KNOW YOUR WORTH
How far would you go to get the job? Would you work for free just to get a foot in the door? When does an opportunity become exploitation?
Here, a dancer, on the condition of anonymity, speaks to Dance Australia's Michelle Dursun about her experience.
In such a competitive profession, how do you hold the line on pay and conditions when there are other dancers lined up to take your place? It is a slippery slope for pre-professional and early career dancers.
According to Julie Englefield, from Ausdance Queensland, dancers are the lowest paid profession within the performing arts. This just simply does not tally with the years of training, hard work, perseverance and dedication it takes to “make” it. But what happens if “making it” becomes a nightmare? One young dancer and graduate from a full-time pre-professional dance program has come forward to share her experience of what happened when she asked questions about her contract and stood up for herself in her “dream job”. This is her story:
I am trying to make a professional career out of dance but it has not been easy. A lot of opportunities are presented in a way to make you feel that you should work for free. There’s a sense of “you should feel grateful” to be doing something instead of being paid for it. I’ve trained a lot for this. I’ve got the skills and these skills are deserving of paid work. I’m trying to find an employer who appreciates that and who is willing to pay me what I am worth. It has been really challenging – a real struggle, especially because there are only limited roles in the dance sector.
Coming up through full-time dance schools, you believe that when you get into a company, you’ve made it. The expectations are very black and white, you make it in a company or you don’t. There wasn’t a focus on the freelance side of things and other types of opportunities.
We were taught not to work for free and we were informed about the Live Performance Award. However, we were also told by professional dancers that if you’re not willing to do something for free, then someone else will.
We were told that it’s very hard to get a job, but the specific numbers of how many people are actually employed full-time as dancers (in Australia) were never discussed. I felt like this advice was more about trying to tick a box in the curriculum. In some schools I attended the attitude was, “let’s focus more on your skills and not about the actual employability”.
The pre-professional year program was the one that I feel really prepared me in regards to what to expect and who to reach out to for support. The organisation actually brought in someone from Ausdance NSW who went through everything and talked to us about what to expect.
I have had some positive experiences [working as a dancer] where there’s been transparency, honesty and appreciation. When I’ve had good contracts it has been really fun. I was actually working as a dancer and getting paid for it and that brings a sense of security. But I’ve also experienced people underpaying and undervaluing. The undervaluing hurts the most.
This dancer recently lost a job for requesting the opportunity to negotiate the terms of a contract. She says:
When I joined this organisation, very few people were even on a contract and very few people were being paid. I was the one who would encourage others to ask for payment. We were not paid to participate in company class. The director told us this was standard for any company and he made us believe it. We were made to feel grateful to have the opportunity. I think the first class that I did, I even paid $10. At one point there was a pre-professional year as well, where people were paying to get professional experience. They were [supposed to take part] in the classes but they were literally just sitting on the floor at the back of the studio watching and they were paying for that.
Sometimes I wasn’t even trying to challenge anything, I was just asking questions about rehearsal schedules and the response was “how dare I challenge their authority as a director with such an inappropriate question?”. It just made me and other people in the company fearful to speak up about anything. It was a small organisation so there was no one else to go to. I felt 100% isolated.
When I asked about the rehearsals, I was given a performance review. Because I asked for clarification around something, my performance needed to be reviewed? I was told that any further questions were to be brought up in my performance review. So even that felt very passive aggressive. There was a lot of uncertainty.
My contract consisted of a paragraph saying this is how much I was going to be paid per hour but it mentioned nothing about a performance rate, nothing about annual leave or sick leave or superannuation, there was nothing. I thought I was an employee but then it was made very clear that I was a sole trader, but I was confused because my title was “company artist”. I was being told that I was going to be paid on a regular basis, but I wasn’t. I know at the moment there are dancers who aren’t on a contract, who are still waiting to be paid. My contract was terminated, because of clauses that I put into my contract, that I had a right to do as a sole trader, just to cover myself.
Since standing up for myself and subsequently losing my job, I’ve told myself multiple times I’ve done the wrong thing. The company continues to perform at theatres a lot bigger than the ones I performed in and I would have loved that opportunity. My head tells me I’ve made a mistake. But then I have to take a step back and realise that all these problems would still be there if I’d continued, the lack of rehearsals or the lack of hours, the lack of money and the lack of appreciation.
So I need to reassure myself that now I’ve made the right decision and it doesn’t matter what venue they are performing at, the problems are exactly the same. My dream is to be an employee in a company but I’m not really fulfilling that dream if I’m not being fully paid, appreciated and supported. For me, overcoming this experience has been about learning to find support for myself. This really has affected my mental health a lot.
I know there are a lot of people out there who want to dance and want to perform in a company but to what end? Where do you draw the line? Unfortunately, without having support, that line can be pushed further and further. You’re gung-ho trying to impress someone who then takes advantage of your passion and desire to be a dancer. Moving forward, transparency is something I will look for. If pay and conditions are made clear from the beginning then I will be able to make an informed decision.
My dream is to be an employee in a company but I’m not really fulfilling that dream if I’m not being fully paid, appreciated and supported.”
There is somewhere to go.
If you need support in negotiating your rights, these organisations will help.
The Fair Work Ombudsman (https://www.fairwork.gov.au/).
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) https://www.meaa.org/meaa-equity/
Want to know more? Read additional articles on this important topic in the J/F/M issue of Dance Australia. It's not too late to buy: just go here.