Career Advice

When Should You Dance for Free?

Aaron Mattocks, right, with choreographer Faye Driscoll, Photo: Ian Douglas

For a dancer in New York, the chance to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is hard to turn down. But that's what Jennifer Sydor did last fall, when she excused herself from a callback audition for an upcoming show at BAM—a lone defector among a group of about 15 remaining contenders.

Sydor, 33, was initially excited to audition for the project; she had always wanted to dance at BAM. But as a freelance performer with a BFA from Butler University and a decade of professional experience, she changed her mind when the choreographer explained what would be required, without any mention of compensation.

“A year commitment, 10 hours of weekly rehearsal, helping with workshops, going on residencies, a four- or five-show run," Sydor says, recounting the list of expectations. She decided to speak up and ask what the pay would be. The answer: a nominal stipend that, when all was said and done, would amount to less than $2.50 an hour.

Sydor backstage, as the Fairy Godmother, in Dayton Ballet's Cinderella, Photo: Zachary Leighton, Courtesy Sydor

That idea didn't sit well with Sydor, who earns a more substantial hourly rehearsal rate, in addition to performance fees, through her jobs with David Parker and the Bang Group, The Metropolitan Opera, and the electro-pop band Fischerspooner. “It just feels wrong to ask for that much time and not compensate your dancers," she says. “It breeds resentment. It would be impossible for me to want to give of my artistry fully when my time is not respected."

Fair or not, most dancers, like most artists of any kind, will inevitably work for free—or very little—at some point in their careers. When you're first starting out, an unpaid apprenticeship with a distinguished choreographer can give you valuable experience or lead to future jobs; projects with friends, who might have nothing material to offer but a post-rehearsal cup of coffee, can provide a sense of creative fulfillment; a voluntary gig at a well-known venue can enhance your resumé.

Even if you come away with empty pockets, you might pick up a new movement vocabulary. But in the long run, valuing yourself as an artist and making a living through dance requires a discerning approach to the question of when to dance for free.

For 32-year-old Aaron Mattocks, a New York–based freelancer who has performed with Big Dance Theater, Faye Driscoll, David Gordon, and other contemporary choreographers, the answer has changed with his career path. Feeling frustrated with the audition circuit after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Mattocks accepted a demanding administrative job as the company manager for Mark Morris Dance Group. He continued performing on the side with dance artists he had met in college, but the payback was purely artistic.

“The issue of compensation—I breezed over it," Mattocks says. “I thought that essentially anybody who was willing to put me in their show was doing me a favor, because I was so happy to be rehearsing." If offered a small stipend, Mattocks would often donate it back to the choreographer or put it into a savings account, since his full-time job provided all the income he needed.

Over the years, these peripheral projects led to better-paying performance opportunities, and two weeks before his 30th birthday, Mattocks left office life behind to pursue dancing full-time. Now, even while performing as much as possible, he places a higher value on his time and talent. “What I've realized as a freelancer," he says, “is that I'm actually running a small business. It sounds so cheesy, but I am. This is the only way that I'm earning money, so I have to treat it that way."

In deciding whether to do a certain project, Mattocks consults what he calls a “three-pronged matrix" of freelancer incentives: career advancement, personal satisfaction, and paid compensation. A worthwhile project fulfills at least two out of the three criteria. “If you take the monetary part out of that triangle equation," Mattocks says, “it really has to be either a definite step in your career, or something that's going to be completely emotionally satisfying"—or, ideally, both.

With any new opportunity, Mattocks makes an effort to discuss compensation up front. “It's always good to know in advance that I'm choosing to do something for free," he says, “because then I feel like I have agency around that choice, and I know how to prioritize the rehearsal schedule."

Sarah Cecilia Griffin, a freelance ballet dancer based in Oakland, is even more selective when it comes to dancing for free. “Unpaid work? I can't do unpaid work," states Griffin, 27, who also earns money as an artist's model. From 2006 to 2009, she performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble (a full-time, paid position) before relocating to the Bay Area, where she has danced with Oakland Ballet, Amy Seiwert's Imagery, and a variety of school-produced Nutcrackers (which she calls “the freelancer's friend").

Sarah Griffin, Photo: David DeSilva for Amy Seiwert's Imagery, Courtesy Griffin

“I'm an experienced professional, and I believe in being compensated at least a small amount for any project," Griffin says. She adds that “choreographers can't opt out of paying to rent a studio; they can't opt out of theater fees for performances; so why is it acceptable to opt out of paying dancers?" Even if it means not rehearsing for a month or two, Griffin prefers to spend her time taking class and going to the gym, rather than taxing her body—and risking injury—with work that offers little concrete payment. (She makes the occasional exception for projects with friends that require a low time commitment.)

This wasn't always the case for Griffin. Early on in her career, she took a full-time traineeship at Cincinnati Ballet—which paid her only for performances, not for the eight-hour rehearsal days—hoping it would lead to a contract. It never did. Still, she thinks that pre-professional dancers can gain valuable experience from this kind of traineeship, provided that “you're living at home, or in a situation that allows you to invest your time in that way."

At the other end of the spectrum, there are dancers like Joanna Furnans, for whom money is almost an incidental perk. Furnans, 32, has spent the past 11 years carving out a career in Minneapolis, where she's worked with choreographers like Morgan Thorson, Karen Sherman, and Chris Schlichting. Knowing the fickle state of funding for contemporary dance, she relies on her stable but flexible restaurant job for income. (“Age-old cliché, but it totally works for me," she says.) This gives her the freedom to dance in projects that interest her, regardless of compensation. “Whether or not I do a piece has nothing to do with money anymore," Furnans says. “As long as I'm doing work that fuels me, that's the main thing."

Joanna Furnans in Karen Sherman's One with Others, Photo: Jeff Woodward, Courtesy Furnans

Some would argue that the decision to dance for free goes beyond the realm of individual choice—that dancers who accept little or no compensation do a disservice to the field as a whole, perpetuating the ubiquity of unpaid work by readily accepting it (see “Rant and Rave," Dec. 2012).

But even Sydor, who objects on principle to nonpaying jobs, has a good guess as to why dancers take them: “I think because our careers are so short, we just want to dance. We won't be able to do it forever, so there's this urgency. If you're trying to be a dancer, you most likely really, really love it. And if you love something, you are more willing to do it for free."

When Money Is Tight...

Most choreographers would like to pay their dancers, but especially for those just starting out, financial realities can be harsh. If traditional dollars and cents aren't an option, other forms of compensation can go a long way. Here are three alternatives:

1. Respect for your schedule: “I work to be as structured as possible in terms of time in rehearsal," says Jessie Young, an emerging choreographer in Chicago. “I give my dancers all the rehearsal times, and they tell me what they can and can't do. Because I'm not paying them hourly, if they need to go to work, I say OK, because I understand that they have to go where they need to be for money."

2. Class and home cooking: The cost of dance classes can add up, so Tim Rubel, based in San Francisco, starts his rehearsals by offering a one-hour class. “It's a warm-up that gets us all moving collectively," he says, adding that it gives him a chance to test out choreographic ideas. Getting everyone together for dinner is another way of giving back."

3. Bartered goods and services: Sarah A. O. Rosner, a Brooklyn-based choreographer with a background in arts administration, used to compensate her dancers barter style, through her A.O. PRO(+ductions), which is her consulting business. “I would do admin work for someone who was offering a massage or Alexander Technique lessons," says Rosner, “and I would give those things to my dancers to use, passing along the bartered goods I'd earned." As her company has grown, she's started offering, in addition to performance fees, a low rehearsal wage—$3/hour—which she hopes to increase gradually to $10/hour.

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