Determining Rates for Teaching

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Dance/USA and offered a press pass to attend their annual convention in Austin, Texas. It was super exciting to hear that they consider me an influencer throughout the dance community and wanted me to report on conversations and happenings taking place at this great organization's convention. While I was unable to attend due to my previous commitment running my summer intensive in Anchorage, Alaska, I was greatly honored by the offer. Especially, by their consideration that I have an authoritative and recognizable voice in my community through my work on this blog and on my podcast on the Premier Dance Network. With this honorable endorsement and respect from my community for my work, I look forward to continuing the art of sharing my knowledge and experiences with the world of dance.

With all of this said, in this post I want to share some information with you that I offered an acquaintance I recently met in class at Steps on Broadway. After hitting it off in a friendly locker room conversation, this gentleman reached out to me on Facebook asking for my advice in an area that most freelance dance artists will explore at some point in their performance or post-performance careers. This guy had recently been offered the opportunity to teach a few master classes in the Denver metropolitan area. Having never had to negotiate his own rates for his services, he was at a bit of a loss about the best approach to determining his rates and how to present them to this employer. I'd like to share this information with you, as I think it is valuable to many of us in our field.

Teaching Contemporary Technique
There is often a great deal of confusion when it comes to how much one should get paid to teach, whether giving a general class or offering a master class experience. There are so many factors that go into choosing a rate; from performance experience to teaching experience, to travel and organizational budget. Honestly, there is no exact science to determining and/or negotiating your pay for sharing your art form. But there are a few tips I am happy to offer you, which you can read below. 

The first thing to consider is your base rate. This fee is the absolute minimum that you are willing to work for. Generally, most of the classes I teach are paid for at an hourly rate. So, we can start there. Honestly, I don't think anybody should be accepting work to teach for a rate any less than $25/hour. If an institution isn't willing to pay you at this rate or above, then I feel they don't really respect the value that an instructor can bring into a studio. One would be better off working a restaurant, bar, barista, or office job than accepting a rate lower than this. A dance instructor can't work 40 hours a week in the studio without severely burning themselves out. So, this is a practical place to start. A $25/hour rate is still quite low. Generally, I would only say that an instructor with little to no professional performance credits or teaching experience should be accepting this minimum teaching wage rate. If you look at your resume and only have minor, local performance credits or are looking to begin your teaching career, this is a good place to start. Otherwise, it is my opinion that an instructor with quality professional performance credits should charge no less than $40/hour for instruction.

Depending on your experience, you may want to consider sliding your value up the scale. For instance, when I began teaching back in 2011, I started charging a rate of $50/hour. Considering that I had danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Houston Ballet, and had a stint at American Ballet Theatre, I felt that my performance experience made up for my general lack of time working in the studio. Most teaching jobs are looking for instructors who have some degree of studio time with students. But impressive company credits can help increase your value and the interest of institutions to bring you in at a higher rate. While I started my teaching career charging this fee, if I felt that an opportunity was worthwhile and a school couldn't pay my rate, I was willing to work at my absolute minimum rate of $40/hour. This was my true base rate, as I wasn't willing to accept a valuation lower than that. No matter the opportunity offered, I felt that any level of pay below that rate was disrespectful to the skill set that I brought to the table. Finding a reasonable and respectful base for yourself is the most valuable piece of information I have to share with you.

Once I gained more studio time and added local, regional, and national experience to my resume, I felt that I could begin to improve my rates. While a few of my staple schools that helped me start my career have only received minor rate increases, my overall value has increased greatly since those first years passing on my craft. Each year that I teach, I assess my achievements and new experiences and decide whether an increase is justified and/or reasonable. Now that I have been teaching for 5 years, have taught for professional companies like Eugene Ballet and Koresh Dance Company, have taught at national schools like Peridance Capezio Center, and have successfully coached students to place at Youth America Grand Prix, I am comfortable asking for increasingly respectful wages.

Teaching Contemporary Choreography
The major determining factors for me in accepting work and negotiating a fee is whether or not I want to do a job. If I am really interested in working with an organization or feel that I will gain much out of an experience, I generally accept any fee that doesn't drop below my base rate. The fulfillment from these jobs is well worth getting paid a little less. If I feel that a job might be a little more work or is less fulfilling, I will charge a higher rate than my minimum. Additionally, if I have to travel a great deal or I may potentially have a greater opportunity during the period of time asked to teach, I will tag on a higher fee. It can be easy to burn out if you are constantly accepting work that doesn't fulfill or is overwhelmingly far to travel. Getting paid a little more can help relieve these burdens. But be aware that getting paid well doesn't prevent burn out. Be sure to use caution when accepting uninspiring work or positions that require you to travel for extended periods of time on a regular basis.

