How to Negotiate a Contract

Here I am at 10 pm on Friday night, sitting in front of my tv watching the Olympic opening ceremony, sipping on a glass of wine, and blogging. For a freelance dancer, searching for work and building your profile never ends. This aside, there are many aspects of freelancing that I have wanted to share with you since the inception of this blog. I have been hoping to discuss the ins and outs of negotiating a contract with a potential employer for quite a while, but I get nervous every time I think about it. Negotiating is tricky and can vary greatly from job to job, even if you are working for the same person. Please keep in mind that I can't share every detail of this process. If I did, it could jeopardize my own future negotiations. With all of that said,  I will share as much as I can to guide and educate all of you in the art of negotiating.

Even though you've enticed an employer to hire you through an audition, video reel, or word of mouth, you haven't officially solidified the job until you have agreed upon the terms of a contract and signed on the dotted line. For the first decade of my career, I was lucky enough to join professional companies that were governed by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents most professional ballet dancers in national and regional companies across the U.S. The union negotiates contracts in 2 to 4 year spurts and any dancer that joins the company is offered a contract that is set in stone and unchangeable. In my last three years with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was elected as a delegate for AGMA to represent the dancers of the company. Being a very active delegate, I was offered the opportunity to learn many of the inner workings of a ballet company. Not only was I responsible to insure the comfort and safety of the dancers, but I was also in charge of relaying information to dancers about specific aspects, including the financial state, of the company. In my final season with PNB, I put together a very intricate set of proposals and took on a major role in the negotiation of dancer contracts. I learned a lot in this process and have been able to use that knowledge in my own negotiations with companies and schools.

The first thing that comes to mind when people think about negotiating a contract is money. One thing I always take into consideration when negotiating is that nearly all of the organizations offering me work do not have the budget of a major ballet company. I can never approach negotiations as aggressively as I did when I was with PNB. I prefer to let a potential employer make an offer, instead of telling the company a "going rate." This gives me a good idea of the financial abilities of the company. If the pay offered is reasonable, I will automatically accept the monetary aspect of the offer. If it doesn't cover my monthly financial needs or is something I can't work with, I always make a gentle and polite counter offer. Somebody is offering you work, so be sure to thank them for their original offer before you counter offer.

Before countering with a new number, I suggest you take a look at your rent, utilities, groceries, etc. to determine your monthly needs. Keep in mind that if you are staying on location for an extended period of time, you may have excess bills beyond your home expenses. I also suggest that you research the company/school/project before beginning to negotiate. Check their website, reviews, and other online resources. This will give you a better idea of their budget and the functionality of the company. Money is the touchiest subject in negotiations. Keep in mind that most employers are making offers somewhere within a range of their maximum pay. Most companies that use freelancers have fewer resources and are doing everything they can to keep their company afloat on a smaller budget. There is often wiggle room, but if you jump too high in price or ask beyond your skill level you are likely to end negotiations and lose the job offer. Be reasonable and take your experience into consideration when you are creating a "going rate."

The last aspect of salary to take into consideration is whether you should be paid per week or per performance? I generally ask to be paid per performance if I am learning the choreography on my own and will be spending less than a week or two on-site. If I will be spending a few weeks with a company and will be learning the choreography on location, I will often request to be paid per week. If I am working considerably more on a performance week than during rehearsal weeks, I have negotiated to be paid a greater amount for the week of shows. All in all, though, come to an agreement that is fair, covers your monthly expenses, and represents your value as a dancer.

Unfortunately, most dancers and employers don't put much emphasis on the next aspect of negotiations. Often, these issues are discussed after the fact or arise while an artist is already working for an employer. I won't pretend that I haven't done this, but I have learned through my own and others' experiences that it is important to negotiate needs/comforts into your contract. Who will you be staying with? Your host family lives 5 miles from the studios. How will you get there? Will you be required to pay for shoes? You are staying in a hotel without any kitchen. Will you receive per diem for meals? Transportation from home to the location, requirements outside of studio rehearsals and shows (outreach, lecture demos, promotional activities, etc.), and therapy options are a few things to keep in my mind when you are getting things in writing. Many of these items tend to be discussed, but are never put on paper. If it will make you more comfortable to put things in a contract, you must mention it during negotiations. A lot of dancers prefer to keep needs and comforts out of their contract to speed negotiations along and avoid any uncomfortable disagreements. This is perfectly fine. But if something is important to your comfort, I would suggest having details written down in an email. This will protect you in the small chance that you need proof that something was promised to you. Companies almost always produce the contract that you will sign. They will be putting everything in writing that is necessary to protect them. Why shouldn't you do the same for yourself by requiring certain protections in place for you.

To be completely honest, I don't think anybody involved in negotiating dancer contracts is ever excited to discuss money and needs. Companies want to put on high-level productions and dancers want to dance. Nobody wants to sit down and have potentially uncomfortable conversations. Unfortunately, it is very important to have a contract signed by both parties for your own protection. I will almost never agree to dance without having signed a contract first. If you don't have things in writing and a company decides not to pay you, you are limited in your ability to recover that pay and relationships can quickly fall apart. The only instances where I have worked off contract have been while working with the school that trained me as a child and when details have already been discussed via email and a contract was being produced. Even with that information, I strongly suggest having a contract signed prior to working at all times.

Negotiating a contract is an art and requires a lot of careful thought and consideration. There are many more details about negotiating, but much of them are very personal and specific to each individual negotiation. If you would like some advice or need some more information, please feel free to leave a comment and I would be more than happy to contact you to help out. Happy negotiating and merde!


  1. Negotiating a contract with a Chinese company to dance in a production in Hong Kong...I am also a freelance dancer and feel very vulnerable due to the fact that the company that I would be contracting with is outside of the USA. Any tips or advice you might have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Nicole

  2. Worried about how to enforce a contract with a foreign company...:(

  3. Hey Wanda! Thanks for reaching out. I, unfortunately, have not yet had the opportunity to freelance outside of the US. I am sure that you need to research work laws in the country that you are working. If you have trouble finding this info online, don't be afraid to contact http://www.fracturedatlas.org/ or http://www.freelancersunion.org/ to see if they offer free consultations with lawyers that may have this info. I am also going to ask around my network of freelancing friends to see if they can share any information on this topic. Hope this helps!