Money Talks - Determining Your Value

My student, Emiko Inskeep, created this image of me
Dancing for a full-time company is a great gig, but it can really leave one lacking maturity when it comes to self-determining one's value. Most company dancers pay into a union from the first day they step into the studio that denotes their rank, seniority, and pay (and if they don't, they are at least offered a pre-determined contract). The union takes on the challenging and, often, uncomfortable responsibility of negotiating these factors and what their value is. The dancer's choice is clear cut. Do I accept the rank and pay that has been offered to me? It is a simple yes or no answer. As freelancers, we are rarely offered this luxury, as we must negotiate our worth and salary on a regular basis. How does one determine their asking price for a job, often considered the marker of how much value they bring to an organization?

First things first, we need to approach this question from back to front. How does one determine their value? This is a difficult question. Dancers are trained from a young age to keep their mouths closed and their egos humble (at least verbally). One could look at many factors in their career to determine their worth. How many years have I danced professionally? What companies have I danced for? How diverse is my experience? What is my repertoire? Am I female or male (not that this should be a question, but it is a commodity-based reality of the dance world)? While these are great questions to ask oneself prior to entering the freelance world, the truth of the matter is that you don't get to determine your value. You only get to influence the perception of your value.

Each dancer's true value is fluid, especially as a freelance artist. It is easy to feel that your worth is the same across the board when you dance for a company regularly at a consistent rank. But there are situations that can alter that consistent value, as well. For instance, if a new director steps in, your value changes. If you leave your company as a Soloist and join a new one, you may not be asked to join at the same rank. Your value, unfortunately, is not fully declared by you or your dancing. Instead, it is determined by the opinions of those who are responsible for hiring, casting, and paying. Only you get to choose if you accept that valuation.

Now that you have decided to find work outside of a negotiated company contract, you are forced to come to grips with the fact that your value is not a simple, concrete determination. Still, you have to decide what you consider your lowest value to be. I'd like to say that your highest value should be the marker to pay more attention to. But in our underfunded dance world, it is more important to have a base integrity value. This is the marker that will determine whether you accept a job or not.

When I first started taking freelance work, I thought that my base value was in line with the negotiated weekly rate that I received while dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that my cushy, big-company paycheck was not my lowest asking price for most of my gigs. While I had a lot of great experience on my resume, I learned that my original base rate needed to be the minimum wage I had to make in order to cover my monthly bills. I knew that I couldn't work a job that didn't cover these costs out of pure practicality. Unless I had a cushion of money from a feast-period of work, I could only accept work that met this minimum.

While I didn't ever ask for my baseline rate of pay, I knew that I would only consider work that I could negotiate to that rate or higher. It took me a period of time to increase my value in the eyes and mind of future employers. A great deal of that bettered perception in value, surprisingly, didn't come from the additional experience I was getting as a freelance artist. The experience was there. Instead, my value spiked the more popular this blog became. As I grew a following on this platform and began to have a greater social media presence, employers started seeing me as a more experienced and trusted commodity. All of a sudden, I went from a dancer who was quietly accruing achievements and experience to somebody that could be seen visibly as valuable and trustworthy in my work and credentials. Essentially, my value increased in the opinions of others.

Once I began to get more exposure as a freelancer, I was able to bring my base value up to a higher rate than my original minimum-to-pay-my-bills rate. While my rate had improved greatly over time, there were a few experiences where I had to rely on my base wage during famine-periods. While this became less common, there were still a few gigs each year that I would take at my lower rate. I did this for multiple reasons that ranged from wanting to dance with a certain choreographer to just wanting to be working. So, as you can see, my value became fluid dependent upon the time period, work load, and experience offered by dancing with a company.

An additional item to note when considering your value, determinations may also depend on the financial state of a company. If one company has a smaller budget than another, their lower monetary offering may hold the same bearing as another company with better fiscal options. For instance, while one company may pay you $800/week to dance with them, you may not be their highest valued dancer. But if another company offers $500/week, you may be their highest paid and valued dancer. All organizations are not created equal. For instance, when I danced with the now defunct Alaska Dance Theatre, I was the highest paid artist at $530/week. While it was far below my minimum asking price (they supplemented my salary by giving me classes to teach in the school), I knew that they were doing all they could to give me the highest value that they had available to offer.

Now that you have a gauge to determine your value, you can go into negotiating pay from a few angles. I prefer to let the hiring organization make their own offer of payment. My reasoning for this is because I like to have an idea of what the organization has to work with. If I go into a negotiation asking way too high, it may turn the organization off from wanting to work with me. But if I go into the negotiation asking way below what the company was considering, it hurts my bottom line. It's not so much that I'm losing value. Instead, being able to create a cushion of cash flow helps me pay my self-employment taxes at the end of the year, pay off debts that I accrue during famine periods, and keep myself inspired to continue working in this challenging career-style.

While some organizations immediately offer financial considerations, I have found that admin who are in charge of offering a rate are often just as uncomfortable as dancers in talking money. It has been common to have employers ask me to tell them my fees. If I have to do this, I have come to learn that it is best to let the organization know that my fees are negotiable from the start. This let's the company know that I am willing to work with them on finding a pay scale that works best for both of us.

As you can see, it is important to approach the freelancing lifestyle with a sense of fluidity. Many of us feel worthwhile and confident because of our own perception of our value. And I continue to encourage dancers to feel this way. But freelancers can't approach negotiating work purely based on their own idea of their value. One must be willing to judge their financial value separate from their perceived value. Attaching your worth to the height of your paycheck will do nothing but affect your ability to enjoy the work that you are doing.


  1. very true Barry. negotiating money and determining your value as a dancer/teacher is really nerve wracking. This is something I am still trying to figure out especially this january 2016. I have amazing performance projects in january offered by my dance friends/colleagues. But when they say that the pay will be done after the performance (i.e. after 3 months) then i really wonder if as a dancer/friend i should offer a signing contract that by this date the money will be paid or humbly trust them that as a friend they will obviously take care to pay me as soon as the performance is done? Do give me your suggestion Barry

    1. Congrats on your performance opportunities, Ranjana. I understand the challenge of working with friends when pay is involved/promised. I always say get things in writing, at the very least via email. The best way to lose a friend is to have a falling out b/c of a misunderstanding relating to pay or not getting paid.

  2. Wow this is a great and well written piece Barry. Your thoughts on establishing value and having the courage to negotiate echo beyond the world of dance.

    1. Thanks, Patrick! I always feel that it is easier for me to write when I'm passionate about the topic. This one came together quickly. Plus, I was stuck inside all day during the blizzard. Glad you enjoyed!