One area of the teaching realm that is a bit different when it comes to charging fees is when one is asked to teach master classes. Today, generally, a master class differs from regular classes only in marketing. Back in my training days, master classes were only taught by instructors that had a great deal of experience and a proven track record of greatness in performance and/or instruction in our field. These days, most anyone can market their instruction as a master class. All it takes is offering your services outside of a school's regularly scheduled class offerings. As for these special types of workshops, I sometimes change my rates dependent on how much a school is planning on charging their students. Some schools have a pool of cash that they have already collected from students at the beginning of their season for these types of classes. When this happens, I generally charge the higher end of my class fee and my transportation costs. Again, this is only if I feel that it is fulfilling enough to go out of my way and help bring something new and exciting to an institution. If the school is charging a per head fee for the master class, I'll generally ask them to pay my top rate, plus a fee per head after, say, 8-10 students. That way, the more they make, the more I make. I feel this is especially important because if you are the main draw of bringing in more students and making the school more money, you should benefit just as much (if not more) as the school is from bringing in your unique brand.

I've discussed the art of negotiating in previous blogs on Life of a Freelance Dancer, so I don't want to get too detailed in my opinions and tips on negotiating. But just a reminder for those of my new readers. One should always negotiate in good faith, trying to be fair while gaining your true worth. I always find it best to ask what the pay is from the beginning. If a school offers you a lower rate than you would take into consideration, tell them what you feel you are worth. In the event that a school wants you to tell them your fees, be sure to let them know that your rates are open to discussion if you are concerned that they will be scared or turned off by your ask. Most everybody is trying to provide the highest quality services for their school, while running their business as effectively as possible. So, it is uncommon for most institutions to be unwilling to have an open discussion about rates if they are truly interested in bringing you in. Be sure to have at least one communication via email that clearly states the rate that you will be paid for your gig. It is rare that an organization will purposefully shaft an artist on fees, but I know a few dancers that have had to deal with this unfortunate experience. It is always best to get terms in writing, whether contractual or via a time-stamped e-communication.

Teaching is one of my passions
As you can see, determining your rates as an instructor isn't an exact science. Just as there is no formal basis to license or verify quality of training at any particular dance school, there is no perfect system that helps guide freelance dance instructors on how to charge organizations for their services. Take some time to evaluate your experience and determine a justified value that you feel is fair and respectful. Much of this art is trial-and-error and fine tuning from experience to experience. I hope that this helps set you on your path to career success and a fruitful financial future.


Adapting to Differing Company Practices

I'm currently in Alaska running my annual summer intensive for pre-professional track students. The sun sets a few minutes before midnight and rises around 4 am, but it never gets fully dark. I started this intensive to help enhance these Alaskan student's local training after my tenure as Interim Artistic Director of Alaska Dance Theatre. One of my favorite things about getting to run this program is that I am in complete control of what happens in the studio. If I feel that a student needs to be pushed, I can push them to their limit. If the time has come to pull a student back for their own safety, I do that because I answer to myself. Working like this was a rarity when I held a full-time schedule of performances with multiple companies as a freelance dancer. I was often a slave to company practices, which could mean that I was adjusting to 8-10 different ways of running rehearsals each year. So, getting to make strategic decisions in the studio is a luxury that I really appreciate.

AK-BK Students in Contemporary Technique Class
It can become quite easy to get stuck in one's ways when you have been dancing with a company for any time greater than a year. You wake up in the morning with a general idea of what to expect throughout your day. There may only be cause for concern if a new choreographer or stager is creating/teaching a new work. And, even in these situations, you usually have the protections of an extensively negotiated contract to make sure that there are at least a handful of regular studio practices in place. Some of these luxuries can include a 5-minute break during each hour that you rehearse, an hour for lunch in the middle of the day, a non-mandatory hour-and-a-half warm up class, major issues taken up in private meetings, and more. No matter how functional or dysfunctional a company may be, one often finds a certain level of comfort and expectation in working for one organization. You know what you are getting into from day to day and week to week.

