Take 5 for Your Career: Sign on the Dotted Line?

November 30, 2013

Five concerns to keep in mind when evaluating a contract


As a dancer navigating the commercial world, most of your work will be determined through contracts. Elements like rehearsal hours, payment, insurance, and even physical therapy will be spelled out in advance. But before you jump at the chance to go on tour with the latest recording artist, take time to carefully comb through your contract. You can be treading thin ice—and possibly selling yourself short—if you sign without fully understanding the contents.


In an ideal world, dancers have the opportunity to vet every contract with an agent or, even better, a lawyer. (If you don’t have a lawyer, the organization Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts or your state’s bar association are good places to start.) They know what to look for to keep you compensated fairly and how to put the proper protections in place. But if you’re among the many dancers working without representation—perhaps you’re between agencies or working toward signing with your first agent—you’ll need to know how to spot a few red flags. When they come up, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to request additional time to go over it with an advisor.


1.  Look for liability insurance.
If you spot the term “independent contractor,” ask for time to review the contract with a lawyer or agent to make sure liability insurance is provided. This is a cause for concern in the event that you are injured in rehearsal or performance. McDonald/Selznick Associates representative Jenn Proctor, based in Los Angeles, says most payroll jobs—like concert tours or other long-term gigs—provide workers’ compensation. But if you’re considered an independent (or 1099) contractor, it’s not common.


2.  Consider if you need hazard pay.
If a job requires dangerous activity, like proximity to pyrotechnics or prolonged jumping on concrete, most agents advocate for extra pay. (This is another area in which you should consult an agent or lawyer to make sure you get the correct wording.) According to Brooklyn Lavin of Abrams Artists Agency in L.A., hazard pay is typically an additional $80 per day for work on music videos per SAG-AFTRA, and between $75 and $80 for other projects.


3.  Know the consequences of signing an “exclusivity” clause.
These phrases can limit your work in competing engagements. For instance, a dance competition television show may stipulate that contestants can’t audition for similar shows for one year, or a dancer who performs for an artist in another country may be barred from appearing with another artist from that country for a period of time. “Exclusivity is taken very seriously,” says Lavin. “If that clause is broken, there could be legal ramifications.”


In exchange for exclusivity, MSA agent Shelli Margheritis recommends asking for a holding fee, also known as a retainer. These fees provide a fraction—often half—of your set pay in exchange for exclusive availability during off-time within your contracted dates. For example, many artists will expect backup dancers to be available for TV appearances during time off from a tour, but not all are willing to provide retainers. An agent, says Proctor, can be your best gladiator for attaining this provision.


4.  Be your own advocate.
It’s not unusual that you’ll be given a contract on the spot after an audition and asked to sign. “Jobs are so last-minute now. Half of the time, you’re given the paperwork right before they need you,” says Cassidy Noblett, who has danced for Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.


When faced with signing a contract on set, both Noblett and dancer KC Monnie, whose credits include Glee, take pictures of each contract page and e-mail them to their agents via smartphone. “I don’t sign without making sure something is worded correctly,” Monnie says. “One word can change the meaning of the entire thing.” If you don’t have an agent, ask for the evening to read it over.


5.  Harness the power of unity.
Noblett and Monnie agree that it’s key to show solidarity when red flags do arise. Noblett recalls one music video gig in which the contract included questionable language about usage and compensation. “There were about 20 of us who weren’t happy,” he says. Noblett then called his agents, who advised the entire group to add language stating that “if any of the material is lifted or used in another medium, it will be negotiated per the SAG-AFTRA contract.” A week later, footage from the video was used in a commercial—and the dancers were protected, thanks to their savvy approach.


Protect your job.

Whether you’re working on screen or on stage, American Guild of Musical Artists New York area dance executive James Fayette advises all dancers to look for provisions stating that “management has the right to cancel this employment for any reason.” This is dangerous for dancers because they can be let go arbitrarily. To be AGMA- union–compliant, contracts must be “pay or play,” which means that dancers are hired and paid on a guaranteed basis for a set amount of time. Can’t negotiate “pay or play”? Fayette says dancers should make sure that at least two weeks’ notice will be given.


Jen Jones Donatelli writes frequently for
Dance Magazine.