Why artists are expected to have little self-value?

I have been taking a hiatus from all forms of social media for the past week. Riding on the sweet success of Life of a Freelance Dancer accruing 25,000 views, I felt that it was time to take a week away from marketing myself as a product and to sit back, relax, and assess where I am going in this career. My first week without any form of social media in my daily life since 2004 has taught me a lot and given me a fresh new perspective on my intentions and actions, which I am grateful for at this time in my life. In less than a week, I leave for Los Angeles to rehearse for and perform in the launch of Barak Ballet. And in less than two weeks, I turn 30 years old. As I grow older, I grow wiser and my dancing has more value. But what I've also learned over the past week is that certain parts of the dance world don't agree with this.

(I would like to start this post with a disclaimer. This writing has some delicate moments and harsh realities that could be seen in the wrong light. I have no intentions of harm or dischord in publishing this, but I feel that this is a sensitive topic that needs to be discussed.)

Guesting w/Ballet Nova for Nutcracker (Photo: Ruth Judson)
Tis the season for Nutcracker to start calling. I have had a handful of offers through friends and employers that found me through my website. While I always appreciate being contacted to perform, I can't take every offer that comes my way. Sometimes, I am already booked during a period that my services are requested. At other times, an offer may not be substantial enough for the work that I need to put in. While I am passionate about what I do, this is how I make my living and I need to be picky about choosing the best option for myself, artistically and financially.

Last week, I was blown away by a situation that I found myself in. I had been contacted with a request to perform in a school's Nutcracker. While their offer was very generous, their consideration of what constituted a paid performance was not cohesive with mine. In typical fashion, when an offer is not agreeable for me, I either counter-offer or gracefully step out of the negotiation. On this occasion, I felt we could work something out and decided to counter-offer. Instead of receiving a response of agreement, negotiation, or decline, I was sent a scathing four paragraph email that badgered me, tore apart my resume, and tried to devalue my worth. This was all from somebody I had never met and that had never seen me dance. To be completely honest, I was so shocked I couldn't even be upset. Instead of reacting to this difficult response, I ingested the content as a learning experience and replied with a brief note thanking them for taking me into consideration and suggested that they move on to their other options.

While I didn't take this unprovoked attack as a truth, I did gain a lot of insight from my many days of processing this unnecessary response. As a dancer, you are expected to be open, available, and humble. While you are expected to respect the process and the system, that process and system does not have to respect you. I've learned during my 11 years as a professional that while there are human emotions involved in the interactions that take place in the creation of a performance, that in the end, the production takes full precedent over any situation that may involve emotion. Casting, injury, life events, arguments, money, and more. In the end, nothing matters except that the best product be put forth onstage.

When I was in my final year of training at the School of American Ballet, I very clearly remember ingesting one of the most shocking statements made by one of my most respected teachers. "Ok. So you're grandma died this morning. But that person sitting in the audience paid $200 for their ticket. They don't care how you are feeling inside. They want to see a good performance." As difficult as this was to hear, it was true. I've seen this exact scenario play out. I've experienced this scenario myself. Most dancers that have made it to a professional level understand how this system works. And along with all of the other difficulties dancers face, they still put on a good show.

Now, this is where things get complicated. When a dancer works for a company, they only have to deal with production aspects of putting on a show. As a freelancer, there is a bit of work that needs to take place before both parties get to move on to the production stage of dance. Negotiations take place, which can be as simple as an accepted offer or a fine-tuning of details. While some employers understand that the art of negotiating is impartial, others can feel it is an attack on an organization's character. In these situations, where you determine pay, terms of your stay, your workload, and more, certain emotions can be brought forth that have nothing to do with a negotiation. And more often than not, these feelings come from a place that we all started. Our training.

I have discussed this before, but it is important to reiterate it again. Dancers are taught from a young age to be submissive. They are taught that they are expendable and that there are hundreds of other dancers that want their job. For this reason, a majority of the dance world feels that one should be grateful for any job opportunity that arises. It is common for a company to feel that it is a privilege to work with them, less so an accomplishment of one's hard work. But when a dancer leaves the submissive role and tries to stick up for their value or rights, they are suddenly egotistical, hard to work with, and a diva. A prime example of this would be when I worked for an employer that loved me dearly and that I loved dearly as well. While we had a mutual respect for each other, there were often jokes that I was a diva when I would bring up situations that were not commonplace in most of the companies I have danced for. While we were able to laugh at this, I was still gently nudged that I was breaking "dance code" for speaking up for things like not having a break for nearly two hours.

As freelancers, we have to take care of ourselves. If we get hurt on the job, we don't have the privilege of having worker's compensation pay our salary and provide our medical care. If we don't negotiate a comfortable living environment at a home-stay, we have to sit tight or uncomfortably complain to try to find a more agreeable resolution. If we don't negotiate a respectable salary, we can't pay our bills. But it is not uncommon for dancers to be made an offer and expected to accept with full appreciation that they were even given an opportunity to dance. This needs to change.

One of my audition shots - circa 2002 (Photo: Roe O'Connor)
When I was 18 years old, I was offered a contract in the corps of Colorado Ballet. My starting salary was $500 per week. By the time I left Pacific Northwest Ballet, my salary was well into four figures per week. The company I left PNB for offered me nearly one third of what I had been making out northwest and I graciously accepted without negotiation. I began freelancing while dancing with that company. During this time I realized that not only could I barely sustain myself on that salary while I was working, but I couldn't save any money to sustain myself when I wasn't working. And now that I am freelancing full-time, aside from Nutcracker season, most of the work that I am offered usually pays at or below the offer I was made for my very first job. Eleven years after starting my career, I am performing at a higher level than I did at 18 years old and I am, at times, forced to feel ashamed for trying to ask for a livable wage. It is not a matter of asking whether or not this is fair. It is more a matter of asking when those that were once in this position and moved up to leadership roles will respect and appreciate what dancers go through in this career and that their survivability should come before their production.

I am not writing this post to call anybody out and there are some employers that I have worked for that have been greatly generous in their efforts to support me and the other artists that they employ. I think it is important to raise awareness that artists and their value are often abused by the ideals that are imposed by their very training. While some of the ideals that are taught as a student are necessary to create beautiful artists in the most difficult of fields, these ideals need not to be imposed upon fully-grown artists that have worked years to develop and perfect their craft. An artist's value should not be taken lightly. Be grateful when offered work, but don't accept work that is not grateful back. Take a job where you will grow or find value in raising the level of a production, but don't let somebody tell you that your experience doesn't qualify you to respect yourself. Dance as if nobody is watching, but don't dance if nobody wants to foot the bill. While you can't control who is going to value you and your work, the best one can do in their career is to do exactly that for themselves.

(This post is dedicated to James Fayette, former New York City Ballet Principal and current New York area dance executive for AGMA, who was recently injured in a senseless attack in Riverside Park in Manhattan this past week (article). James and I worked together when I was a union rep at PNB. He taught me a great amount of what I know about fighting for dancer's rights. LOFD wishes him a speedy recovery) 

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