You’ve just been in the best workshop of your life at your favorite dance congress. The instructor was clear, concise, engaging and made you feel like you’re ready to dominate the dance scene with your new, fierce moves. You chatted with the instructor briefly after class and they were very encouraging and kind. You thank them and let them know you can’t wait to see them again at another festival. You head back home…and start to wonder…”Where are they going next? How much do they travel?…Is all that travel really hard?…Do they get money for meals?”…Hmm.
We were wondering as well so we decided to investigate! We interviewed four individuals who definitely quality as ‘experts’ in the dance community; Carlos Cinta (Bachata), Edie “The Salsa Freak” Williams (Salsa), Charles Ogar (Kizomba) and Ruby Red (Fusion/Swing/Blues). They have taught all across the globe and have had extensive travel schedules. They specialize in different disciplines and have varying experience, but they share a common profession…dance instructor. We wanted to take a peak behind the curtain and see what their lives are really like. We found that their professional lives can be both incredibly rewarding…but also hectic and drama filled. Sounds like a good reality show!
Our panel was gracious enough to answer our series of questions so that the dance public may get a complete picture of…
“The Life Of A Travelling Dance Instructor”
How do you find work?
Word of mouth. Referrals. Repeat. Ruby (pictured right) said, “Word of mouth is king. I haven’t updated my website in two years because I’ve been to busy travelling. Apparently that doesn’t matter.” Edie and Charles concurred. The best way to get your next gig is to be great at your last one, impress the students and promoters, and go from there. Carlos echoed that positive reviews from prior students can get him work because organizers become aware, and seek him out. New instructors definitely have to search for work, while established instructors are more apt to be contacted by promoters because they have a history of proven success.
How much do you travel?
If your goal is to be a “successful” travelling dance instructor then expect to spend almost every other weekend on the road. Charles indicated that he is booked to travel every weekend the next couple months. At the height of Edie’s (pictured left) travel schedule she travelled at least half the year. Edie, who is now married, said, “When I was single I didn’t care if I lived on an airplane. I would say ‘yes’ to every travel opportunity I was given. I was living my dream (still am) and was loving every minute of it.” Carlos currently travels about three weekends per month, while Ruby said that she can travel 3-5 months depending upon the season. In conclusion, keep your passport current.
How far in advance do you plan your schedule?
The general consensus is to plan ahead at least six months for festival gigs. Periodically you can accept an event 2-3 months in advance, but most of the time the organizer would have booked his artists by then, and would already be promoting the event. Ruby said, “…it pays not to fully book your schedule so you can say yes to more local, spontaneous offerings”. Carlos said workshops require a little less planning and he usually takes those a few months in advance.
On average, do you feel like you’re treated fairly by organizers?
The question brought about a wide range of answers, with pay being the most contentious issue. Ruby indicated that she has had good experiences with organizers and many of them have become her friends. Charles commented that once promoters see his worth and what he brings to the table, that they treat him more than fairly.
Edie indicated that she’s seen her share of unfairness. She said, “There were times when the promoter would leave the country, never to be found…with all my income.” Edie warned that when she’s treated badly, she definitely let’s others know about it. Carlos (pictured right) brought up an interesting angle; the difference between European and American promoters. He said it was common for promoters in the USA to try to give you the “B.S. budget line” in order to persuade instructors to lower their price, while European promoters either give you what you ask or just don’t hire you. He said, “A lot of the American instructors are going overseas because they don’t play money games, and they treat you better.” Carlos feels insulted by the pay that some American promoters offer because of the experience, knowledge, and credibility he brings to the table.
Obviously the question of treatment is contingent upon the individual promoter as they all have different business practices and behavior. However, its safe to say that our panel feels instructors shouldn’t blindly trust those who contract them.
Are you reimbursed for your hotel, food, flight, and other travel costs?
Yes…but be prepared to dig into your savings account. Edie has always had her expenses paid in advance. Charles (pictured left) indicated he typically has all those costs covered by the promoter. Ruby and Carlos answered that some events cover travel costs and some don’t. Carlos reiterated the typical difference in the financial attitudes between US and European promoters that he’s experienced. He said US organizers often try to negotiate that he pay a percentage of those costs, while European organizers cover all fees associated with travel and meals.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a travelling dance instructor?
Staying disciplined was high on the list of our panel. Eating properly, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and keeping fit are issues due to the demanding nature of travelling across the globe, and the typical late night hours dancing at socials. Carlos mentioned that “…a lot of instructors get sick because they party too much and they lose sight of the importance of taking care of their body”…particularly those who drink a lot. Edie (who has traveled to over 60 countries during her dance career) said, “I learned to sleep on airplanes, trains, ships, boats, and automobiles, not as a choice, but as a necessary requirement.”
