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.

  • Pheobe

    I did actually respond to your comment but my comment seems to have disappeared!

    You use the sentence in your article; "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."

    It is this, and Anon's comparison with the Bar, that I was disputing. As you state, the Dance industry is an anomaly in the sense that it doesn't rely on consumer demand ("The salaries of professional dancers have nothing to do with ticket sales or audience numbers"). Therefore it cannot be compared with other industries- pay simply cannot be in line with other highly skilled professionals in other industries because they are totally different- other industries are driven by consumer demand.

    I am afraid you just reinforced the point I was making. You cannot make the argument that Dancers should earn the same as other highly skilled workers in other industries, and then balk at the idea that a dancers worth is linked to consumer demand, as it would be in other industries.

    I wasn't saying that dancers shouldn't earn more. In fact, I have the utmost respect for the skill level of a dancer and in light of the hard graft they put in, of course in an ideal world they would earn more. Pity its not an ideal world.

  • You are stuck on this idea that everybody's wages in, whatever industry, are linked to consumer demand when this is demonstrably not the case.

    The workers who build iPhones are paid pitifully poor wages compared to the relative demand and profitablity of the the product itself, as are the people who work in Apple stores all over the world. Do you think every software engineer at Apple is a multi-millionaire simply because of the profitability and demand for Apple's products?

    There is practically zero consumer demand for investment bankers and whatever skills they posses but many investment bankers earn seven or eight figure salaries.

    You pithily reject the point that people are treated poorly with "pity its not an ideal world" which ranks right up there with "that's just the way things are" and "if you don't have anything positive to say don't say anything at all".

    The points made in this piece are about ensuring professional dancers, who provide a public service, are paid commensurate with the service they provide and the skills required to provide that service.

    Society doesn't get to treat people like crap on the basis of a failed capitalistic idea that "the market" will sort things out.

  • Phoebe

    Thanks for your response, but I believe you have missed an important aspect of my comment. I was actually responding to 'Anons' comparison with the English Bar.

    I stated that the comparison between barristers earnings and the salaries of dancers were disingenuous because what a barrister makes IS linked to the demand for their services. If it is the case, as you state, that what a dancer should earn is nothing to do with the demand for their services (or 'ticket sales') then you are simply confirming my original point. That being that you cant compare the two industries.

    This renders the argument made by Anon as futile. In drawing a comparison with a barrister, Anon seems to suggest that as the skill level is similar, the remuneration should be the same. As I have outlined (and you have confirmed), they are totally different industries with salaries determined by totally different factors. Ergo, no fruitful comparison can be made. Therefore, dancers should only be compared to other dancers, barristers to other barristers, bankers to other bankers and doctors to other doctors. Any other comparison is unhelpful and confusing.

    You say that "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?". I agree that in an ideal world this would be the case. Personally, I think that a good midwife or nurse is far more skilled than an investment banker, similarly, a Surgeon is more skilled than an investment banker, has studied for longer and has more experience. However, most investment bankers earn more than surgeons and always earn more than nurses.

    A simple understanding of the word 'worth' encompasses supply and demand. I am not saying it is right, I am just giving my interpretation of the word 'worth'. Sorry if you don't agree.

  • jeffinjersey

    There are additional, non-pragmatic factors. Dancers tend to have what Pierre Bourdieu called "social" and "cultural" capital. "Oooh, ahhh, YOU'RE a DANCER?!" (sound familiar?), etc. etc. including many more complex expressions. The audiences, families, acquaintances, shopkeepers who find out 'YOU'RE A DANCER?" are expressing something like the social and cultural capital that accrues to the highly-skilled among us who work as dancers in the financial capital environment, which is insufferably low for dancers BECAUSE of their social and cultural capital (that is, as if that should be enough, but clearly isn't). There should be a). some way to name this stupidity, and b). some sort of equivalency that takes into account these realities, i.e., social and cultural capital count and should be able to be converted into cash equivalencies, somehow. How? I don't know. Discuss...

