Jessica Lang Dance in Lang's Thousand Yard Stare. Photo by Todd Rosenberg
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.
We dancers should know our worth. Photo by Alexander Dummer/Unsplash
A couple weekends ago, a friend messaged me about an opportunity to be a part of a new holiday campaign for a major department store. They wanted to showcase various dancers dancing in their fall clothing collection. I asked if it was paid, and when I found that it was not, I immediately wanted to(respectfully) decline.
I remembered reading and resonating with a post on this matter from Dance Magazine's editor, Jennifer Stahl, when she said that "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."
What was your 2017 income? Photo by Fabian Blank/Unsplash
Dance Magazine asked readers the question you're never supposed to ask: How much money do you make?
More than two hundred readers filled out our online survey about how much they earned through their work in the dance field in 2017. Here is a selection of the user-submitted entries, which have been edited for clarity, consistency and to help ensure anonymity.
Behind every virtuosic performance, there is a quiet group of champions. Private patrons are critical to the success of American dance companies. Most large troupes only generate about half of their operating budget from ticket sales, while smaller companies recoup only a fraction. In a country with minuscule government funds allocated to the arts, individual contributors play an indelible role in financing concert dance.
Shaina Branfman Baira and Bryan Strimpel Baira dance outside their home. Photo by Effy Grey | Effyography, Courtesy The Bairas.
Though living in New York City is expensive, dancers can be downright resourceful in finding creative ways to make it work. Shaina Branfman Baira and Bryan Strimpel Baira have taken that resourcefulness to a whole other level: For the past two years, the co-directors of BAIRA | MVMNT PHLSPHY have lived off the grid. In an RV. Parked in Brooklyn. Without electricity, running water, internet or air conditioning.
Since making this transition, the married couple has been able to support themselves almost entirely through their dance work, freeing up valuable time and resources for their craft. The Bairas shared the ins and outs of their unconventional lifestyle with Dance Magazine and even gave us a tour of their home.
Raja Feather Kelly admits he's gone into debt in order to fund his shows. Photo by Kate Enman, courtesy Kelly
When I moved to New York City in 2000, my life looked like that of most 22-year-old aspiring modern dancers: I lived with two roommates in a rundown two-bedroom apartment deep in Brooklyn. I was paid $100 a week to dance for Tamar Rogoff, but I also worked the front desk at a yoga studio and as a "counter girl" at a coffee shop. I made a few hundred dollars a week.
But I had a safety net. My parents insisted I have health insurance, so they paid it. If I couldn't make rent, they paid it. And when a rent-stabilized apartment became available—an alarmingly cheap one-bedroom that would allow me to survive as an artist in the city for the next decade—I used an inheritance from my grandfather to pay the sizable broker's fee, which I admitted to nobody. Without help, none of this would have been possible.
How much does your dance job pay? Hopefully more than what's shown in this photo. Photo by StockSnap
How much does your dance job pay? And how does that compare to other jobs in dance?
That's the question Dance Magazine is asking in an upcoming feature about money. Right now, we're looking to collect anonymous information about how much various professionals throughout the dance field make—from dancers and choreographers to teachers, administrators and other staff members.
If you've worked in the dance field in any capacity in the past year, we'd love to hear from you. Please fill out our survey, then keep your eyes peeled for the results in our July issue.
Freelancing is more common than ever. So why is it that, as the market shifts to favor freelance dancers, we do not pay them enough to subsist on their art?
In Dance Magazine's August interview with four successful freelance dancers, not one reported making enough from the industry to cover their expenses. Most freelancers get by through living with family or taking on a side hustle—sometimes both.
Eliza Sherlock-Lewis. Photo by Al Viciedo, Courtesy Sherlock-Lewis.
A few months ago, freelance ballet and contemporary dancer Eliza Sherlock-Lewis was hired for a brief project: one week of rehearsals culminating in two paid performances. A couple days in, she asked a fellow dancer if the director mentioned how much they would receive. “My friend said, ‘No, she didn’t say anything. But I feel like at this point, it’s awkward to ask,’ ” recalls Sherlock-Lewis. Nonetheless, she e-mailed the director, inquiring about the fee and mentioning that she was enjoying rehearsals. “I phrased it casually,” she says.
