We often talk about dancers pay but just how much is enough when it comes to paying a professional dancer for the skills and the hard work they bring to a dance company.
Wednesday, 25 June, 2014
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Scottish Dance Theatre in 'Second Coming' photo by Maria Falconer - Dancer Nicole Guarino
by Michelle Lefevre
What is a fair wage for a professional dancer? It's a common question and there is no simple answer but here in TheLab™ we are always up for a challenge so let's see if we can work it out.
A few organisations in the UK, Equity and The Independent Theatre Council to name two, think they have cracked the formula but for some reason their formulae always favour the employer and end up screwing the dancers over. It's almost like they don't have the individual dancer's best interest at heart.
Equity was the organisation responsible for negotiating the £358.72 per week pay level for dancers working at The Royal Opera that we reported a couple of weeks ago. Whatever their misguided reasoning we can all agree that particular pay level is an insult and move on.
The Minimum Wage
The only available baseline we have for a legally enforced salary is the national minimum wage. In the UK this is set by central government and comes in at £6.31 per-hour. For a 40 hour week you would earn £252.40 before deductions or £13,124.80 annually.
Minimum wage laws were introduced to protect those working in unskilled jobs from being exploited by employers. The minimum wage laws don't take into account the cost of living and there are many who argue not for a minimum wage but a "living wage".
Professional dancers are not "un-skilled" however so any discussion about paying them minimum wage is moot.Degrees of Skill
Trying to determine a specific number is going to be tough because no matter what the profession salaries are based on a fairly arbitrary decision making process.
Most employers derive their pay levels based on a few basic factors; How hard is the job, the skills level of the person required to do the job and the experience of the person that is ultimately hired. For some fields of expertise the rarity of a qualified person to do the job will also be a factor.
In a lot of large scale industries there is also the "cheap factor". Even companies that make billions in profits ever year still pay many of their employees low wages because they can get away with it.
There is plenty of evidence that the "cheap factor" is present in the arts but let's assume, for the purposes of this piece, that the employers have some ethics.
It's also important to note that a professional dancer's value is not linked, as you might think, to the audience who watches them perform or the art-form in general but to the company they perform with or whomever their employer is, in whatever capacity.
A company cannot exist without the dancers nor can the company deliver on their artistic goals if they have no artists to work with. The merits of a particular show have nothing to do with the popularity of a particular performance or tour.
Irrespective of whether or not there are 100 people in an audience or 1000 the professional dancer on the stage has to perform the same work with the same high degree of commitment and skill.
If we break down the requirements for a job as a professional dancer into 1. Job difficulty, 2. Skills required to do the job and 3. Experience of the individual professional dancer we have somewhere to start.
We can also factor in some supply and demand numbers and we will get to that later.
Let's begin with "job difficulty". This varies from company to company and choreographer to choreographer but there is no doubt that any job that involves creating and performing a professional level dance work is extremely difficult.
It is a job that can only be done by a well trained professional dancer. You can't drag somebody in off the street, give them a few weeks and expect them to operate effectively in a company like, for example, National Dance Company Wales.
We should also factor in the personal physical risk to the dancer when they are rehearsing, training and performing. This is something that is unique to the art form, not a lot of cellists get injured playing for the LSO.
Next up are the skills required to do the job or more accurately, the work required to obtain those skills. Years of training are needed to reach the level that most dance companies require before they will even think about hiring a dancer.
Even after they graduate dancers need to keep on training and learning both to maintain their physical capabilities but also adapt to the ever changing requirements of the art form.
These skills and the work required to obtain and maintain them should be rewarded by good wages when employers seek to exploit those skills within their work.
Experience is a factor because, according to the many auditions notices we receive, dance makers want upwards of three years of it before they will even consider hiring a dancer.
The more experienced the dancer the more their skills should be worth when it comes to their pay packet because it took time and effort to obtain that experience.
Finally, dancers in most companies do a lot more than just create and perform. They do admin work, teaching, organising, planning, travelling and a whole lot more. All of these things are skills being used by their employer.
It has been falsely claimed in the past, by people who should know better, that wages for dancers are driven down by the oversupply of dancers vs the amount of jobs available.
This thinking is based on a number of false assumptions. Firstly, not all professional dancers, no matter how skilled or experienced, are suitable for all of the jobs that become available.
You can't take a dancer from the corps of the Royal Ballet and realistically expect them to get a job with Motionhouse Dance Theatre and vice-versa. Dancers familiar with the repertoire of a single and very stylised dance maker like Richard Alston would not fair well, in most cases, auditioning for Jasmin Vardimon Company.
Professional contemporary dancers in particular are not readily inter-changeable between different companies and so are not always in direct competition with one another for every job.
If every dancer could do every job, if every dancer was the same then there would be no auditions, it would just be first come first served.
Another red herring is the number of applicants for each job or the number of dancers that show up to open auditions. Applying for a job or going to an open audition is not evidence that an individual is qualified for or capable of doing the job on offer.
Every dancer that graduates from a school is also not looking to move into the profession as a performer. Some concern themselves with other parts of the profession, like teaching, or drift away altogether into other careers. Sometimes the goal is simply to graduate.
Given all of the variables above a professional dancer falls into the category of a highly skilled, sought after employee in a high risk profession with a limited career life span.
If pay for a professional dancer is inline with other highly skilled professionals in other industries then with three years experience a dancer should be looking at at least £15 per hour.
For a 40 hour week on a 12 month contract this would be an annual salary of £31,200 or £600 per week for those on shorter contracts. For a 12 month contract this also keeps you just short of the UK's 40% income tax bracket.
New graduates should be looking at £13 per hour with an annual salary of £27,040 should they be lucky enough to be on a 12 month contract or £520 per week with shorter engagements.
Dancers with 6 or 7 years experience should be rewarded for that with a pay level set at £18 per hour or more. This delivers £37,440 in annual salary or £720 per week.
For professional dancers not living in London those salaries, depending on experience, would give them a real opportunity at having what the muggles would describe as a "normal life".
This normality involves things like paying bills, having a holiday every so often and being able to save money for the future.
For dancers in London and various parts of the South East of England the mid-range salary still means plenty of financial challenges but at least they get a fair shot at not living from week to week, pay cheque to pay cheque.
Perhaps more importantly these numbers set reasonable and fair baselines for weekly salaries that dancers should expect from dance companies and other employers.
The recent debacle over the Royal Opera paying just £358.72 per week shows just how out of touch the big companies and Equity are when it comes to pay.
Dancers don't need enough money to "get by", they need enough money to live a regular life just like any other employed person. The skills they bring to the table should easily guarantee them that one very simple thing.