Dancers Without Wages

By Rebecca Martin.

Dancers are generally fit, motivated, talented, creative, and glamorous.  They train long hours, suffer injuries and setbacks, and make great sacrifices in pursuit of a dance career.  In order to maintain peak fitness and stay on top of industry fashion and changes, they must hone their craft on a daily basis.  There is an old saying – ‘take two days off and the dancer notices it; take three days off and everyone notices it’. So there’s little rest for dancers, just ice baths and heat packs.

Full time dance courses are essential for gaining strong technique and preparing the mind and body for the rigours of a career in dance, and courses can cost $10,000 per year without expenses such as shoes, dancewear, physiotherapy, and make up.  Unless you’re fortunate enough to live at home with parents or have someone wealthy enough to pay your way through full time school, dancers must work late nights in bars, restaurants, and in cafes on weekends in addition to eight hours a day of demanding physical training away from home to make ends meet.  Centrelink can provide some assistance, but it is nowhere near enough to pay fees and cover living costs.  While this plight may sound familiar to university students, at least spending a few years of eating two minute noodles at uni and working in bars results in employ-ability.  Because for all the hard work and sacrifices that budding dancers endure, they are mainly poor and perform for free.

Thousands and thousands of students around Australia take dance classes regularly, with hundreds attending full time dance schools to chase the dream of making a living doing what they love. Yet there are very few dance companies in Australia, and even less that have regular work and salaries for dancers.  That isn’t to say there isn’t work for dancers, because there is, it’s just not always paid.  And while it makes sense to do a few gigs for free to build experience and a CV, there seems to be a dangerous precedent set that dancers don’t get paid for work. Period.

At the 2012 Logie awards, Delta Goodrem performed her new single, Sitting On Top of the World, and her performance featured 25 dancers of which only ten were paid for rehearsal and performance time.  Guy Sebastian had a number of dancers in his latest film clip that were all unpaid for rehearsal and performance time.  Both artists are represented by Sony BMG Entertainment who had not returned my phone calls at the time of going to print.  Acting extras who appear on television shows such as Neighbours receive a fee for their time, but dancers who perform a routine on the same show receive no financial or other reward.  Fremantle Media who is responsible for Neighbours had also not returned my calls to explain hiring policies.

The problem seems to be getting worse because the demand for dancers is greater than in previous years.  Reality TV shows, films, and the increase in pop stars using dancers in film clips and on stage have created more interest in dance. Everyone wants a dancer to work for them, but they don’t want to pay.  Burgeoning dance companies around the country are desperate for funding to pay their dancers and to put on professional shows.  They know how important it is for dancers to receive a salary and to also work as a performer, not as a bar tender.

The award rates for performers can be found in the Performers Collective Agreement and has been set by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA).  So there are certainly measures in place for protecting dancers, yet they still work for free and supplement their income and reduce their training hours in order to work in bars to pay the bills.  Unfortunately, given the small amount of opportunities for dancers, when an offer such as a film clip or television appearance comes their way, they simply can’t say no.  The possible exposure, industry connections, and learning opportunities are incredibly valuable.  To say no would be like shooting yourself in the foot.  But something must change.  Dancers need to start demanding what they deserve and are entitled to, and corporations, venues, and companies need to adhere to these entitlements.

What the dancers provide the companies that hire them, the audiences that see them, and the artists they support has monetary value.  Put simply, the dancers are working and must be paid accordingly.


Photo: © Darren Falkenberg | Dreamstime.com

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