Paying To Dance

by Helen Parlor

“By loving what we do can we excuse the standards of living that our payment offers? ” Helen Parlor asks why dancers should expect such poor financial returns for their skills.

When I was 18 and deciding where to go and what to do with my life,
I had a thousand possibilities. Passing my A Levels and looking toward a bright future excited me. I did not want to enter a mundane career;

I wanted a career with versatility and challenge.

I saw the audition for Swindon ‘s Foundation course whilst I was making my choices and I applied. Being accepted onto that course changed the whole scope of what my life was to become and five years later, after a degree course at NSCD, I graduated as a ‘professional dancer ‘.

Although my career as a dancer has been a successful one and I have been lucky with lots of enjoyable work, I still cannot help feeling separated from the rest of the financial working world. I love my work, but does that constitute bad or no pay?

I can give examples of the many opportunities of ‘work ‘ where the company is only offering ‘travel expenses ‘. Did I really spend over five years of my life training and sweating for a career where people think that no pay is reasonable?

Comparing Careers

Let us compare other careers where people have trained for five years. Would a lawyer stand up in court defending their client for expenses that covered the train fare home? Would an accountant audit company accounts for a complementary lunch and a good reference? Why then is it an acceptable proposal in dance? Do we, as artists not strive for financial security?

As I reach my late twenties, the friends I grew up with seem to live in a completely different world. With their first houses and new cars, their leisure time is theirs to enjoy, mine is making sure I have enough work to live and get by, desperately struggling to save for some sort of deposit for a house. I might get there one day.

I have been working professionally now for only six years, but I wonder how long I can continue for. I do not wish to leave the career I love, but is it possible to be independent financially if things do not change?

Time and time again I hear of dancers ‘ giving up their careers and retraining. When I ask them why, it is either to do with injury or more often because they have had enough of struggling along. Not because they are not any good at what they do, but because they have had enough badly paid contracts for them to think otherwise.

I chose dance as a career because I wanted a challenge. Academically
I was of good standard, so it was not my only choice. But dance and dance theatre excited me, it still does. But how long can I continue getting paid as if I were unskilled, I am in a constant battle with myself. My future worries me.

Many of my friends say to me ‘ooh I wish I had a job like yours ‘. What they see is my life on tour, going to this place then the next, occasionally abroad and they get to hear all the stories on my return of diversity and excitement. For them they compare this with their own lives, seeing mine almost as an extension of my student days, but people tend not to look any further. I agree, those parts of my life are fantastic and I have many unforgettable memories. Yet on return from tour I realise I have very little financial security and continually question the real advantages that this career offers. Life as a dancer is about ongoing learning and education. It is a busy life juggling aspects that twenty-four hours finds difficult to fit in.

More Money?
Some readers may ask why we give organisations like Dance East a hard time over how much money they spend on events with seemingly no purpose or point to them!

The simple answer is for the reasons laid out in this article. Dancers in the UK are highly skilled professionals who are asked to do a great deal of work for very little money.

As Helen points out; Dancers have to pay bills, mortgages, insurance and live their life just like anybody else does so here in the Lab we think it’s not such a good idea for dance related organisations to blow large sums of money on events without putting a great deal of thought into it first and considering the financial position that most professional dancers find themselves in.

(sidebars are written ‘s editorial team not the author)

Let us look at some facts: No holiday pay, sick pay, maternity leave, health benefits, car allowances, telephone costs, pension schemes. No security. Companies like Motionhouse Dance Theatre are trying to make some changes in these areas, but the money has to be released from somewhere.

So, not being covered for all of the above means that dancers are forced to supply these benefits for themselves. This sort of security can leave our bank balances at the end of the day fairly pitiful. We have not even touched on physiotherapy, massage, acupuncture, dance class expenditure, operation costs, the list goes on. Dance students beware before entering this career blindfolded!

Unless dancers start demanding more benefits or payment strategies, more and more of us will be forced to leave this career in order to be independent.

It still baffles me when people are genuinely surprised at the fact that I expect payment for what I do. This is my job, my livelihood, this is how I survive. When people watch dance a common comment is ‘you make it look so easy ‘. Of course what we are doing is far from easy, but it’s the skill that we have achieved from years of training which allows the viewer to regard it as so.

