Pay for Play: Why Dancers Need to Take Initiative

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Warning: This article may be upsetting.

I want to invite you to use your imagination with me. Imagine a world where dancers get paid enough for their work so they don’t have to leave a six-hour rehearsal day and go wait tables, ring up merchandise at the Gap, or partake in another non-career related field in order to make rent. What would that be like? I can tell you what it’s like… It’s amazing!. It is the true realization of the dream that so many of us had when we become were dance students at an early age.

I was one of the lucky ones. Not only did I work under a great contract with Kansas City Ballet, I worked for an organization that was fiscally responsible and operated in the black (meaning that the company is operating within the budget)  for the majority of the decade I worked there.

Living in New York City, I am witnessing something disturbing. One, I can see more than ever how poorly the arts are funded in this country. It is sickening to me. However, what I most love about artists in this city, I also despise, and that is the dedication we have to our love of dance. We continue to create whether there is financial support or not. We refuse to let our art die, because without it, a huge part of us and our society would die with it. Here’s the problem. We’re not making any money. Not one person I know became a dancer to become rich, but most have hopes of being able to eat and pay their rent. Without pay, or at least working towards providing pay, it reminds me quite a lot of (gasp!) a hobby.

Now, I turn my eyes on the leaders of dance organizations. Just because dancers are willing to work for free doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. There comes a level of organization when it stops being ok to not pay your dancers. I’m not talking about pick-up companies trying to make a name or experiment with a new choreographer’s vision. I’m talking mostly about larger ‘established’ companies who run the gamut of having a plethora of unpaid trainees for several years at a time with no sure sign that they’ll be hired. I’m talking about companies who have full company members who aren’t all on salary, yet they’re still being expected and required to rehearse for a full 30-hour work week. To be a professional, one must be paid for the tasks he or she is undertaking. Thus, if the dancers aren’t getting paid, it can’t be a professional company.

I know I am making harsh statements, and the economy is killing dance companies left and right. My heart is breaking. My heart goes from breaking to anger when I see companies living outside their means at the expense of the artist.

Dancers, I’m now going to slap you all on the wrist. Let me begin by saying that there are projects that we partake without pay, and this is ok. I do it myself from time to time. It is important to give back for charity or to help friends get their work off the ground. If it wasn’t for the generous people I have surrounding me, I wouldn’t be able to create the work I have been doing. I will say this, however. I operate on their time frames. If I have to shelve things for a bit because they have work, so be it. I know this isn’t always ideal in every situation, but this is how I try to function.

When dancers spend more time doing work for free, especially on higher company levels, we hurt ourselves. Much of that time spent could be time spent looking for a paying job. Now, there are many companies that cannot at the current moment pay their dancers what they deserve. We have to have the strength and feeling of self worth in these cases to know that it is not ok to work six-hour rehearsal days and then go stand on our feet for hours waiting tables. Inevitably, we’re going to be so exhausted that our dancing will begin to suffer, resulting in injuries, and resulting in a shortened career. The second is that we are sending a message to the top, stating that this is ok!

As humans, we complain. As human dancers, we complain more. The biggest gripe I have heard from dancers is usually the “money gripe.” There’s never enough. I get it. We know what we deserve for what we do, and yes, usually it just isn’t there. Here’s what I have to say to that. SHUT UP! If you signed the contract, you agreed to the amount that is or is not there on that page. Until we stop signing on the line for nothing, we will continue to allow ourselves to be treated this way.

I am in no way trying to paint upper management as villains or dancers as weak. I do, however, believe that we have to find a way to meet on common ground. For myself as with many others, I was able to find this along with my fellow dancers by unionizing with the American Guild of Musical Artists. (I want to add that in Kansas City Ballet, we sought to unionize in order to preserve and enhance an already good contract.) For many smaller companies, unionizing may not be feasible. To those dancers I say this, official union or not, you must find your voice. I spent the last few years of my time with KCB as a union delegate for AGMA, and through that process, I helped negotiate the first contract. I gleaned tremendous amounts of knowledge about contracts, the behind the scenes of company management, and most importantly, communication.

