Socializing with your company's donors

When patrons linger at an after-party to celebrate a performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Lauren Grant, who’s been dancing with the company for almost 20 years, shows up to greet them. “I really like meeting donors because they obviously like the work enough to pledge some of their money,” she says. “Not every dancer in this group does that, and we are not asked to do that.”

Once upon a time, dancers were required to schmooze—and more. The dark side of ballet history in particular reeks with century-old accounts of ballerinas who were expected to sleep with their male patrons. Although this extreme policy no longer exists, the uncomfortable “pay for play” idea still lingers in corners of the dance world.

As a professional dancer, you will be invited to social functions where you can interact with donors. While these events are not mandatory, you might feel obligated to volunteer your time and celebrity to cultivate sponsorship. Some artists, like Grant, enjoy these parties. But newer dancers might wonder if they have to go, what to say when they’re there and how to handle inappropriate behavior if a patron crosses the line.

To Go Or Not To Go

When you sign a contract with a professional company, the agreement focuses on your responsibilities in the studio and onstage. But because American dance companies receive little government funding and rely on private sources for financial stability, they market you—the dancer—to help drive interest and contributions. “Dancers are an organization’s most potent resource,” says Janis Goodman, former chairperson of Pennsylvania Ballet. “Funding has become so difficult that companies focus their efforts on individual donors and how to seduce them.”

While dancers are not obligated to help raise money, you might be concerned that refusing to schmooze could negatively affect your career. That’s not entirely so, says Atlanta Ballet executive director Arturo Jacobus. “It could be hurtful if you are aloof and reluctant to engage. But it’s a gray area,” he says. “At the end of the day, the dancer’s career is made by how they dance.” Performers are hired for their talent, but companies want to work with people who are also friendly and willing to go above and beyond to help the organization. Companies cannot overtly criticize dancers for refusing to do so, and the day-to-day consequences for dancers remain unclear. But, the big picture is easy to see: Unsatisfied donors means unhealthy companies, and unhealthy companies means no places to dance. It’s a risk that’s on everyone’s mind.

Perks and Dangers

There are great advantages to attending donor functions. “Connecting with people could lead to future opportunities,” says Vanessa Zahorian, principal at San Francisco Ballet. Through her friendships with longtime donors, Zahorian has broadened her network, met Olympic athletes and posed for a sketch artist whose designs might be used in a future SFB collaboration. Grant has also had positive experiences, exchanging ideas with people who are enthusiastic about her work. “It can be isolating being stuck in the studio all day,” she says. “Donors can give an outside perspective about the pieces you’ve been slaving over.”

But there are times to be wary. “There’s a definite line between donors and dancers,” says Zahorian. “I’ve always been cautious not to tell everyone about my personal life.” Grant knows of a dancer who received excessive, unwanted attention. “It’s tricky because a donor might have access to the people who work within an organization,” she says. “Contact information has to stay private so that dancers are not hounded in any way.”

Be aware of situations that could become extreme, such as stalking or sexual advances. It is okay for patrons to follow your career at the theater and presence on social media; it is not okay for them to smother you or make inappropriate comments. Jacobus remembers an incident in which a dancer reported that a board member was singling her out at events, and he addressed the situation right away. “If you ever feel uncomfortable, tell someone immediately,” he advises. “Go to human resources. It’s management’s responsibility to do something about it.”

Keep Your Eyes Open

Mingling with strangers might be the last thing you want to do at the end of a show or in the midst of a grueling season. Socializing can often feel like another performance. But recognizing the people who support you could be win-win: They appreciate your efforts, and you are showered with flattery. 

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