Surviving a Starting Salary
When dancers sign their first contract, they envision themselves working with star choreographers and performing in foreign theaters. But the logistical realities of a career in the performing arts can quickly overshadow the excitement of life as a dancer—especially when you're trying to survive on a first-year salary. To support themselves without relying on parents or going into debt, new professionals quickly learn how to stretch a paycheck, dancer-style.
Job: Martha Graham Dance Company, dancer
Hometown: Strasbourg, France
Salary: About $900/week
Benefits: Full year-round health coverage
Weeks of Work: Almost 40
The Reality Check: Before moving to New York City, Landreau got a bank loan of $30,000, “so I wouldn't have to work like crazy." Regardless, to get by once there, she nannied for a French family and lived on a couch for a year.
Rent: $300. Sharing a bedroom and having four roommates in the apartment keeps the cost unusually low for New York City.
Utilities: $15/month for internet and electricity. She still uses her French phone for free communication: “I use WhatsApp, Viber and Skype with my fiancé, who is a Béjart dancer in Switzerland."
Splurge: “When I want to enjoy life and not think too hard about money, first, I check if I can buy an airplane ticket to see my fiancé in Europe. My second favorite thing is having the time to enjoy a hot coffee (no sugar, no milk) with blueberry/chocolate pancakes. And, I do love shopping: Finding things that I can wear in and out of rehearsals, looking for the item that makes me more me!"
Money-Saving Trick: Mix one expensive and one cheap shampoo to avoid constantly buying pricey brands. “Also, at many gyms, usually the first three classes are free. You can try a lot of different places this way!"
Advice She Wishes She'd Received: “I wish I'd known that it's hard to eat well without money. But if you don't eat well, you get injured, and if you get injured, you don't have a job."
Above: Landreau and Lloyd Knight rehearsing Martha Graham's The Rite of Spring. Photo by Brigid Pierce, Courtesy Graham.
Job: Tulsa Ballet, corps member
Hometown: Bozeman, Montana
Salary: Around $665/week
Benefits: Health insurance, 40 pairs of pointe shoes per year, on-site physical therapist and massage therapist, gym membership and nutritionist
Weeks of Work: 40
The Reality Check: Coming straight from high school, Grace was surprised by the business of adult life: “The biggest thing was learning how to live in my own apartment: Keep it clean, make meals, keep gas in my car, pay for it all."
Rent: $550/month. “The first thing I do is write my rent check before I put aside $150 for gas."
Utilities: $30/week for gas to drive to work, church, the grocery store and theater. Grace's utilities and WiFi are included in her rent, and she didn't set up cable, using her computer for entertainment instead.
Food: $200–$240/month. “I try not to eat out, and spend most of my money on fruits and veggies. The very first month, I thought, Oh, it's just one sweet cereal that's expensive. But that didn't fill me up or give me energy. Now I buy more nutritious, often less expensive foods to get me through my work day."
Splurge: “I treat myself during production week: Starbucks latte!"
Money-Saving Trick: “I write menus for the week so I only buy the ingredients I need." Grace is able to save about $500 each month, which she hopes to use on college courses.
Advice She Wishes She'd Received: To be picky with the money spent on dancewear, making sure items weren't too slippery or baggy for partnering.
Above: Grace as Hermia in Christopher Wheeldon's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.
Nick Rashad Burroughs
Job: Kinky Boots on Broadway, a featured Angel and understudy for a lead
Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Salary: About $2,000/week
Benefits: Health insurance, physical therapist, massage therapist
Weeks of Work: Year-round, until the show closes. Burroughs can take up to two weeks of vacation.
The Reality Check: “You have to make yourself better every day to get the job—and keep the job." Since Broadway runs are commercially driven and reflect audience demand quite immediately, dancers have to be constantly ready to get back in the audition room if a show closes.
Rent: $500/month. Burroughs saves by living with a friend in an affordable area, Washington Heights.
Utilities: $50–$70/month on internet and electricity. Though his mother still has his phone on contract, Burroughs helps her with payments, recently sending $200.
Food: $400/month. “I don't eat out. I grew up without a ton of money, so I'm used to saving."
Money-Saving Trick: “My mother always told me to set a limit for how much you spend per week. Buy what you need, not what you want in a momentary urge."
Advice He Wishes He'd Received: How expensive New York City is. “Just paying for the subway, deli items—you spend money every day here."
Above: Burroughs in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Steven Ross, Courtesy Burroughs.
Advice from a Veteran Freelancer
Freelancing might be the most challenging path in dance in terms of finances. The work is less consistent and sometimes pays less than company-based jobs. John Eirich, 32, is familiar with the lifestyle: Having moved to New York nine years ago, he has recently juggled gigs with Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre and TAKE Dance, been a supplementary dancer with Mark Morris Dance Group, and now dances with Dance Heginbotham. He shares his tips for staying afloat:
1. If taxes are not withheld from your paycheck, be prepared to pay them at the financial year's end. Eirich sets aside a savings account just for taxes.
2. There will be hiatus weeks when you don't have a gig—prepare for them.
3. Know that side jobs are a reality of most dancers' lives. “I've worked at Starbucks, at a gym, as a physical therapist assistant. Remember: It's okay."
4. Look for jobs within the dance world that come with perks you can use. “Being a work-study student always lowers the cost of classes. And, if a performing job offers you any sort of dancewear, take it!"
5. Scrutinize your contracts carefully for what they'll offer and require of you—but don't forget why you're looking for a dance job. “If a show doesn't pay much, weigh the scheduling with your passion. If you believe in something artistically, you'll figure it out."
Above: Eirich in John Heginbotham's Twin. Photo by Amber Star Merkens, Courtesy Heginbotham.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.