There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
I am not alone in that financial oblivion. Talking about money and negotiating salaries is heavily criticized within most ballet company cultures. Somehow artists, especially females, consider negotiating higher pay taboo. This fear is only heightened by the piles of resumés our potential replacements submit each year.
Contract renewals are rarely delivered in personal meetings at ballet companies. Photo by StockSnap.
Rarely, if ever, are contract renewals delivered in personal meetings. Across the country, dancers receive a piece of paper stating their rank—sometimes their pay rate is not even listed—and then they're essentially told to take it or leave it.
I was very lucky to dance in a union company with financial security and virtually no gender pay gap. But some nonunion troupes pay men almost twice as much as women just to secure the harder-to-find male dancer. One such nonunion company's website actually listed the male dancer pay as $200 more per week than that of females. Throughout the dance world, there are countless stories of men being frequently late, not wearing appropriate attire or missing rehearsals without penalty, whereas women committing the same offences can find themselves docked pay or even fired.
When I negotiated three AGMA contracts as a union rep at Boston Ballet, I noticed that the women often championed for the greatest improvements to the workplace environment. If they can advocate for themselves there, then why can't they do it for their own salaries? If women take that proactivity to the paycheck, the whole industry might become more aware of its inclination towards inequality.
I remember once being shocked to hear that a principal woman at Boston Ballet had negotiated a two-year contract for herself. The sense of surprise and awe we all felt from this rumor should have never existed. Why shouldn't we negotiate if we have the talent and commitment to back it up?
Writer Sarah Wroth nows shares her professional dance experiences with her students at Indiana University. Photo courtesy Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University.
I now serve as the chair of Indiana University's ballet department and on the Diversity and Equity Committee at IU's Jacobs School of Music. I have negotiated once for higher pay and am trying to set an example of how demonstrating my own value doesn't mean I don't love what I do. I realize I am sending my graduating students into an imperfect world. But it will be their job to make it better, and it is my job to prepare them for that task. They must not only work hard every day to hone their artistic skills, but they must learn how to respectfully advocate for themselves.
If you feel like you are in an unbalanced situation, make an appointment with your artistic director. Be sure your feelings are founded in rational thought, give yourself time to prepare your statements, feel composed and confident, and consider the needs of everyone involved. Someone once advised me that I am the CEO of my own company. When you know what makes your individual craft special and successful, you can better articulate your worth to others, and you'll be more likely to negotiate when necessary. What makes talking about pay so scary is starting that difficult conversation. Once you are inside it, both parties are on the road to greater understanding. Be the exception, and eventually that exception will become what is expected.