What Does Fair Pay for Dancers Actually Look Like?
The dance field isn't immune to the "gig economy" that's disrupting everything from buying groceries to getting a ride to the airport. "We're seeing more people identify as freelance dancers, and more people deciding not to start their own companies, because they've seen how that model works or, rather, doesn't work," says J. Bouey, dancer and founder of The Dance Union podcast. "Even major companies are hiring more often from project to project."
At the same time, the cost of living continues to skyrocket in dance capitals like Bouey's Brooklyn. So it's no surprise that artists feel anxious about making ends meet. But this can also be an opportunity to discard old ways of doing business. "We've made gains, at least in terms of people recognizing what their pay should be," says Lisa Davies, a former rehearsal director at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal who, five years ago, founded the organization Danse à la Carte, which supports Montreal artists. "I never had the level of comfort dancers have today in discussing payment with their employers, even in my full-time jobs."
J. Bouey points out that today, even some major companies work on a project-to-project basis.
David Gonsier, Courtesy J. Bouey
Three movements towards fair pay in dance have gained the most traction:
For Griff Braun, director of organizing and outreach for the American Guild of Musical Artists, the primary issue is lack of leverage. "You're not going to get a lighting designer without a certain amount of money. You're not going to get a theater unless you're able to pay the rental fee. But there's no floor for the artists onstage."
Beginning last July, Braun has been convening freelance dancers based in New York City and Chicago to brainstorm what unionization might look like, whether or not they end up alongside the 24 dance companies—plus 40 music and opera ensembles—under AGMA's umbrella. Fellow creative union Writers Guild of America has proved a useful point of reference. "Freelancers perform in a museum one week, in a theater the next or an outdoor space," notes Braun. "It's all over the place, and payment ranges from nothing-at-all to you-name-it. It's too easy for an employer to say, 'There are a hundred other dancers I could hire instead,' and so it quickly becomes an organizing question: How do we create a critical mass in this community?"
Dance/NYC executive director Alejandra Duque Cifuentes suggests it's time for dance to develop a tool for financial transparency. One model is what WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) has done for the visual-arts world, listing baselines for "how much it pays to be in rehearsal, on a panel, in residence or to teach a class," she says. Danse à la Carte has a similar, nonnegotiable sliding scale used to ensure gender equity when hiring for labs and workshops.
WAGE's fee calculator
Screenshot via wageforwork.com
Despite recent policy wins raising minimum wages in U.S. cities and states, most freelance gigs remain exempt from those regulations. In Montréal, the Regroupement québécois de la danse and the Union des artistes recommend rates based on years of experience. Companies that don't belong to either group aren't required to meet those standards, but the fact that they exist applies at least some pressure, says Davies. Freelancer Sophie Breton says dancers earn on average 20 to 30 Canadian dollars per hour.
"Getting paid anything at all is going to be the first step for dancers in a lot of places," says Bouey. "But the idea that the stresses and mistreatment that older generations went through is a 'rite of passage,' as opposed to something we need to dismantle, creates a cycle of financial abuse that doesn't end."
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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.