A Dancer's Worth
Since February, the Dance Artists’ National Collective (DANC) has been holding monthly meetings where a growing number of dancers and supporters are hoping to enact a nationwide movement. Founded by Evvie Allison, Alex Rodabaugh, and David Gonsier, DANC aims to advocate for better standards of pay and employment for dancers, modeling itself off organizations like the Freelance Writers’ Project and W.A.G.E. (Working Artists for the Greater Economy), with unionization currently at the top of their priorities list.
Evvie Allison co-founded DANC after writing an article for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence on the dancers’ often poor working conditions. “We’ve known for a long time that dance is a gig economy,” Allison said at the meeting. As such, it has been difficult for dancers to consider unionizing, as the terms of dancers’ employment are so inconsistent. Unless hired by a major dance company that has the resources to offer full-time employment, dancers working as freelancers are often hired as independent contractors rather than employees. Yet in order for a dancers’ union to be effective, choreographers would need to be encouraged to consistently hire dancers as employees, via a W2 rather than a 1099. According to Griff Braun, a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists who is helping DANC, hiring dancers as employees is actually consistent with the nature of the work that dancers do, given that dancers are expected to adhere to an employer’s specific schedule to do their job.
What DANC is attempting to coordinate requires vast systemic and structural changes in how dancers are compensated. It’s simple enough to wish that dancers be paid fairly for their labor, but there are complicated realities about how much money is available to dance artists and choreographers to begin with. Exploitation of dancers’ work is sometimes seen as a necessary condition for the industry to function at all. One person present at the meeting was also a member of the communist collective Red Bloom, and brought to light the parallels between DANC’s goals and those of broader anti-capitalist activism.
Negotiating with larger dance companies on this point may be more straight forward than negotiating with independent choreographers, who themselves struggle with scarce financial resources. While DANC recognizes and empathizes with the dire financial situations all across the dance sector, they see their role first and foremost as advocates for the dancers.
The question is how to encourage the first step of consistently hiring dancers as employees, in order for the next step of unionizing to be effective. Nothing can happen without dancers mobilizing. “We want dancers, and a lot of them,” Braun said. Only when DANC has the support of the dancing community will the movement gain traction. Then, collectively, dancers can begin to dictate clearer terms for how they should be hired. Another potential way to encourage choreographers to hire dancers as employees rather than independent contractors is to work with funding bodies to include such stipulations in their grant criteria but, again, this step comes further down the track.
The group that gathered at the DANC meeting in September was overwhelmingly comprised of dancers who have since moved into other professions (including myself). It’s interesting that those most invested in the issue of pay and working conditions are those who are no longer directly affected. This is why DANC also sees working with dance educators and colleges as one of its responsibilities, to encourage young dancers to better understand their rights.
After the meeting, I discussed with one of the participants how young choreographers might be affected by stronger regulations on hiring dancers; if, say, they’d be unable to hire dancers because they didn’t have the finances required to compensate performers appropriately at that early stage in their career. Our conversation revealed a typical mental hurdle when negotiating dancers’ pay. Young dancers will always find ways to make their work, and one would hope they wouldn’t be discouraged by too much red tape. But a dancers’ passion to work can actually be a part of the problem, creating a mindset where inadequate pay is often accepted as a necessary condition, a love of dance seen as its own reward, even as dancers move up to work with larger institutions that do have considerable resources.
One of DANC’s current areas of interest is how performance is compensated in galleries and museums. “My experience with galleries is what galvanized me to do this,” said Alex. This particular conversation about performers’ compensation from museums came to the fore in 2010, when performers hired by MoMA for the Marina Abramovich retrospective negotiated for better working conditions and pay; the performers were required to stand naked for long periods of time, which lead to some visitors taking advantage and inappropriately touching the performers. “The initial offer we received from the museum struck many of us as untenable,” wrote Abigail Levine, Gary Lai, and Rebecca Brooks in a joint statement. “$50 for a two and a half- hour performance shift, no compensation for prep time or time in between shifts, and, most troublingly, no workman’s compensation, which would cover us in the case of injury. Through a first round of negotiations, we achieved a modest pay increase and a change of status to ‘temporary employee,’ which provided us workman’s compensation and some other benefits. However, we were only able to approach a fair wage for our work after two fainting performers made evident the difficulty and risk of our work.”
Major museums and galleries have since made efforts to improve their standards when working with performers, yet there are still plenty of difficulties. Present at the DANC meeting was a performance producer from a major New York gallery (who wished to remain anonymous). The producer outlined some of the problems large institutions face when working with dancers, including how insurance potentially requires budgets to remain open for long periods after a project is finished, which conflicts with how a large gallery’s budget is accounted for. The producer also suggested that if performers working with galleries were hired under a company structure, some of these problems would be eliminated. As such, it is easy to imagine that the fight for better employment conditions will most greatly benefit those already in the stable employment of a company, while for independent dancers and choreographers the situation will remain weedy.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this conversation about money has arisen from performance in the gallery. Visual art has always related more directly to money and valuation, the art object being an artifact of cultural currency that then becomes monetary currency. Arguing over the monetary value of an art object more closely aligns with capitalist thinking, while arguing for the monetary value of labor (performance) has a distinctly more Marxist flavor. One person present at the meeting was also a member of the communist collective Red Bloom, and brought to light the parallels between DANC’s goals and those of broader anti-capitalist activism. It is in that spirit of base building and collective power that DANC hopes to bring dancers together in solidarity, to undo the common understanding that dancers who demand better pay will be overlooked for someone else willing to work just for the love of dance.Dancers, who so value community, are uniquely equipped to make such collective action possible, but in this case, only if they do so in great numbers. As Braun stated over and over at the meeting, “the organizing part is primary.”