Dancer Voices

You Responded: The Issues You Want Dance Companies To Address—And How Change Might Happen

Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe

We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.

So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.

The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:

1. We Need to Fight For Fair Pay

dance harassment Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe

Many readers felt that the most serious abuse of dancers is how they are paid—or not paid. Some responders shared how they've gotten stuck in the trap of dancing for free, while others highlighted how big of a gap remains between the salaries of male and female performers.

"Dancers shouldn't be used for free labor at any level. If someone is an unpaid trainee, they need to at least be paid for performances. The 'hordes of young dancers' waiting to take spots instills fear and that fear is perpetuated by artistic staff who flat out say, I'll find someone to take your place and I won't even pay them." —Jess Spinner
"My daughter has fallen into the trap of this new craze of 'trainee programs' and 'second company' shenanigans. While the companies are benefiting since they're being able to stage larger productions that would require a copious corps de ballet, at the end of their season they just bring a new 'batch' of young dancers and let go the ones they have freely used, that is the word, used, for a whole season. It is enraging to watch these dancers scrambling around, moving from one city to another, jumping from one trainee/second company to another, having to find a second job to support themselves just to keep the 'dream' alive." —Anonymous
"Right out of college I accepted a dance position on a cruise ship. I was offered $600 per week. My fellow female dancers both with three+ more years of experience were offered the same rate. Three other men directly out of college were offered $750 per week. I debated reaching out to the company. My fellow female dancers said when they asked for a raise they were fired on the spot, told someone cheaper would replace them." —Jennifer Binversie
"Dance companies in the US walk a fine line between being groups of artists pursuing a shared mission and operating as businesses in a capitalist culture. All the time, the pull of artistic exploration, integrity, purity, whatever you want to call it, loses out to the need to succeed as a commercial enterprise. I don't have the answer to how to provide a respectable (financially) stable job environment, and it may require a cultural shift that is impossible in our society, but at least let's talk about it." —Gavin Larsen
"State support would provide stability and mitigate risks for dancers. If you fix the economic pressure, many issues that fall under 'negative company culture' would organically improve." —Paul Destrooper

2. We Need Incentives That Inspire Change (Hint: Money)

dance harassment Photo by Jordan Whitfield/Unsplash

Some readers pointed out that currently, there's little incentive for companies to treat dancers better. A few questioned whether it would be possible to find some third party that could hold directors accountable.

"I am wondering if it is possible to ask the National Endowment for the Arts or other granting entities to hold beneficiaries of their grants to higher standards. I am wondering if government grants in particular shouldn't be given to organizations that condone and practice racial discrimination or other behaviors that both legal precedent and common sense condemn." —Anonymous

3. Dancers Should Watch Out For Red Flags

dance harassment Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe

Of course, not all companies treat their members badly. So what are the red flags that could tip dancers off to unhealthy environments before they sign a contract? Toba Singer offered some savvy suggestions on how to investigate.

"Start by looking at companies where the turnover is high. How many dancers left this company last season? Why? Of those who left, how many were fired, how many went to other companies, how many gave up their careers and at what age? How about artistic staff? Are there ongoing ballet master/mistress vacancies? Why? Were lawsuits brought and then dropped against key personnel? This is relevant information." —Toba Singer

4. We Can't Lose Hope: There Is a Better Way Forward

dance harassment Photo by Ed Shelley/Unsplash

Many dancers reached out with stories about how they had left prestigious companies for smaller troupes where they were treated better. Directors spoke of starting their own companies because they were driven to create a healthier environment than the one they experienced during their own dance career. Others were hopeful that positive changes are on the horizon.

"I'm currently dancing for PDX Contemporary Ballet in Portland, OR and all of these issues are ones that my director is actively working against. There is no pressure to be a certain shape or size. I have never been asked to do anything beyond what I and my doctors feel is safe. Furthermore, I have grown so much artistically." —Victoria Lauder

"This is a big part of why I wanted to start a company. It starts with hiring. When I put someone in a position of power, it's someone who I think will use that power well, and with the explicit statement that any contractor or officer is there to serve the company. To me, 'the company' refers to the people as well as the legal entity. Another thing I do is interview each prospective dancer. I think it's nuts how few directors think about company culture and I think it's indicative of how much ego is the driving factor behind many directors. I'm clear with people what the philosophies of the company are, and I do my best to only bring on the people who can live it." Stirling Matheson
"By the time our generation ascends to the upper ranks, it's going to be a huge switch.
A) The generation in charge now is the last group trained by teachers who hit them. Now that the dancers aren't getting literally struck, they're noticing how awful it is to have their psyches beaten down.
B) Dancers are using sports psychologists who emphasize positive visualization. They're using yoga to cross train, which comes with a whole mindset of calm, peace and caring for your fellow humans. The input for dancers' brains is creating a different attitude.
C) The social movements and causes of our generation are about kindness and compassion and empathy. We aren't fighting wars that the young folks feel good about, so that army drill sergeant attitude isn't jiving with us.
D) There are gonna be more women in charge. So fewer bosses who have suffered through the exaggerated toxic masculinity associated all too often with being a male dancer. Also, more people who are accustomed to being really poorly treated, who will either double down on vile words, or more likely (I think/hope) will try to rectify the situation." —David Neal
"Times are changing and there seems to be more 'bullying' if you will, in the positive direction of 'be a good person dude' than 'hey let's beat these dancers down until they hate themselves.' But we have to start workshopping better HR and training practices now because it will take another decade or so (if not more) for changes to be fully engaged by companies and choreographers." —Erin Ghislin Lane

Some comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Conversation
Fox produced a live broadcast of Rent in January—but could an original musical be next? Photo by Kevin Estrada, Courtesy Fox

When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Courtesy Lee

Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.

The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Bruce Mars via Unsplash

Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.

Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body

It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).

But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!

—Andrea, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
From Dance of Urgency. © Ekvidi

When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.

The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.

The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.

As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Lorenzo Di Cristina/Unsplash

When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.

The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."

Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Quinn Wharton

What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.

So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox