Please Stop Asking Dance Artists to Perform "in Exchange for Exposure"
Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.
"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.
Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?
I ran this all-too-common situation by a close friend, Jennifer Roit, who edits the Dance Magazine College Guide in addition to being a dancer/choreographer herself. I thought, Maybe I'm overreacting and a dance artist trying to build their brand would genuinely be interested in this sort of opportunity.
She disabused me of that notion:
"The dancers who get the most exposure dance for Beyoncé, yet Beyoncé pays them because landlords don't take exposure checks," she pointed out, ever so bluntly. "Doing anything for exposure is a lie, because if it's truly good exposure, it generally means there is a budget, and it won't be done for free."
If you have enough money to rent a space for the performance, you have enough money to pay the performers. Photo by Ahmad Odeh/Unsplash
She's right. Any job that's worth taking for the resumé boost will most likely come from an organization that's big enough to have the money to pay everyone involved.
Asking someone to work "for the exposure" is not only insulting, it's false advertising. If you can't even offer a small stipend or a fair exchange of goods or services, you should be clear about exactly what you're looking for: a donation.
Of course, there are some gigs that are so personally gratifying that dancers will choose to make that donation.
But producers—or whoever is calling the shots—need to be clear right from the start about compensation. And to stop perpetuating the lie of "exposure." Tagging someone on Instagram won't pay their bills. And let's not kid ourselves that offering someone a gig you can't even pay them for will be the opportunity they need to launch a sustainable career.
If you're producing a fundraiser or honestly have no budget, asking for a donation won't feel weird—there's no need to cloak it in the guise of "exposure." But if that's not the case, it's time to show dancers and choreographers the same respect you give everyone else that you hire: Pay them.
For my part, I told the woman I couldn't recommend a choreographer unless she was going to offer them some form of compensation. Within hours, she found enough wiggle room to come up with both a small stipend and a few meaningful perks. It may not be much, but it's a start.
Michele Byrd-McPhee's uncle was a DJ for the local black radio station in Philadelphia, where she was born. As a kid she was always dancing to the latest music, including a new form of powerful poetry laid over pulsing beats that was the beginning of what we now call hip hop.
Byrd-McPhee became enamored of the form and went on to a career as a hip-hop dancer and choreographer, eventually founding the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival and directing the New York City chapter of Everybody Dance Now!. Over the decades, she has experienced hip hop's growth from its roots in the black community into a global phenomenon—a trajectory she views with both pride and caution.
On one hand, the popularity of hip hop has "made a global impact," says Byrd-McPhee. "It's provided a voice for so many people around the world." The downside is "it's used globally in ways that the people who made the culture don't benefit from it."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
Every dancer knows there's as much magic taking place backstage as there is in what the audience sees onstage. Behind the scenes, it takes a village, says American Ballet Theatre's wig and makeup supervisor, Rena Most. With wig and makeup preparations happening in a studio of their own as the dancers rehearse, Most and her team work to make sure not a single detail is lost.
Dance Magazine recently spoke to Most to find out what actually goes into the hair and makeup looks audiences see on the ABT stage.