Dancers and choreographers must be strong, clear communicators when it comes to negotiating contracts and agreements. That's part of the philosophy espoused by A. Nia Austin-Edwards, the founder of PURPOSE Productions, a Brooklyn-based organization that provides strategic support to artists throughout the U.S.
One of the reasons many dance artists struggle to negotiate successfully for themselves is what Austin-Edwards refers to as a scarcity mindset. "The scarcity of work and money allows people to say yes to some really outrageous things," she says. For example, dancers might accept a much smaller fee than what they feel they deserve, or tolerate body-shaming remarks from a choreographer because they reason "At least I have health insurance."
Rather than feel pressured to say yes to whatever is presented to them, dance artists have to be clear about the space and time conditions that will allow them to thrive. Follow these five steps to set yourself up for a successful negotiation.
1. Clarify the Offer
When presented with an opportunity, Austin-Edwards recommends that dancers initiate healthy communication by restating the facts of the offer—be it a residency or choreography commission, for instance—to ensure that you understand the main points. The institution can then affirm or clarify, and if you're unsatisfied, you can turn it down or offer an alternative. "The premise is absolutely clarity of communication," she says, "so that everybody knows what they are agreeing to."
2. Suggest An Alternative
Austin-Edwards emphasizes that offering an alternative is an effective way to keep the conversation moving in a productive direction and shows a willingness to compromise while also being clear about personal boundaries. She suggests using phrases like "I don't have the capacity to manage all that right now, but here's a series of deadlines I can provide for you so you can understand when things can get done, and you can get what you need in a way that supports both of us."
3. Set Clear Boundaries
Know what your "absolute deal-breakers" are and at what point an opportunity is not worth it, whether that's a certain amount of money or a limit to how much time you can commit to rehearsals. That way, Austin-Edwards says, you'll have clear standards that you can use to judge whether a particular job is truly worthwhile.
She recognizes that when you need to pay bills, it's not always that easy to turn down work. Therefore, it's helpful to know what your other options and skills are. Consider your alternatives, like taking a short-term side job while looking for something else.
4. Ask for Outside Opinions
Before deciding, try discussing the situation with someone else. "The reason some people get away with some outrageous things is because no one talks about them," says Austin-Edwards. "You need colleagues and mentors you can talk to honestly." She emphasizes the importance of having a multigenerational network of friends and allies so that you can solicit a variety of opinions, especially if you're uncertain about what to do.
5. Take Your Time To Decide
"Don't feel like you have to make a decision right away," she says. "Give yourself time to walk away and think about it."