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.