1.11.2015

How Much Should I Get Paid?



Today, I’m going to discuss a topic that I’ve mostly avoided since starting this blog. It’s not that I’ve avoided talking about money because I’m afraid to share my worth. It is more that money, in this funny dance world, is a very complicated matter that isn’t always affected proportionately by worth and experience. With each experience that we have, our value should grow. But in the dance world, you can be offered to dance in two works of equal value in the same time-frame with the same company with one year in between them and get offered grossly disproportionate sums of money that, in reality, should be a marker representing your true value as an artist. Beyond that, there is always a chance that a dancer will underestimate their worth because they are afraid that they will be turned down for work. For these reasons, salary talk for freelance dancers is a tricky, fickle beast.

Most people would avoid putting their yearly salary out there for the public to see. I don’t feel it would be effective for me to announce my freelancing salary, but I am happy to share that when I left Pacific Northwest Ballet; after 7 years in the corps, collecting unemployment during lay-offs, and working as a union representative, I was making over $60,000 yearly. It was a cushy job that had great benefits and showed a personal investment by the company in my dedication to my workplace. Each year, whether I got bumped up in status (Apprentice, Corps, Senior Corps, Soloist, Principal), I got a seniority raise that loosely represented my accrued value to the company. Once I left PNB and started freelancing, I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to salary.

When I first started taking freelancing work, I would generally accept the financial offering of whomever was willing to hire me. Whether I was getting paid per show or per week, I wasn’t comfortable negotiating my own fees and I didn’t really understand how to properly define my worth. At the start, it was challenging for me to go from making $1,325 per week to being offered $400 per week. I often felt like I was selling out on my true worth. But what it came down to was this. Do I want to work or do I want to sit on my ass looking for work that made me feel like I was being compensated at my appropriate value?

I was lucky that I had my partner talking me through this challenging period. He kept reminding me this, “You built yourself up to the level that you were at with PNB and that took some time. You can’t expect to jump into freelancing and for everybody to treat you just like that. You need to put in the time and effort as a freelancer and build yourself back up from the beginning.” This advice turned out to be quite true.

People don't just hand you things! (Abby Relic & me wasting time backstage during rehearsal at PNB)
My first season dancing in multiple shows of the Nutcracker, I made less than half of what I make at the moment. Where I used to take whatever offers came my way and leave negotiation for my pay out of the equation, now I have a set rate that is generally non-negotiable (whether per week or per show). If my rate can’t be met, then I will pass the gig on to a friend that may need to build up their freelancing portfolio. While it wouldn’t be wise to share my rate publicly, I will note that I feel that after nearly four years of freelancing, I am getting paid somewhere near what I think my value is as a national-level Principal Guest Artist.

As for programs outside of Nutcracker, this is a completely different story. While I definitely do negotiate my rates for weeks of works and performances, it is trickier to determine what is acceptable for my services. My first freelancing jobs were somewhere within the range of $400-$600 per week or $500 per show. Most of the work that I performed ended up being on a weekly rate (which I always try to negotiate in the event of injury. If you get injured during a three-week rehearsal period and are getting paid per performance, then you are not getting any compensation for the work put in). The challenge of this period was that I couldn't afford to pay all of my bills, saving for self-employment taxes, and paying off debt that I had accrued during off periods at that rate. I took the work because there wasn't a great many calls coming in and because I was afraid to negotiate a different wage that might have changed the opinion of the director offering me the gig. During this period, I essentially ate up all of my savings that I had built before leaving my cushy job with PNB.

After a year of freelancing, I started making more sense of my negotiation strategy. When a company would low-ball me for my salary, I would tell them the absolute minimum figure that I had determined I needed to pay my bills, save for taxes, and put a little in savings for time between gigs. I knew it would be easier to negotiate my rate without feeling uncomfortable asking for more if I told the directors that it was the minimum for me to survive month to month. This went over well and showed that I wasn't greedy. The funny thing, though, is that my first job offering with the Colorado Ballet at the young age of 18 was for $500 per week. With nearly ten years of experience, I was traveling around the country begging companies to pay me just a little more than that base salary.

After my second year of freelancing, I started to realize that my work, my blog, and the validation that my product was very good was becoming better known. When work started coming my way, it was very rare for job offers to come in at the lower end of my survival number. Only two non-Nutcracker gigs came my way that were below the level of salary that I was regularly accruing. I finally hit a place where I felt that my value was being appropriately assessed. In the end, the reason that I chose to take those two jobs with a lower salary rate was because I was more interested in the experience than negotiating myself a higher salary. I was interested in working with the companies, directors, and choreographers that were involved in those programs. I also didn't negotiate with them because I was concerned that negotiating would deter them from holding their offer to me for work.