Another component of discipline is making sure that your lessons stay fresh, and that your teaching methods don’t get sloppy. It takes a lot of hard work to elevate yourself above the rest as an instructor and Carlos stated, “The separation is in the preparation”. Ruby commented that it is also tough to keep track of business items such as, “…housing, food, transport, promotion, bios, photos, social media, class hours, payment amount, payment method, etc…”
Another very challenging aspect is maintaining personal relationships with friends, family, and significant others. Edie stated that keeping a steady relationship was “impossible”. She said, “I would have the hots for a guy in one country and be 10,000 miles away from him literally the next day.” She realized early on that her life as a world travelling instructor would cause her to be alone. And, like most other businesses, it is not uncommon for an instructor to have the occasional one-night stand. Being homesick, missing loved ones, and feeling lonely are common emotions for those who are constantly on the road.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a travelling dance instructor?
Meeting new people and visiting foreign lands are definitely high on the list. Charles said, “Inspiring new people in different places almost every week is amazing. It’s humbling to have people look up to you and invest their time and energy in you.” Travelling (as we outlined above) has it’s demands, but it also can foster incredibly rewarding experiences. Ruby understands the trade-off and commented, “It makes all the b.s. of logistics management and the exhaustion of travel worth it.” Carlos mentioned becoming more culturally aware and getting outside of you own “little bubble” makes some of the inconveniences worth while. Edie agreed, “I consider myself to be the luckiest woman alive, because I have these amazing opportunities to see the world, dance, and meet the most fabulous people on planet earth!”
Do you feel there is competition between instructors?
There is competition, but it seems to be healthy and friendly competition…for the most part. Ruby said the vibe is more, “Hey! You’re teaching at that event too! I can’t wait to see you!” However, she has heard dancers talk negatively about each other on occasion. Edie commented that she never felt any competition whatsoever. Charles said, “There is no competition if you’re offering something that no one else can do.” Carlos felt that most of the competition is negative, and it is rooted in pay and the desire to one-up each other. Competition can inspire dancers to do better at their jobs, but it also adds a “watch your back” mentality that divides the community.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a travelling dance instructors?
The panel offered some vital advice. Be prepared to experience both the positive AND negative aspects of the career because its a long haul. No matter who you are, not everyone will love you and you will be judged because you’re making yourself a public figure. Make sure that you’re passionate, committed, and that your product is unique. Set goals, have integrity, stick to your principles, and understand what you want to achieve.
Edie felt that the career isn’t for those who are dating or married due to the guilty feelings you may experience leaving someone behind. She said its better to fly solo so you can be free to go wherever you need to further your career.
What is the biggest business you’ve learned since you started your career?
Business is business! Be hands on with your negotiations and make sure you get what you want. Be firm, but respectful in your dealings. Edie commented that it’s important to be honest, sincere, and transparent. Ruby feels that respect is key, and that a lack of respect typically leads to bad business deals. She said that the business is rewarding in that it can lead to friendships between organizers and dancers, but, “…if I feel like I’m being tossed a tiny check and a pittance for my efforts, it’s hard to put out energetically. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.”
Charles stated to avoid doing business on Facebook and social media. He said, “…get everything in writing up front to make sure everyone is on the same page.” Carlos said he got a great piece of advice from one of the most popular Bachata instructors/performers in the world, Jorge “Ataca” Burgos. Burgos said if you agree to a flat rate for your pay, make sure you don’t settle and get what you’re worth. As a note, instructors sometimes agree to take a percentage of the money earned from a festival as their pay instead of a flat rate. This is usually done at smaller and newer festivals where the profits have a high variability.
Respect should also translate to how you treat your students and fellow dancers no matter who they are. Edie said, “Be pleasant with everyone at all times, even if you feel like crap.” Ruby echoed this sentiment, “Someone who seems totally unassuming on the dance-floor, or like a total newbie might be an organizer for a local scene looking to hire you.”
What’s one thing about the job that you feel would surprise someone if you told them?
The panel were mixed on what they thought readers would find surprising. Ruby said, “Teaching dance is kind of like a form of therapy for a lot of people. Having insight into more than just dance moves really matters.” Edie reiterated that instructors have to adapt to getting rest in foreign environments and that she can sleep like a baby anywhere. Charles said he still gets nervous before teaching, but is ready to roll after the mood lightens up. Carlos admitted that he is much more of a jock, than a dancer, and that he actually doesn’t have a passion for dancing. He said he is much more comfortable watching people dance and/or simply listening to the music he loves.