The EvilImp™ 'The Cost Of Free'

There is one thing that is certain in the life of a professional dancer and that is the need to attend a class or six as often as possible to make sure their respective talent is still where it's supposed to be. OK, terrible pay and being treated like a third class citizen are also a given but let's focus on the class issue for now.

Finding a class is, often times, a challenge but when they dancers do find one the process of attending should be simple. The dancer walks into the studio, pays some money and they do the class. This is not an equation that would pose a significant challenge to Sheldon Cooper, or any other fictional physicist, unless that is, you want to attend a professional class at Dance City, the National Dance Agency based in Newcastle upon Tyne.

In an attempt to control the hordes of dancers who, apparently, want to attend the daily class offered by the NDA, a series of "principles" (say what? Ed!) have been drafted to maintain order and prevent certain fingers getting lopped off as the front door to the studio slams shut, or something.

At least one of the "principles" (stop laughing at the back! Ed!) does actually make some sense. If you book a class and repeatedly fail to show up to actually do the class then you're not allowed to book anymore for at least a month. Dance City didn't explain how they keep track of this but it does conjure images of a rogue's gallery of professional dancers stuck on the wall with a tear-off number underneath, counting down the days until the dancer can (dramatic pause and frame for a close up) book again! This situation could of course be mitigated if the booking system was just abandoned altogether for a drop-in process.

Things go downhill from there however because you can't book a class over the internet via email, for example, you have to do it person or on the phone. Why you may ask? Well, that's so you can be grilled by whatever individual happens to be working that day about whether or not your training and/or professional experience passes muster to get you through the door in the first place. If you choose not to hand over this information then you can't get into the class. Of course, if you so choose, you can just make something up to get through because Dance City is not the FBI and they can't check anyway, so why bother asking in the first place?

If you want to leave class early, then you can't do that either, it's not allowed. Dance City claim this is because some dancers were unhappy about other dancers leaving class early. We put it to Dance City that dancers may be leaving early because they have to get to work so if they can only do the barre, for example, then so be it. Other than offering a somewhat patronising response about some participants not being able to do the full class because it was too "energetic" the larger point was not addressed. Dance City also did not specify how dancers leaving class were monitored (if at all) or what happens if you dare to leave class before the bell rings.

Classes start at 9.30am. If you don't get into the building by 9.15am then you lose your place to a student unless, like an errant child, you have called to explain why you are delayed or unable to attend. Presumably the reason for not attending will be scrutinised for validity and those considered to be shirking will be placed on the wall of shame, if it existed. If you just rock up at 9.16am, without booking in advance, then the professional does not have priority over a 3rd year BA student, and so it goes on.

Students are also not permitted to attend class unless they get a tutor's permission. Why the students are doing the open class and not the class provided by their course was not explained and if the students are attending class in their own time then what has that got to do with their tutor?

A representative of the NDA said that the rules were created in consultation with at least one of the teachers for the professional class but declined to say who that was. Article19 could not find any dancers or teachers who thought these rules were even vaguely practical.

Dinosaur Attack

Dance City claim that these restrictions are in place to make sure that dancers attending classes are not out of their depth and to adhere to the rules of that most British of things, Health and Safety. One dancer too many in a class and the building might collapse or the dancers could be eaten in a random dinosaur attack, you just never know. As for a dancer being out of their depth? If you show up to a professional class and you don't know your right leg from your left leg you're going to figure out pretty quickly that you shouldn't be there, as will the teacher, and a quiet word can be had.

When Article19 put it to Dance City that if capacity was a problem they could simply provide more capacity in one of their larger studios they responded;

"We commit studio 2 to be available every morning for pro class and respond on an as and when basis to the opportunity to move to a bigger space. Our larger studios and theatre are generally booked up and generating the income we need to be able to offer pro class free to our professionals."

