio as an employee or independent contractor, you are in charge of running your own business, and there's a ton of work involved with such an endeavor.

During this 5-week teaching block in Europe, I was logging 40-60 hours of work each week. Your weekend is fully booked with an event. Even though you only technically teach 4-5 hours per day, you're actually working the whole time by being present as a teacher, by being a positive presence in the space and by not having much control over what you're doing with your weekend. Monday is typically a rest day to refill your spent dopamine reserves and creative well. I also often use it as a day to connect with my partner on a personal level, since working together doesn't actually count as "quality time." Tuesday is more of the same, though typically with a 2-4 hour block of work in there somewhere to knock out urgent tasks. Wednesday is a day of travel, and somehow no matter how much time you actually spend in transit, it feels like you lose most of the day when you hop from one country to the next, or within the same country, or even within the same city. Thursday is spent preparing for the next event, and Friday is the start of the next event. Rinse and repeat. Before you know it, you're looking at 60 hours of work logged, but it doesn't feel like it because it is accounted more largely in all the nooks and crannies, and disguised as "fun" through attendance as dances and parties. I have been careful to identify work as work, even if I'm having fun with it, because if I don't I get rather depressed to see I've only worked 8 hours (my billable teaching hours) while feeling totally exhausted and spent from the week.

Being a traveling dance instructor does afford you certain upsides, but you must keep an eye out for them. You must cherish them, hold them close to your heart, and appreciate them. Lean on them as experiences to remind you of why you've chosen an alternate, counter-cultural lifestyle. You must use them partly as justification for why you weather the storm of all the things that suck terribly about being a homeless dance teacher, you present them as evidence to the defense of your path when your logical, practical mind takes your decision-making to court and asks, "Why the hell are you doing this?!"

Dinner with hosts and friends, where we eat good home-cooked food and share stories laugh about language quirks. Some of my favorites, all of these pertaining to Dutch…
- The phrase literally translated as "old whoring" means "to gossip a lot."
- "Poope," in Dutch, means "to take a crap." (Yes, there's a surprising amount of Dutch similar to English.) In Belgium, "poope" means to have sex. This hilarious difference creates great deals of confusion in Dutch-Belgium interactions, particularly among couples.
- They have a common phrase, "cuddle someone to death."
- A "kok" (pronounced "cock") is a cook, or chef.
- The phrase translated as "the monkey is coming out of the sleeve" means that "the truth is finally coming out."
- Dick (pronounced like usual) and Cock (pronounced "coke") are common names. In fact, there was a TV detective series quite popular in Holland in the 90s, called "De Cock," translated "The Cock." The protagonist's name was The Cock. No, not Cock; The Cock. He introduced himself as such: "My name is The Cock. That is, C-O-C-K." He had an assistant name Dick. Oh, yes: Cock and Dick, crime solvers extraordinaire. For many, this is a fond childhood memory of a television series, which naturally leads to jokes about "seeing the cock every week as a 10-year-old," or "your family showing you the cock once a week," and so on.

Naturally, there is no end to the amusement to be had in dinner conversations. Fortunately, the Dutch do not deem any subject too improper for meals.

Traveling to a nearby town for a dance party. Realizing you're in the kitchen of a good friend in The Netherlands, dancing and having fun, and this sort of "Holy crap I'm in a different country and I know how to walk from the train station to the place of my friend, and here we're all dancing" happens on a regular basis

Driving for the first time in Europe (having already learned how to drive a manual -- thanks, Dad) and managing to not kill anyone or get too unnerved by seeing the speedometer read "100" (kmph, instead of mph).

Or, take the following day, teaching a workshop in Delft. Despite only two weeks of advertising, we drew in a crowd of ~24 students, completely filling the dance space. Students were excited to learn and sincerely engaged with the material. Most came from outside Delft, and quite a few were also at the Dansstage Balfolk event the previous weekend, where we evidently whetted their appetite for learning Blues. Our students' dancing transformed over the course of the day through focusing on fundamental concepts, creativity elements, and quality of movement. Standing in front of a group of people who trust you and go along with what you're saying even when you're asking them to be silly by playing a game. Seeing the "A-Ha!" moments, seeing bodies fall into better alignment, seeing people get more out of dancing with each other. Enjoying the rapport developed with your teaching partner in class, standing back and watching them command the room in turn, and trusting them equally to take care of the students and do what's best for the class. Receiving rounds of gratitude in the closing circle from students, even though we never prompt them for it. A student saying "It took a year to get me into Blues, but [Nicole and you] have done it. Thanks for that." 

Following the workshop, the majority of people went to a nearby restaurant for dinner and dancing. While we carefully managed their energy to maintain a high level in the workshop, people walked out exhausted. After a round of drinks, several succumbed to urges for a nap before dinner had arrived.

Delicious food -- a gargantuan burger to satisfy the body's demand for fat and protein -- and a wide range of desserts. My favorite: assorted handmade chocolates, one of which was presented to look like soil in a terra cotta pot (complete with a little sprout for verisimilitude).

More dancing that evening in a bar that was surprisingly pretty. They had these chandeliers made out of glass bottles and spoons.

Regularly receiving unexpected, unprompted compliments, words of praise, and gratitude with such sincerity about your teaching and dancing and personality. It is humbling and honoring.

We were approached by Tobie, a burly man with a soft spirit, who initiated conversation with me by saying, "So, are you the famous Andrew that I've heard so much about?" While I find such statements quite flattering -- it still baffles me that people speak about me, or think of me as "famous" (even in a subculture) -- I never quite know what to do with them.

After a bit of chatting, Tobie kindly offered to take Nicole and me on a tour of the city the following afternoon. Sounds like a great way to wrap up our time in Delft! It was quite surprising to be offered such a service.

At one point while jamming with Nicole to an uptempo electro-swing song, everyone cleared the floor to watch. What began as a simple dance together had somehow turned into a performance. I struggled to not go into to performer mode, to try to get everything right, and to keep messing around and play and try things out. At the end, we received applause. That kind of sharp attention, unexpected, can really catch you off guard, particularly when you're an introvert. It is in so many ways a very high compliment, and I strive to see it as such, but it's still unsettling in ways. When I remarked on not expected to perform that night to a Delft dancer, she responded, "It's not often we get such high quality of dancers in our city. We want to just watch and take notes and get ideas. And it's way better than watching a video of you two."

On our way home, we passed by a coffee shop. This is noteworthy only if you actually have been to The Netherlands, for they use the word "coffee shop" to mean something nothing to do with coffee: it is a place for people to purchase and smoke marijuana. I imagine this causes no end of confusion among English-speaking tourists, particularly from the U.S., who simply wish to sit down for a rejuvenating cup of coffee and perhaps work or read. I imagine said tourist asking for the location of a nearby coffee shop from a local, which the local dutifully provides (perhaps with a smug grin on his face). The travel-weary person arrives at the shop, steps in, and is greeted with the distinctive odor of weed wafting to their nostrils, leaving them bewildered and wondering if they followed the directions correctly. 

I suppose that's as good a place as any to conclude this entry. As far as proving a point goes, I have done myself a great disservice by ending on this note. Clearly, there are many wonderful aspects to being a traveling dance teacher. This post started off as me grumbling about how much work I had to do, but I do stand by my original assertion. No, really, it's not *that* great. Much of this life is like any other profession -- a lot of work, quite often at a computer. Your personal and professional worlds don't actually mix, you just learn how to make them coexist in the same space to maintain your sanity. Don't be fooled by the postings of instructors about their madcap adventures through exotic environs; we work hard like anyone else. If we don't, we won't last long. 

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