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Last week, we brought you an account by a dancer who lost her job when she tried to negotiate the conditions of her contract. How common is her experience? Olivia Stewart investigates.

Ending exploitation can be difficult because often it has become so entrenched and accepted that those involved may not realise they are being exploited.

There is a Catch-22 in the scarcity of adequately paid dance work, which is filled by the elite of the elite. Those who can’t pick and choose resort to rationalising the remaining underpaid jobs as “opportunities”. Some may believe they are making a willing choice that will benefit them, now or later – experience or exposure, anybody? But the fact is you shouldn’t have to discount your skills to gain either. For example, when “green” university graduates in academic-based fields enter the workforce, they’re not paid under the minimum wage. Yet pro dancers are constantly faced with this dilemma – even those who have well and truly “paid their dues”.

It seems the one aspect in which dancers sit on top of the performing arts hierarchy is being underpaid and undervalued.

 Even those who do recognise the culture of exploitation can feel powerless to challenge the system, out of fear and/or because of a perceived favour or obligation.

In cases where dancers are employees, paying below Award rates is illegal. For the remaining majority of freelance artists, who are regarded as contractors, it is just plain wrong.

Performer Jonathan Mill is a former vice-president of Equity, the performers’ union (part of the Media, Entertainment & Actors

MEAA's Jonathan Mill
MEAA's Jonathan Mill

Alliance). He started his career as a dancer. He summarises the enduring status quo thus: “Equity was founded by dancers because they were the worst paid and they probably still are.”

Although the concept of “enterprise bargaining” is meant to be a two-way street, the power imbalance between an employer and an individual in an oversupplied field means that, unless an agent represents the latter, the bargaining is usually one-way.

As a result, the only way the culture of exploitation can change is by dancers exercising their collective power to say no to unfair practices. Mill believes that’s something they can do readily. “We're used to working collectively, that's what we do when we dance,” he declares.

He cites the example of the Silk Stocking Dispute 80 years ago forming the foundation for Australia’s performing artists union. “Dancers were fined by the employer every time they got a ladder in their stockings, to the point where they were being fined more than they were getting paid.” Thanks to their stand, “now it's in every one of our Awards: ‘the employer will provide shoes, stockings and socks’,” Mill notes.

The consensus of the advocates Dance Australia consulted for this article is that the starting point is education – for those within the workforce as well as potential employers.

Football and fairness

The furore over the AFL seeking professional dancers to perform for free at the 2020 Grand Final has become a pivotal

Meg Cooper.
Meg Cooper.

moment of raised consciousness inside and outside the sector. In response to public complaints, the AFL claimed it had not aimed its call-out at professional dancers and subsequently changed its casting notice to call for students (14 and over). However, that response, and its further defence that its practice of not paying these dancers had existed for decades, remained contentious.

One of the professionals who received the original AFL brief was Meg Cooper, the owner of Mad Dance House in Brisbane, which manages the Brisbane Broncos Dance Squad. Six months after that brief, she fielded another request to participate in an AFL Grand Final – this time for its women’s competition, the AFLW. The budget for 30 dancers was $1500.

“I can only laugh at it,” recalls Cooper, who founded MDH in 2003. “I was shocked – I was (thinking) don't you know this makes you look so silly? I’m just like, they still haven’t learned.”

Cooper is a fierce and forthright advocate for fair pay and conditions for dancers and choreographers, whom she also mentors. “I’m kind of in the middle of it because I don’t want to give up,” she says. Fielding requests for under- and non-paid work regularly, her response is a firm no – delivered with summaries of the Award rates. “It’s just that whole systemic (view that) dance is fun, it’s not a real job,” Cooper believes. “We just educate. I'm happy to be known as the vocal advocate.” And if that means being in the firing line: “Yes, I don’t care.”

The “take it or leave it” tactic from employers can manipulate artists into thinking that if they decline a job, they are losing an opportunity, when in actual fact they are being taken advantage of.


Some of the problem is self-induced. The practice of undercutting – dance artists charging less than fair rates in order to win a contract to produce, choreograph, or perform – creates a trickle-down effect that sees artists in subcontracted roles on the losing end.

Seasoned industry performer and teacher Tia Jordan, who is also trained in arts management, calls out those who’ll choreograph “for two bob and a lollipop” for pushing rates down.

Jordan founded and voluntarily runs the largest free community noticeboard for performing arts work in the country. With

Tia Jordan.
Tia Jordan.

66,600 members on FaceBook, Audition Listings Australia and its associated groups uphold stringent standards, championing transparency and only allowing listings to be described as paid if they meet Award rates.

Yet despite her group rules she posted, with a link to Equity Award minimums: “We get multiple post requests each day from people who think it’s perfectly fine to offer highly skilled performers no payment, a payment of $100, or even charge performers to be involved in their production.”

Jordan identifies two categories of people who submit under- or un-paid work to her platform: the naive and those who should (and likely, do) know better. She uses the platform to educate, much of it behind the scenes in dialogues with would-be employers, explaining the distinction between payment and an honorarium.

“The first group is people full of passion who don’t have the experience yet to know what is what. I educate them about the MEAA minimum awards, and I’ve actually had people adjust what they’re doing because of it and say thank you to me.”

Then there are those with industry experience submitting “so-called opportunities, ” she says. “They like to think that they’re doing everyone a favour, helping performers and supporting the industry by getting ‘more people on stage’. They are waving the flag of transparency like it’s a Get Out of Jail Free card.

“But I’m happy to go on record saying they are deluded if they are not paying at least Equity minimum.”

Perhaps the saddest indictment is the closing comment of one person she challenged: “We already have enough auditioning now, so no problem about [not not posting the lising].”

Concedes Equity’s National Director, Michelle Rae, “I think we have to own a little bit of our own history.” She quotes the late Queensland actor Carol Burns: “We can’t expect the bosses to value us if we don't value ourselves.”

Another component of this multi-generational complicity in undervaluing of dancers may be their conditioning over many years as students participating in commercial dance school performances or pro-am productions -- or even paying to take part. (It is not unusual for schools to be hired for a fee to provide dancers or a show by commercial producers)

Jordan expresses concerns about a lack of transparency in the fees levied on parents when it may be unclear whether a school is being paid by another organisation for its performance.

“If I was aware that something I was doing was undermining an entire industry that I’m trying to get my kid to join and be successful in then I’d think twice – but nobody’s telling the parents that.

“I totally get the excitement of having your child involved - I’m a parent too,” she states. “But if these studio owners are training these young people to be professionals, then they have a duty to educate them about how payment works.

She supports a shared funding model whereby studios open their books to specify the breakdown of costs involved in a production then divide these among participants. Brisbane teacher Rhonda Binnie is already doing this, and both hope it will become standard industry practice.

 Next: Steps to a better way.

To have your say, go here.

See Dancer Exploited

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