Unfortunately, for freelancers, the above case of comfort and expectation just doesn't exist. I learned this the hard way after dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet for 7 seasons. After experiencing this company's very functional way of running, I found myself struggling to adjust (and sometimes handle) to the multitude of environments in which I was dancing. For instance, the first time I was brought in to dance with Festival Ballet Providence for their production of Swan Lake, I was at a loss for words when I walked into my first rehearsal. I was standing in the middle of the studio preparing to learn the waltz in the first act of the ballet. Due to circumstances, I was only able to enter the studio after most of the company had already learned this piece of the ballet. My assumption, based off of previous experience, was that teaching me the choreography and filling in the gaps would be the priority of this rehearsal. Instead, I was partnered up with another dancer who already knew the choreography. Before I knew it, the music started. I stood staring at my partner, following her around for about 16 counts before I walked off the floor and raised my hand. Instead of the, "Oh, we forgot that we had to teach it to you," response I was expecting, the director told me that he would teach it to me another day and to just stand beside my partner and follow her around for the next hour. If I remember correctly, I left rehearsal and texted my husband, "I'm really concerned about what I have signed up for." This may be an extreme example of the point I am trying to make, but after asking around the studio if this was a common practice, none of the dancers were even slightly phased by what happened to me. This was not an uncommon practice for them.

Throughout most of my freelance career, I have had a different experience with each company I danced for. Fort Wayne Ballet left my Juliet and myself in the studio with a DVD to learn all of a full-length Romeo and Juliet without a ballet master. We had the freedom to make decisions and they trusted that we would make the right ones. Company C Contemporary Ballet wanted to rehearse a 20-minute one-act ballet that I had learned in a flash almost immediately. Other companies I worked with rehearsed 3 hours a day (instead of the 6 hours I was accustomed to at PNB), docked your pay if you missed company class, and even requested dancers perform on public transportation. Instead of experiencing the restricted choices of a unionized company contract, I found myself panicking that these practices were going to injure me or take away from the integrity of my work that I felt I had built during my years dancing in Seattle.

Performing Romeo & Juliet w/ Fort Wayne Ballet - Dancer: Lucia Rogers (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
I'm not sure if I ever fully adjusted to the malleability that is necessary to function in the freelance world. But I can tell you that I have many friends and colleagues who have learned to just go with the flow and hold no company to any expectations. While some of these dancers have come from major companies, what I have found is that most of these more fluid dancers have never danced in a union company. In this situation, I feel that it can be very beneficial to lack the experience of working for an organization that is structured by a strong contract. It is kind of like eating candy. If you have never eaten candy, you are a lot less likely to crave it. But if you have ever tasted the sweetness of chocolate (or for me gummy bears), and it is kept from you, you will be much more likely to crave that chocolate. In the case of a dancer, if you have ever rehearsed in a more efficient way, it can become stressful to lower your standards to a less efficient approach. Even, if in some cases, that approach is more efficient, but you only want to rehearse the way you are used to.

My greatest suggestion to any dancer that finds themselves struggling with working in differing company cultures is to remember that there is no perfect way to run a rehearsal, treat a dancer, or lead an organization. Of course, there are things that should not be done; like treating dancers poorly, changing rehearsal hours without care or additional pay, etc. But keep in mind that all directors and ballet masters/mistresses have come from a different background and a have had different experiences in and out of the studio. If you were put in the same position to lead the dancers standing beside you, you may find that they dislike how you approach running rehearsals. Yes, there are more and less efficient approaches to teaching. But until you are in a position of leadership, it is actually your job to remain mostly submissive.

Now, if there is a point where you feel that you or your peers are being put in legitimate danger, it is your responsibility to speak up. But, in order to maintain a professional relationship, you may want to wait to speak to whomever is leading rehearsal until after that rehearsal has ended. If you feel that you are being put in immediate danger, of course, you must speak up. But it isn't extremely common to find yourself in a situation where something needs to be addressed at that exact moment in the studio.

One of the most beautiful parts of our dance world is that no company is alike. There are differing reps, a plethora of dance artists, and a range of styles. In the same way, there are many ways that a company can choose to function. Do your best to remain submissive and lead through example. If you become a leader in this way, you may actually be asked to help influence a clearer rehearsal process. Stay true to yourself and speak up if absolutely necessary, but keep in mind that it is leaderships choice how to run a company and its rehearsals. Think of it this way. The first time you learn a role in a ballet, dancers often feel that this is the correct way to perform this piece. If someone comes in a few years later and asks for steps to be executed on different counts or in a different style, the dancers who have already performed the work will say that what is being taught is wrong. But in reality, it is only a different viewpoint of what the work was before. There is no right or wrong, unless it is endangering one's safety or health.