Freelancer Doesn't Mean Free

I was teaching an open class earlier this week to a handful of adult students. If I'm not rushing off to rehearsal after teaching, I usually stick around for a bit to see if any students have questions about the material from class. While hanging out after that class, a student walked up to me to mention that their friends were producing a music video and that they were looking for ballet dancers to partake in the filming. I asked about the details of project and the first thing they mentioned was, "well, they can't pay you, but it will be fun." I very politely stated that it will be hard to get a dancer of quality without any pay. My student understood, the conversation ended, and the subject for this blog was born.

Anybody who is on Facebook has seen those, what I believe are called, memes. I hate these things, but it is impossible to ignore each and every one that passes on your screen as you peruse your news feed. About a week ago, I was doing just that when one of these pre-made statements in picture form crossed my vision. That particular meme can be seen to the right. Unfortunately, this statement is often true, "I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free." Even if it isn't completely true, artists work is way to often undervalued on a financial level. For instance, in the year 2009, according to the American Guild of Musical Artists website, New York City Ballet's leading dancers, in one of the country's highest level companies, started out making around $2300 per week (of course many other things come into play, like seniority and overtime). Just using this general amount, even if the dancers worked 52 weeks a year (which they don't), they would make $120,000 (Please keep in mind that this number is not correct and purely speculation). Now, let's look at the leading salary of players on a leading football team, like the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2009, the top 32 highest paid Eagles made more than $1,000,000 while likely working less than 52 weeks. Could you imagine somebody asking one of these players to play a game for free or to do a commercial gratis because it will be fun? It would be highly unlikely. I couldn't imagine any sane person asking this of a pro football player. So why do people assume that dancers, who already make so much less than other high-caliber athletes and artists, should just offer their years of training, pain, and fighting for perfection for relatively little or free?

Why is it so important to avoid offering your services for very little or no pay? My opinion on the subject offers many different reasons. First off, we aren't just artists. As the meme states above, we are real people with real bills and needs. It is a matter of survival. I have also found that unpaid work is usually low-caliber and can be dangerous. If a gig's director understood the work of dancers and respected them, they would provide a safe environment and sufficient compensation for their services. The biggest reason that I believe freelancers shouldn't work for free is due to the risk of injury. If a project can't afford to pay their dancers, how can they afford to ensure that conditions will be safe enough for them to dance?

Another really important reason that freelancers should avoid performing work gratis is one that I have struggled with personally. There are times when I have had as many as five offers for work during the same period. But, at other times, I have had no work lined up and felt desperate to find ways to continue feeding my hunger for artistic growth. When one is feeling desperate, they are more likely to say yes to free or very low paying work. Personally, I have found when I agree to do this type of work, I am usually disappointed with the quality of the gig and the final product. I have left rehearsals and performances feeling low and depressed, as if I had sold out. Also, if you are offering your services for nothing or close to that, you are lowering your value as a commodity. Think of that saying, "If you give away all of the milk, who wants to buy the cow?" So, even if times are tough or work is slow, I offer this advice to resist the temptation to take on free or undervalued work. It will be better for your product and even more important for your psyche.

There are a few instances where it may be appropriate to offer your services for free. If you have absolutely no professional experience, it can be positive to get performance experience on your resume. Just be sure that you are 100% aware of the expectations and requirements of your commitment. Be sure to research the gig to ensure that the producers are being honest about their notariety. Another situation that can be valuable is if the work is way out of your style. It may help you to grow greatly as an artist in a genre where you may not be qualified to seek work professionally. The last situation where I would consider working for free would be to help a close friend or a former association that greatly helped you on your path to become a person/dancer (old dance studio, school, religious institution, etc). In these situations, just be clear about what you can offer and what you need in order to avoid any issues that might sour your relationship if things don't go according to plan.

Unpaid or poorly paid work can be enticing, especially when you are having a dry spell. But there are few times that I feel one should accept this work. Maintaining your value and integrity are integral parts of marketing yourself as a freelance dancer. Respect yourself for the years of hard work you spent cultivating your technique and artistry. Not only will your product be more valuable, but you will feel better emotionally and protect your body along the way.


  1. As always I read and enjoy you exclusive views into the dance world, but this blog really hit home with me. Being a professional writer/screenwriter for over 30 years now,we have a term in the business called "deferred payment". This means that if the project you've worked on makes money, you'll get paid. Now being the financial rewards of putting on a dance program are pretty immediate, I was wondering if this practice is ever used? Oh and by the way, if a writer worth his salt is ever offered a deffered deal, he usually walks away. In the writting'filmmaking biz, defferd means "Not a dime".

    1. Glad this blog sparked something in you to comment. I have been offered deferred payment for performance and teaching, but always turn down the offer for performing and only twice accepted for teaching (to disappointment). The unfortunate thing is that when I am performing, I am too exhausted to commit myself to other work outside of that performance. So, if I choose to wait until the show is over, when and if the pay comes in, I may not be able to pay my rent. The only time I would consider doing deferred would be if I had a safe cushion in the bank and the project would really allow me to grow, an artistic investment.