Let's Talk Money: A MANIFESTO

December 27, 2015

After making the cut for Bronislava Nijinska’s company, Margaret Severn headed to the theater to find out what was what. As she recounts in an essay in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Dance: A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncategorizable Extras, the deal was no pay for rehearsals and a set fee for performances. She knew what to expect and to plan accordingly. That was 1932.

Perhaps the hardest thing to talk about in the dance world, besides weight, is money. There’s a strange sense of shame that surrounds the topic. We feel it whether we have to work a second job or are subsidized by a spouse, our parents or personal wealth.

But the low incomes for artists—notably dancers—are no secret. So why not let our circumstances be out in the open as well? If you run a dance company and don’t really need to earn a livable salary, it will be an easier road for you—and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that. Recently, a dancer/choreographer told me about the awkwardness that goes on between married and unmarried dancers (who need extra jobs) in the same company. We need to not make people feel guilty about how they make ends meet, whatever the answer might be.

More than anything, we must stop pretending to our peers. When other dancers see an artist getting by without teaching or outside work, they think that must be doable. In Salon last year, novelist Ann Bauer wrote honestly about the situation of writers failing to disclose their various privileges, be it marriage or an inheritance. If you can do what you do because you have some other source of support outside of dance, and another artist asks you about how you are managing, be truthful. It should never be a judgment on one’s work. You don’t necessarily have to disclose the contents of your bank account—but don’t hide how you’re making it work. Aspiring dance artists need access to the right information. I would never want anyone to go into dance writing thinking that there’s a good chance that they could make a living doing so, because only a small percentage can earn a full-time salary, and withholding that information is simply not the best way to perpetuate the field.

Talking about money is always awkward—so much so that it can sometimes even be hard to pin down how much you’ll be paid. Too often, dancers in casual projects like pickup companies or one-time gigs don’t receive a contract and are afraid to bring up the subject of compensation out of fear of seeming less dedicated. But you have a right to know if there will be a fee for performance, what that fee is and when you will receive the check. If it’s based on a cut of the box after expenses, you should know that ahead of time, and not find out when it’s time to get paid.

We do a disservice to the younger generation when we are not completely transparent, because we make it seem as though something is possible that may not be. We also need to acknowledge that we make the choice to work for very little money—and there is more dance in the world because of it! But we should all know what we are up against, and plan accordingly, just like Severn did back in 1932. n

Nancy Wozny still struggles with money in Houston, Texas, where she gratefully writes about the arts.