How Much Is A Dancer Worth?

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

watch now

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.

The Baseline

As we have mentioned before on Article19, minimum pay levels for dancers should form the basis of any funding application.

If you have ten dancers in a company and they all fall within the medium pay level outlined in this article then the baseline funding for the company would be £312,000 if the dancers are employed full-time.

That might sound like a lot of money but the reality is, to employ all of the dancers in all of the NPO companies on full time contracts at £31,200 per year would cost just over £6Million.

If you think that sounds crazy then consider this. The Royal Opera House spend more money than that on just 80 of their employees on an annual basis.

There is plenty of money to make this happen, Arts Council England just needs the leadership to make it happen.

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.

Formulaic

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.

The Market

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.

Numbers

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.

Top photo - Scottish Dance Theatre in 'Second Coming' photo by Maria Falconer - Dancer Nicole Guarino

  • Anon

    I trained at the Royal Ballet School for 8 years and had a 15 year career with three major companies including 5 years with the Royal Ballet company.

    If we assume that pay should be commensurate with relative skill level, rarity of your ability and amount of work/stress undertaken then salaries even at the major companies are far too low.

    Some figures:
    Royal Ballet School fees £30,000 per annum * 8 years = £240,000

    Starting salary at the Royal Ballet Company (one of the top 3 companies in the world) = £26,000. You could be lucky and end up with a salary of £90,000 as a principal within about 10 years, however this is VERY unlikely. Most likely it will be an average of £40,000 over a career of 15-20 years.

    In this position you are at the very top of your chosen field. You are one of maybe 300 spread over 3-4 companies who are the very best in the world.

    Compare this to a salary earned in other

    £240,000 spent on a private education would enable you to be (for example) a highly trained and educated barrister in London. Starting salary for commercial or chancery work is around £75,000 climbing quite quickly to well over £150,000, often reaching high 6 figures by the workers early 30's.

    The reason I've chosen the legal bar as a comparison is because that's another career that involves a lot of hard work and doesn't attract sponsorship deals like professional sport.

    Given the above figures I'd suggest that highly trained dancers need to be treated as such and offered starting salaries of £75,000 rising to somewhere around £250,000 for principal dancers.

    These are people who's jobs could not be done to the same level by anyone else except a very small pool (perhaps 5000 globally) of other people. Think of any other industry with this skill level. Wages are commensurate with skill level and rarity of relevant ability.

  • Phoebe

    I agree to an extent, but I think the comparison with the Bar is disingenuous. Barristers don't earn a salary- they are self employed and so therefore only ever earn what people are willing to pay them commensurate with their skill level, professional reputation and expertise. There is, quite simply, a very high demand for skilled barristers and that is reflected in what they earn.

    In an ideal world, wages would be commensurate with skill level and relevant ability, but the arts make money from what people are willing to pay to watch a particular show. If people are not willing to pay as much for an hour of watching a dance show as they are happy to pay for an hour of their lawyers time, then unfortunately a dancer will never make as much as a barrister, regardless of how skilled they are.

    In my mind its about supply and demand. That doesn't mean to say that I think its acceptable for companies to fleece dancers by pushing down the price of their labour, but I just think that market forces have to be a factor, a salary cannot simply be based on level of skill alone.

  • The salaries of professional dancers have nothing to do with ticket sales or audience numbers since they don't work for the audience or the theatre in which they are performing. The dancers work for the company. Also, the subsidised arts sector is subsidised for a reason.

    Additionally, dancers and dance companies provide services that reach far beyond the touring and performance aspect of what they do, more so in the contemporary world.

    We also disagree with regards to salary and skill level. Employees, no matter what field they work in, should be compensated relative to the job they do and the skills they have otherwise what is the incentive to take on difficult and demanding jobs? That many employers across a wide-range of industries exploit their employees and, thus far, get away with it is no reason to accept it.

  • Mike Singleton

    The only way to get
    the pay rate for dancers up to a sensible level is for dancers not to take work
    if it is not financially viable, this is a problem in all of the arts not just
    dance.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Corrupted Space

The Big Ten