Leaving aside the reference to "our professionals" (which is a bit odd) and the fact that anything happening in a publicly funded arts building is most certainly not free let's take a look at that. The teachers for each class are paid just £37.50 for teaching, or £187.50 per week. If Dance City provide classes for 45 weeks a year that's £8,437.50 in wages. Leaving aside the terrible rate of pay for the moment, Dance City's accounts show that "rental income", if that is what they are referring to, brought in over £46,000. Those same accounts also show "free reserves" of over £160,000.

In the financial year to 2015 Dance City spent £18,000 on "telephone" expenses, over £15,000 on travel and accommodation expenses, £34,000 on publicity and promotion expenditures, £32,000 cleaning the building, £55,000 fixing the building, and £25,000 on "sundry expenses", whatever that means. So in the grand scheme of things Dance City appears to be half-assing it when it comes to funding these "free classes".

The Cost Of Free

Dance City were keen to point out that they are the only NDA that provides a free professional class on a regular basis. However, there's little point in having a class available at all if you can't get in because there is not enough capacity, arrive 60 seconds late, didn't book in advance, lack appropriate credentials or have to leave early because you have to get to work. So maybe the class shouldn't be free at all.

If the classes were costed at £3 per session or £10 a week for five classes then this would fund a significant pay increase for the teachers, assuming Dance City continues providing their meagre financial support to the endeavour. Paying for the class would also give the local and visiting professionals some ownership over the proceedings. When something is free complaining about any issues can be, and are, easily dismissed because the response is going to be; "it's free, what are you complaining about?" Go ahead, try complaining to Google about your free email account!

Not paying for the class gives Dance City an easy out in terms of teachers pay and providing enough capacity for the class itself. The thing becomes little more than a gesture, a loss leader if you will, so an NDA can boast about their free professional class.

Perhaps the broader issue here is that a class, professional or otherwise, should not be overly constrained by bureaucratic meddling. An open professional class is a place for the dance community to get together and work together for 90 minutes. It's a place to learn and a place to be inspired by others. If there are one or two many dancers in the studio then the teacher can usually deal with it (ever been to a company audition class?), it's kinda what they do. If a student wants to test their skills in a professional class on their own time then back off and leave them alone and let them figure it out. If a professional dancer needs to leave a class early then back off and leave them alone.

In short, back off and leave them alone.

top image - open professional class takes place at Rom For Dans in Oslo, Norway - Photo by Article19

  • frusdan

    I suspect professional dancers are well down the list of Dance City's interests given the promoting of DC's valuable space for Hen Parties, Birthday Parties and Children's Parties on their website. Given that professional classes are filled with Gateshead College Students, who presumably have other alternatives, DC could also be seen as more interested in this lucrative link up than professional dancers. From it's 2015 accounts DC is also clearly well funded with over £448k in reserves and a donation of £70k from Newcastle City Council that went straight through to it's 'bottom line'. Efficiency is clearly another thing with over 55% of it's delivery costs being in support (salaries/power/insurance etc.) and 57% of this being salaries - very high percentages. One could draw the conclusion that it is a inefficient organisation set up primarily to pay salaries to predominantly admin/marketing staff. Not that good admin / marketing are not worthwhile. It's just about proportion. The problem with these kind of organisations is that they are set up with good intentions, then populated with admin, accounts and marketing staff who become salaried and then have to justify generating maximum income in order to maintain THEIR on-going roles. In the meantime they suck up all the national / local funding leaving little left for other small efficient organisations in the region and other artists (who will find themselves not particularly welcome at DC). This would all be fine if the heart of the organisation was truly committed to promoting and engaging with dance professionals and companies in the North, but hard to find anyone in that set that would have a good word to say. Why not maximise the return to dancers in pay, in space, in support and make something that is completely about northern dancers and minimise all other costs and survive that way, rather than be just more money and jobs for the usual crowd filling it's space with Hen parties. The wrong kind of people are running it. Hence your frustration I think.

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