Kansas City Ballet negotiations for its first AGMA contract (pictured: James Fayette, Catherine Barnickel, Charlie Martin, Matthew Donnell, Matthew Powell, Geogg Kropp, Breanne Starke, Rachel Coats, & Nadia Iozzo)

This may come as a shocker, but directors are people too! With professional and respectful communication, most people will at least listen to your concerns. If your director will not, or if he/she threatens to fire you, then you shouldn’t be working for them anyway. If you aren’t getting paid, then how much worse off could you be? Yes, you may not be able to dance, but trust me. Dance is a love affair similar to our human relationships. If you are the only one giving, then no matter how much you love your partner, you will grow to resent them in time. Don’t let this kill your passion.

So how do you talk to management?

Step one: Be unified. Everyone, or at least the vast majority, has to be together.

Step two: Stop whining. No one listens to babies.

Step three: Talk to each other and decide what issues you want to bring up. Make a plan.

Step four: Elect someone you trust as a liaison. This should be someone or a group of individuals who are confident and clear spoken. It’s also helpful if they have a good relationship with the management. Let management know that you are doing this if you can. It will help them keep their guard down as much as possible.

Finally, step five: Breathe. Your director wants a healthy organization. Trust in that. If you enter into talks from the standpoint of helping better things, then you have nothing to lose.

Dance and the welfare of dancers are my passions. Just as in any field, getting paid to do what one loves is a dream come true. Without taking action it will only stay a dream and never become a reality.

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Showing 7 comments
  • Nikol
    Reply

    Warning- some harsh truth’s here:

    What you have written about is exactly what has left me with a bad taste in my mouth post retirement. As long as dancers are willing to sell themselves short and work for free, this will continue.

    You and I were lucky, Matthew, as we started our professional careers right before this “trainee” thing started. When I danced as an apprentice with Ballet Austin, we were paid. Does this mean I wasn’t slaving at Walgreens until midnight each night, unfortunately, no. Bottom line is, there are very few entry level jobs in dance that are enough to make rent and keep the heat on.

    I was paid well with a non-AGMA company currently known as Oklahoma City Ballet, but was aware at a point that I was the highest paid female dancer and the salaries of some of the girls performing the same roles as me were significantly lower. I listened to their struggles. Some of these dancers were even on food stamps or still living at home. In fact, many dancers are on food stamps. (tell that to your little girl when she says she wants to be a “ballerina” when she grows up)

    When I moved out to San Diego I signed a contract with what I thought was a “professional” ballet company. After not being paid for the services that had been performed in Nutcracker, I refused to set foot back in the studio until I was paid and eventually had to hire a lawyer to collect my money. It took 10 months to receive it. I believe that the company was banking on me being just another naive dancer who would understand that the company had hit hard times. In reality, I was an adult and a businesswoman.

    If I had to hire a lawyer to collect money, imagine how many dancers out there needed to hire a lawyer, but couldn’t afford to! This is where they get over on us.

    Dancers need to refuse to be taken advantage of. There are these things called laws that were created to protect you when you sign contracts. And if you haven’t signed a contract? It’s not legit.

  • candice
    Reply

    Agreed Nicole. Contracts are important in all artistic endeavors, especially in resolving a conflict like nonpayment, and they have been very helpful in defining essential terms and boundaries in my costume design work.

    Matthew–I am glad to hear you taking this subject on in such a straightforward manner. I had my moment of going there last year, albeit in a more oblique manner focusing on education in relation to compensation: http://www.diydancer.com/2012/06/07/dd-response-why-are-most-artists-so-fing-poor-and-dancers-the-poorest/

    But, asking yourself whether you are a professional or a hobbyist, as you are suggesting, can really alter a dancer’s perspective in an honest and profound way. It is one of the big reasons I quit dancing full time after leaving Milwaukee Ballet (an AGMA company). I have found many NYC gigs are not legitimately professional and so when I moved here, I decided to confine my performing to work that I was (1) artistically moved by, as rep dissatisfaction was a huge reason I had quit my previous job, and (2) legitimately compensated for doing. My repertoire became much smaller but was at least fulfilling me artistically and respecting my status as a professional.