I always wanted to work w/ this lovely lady! Amy Seiwert running rehearsals at Alaska Dance Theatre
One tricky aspect of obtaining work as a freelancer is negotiating mindfully without overstepping the comfort zone of your possible employer. While many directors have a moderate range of flexibility with their financial offers, others have no wiggle room in their budget. Depending on the director and how much they want/need you, you could get what you want or turn them off from working with you. For instance, if you are working for a gig that will include 8 dancers and all of the dancers are being paid the same rate, it will be more difficult to negotiate a higher wage. Yes, maybe you have a bigger resume then them, but is it fair to pay differently if you are all performing the same load of work? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but there are exceptions. Often directors wont be comfortable giving preferential treatment to one dancer over another. Sometimes, it is beneficial to ask if there is any leeway in a company's budget before asking to negotiate. In these instances, you can only be hopeful that the director is being honest instead of tight-pocketed.

In the end, it is up to the dancer to assess their own value. Look at your experience, look at your recent work, and look at your monthly financial needs to determine what is an appropriate amount to seek. If you danced with a small regional company, don't go out looking for over $1000 per week. If you have a bigger name company on your resume with famous roles in well-known ballets, it will be easier for you to negotiate up. Even those dancers sometimes have to build their freelancing portfolio before they can survive off of this kind of work. Know your true worth, and not your ego's worth. And know that your true worth is malleable dependent upon the budget of the people offering you a job. Unfortunately, our arts world doesn't exist on the same plane as the sports or major for-profit worlds work. Don't accept work away from home (b/c if you are home, you can work multiple gigs, teach, etc.) if it doesn't cover all of your monthly bills, travel, and housing. And do your best to be thankful to those employers that offer you work at a rate that is too far below your standards. While you may feel offended by a low-balled offer, they may be in a building phase and trying to get, you, one of the best dancers they know. Take it as a compliment!

Always be gracious - Dancing Romeo w/ Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)

5 comments:

  1. This is certainly an informative post to a difficult part of dancing. Like anything complicated, it sounds like it always depends on the particulars of the situation.

    What are some strategies for taking about pay? I have an opportunity for a Nutcracker at a school that's been worked out informally so far, and they asked me what I'd be looking for. I'm currently in the portfolio-building phase, and also at the beginning of my professional career, so I'm in a situation where the experience is very valuable. But I also want to earn my fair share. What's a good way to bring that up without being trampled over, but also without being too pushy? Do I just pick a number and go from there? Are there any reference points I should know about?

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  2. It was a pleasure reading this. I am currently working as a freelance dancer while in college for three year. Its been a slow build but Ive seen an increase in business and been doing less and less portfolio building but I've been lucky enough to be ok. Most of them haven't been worth because it ends being something I can't use but they are some that were worth it. I've found enough ways to generate income where I am constantly busy but there is definitely more room to grow. I'm in my last year of college so this year is crunch time for me. This article was very informative for me and good to know its a struggle for most freelance dancers to put a value on their worth.

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  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Reid: There is no best way to approach pay. But there is no worst way than not to approach pay. A majority of problems/ruined work relationships result from avoiding the uncomfortable compensation conversation. What happens is that both parties can have greatly different expectations and when they are not met can cause stressful rifts. I generally try to ask the employer to make an offer and then we can discuss. If they refuse, you should have a general number that would be acceptable for you to do the gig.

    Laneese: Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad that you are finding your way through the freelance world. That is one truth about it. Many gigs that we do are either to make income or to gain experience. Not all freelance gigs are "worth" it from a creative/growth standpoint. But, if you don't try something new, you may miss out on that gig that really changes things for you. Merde for your senior year!

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  4. Thank you for such an informative blog post. I have had health issues since 13 due to hard situations and now dancing. Hi have grown but don't have much ballet experience and in my 40's. Dance is my passion and it shows. How w should I approach pay negotiations at this point even though I have done plays, choreographed and pick up choreo quick

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for such an informative blog post. I have had health issues since 13 due to hard situations and now dancing. Hi have grown but don't have much ballet experience and in my 40's. Dance is my passion and it shows. How w should I approach pay negotiations at this point even though I have done plays, choreographed and pick up choreo quick

    ReplyDelete