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)|
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|
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)|