Sherlock-Lewis didn’t receive a reply that evening, which made her nervous. But the next morning, the director approached her. “She was very nice and open about it,” says Sherlock-Lewis. The director told her how much she’d be paid and then rehearsal began—without any trouble.
The outcome was a relief and Sherlock-Lewis walked away with more than a paycheck. “I learned that I have to know what I’m signing up for,” she says. “Not just the details of the dancing, but what they’re offering me. And I have to know that before I agree in case it’s not what I want.”
For many dancers, discussions about money evoke discomfort if not outright fear. Some worry they’ll be seen as too demanding and hurt their chances of being offered work. But there are ways to broach the topic successfully. “Dancers have a right and responsibility to think about the quality of their lives, and compensation is an important part of that,” says Griff Braun, the New York–area dance executive with the American Guild of Musical Artists. “No matter how the conversation turns out, hopefully the dancer will leave feeling confident and in a better position to have this conversation again.”
Timing is Crucial
Financial considerations should begin before you audition. “When you’re looking into a job, you should always know whether it’s paid, performance stipend, rehearsal stipend or salaried,” says Sherlock-Lewis. But what about gigs that aren’t so straightforward? “I personally feel that a dancer has a right to ask about compensation before the audition,” says Francis Patrelle, artistic director of Dances Patrelle.
But the critical moment arrives after you’ve landed the gig. “That’s the only time dancers have some leverage,” says Braun. “Then you have the discussion about money.” If you’re hoping to get a raise, the window of opportunity comes between contracts or seasons. “Before the next block of work, go in and talk about your position, the work you’ve done and what you think you can do, and what you’d like to receive for it,” says Braun.
Pop the Question
Braun and Patrelle recommend having money conversations with a general manager, executive manager or someone else handling a company’s business affairs. But in smaller companies, the director or choreographer may take care of everything. Whatever the situation, enter the conversation with a sense of what you want and how you’re going to ask for it. “I definitely practice before,” says Sherlock-Lewis. “I want to know exactly what I’m going to say, and have a response if they say yes or no.”
The key to success is all in your approach. Try framing the conversation in a positive light as Sherlock-Lewis did, conveying enthusiasm and professionalism. “Approaching it from that angle—I want to be here, I’m passionate about this work—evokes confidence,” says Braun. “I think directors appreciate young dancers who are direct about their abilities and what they want.”
Grow from the Outcome
In the best-case scenario, you’ll receive the compensation or raise you had in mind. But the company might not grant your request, and how you proceed depends on your particular situation. Perhaps they can offer something else, such as classes, pointe shoes or a performance reel. And sometimes the artistic or networking opportunities are worthwhile enough. Sherlock-Lewis works gratis “only if I feel like it serves me as much as it serves them,” she says. “This is your job.”
If not enough compensation is offered, you can turn down a job without souring the relationship. Gracious language goes a long way. Sherlock-Lewis also tactfully explains that she’s declining for financial reasons. “Of course this should be done respectfully and politely, saying something like ‘At this time, I can’t commit to an unpaid gig, but would love to work together another time,’ ” she says.
Articulating goals and expectations and getting honest feedback empowers dancers. “It allows them to take a more active role in their careers,” says Braun. And asking for a raise can provide insight about your performance. “I think that’s the crux of the situation,” says Patrelle. “What is your standing in the company?” Above all, being able to talk about compensation instills confidence. “You have to respect yourself and your time,” says Sherlock-Lewis. “You’re only worth as much as you believe you are.”
What’s in a Number?
When approaching a director to talk about money, you should have a ballpark of reasonable numbers in mind. “That’s done before you walk in,” says Francis Patrelle, artistic director of Dances Patrelle. Researching the compensation landscape doesn’t have to be tedious: Just chatting with peers can be revealing. You can also use union contracts as a gauge. “Look into the contracts on the AGMA website, or call an AGMA representative and talk about it,” says AGMA’s Griff Braun. You can use the same methods to determine an appropriate raise, although pay increases can be more nebulous. “It could be based on what dancers earn in a comparable union company,” says Braun, “or on what others in the same company earn, if that can be deduced.”
As a rule of thumb, freelance dancer Eliza Sherlock-Lewis says she expects at least $100 per performance. But as she builds experience, that rate increases; more recently she’s been getting $200 to $300 per show.