Contract Talk - Important Items to Have In Writing

My current contract with Company C Contemporary Ballet
I don't quite understand why, but most dance contracts that don't fall under the union umbrella are often pitifully executed when it comes to protections for dancers and, even, the employer themselves. Perhaps, low funding prevents companies from hiring lawyers to construct appropriate language. Or maybe there aren't enough people on staff to find the time to craft a proper contract. Whatever the reasoning may be, it is important to know what you really need to have written into an agreement as an independent contractor.

Sometimes, it can be an uphill battle getting a potential employer to put everything you need into writing. No matter what, it is important that you remain patient and get everything written in that you require. Without having all of your needs recorded, an organization is not bound to follow through with any requests beyond the provisions stated in the signed contract.

Most dancers haven't had much experience in contract negotiation and don't even realize what is important to them until they find themselves in a predicament. Since I have experience in both negotiating an AGMA contract and many of my own personal contracts, I would like to share specific items that I have found important to maintaining my comfort, a positive attitude, and protecting my body and pocketbook.

- Dancer fee:

You should always have your fee (salary) and the expectations of the roles you will be paid for written into a contract. If a company is performing a triple bill and a dancer is hired to perform in one piece, that needs to be written. If the dancer is being paid a flat-rate for whatever the needs of the company are, that needs to be in writing. I have seen multiple instances where a dancer is brought in to perform one role, then asked to learn another part. More often than not, the fee should be re-negotiated. If the employer says, "Don't worry...I will take care of you," your idea of being taken care of may differ from theirs. To avoid souring the relationship and maintaining respect, get the new rate in a new contract.

- Accommodations, Transportation, and Per Diem:

These items are an absolute necessity. Are you staying in a hotel or with a host family? If you are staying with a host, will you have your own room and bathroom? Are you being flown in? Will you be given a rental car to get around? Will you be responsible for gas? What about meal money? All of these items are pertinent to have in an agreement. Most of the time these things are taken care of without question. But if something goes wrong, you need to know that the company will find a reasonable fix. (Keep in mind that a dancer's culture and idea of appropriate may be different from the one they are being brought into.)

If you were supposed to stay with a host family and that falls through, a motel down the street from a strip joint isn't a reasonable replacement. I know a dancer that had to sleep on an air mattress in a common area of a house after the company lost their hotel sponsorship. Most companies forget that part of transporting an artist on-site is paying for their luggage. A dancer could bring only a carry-on if they didn't have to pack all of their dance clothes. It is the company's responsibility to pay for baggage (within reason). To ensure this is covered, put it in writing. If a dancer is housed far from the studios and given a rental car, should they have to pay for the gas to and from work? Again, know what you are getting yourself into.

- Rehearsal Schedules:

I have danced with many, many companies. And let me tell you, every company has a different idea of what constitutes a rehearsal week. Some companies only have one day off per week. Other companies change the schedule at the drop of a hat. At times, I have had 3 hours of rehearsal a day. While some organizations have had 8 hours of work daily. If you feel it is unreasonable to work 9 days in a row, make sure you have the work schedule written into the contract. Generally, I think that 2 days off a week (during rehearsal weeks) and 6 hours a day (not including warmup) is reasonable. Just make sure that a lunch break is afforded and that there is limited flexibility.

For some reason, directors tend to think that their stress and panic is more important than a dancer's ability to rest their hard-working bodies. I have experienced a panicked director adding an extra day of rehearsal or skipping lunch with little notice. If a schedule is put in the contract, the dancer has more control to say yes or no if asked to go beyond a reasonable work schedule.

- Non-dance expectations:

A few years ago, I was dancing at a Nutcracker gig in the middle of my season and performing an exhaustive 6 shows as Cavalier in one weekend. I was approached during the intermission of the first show by the director with a request. "We usually have the leads do a meet-and-greet after each show." I was already exhausted from performing the week before, traveled on my only day off, and performed in 2 dress rehearsals. The director was essentially asking me to add six more tasks to my workload. The next day I was, again, approached during intermission to come to a gala dinner event that same night. While it was their expectation of me to complete these job tasks, I wasn't made aware of these items.

Be sure to ask if there are any events, non-theatre performances, open rehearsals, etc. that will be expected of you. I always say that a dancer is much less likely to be a happy dancer if they are caught off guard with situations that they don't have any say in.

Also, if you are given a rental car, be sure that you you understand your responsibilities. I have been expected to transport other dancers during my time on-site.

- Footage and Photographs:

One of my favorite thing about being a freelance dancer is the access I have to performance footage and photographs. Few jobs that I have taken maintain copyrights on choreography and most have somebody taking photographs. During my 7 years at Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was rarely captured in any stunning photographs and had specific limitations to the footage I could access. In my nearly 3 years of freelancing, I have received an exponentially greater record of my dance career. To ensure that you receive copies of performances, get it in writing.

- Injury:

I struggle with getting this one into a contract. Being a dancer, I will knock-on-wood the moment the word is spoken. Nonetheless, it is important to have a backup plan in writing. While this is more important to the employer than the dancer, it can still benefit the dancer greatly. Different ideas are how a replacement will be found and how much a dancer will be compensated for the work already completed.

- Partner:

If you will be dancing with a partner, especially if you are male, it is important to know that you will be dancing with a partner that is a reasonable size for you (height and weight). A man that is 5' 8'' should not be expected to partner a woman that is 5' 9''. This is unlikely to be written directly into a contract (though it can be), but a conversation should definitely be had about this subject (in writing via email for your records).

While I love dancing w/Lindsi Dec (freshly minted PNB Principal), we're the same height
- Extras:

Additional items you may want to have written into a contract may include comp tickets, teaching company class or in the school, expectations of taking company warm up, company logo wear, gym memberships, yoga classes, physical therapy, and anything else that may be a reasonable request. 

Working alongside Nora Heiber, AGMA National Dance Executive, negotiating Pacific Northwest Ballet's contract
While most dancers hope that each of their gigs go off without a hitch, that is not always the case. More often than not, everybody leaves after a performance feeling pleased with the end result. But even in the best situations, small details can derail a very positive experience. Be sure to protect yourself, whether you are a dancer or an employer. The first job an employer has is to put a production onstage. In our world of art, where financial struggle is common, unfortunately, dancers are often the first to suffer when money gets tight. When putting on a production gets stressful, a director's first thoughts may not be about a dancer's needs and health. Lastly, while you may make a request that you would like to have in writing, it doesn't always show up in the final document. Be sure to read your contract completely to ensure that everything you discussed is in writing.

Is there anything that I missed that you feel is important to get in writing?


  1. WOW! Talk about dotting your I's and crossing your T's! Thanks, Barry for another well-taught lesson !

  2. A contract is important because it can be used in the legal system to ensure that both parties of an agreement are equally compensated for their work, goods or money.