PSA for Small Dance Companies: Why You Aren't Getting the Press You Want

I've had several conversations lately with small-scale choreographers and company directors who are frustrated by the dance press. The little guys have a hard time getting exposure among the big companies, who always seem to make it into the papers. Since I play both sides of the coin as a freelance choreographer and freelance dance writer, I am intimately acquainted with the dilemma of fighting for press over the heavy-hitting companies.

Commonly heard complaints:

"It's not fair."
"It's always the same people getting reviews."
"The big companies don't even need the help from the press."
"I don't even bother to read reviews anymore because they just don't get it."

Trust me. I get it. But within these statements are a couple of grievous mistakes that aren't helping your cause.

1. You're barking up the wrong tree. Time spent researching your press list is well spent. Working your own press isn't rocket science -- it just takes time, persistence, and Google. Sending impersonal releases to will get you nowhere fast. If you don't have the time and the desire to seek out and form relationships with the individuals who are actually going to write about you, then hire someone.

2. You assume we get paid to write reviews. If you'd like to supplement your dance income with something other than waiting tables, I wouldn't recommend writing. We don't write for the money, but rather because we love it and want to serve and support the dance community. Like any other artistic endeavor, there just isn't enough money or time to go around. Many, if not most, independent writers and bloggers are writing for free, making pennies per posts, or have to put sufficient time and effort behind selling advertisements and endorsements on their sites. Page views can also impact our income, which is one reason why it can be beneficial to write about the big companies. Page views to a writer are butts in seats to a choreographer. The network of readers outside the dance community is larger for the big companies, so the review is likely to have a greater impact. Yes, this is a backhanded excuse, but I would argue that small companies who do receive press could have the same impact by sharing copiously with their networks and engaging in the ongoing discussions on publications from which they want support.

3. Butts in seats are not necessarily directly correlated with press reviews. Reviews for dance shows don't often promote the show reviewed. Let me explain: with the typical one-weekend, 2-3 show format, a review will likely have minimal impact on ticket sales because there isn't enough time for it to land with readers. The point of getting reviews is not so much driving new audience members to this show, but rather the next one. That's not to say you shouldn't share reviews and leverage them to try and persuade people to come, but the real benefit of reviews is in your marketing materials and grant applications for future projects. If the goal is butts in seats now, you should seek previews rather than reviews, or run your show for two weekends and invite reviews to the first. Invite members of the press to view an open rehearsal or request an interview. Use previews in your e-blasts and supporting arguments for why people should come see your show next weekend.

Note: Press comps should be extended to preview-ers as well as potential reviewers. They may not bite (especially after seeing a rehearsal), but it's good form to offer a comp as a courtesy. Recall #1: we don't get paid very much and seeing free dance is sometimes our only source of income. And, p.s., I won't review a show I had to pay for.

4. You may not believe this, but we don't enjoy writing negative reviews. It's not pleasant to criticize something that I know has taken a lot of time, effort, and passion to create, but I'm also not interested in lying. To pad a review with unnecessary or unwarranted compliments, in the end, does a disservice to the readers and to the company at hand. If your company has something they could do better, I'm going to say so, and I expect you to take it like a (wo)man. Here's the thing: at the end of the day, anything a dance critic writes is the singular viewpoint of one person. As much as we try to dissuade our biases and opinions, a review is just that: an opinion. You can take it or leave it. You can put it on your website or not. To banter on about how horrible the press is, or to stop inviting a critic who wrote a negative review isn't a fast track to success.

5. Big companies need press just as much as you do. Sure, they might have more money and a dedicated person hired or contracted to take care of media relations, but they are also tasked with filling massive houses, thousands of seats, often in multiple cities. The argument should not be to stop writing about them and start writing about you, but instead to bolster the dance writers so we can cover everybody.

Long story short, if you want better press for your company, here's the bottom line (or two, actually):

Vilifying the press is not helpful. Believe it or not, we write because we care deeply about the dance community and want to see it flourish. This desire guides me in everything I write, good and bad. The Internet is not as big a space as you might imagine, and the dance world on the Internet is like Cheers: everybody knows everybody. Nurture your relationships, watch your mouth, and remember that our only goal is to help you do what you do successfully.

Quid pro quo. You get out of the media what you put into it. Putting time and effort into a press release and persistent, personal communications usually pay off. Most times I'm not entirely interested in writing about the big guys -- that's what the Tribune is for -- but a nicely presented press package with a personal invitation to see a show for free goes a long way, and the majority of small companies simply aren't doing that. If you don't do the leg work, you shouldn't expect anything in return.

I'm here to inform you that getting press is actually really easy. If you want me to write about you, here is the secret: send me your stuff. Be nice, be personal, and spend time on it. Don't make me search for information on the Internet. Make your press release easy to read, thorough, and accommodating. Follow up with me, and offer me a comp. If I'm free, I'll do it.

It's just that simple.