Why Dancers Can’t Afford To Work For Free


One of my favorite people in the world, whom I’ve never met, is John Jantsch, author of “The Referral Engine” and “Duct Tape Marketing“. He recently wrote an article entitled,  “5  Reasons Why Free Is Hurting Us All”, which really struck a cord with me. I immediately began to reflect on dancers, and all of the reasons why we can’t afford to work for free, but for some reason still choose to do so. And yes, working for free is a personal choice.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself, when considering working for free:

“Is my rent free? Can I get groceries for free? Are the dance classes in my local area free? Can I get from Point A to Point B for free, via bus, car, cab, or train? Do I get clothes for free? Can I get dance shoes or itunes music for free? Can I get decent healthcare for free?”
If you answered no to the questions above, then that means, you definitely cannot afford to work for free.

So why then, do dancers work for free?

This is a serious epidemic in the dance community, and it’s our dirty little secret. Most people outside of the industry don’t even know that so many of us work for free. What’s up with that?
We practically kill ourselves as we train our bodies to do things that are not by any means normal or practical, yet absolutely amazing to watch, and for what?
There are lots of reasons why dancers work for free, some reasons make sense, most of them don’t. Nonetheless, we’ve all done it, and unfortunately, some of of us are still currently doing it.

Why do we do things that we know are wrong?

I shared this quote on Facebook yesterday, “Some doors have got to be closed before better doors can be opened, and an associate of mine, who is a dancer, posted “Why?” in reply to this quote.

My answer is this…Do you know that saying, “If loving you is wrong, then I don’t wanna be right”? Have you heard that before in a song about being in love? Have you ever been in a relationship where you know the person you’re dating is not right for you, but your emotions have taken over your mind and your actions? (Lord knows I’ve been there, before meeting my wonderful husband.)

Here’s the issue with that, ultimately you’re saying, “I know that being with this person, and staying in this situation is wrong for me, and not what’s best for me, but I love them”. Or rather, “I love to dance. I just want to dance. Even if I don’t get paid for it.”

The consequences of your actions:

– The longer you stay in a relationship with someone who is wrong for you, the more time you waste, and prolong the joy of being with the right person.

– You can’t see the forest from the trees. When you stay in a situation that is less than what your standards are, you can’t even begin to notice, embrace, and recognize better opportunities, because you are distracted with your current situation and busy settling for less.

– You diminish your value. Who wants to pay for something that they can get for free? And what person wants to give the best treatment to someone who will allow people to treat them any old kind of way?

In order to step into the extraordinary, you must leave the ordinary. You can’t have it both ways. Mediocrity and excellence cannot co-exist. So either you are a person of value, who is worth a certain level of respect, consideration, and treatment, or you’re not. Either you’re a professional dancer, with valuable skills, talent, education, training, and experience, that comes at a premium, or you’re not.

I believe this wholeheartedly. How can you tap into something great, when you’re stuck holding on to something mediocre, or below your standards?

It’s one thing if you’re in training, you’re an apprentice, you’re doing an unpaid internship, etc. That makes sense. But there’s one thing that those types of situations have in common. They are temporary. They are meant to go on for a specific period of time, during which, you are gaining valuable insight, experience, and education, that will then provide you with the necessary tools to earn a living applying what you learned.

Unfortunately, dancers tend to take this concept to a whole other level, and actually end up working for free for extended periods of time. This then starts a perpetual cycle of the expectation for dancers to work for free, although our years of extensive training and education were a huge financial investment. Does that make sense to you?

Just imagine you said to your parents when you were in high school, “Hey Mom, hey Dad, I’d like for you guys to pay $150,000 over the next 4 or 5 years for my training and an education, so that I can begin working for free. Sound good?”
What do you think their response would be? I know what my response would be…..”Are you out of your mind?!!”

The Bottom Line

Do you know that if you get injured while in dance rehearsal working on, or should I say “volunteering on” one of your dance projects, you have no recourse. No help. No worker’s compensation. Nothing. What if you were to get hurt in one of your free rehearsals, or performances, and could no longer work, or couldn’t dance for an extended period of time, and was left with some hefty medical bills as a result? What then?

My advice for Professional Dancers:
If you must work for free be smart about it. Be very clear about what your goals and intentions are, and have a logical understanding of what you’re getting out of that particular job. An opportunity to work with a well-known and respected choreographer, something really fantastic for your resume, reel, or portfolio, etc. Also, make sure you set a time limit for the job. Commit to it for 3 mos. or 6 mos., or whatever you’re comfortable with, and then move on. Most importantly, dancing for free should not be the norm for you, or become a way of life. It should be something that you only choose to do as an exception, for a limited period of time, with a direct, and clear benefit to you and your career. And frankly, after a certain age, dancing for free shouldn’t even be an option.

My advice for Choreographers:

Treat your dance group or company, or dancers that you work with like a business. No business can operate without funding. Most entrepreneurs fund their businesses from their pockets when they first start out. So that means that, you may have to come out of pocket initially, in order to pay your dancers. This may require you saving up your money for a year before you even start your dance company, or start to choreograph on dancers other than yourself. If self-funding, temporarily, is not an option for you, consider soliciting sponsors, applying for grants, etc., and wait until you have proper funding before you begin your project. That may mean that instead of rehearsing year-round, you only rehearse with your dancers 3 months out of the year, and then perform for the next 2 or 3 mos., and then spend the other half of the year getting funding, and working on your choreography.

This approach will benefit you and your dancers in the long run, and the dance community as a whole, although it will take a high level of patience, hard work, and determination.

One of my friends and dance family members, Safi Thomas, Artistic Director of The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory says it best, “Think Smart“.

It starts with you and me. We must each do our part to improve the state of affairs in the dance community, and not point the finger at others, or place blame. No one said it would be easy, but if we want to bring about change, we must make the sacrifice.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Do you have thoughts, comments, personal experiences that you’d like to share? Please post a comment below.

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