  • DWC

    I agree with Phoebe, there is a significant metric that was left our of this article and that's what the customer or client would be willing to pay. And even though the author suggests that the dancer does not directly work for the audience but instead the company, where do you suppose the money does come from?

    As someone that previously has danced professionally in classical ballet (albeit not in England but in North America) and who is now working in the financial sector, you have to consider that one huge aspect that has been neglected: regardless of what is deserved, one will only be paid for what their time is worth to someone else.

    As a dancer, I was only worth as much as arts-lovers or aficionados were willing to pay on a Friday or Saturday evening for a performance. Then factor in what the company paid for the theatre rental (if we were not presented), rights of works performed, staff employed for administration, ticket sales, wardrobe department, artistic staff, and so on. If dancers earn more, then either others earn less or ticket prices go up (or maybe the unlikely scenario of the government chipping in more). And unfortunately, we as dancers just weren't worth that much to the audience. It doesn't matter if the company thought we should be paid $100K per year, you can't bleed a stone.

    In the financial sector, I'm worth the same. What someone is willing to pay for my time. The difference being is that I am now considered a necessary 'expert' for my clients' financial affairs. I'm not just something they may consider from time-to-time for an enjoyable and pleasurable evening.

    You make many good points on the skill and time and difficulty of the profession. I don't suggest that the compensation for dancers is 'fair'. But as Phoebe suggested, it is what (if not more, due to government subsidies, which I don't receive in my current job) than what the market values dancers at. Sorry.

  • You make the same flawed assumption as the previous commenter. The system you describe, that you worked under in the United States, is not comparable to the one we have in the UK or in Europe in general.

    Professional dancers do not have customers or clients, they are employed by a dance company to do a job which is, in the majority of cases, more involved than a performance on a Friday and Saturday evening.

    As noted by the former Royal Ballet dancer, the salaries in that company start at £26,000 (although we have no date information for that number) which is only £1,040 lower than our suggested starting figure for a contemporary dancer in a full time position at a subsidised NPO.

    This is a clear indication that the salaries mentioned in this piece are easily achievable.

    We also note that the NEA (US arts funding body) spends just £81Million (approx.) per annum whereas the UK spends over £2.3Billion (over a four year period) on the arts. Many European countries spend considerably more than that relative to their level of population.

  • DWC

    Aside from the level of government funding, companies in North America (I'm Canadian but have danced in both countries) operate very similarly than companies in Europe, from what I remember of my time in Europe. We work at the company on a full-time basis, Monday to Friday unless it's a performance weekend or week in which case it's more. And I understand there aren't customers or clients, but do audiences pay for shows? Purchase tickets? Generally in the world outside of dance the people on whom you rely for generating revenues (not subsidies) are referred to as clients or customers. I remember purchasing tickets to attend performances in Europe, so whether you want to call that a customer or audience member, they generate a stream of revenue and as such are a part of the market forces at play when determining the value of a dancer which was ignored in the original article.

  • Again, allow us to clarify. There is no "government" funding their is only "public" funding, it is an important distinction. The whole purpose of subsidy is to create the economic conditions whereby the art can be created, toured, performed, etc. It also creates the economic conditions whereby all of the eduction and outreach work can take place.

    The entire purpose of subsidy is to make high quality cultural work accessible to all irrespective of market forces.

    In Europe (and probably in North America in many cases) cultural activity is not a simple transaction of company costs being recovered by selling tickets. The ticket sales for a touring productions are only a very small part of the equation if they are a part of the equation at all. Some theatres just pay the company a fee for the performance and ticket sales receipts are of no relevance to the company.

    Cultural provision is a public service paid for, in large part, by the general public. Dancer's salaries are already paid for by the money the company receives in grants from (in England) Arts Council England, it's just another part of the cost of doing business.

    Ticket sales and the cost of those tickets are largely irrelevant.

  • 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