    I think the steps you have laid out for at least starting the conversation towards compensation is very clear and helpful. I hope it helps dancers begin to look at their careers and goals honestly and stick to their guns or move on when it is necessary.

  • stephanie
    Reply

    Matthew,

    Thank you for taking the time and courage to write this piece. It’s a sensitive subject that many in the dance industry, dancers, directors, and administrators alike, don’t like to talk about. I’ve been lucky as well. The bulk of my career has been with full time ballet companies, in which I received monetary compensation as well as Workman’s Compensation and health insurance–I even had dental coverage through Minnesota Ballet. Similar to Nikol, I had two financially difficult years while I was an apprentice with the Minnesota Ballet. I WAS paid, but it wasn’t until I was a regular company member when my salary was a legit amount to live off of. When I moved to NYC, I was dumbfounded by the amount of unpaying ‘work’–I use that term very loosely here. But, at the time, I was trying to get exposure and network within the NYC dance community. Some of the experiences had their merits: I met some incredible individuals and did some engaging repertoire. However, the experiences also left me resentful, tired, and tarnished a few friendships. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a more similar path of Candice. I think the biggest issue to consider with unpaid work is time–everyone involved needs to be respectful of people’s time. After 2 1/2 years in the city, I will not take any unpaid dancing work. I’m a professional and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for some type of compensation.

    A dancer’s life is hard. We put our minds and bodies through hell. No one goes into this profession to become a millionaire, but I don’t think it’s too much to expect to make a living. Our art suffers when we sacrifice our quality of life. Nikol, I applaud you and your gumption, for being proactive in San Diego and taking real measures to receive your due compensation. But what makes me sad about your situation, and other similar occurrences, is that people within and outside of the profession never expect dancers to be business minded. To this I say, “What the heck!” Dance is our business! Yes, it is our passion and we do it because we love it. But it is also how we pay rent, put food on our tables, and keep heat in our homes during the winter.

  • leah
    Reply

    This is fantastic, Matthew. Thanks for sharing your experience, validating our struggles, and giving us all a swift kick towards self-empowerment.

  • Nabila
    Reply

    I agree this is a frustrating subject to pursue, but the ultimate health of the arts (dance, in our case, regardless of the style) is at stake. It is insulting to any art form to expect a person to invest the amount of work and focus it takes to reach a professional level without expecting to get paid…well, something. And we know that the type of work this is always is ongoing, every day, with few or no breaks. (If I had a dime for every person who says to a dancer, “Why not take a year or two off and save some money?” NOT an option!) The entire system sucks, and I wouldn’t even know where to start. It is particularly heartbreaking when those other support jobs–waiting tables, office work, retail, whatever–aren’t available (for any number of reasons), and years of expense, dedication, and labor go down the drain. Why would anyone who wasn’t either mentally ill or independently wealthy train for a decade, or pay for a college dance degree unless there was the expectation of some sort of compensation? I echo the assertion that no one expects to make a fortune, but after all that work, one should expect to make something.

  • Erica
    Reply

    This article is courageously written, and its content and the comments below re-affirm for me how much emotion is bound up in the individual stories living below data about dance wages. I actually helped co-author something in a similar spirit several weeks ago with several peers. We are all members of Dance/NYC’s Junior Committee and were interested in gathering some of these individuals stories after we collected data in 2010 in our “Dance Workforce Census: Earnings Among Individuals 21-35.”

    Since within our small group we all have different vantage points within the field (some of us are artists, some administrators, some audience members, some teachers, some all of the above), we have vested interest in thinking about what models we could imagine that would move the conversation about dance and compensation forward.

    I’d be really interested to see what you think about what we’re working on. It’s a pretty quick read: http://dancenycjcomm.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/making-it-work-statement-of-intent/

    It seems like we’re trying to get the same conversation started…let’s start it with each other! Onward for dance!

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