When creating a show for tour, research begins months before. Therefore, when we enter the studio our ideas have already been explored so that material can be made immediately. We begin at 9:30am with company class, ranging from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on what we have to explore. Class is necessary to maintain and develop essential skills we need as professional dancers. Like athletes, peak fitness is crucial. By maintaining our cardio-vascular training, injury rates decrease because our bodies are more efficient. This also aids performance standards. Dancers become more equipped and prepared to deal with tiring work, leaving the body with more control and choice to deal with performance.

We look at contact improvisation, flying skills, catching and falling at speed, catching and jumping with partner and character work. Constantly asking ‘What makes good composition? ‘ and trying to use what we explore as our ideas to create. It is sometimes difficult to re-create improvisation in the choreography, so trying to adapt the energy of what was explored can take some time. The afternoon is usually spent making the material for the show. Reviewing what we have made, looking at characters and relationships, how we use and relate to the props and set, finding new and exciting material and linking the parts of the show together. All of these things take a great deal of time, serious editing and stamina. The day finishes at 6:30pm. This is not a hobby. This is a profession about creating live and physical art.

Touring is a different kettle of fish. Weeks in different places, ranging from one end of the country to the other. From Stirling to Cornwall, from Travelodge to Travelodge. The advantage is that it is a fantastic way to see the country, if you have time to appreciate it.

An Example Week

Monday Leave evening. Company pick up and head for NE Lincolnshire, bed and breakfast.
Tuesday Travel and drop offs at schools. Teaching workshops all school day 9:30-3:30pm.
Wednesday Same as Tuesday.
Thursday Company dance class 9:30am. Set props and prepare stage. 12:40 PERFORMANCE (school). Get out of staging, 2 hours.
Friday Travel to Alnwick in company van. Unload equipment from van into venue.
Saturday Setting props: midday. Company class 2pm. One dancer teaching workshop pm. Show 7:30pm. Get out, load van.
Sunday Travel from Alnwick back to company base. Arrive base: 3pm.

Touring is a busy time. However, my cause is not to continously find fault. This work is extremely enjoyable and challenging. My dispute only relates to the opinion that dance, as a career, is not a ‘proper or important job ‘, a viewpoint held through lack of knowledge and understanding.

Being a dancer you have to be versatile. Especially when working in dance theatre and dance in education. You teach (a variety of ages from 3-70 years old, disability teaching, INSET, dance included, professional class, choreographic projects), you perform in the touring productions (no cover if you feel ill, sweat it out or face a cancellation fee), you do the get ins and get outs, you drive the company van to and from bookings and you are a compromising person. You have to be. To spend 24-7 travelling round the country with a small group of people, delivering work in a professional manner, you have to continually compromise and negotiate.

So there is the month. Let us take a look at our profit percentage:

Monthly Wage touring and teaching: £1,320 (May)
Car loan: £125
Fuel: £197.38
Phone Bill (professional): £62-48
Massage/treatment: £40 approx (dependent)
Gym Membership: (some people laugh at this expense, saying it is not a necessity. I would argue this point. By maintaining my fitness and muscle balance, the risk of injury whilst practising and performing is seriously reduced. To me this is a necessity. My body is my tool to do the work with.) £35
Pension: £46-60
Food on tour: £52-83
Trainers: £20
Public Liability Insurance: £10
Private Health Care: £24-97
Total: £614-26
Profit: £705-74

We have not covered rent, bills or other monthly costs. That basically covers the profit, with little left over. Not much to show for an expert in your field.

I am not an extravagant spender or one for expensive holidays. What I am is a hard worker who is genuinely interested in dance and what dance can do for other people. Being involved in numerous outreach projects I have seen how dance can improve peoples lives, improve communication, fitness and confidence.

I am now only asking for the recognition of this expertise. In the future I would like to continue my contribution to dance and the outreach projects I have had the pleasure of being involved in. However, I would like to see some changes. Perhaps the way forward is for dancers to acquire some pride and recognition for the skills they have. To question payment levels and to suggest more benefits.

By loving what we do can we excuse the standards of living that our payment offers? Is it time to work toward change, to ask questions, to debate and argue the balance of funding for dance, to recognise the unique skills we have to offer? Is it up to us, the dancers, to make that change?

I want to enjoy my career without these doubts. I want to be proud to be part of an art form that appreciates its artists and works toward a more stable future. Dance is important, even if we have to work toward that realisation.

Helen is a professional dancer with Motionhouse Dance Theatre