Think Everything Is Beautiful at the Ballet? Wage Issues in the Dance World
“Everything is beautiful at the ballet” – while these Chorus Line lyrics ring true, there is an inevitable truth behind the beauty of ballet, and that is the roughness of ballet as a profession. Professional ballet dancers are extraordinary and their dancing can seem ethereal but these artists are human, tax-paying citizens, with rents to pay and families to feed. People often focus on the beauty of ballet or the impeccable training that ballet dancers receive and thereby overlook one of the biggest problems professional ballet dancers face: inadequate compensation.
First, a little background information: There are around 353 dance companies with budgets above $100,000 in the United States. Ballet dancers train from the time they learn to walk to around their late teens, at which point they audition for ballet companies. When a ballet company accepts a dancer as a full-time employee, the dancer signs an employment contract. The process is similar to when a Hollywood actor or writer signs a contract with a studio, except most dancer contracts are yearlong. The most coveted contracts-the ones that give baby ballerinas “visions of sugarplums” and inspire Rocky or Flashdance type training- are contracts with ballet companies located in major cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. These companies have been around for decades and have outstanding reputations worldwide. However, the salaries offered to the dancers, even at these renowned companies, make for a tight budget to live on in a big city. In summary, the companies that are the most alluring to ballet dancers are often located in cities with a high cost of living, which makes it very hard for dancers to live off their wages.
Today many world-class dancers, employed at the finest dance companies in metropolitan cities throughout the U.S., are having trouble affording rents with their current salaries. Since the cost of living in cities like New York City and San Francisco has been skyrocketing annually, the problem is worse now than ever.
While the demand for classical ballet pales in comparison to the demand for Hollywood blockbusters, people are still going to the ballet. The problem is that when a ballet company has over a $60 million annual operating budget and debts that are not met by ticket sales, something has to give. More often than not the first persons to realize a salary decrease or a decrease in paid employment weeks are the dancers. Historically this has always been the case. Today’s economy has made this the trend almost everywhere. Musicians, costume designers, stage crew, and administrative staff often get paid more than the dancers when the dancers are the main event.
Two of the countries’ top ballet companies, New York City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, have both recently undergone contract renegotiations. NYCB had contract renegotiations in May 2011 and San Francisco Ballet had them on and off during April-October 2013. The negotiations take place between the dance company executives and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA).
Like the Screen Actor’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild of America, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) is the entity that represents musical performing artists, opera and chorus singers, and professional ballet dancers. AGMA has been successful in setting boilerplate contract requirements for dancers, like salary floors and maintaining health insurance for dancers. However, AGMA, and many of the ballet companies it represents, have consistently failed to secure contract terms requiring the exact salaries that the dancers demand. Ballet contracts need to factor costs of living into the compensation analysis; if they don’t, then ballet dancers not only struggle to make ends meet while they are dancing but are also unable to save money for the future. Saving money for the future is uniquely necessary to the ballet profession because professional dance careers are so short.
Jeremy Telman in his article, “New York City Ballet Dancers Agree to New Contract,” cited that a quick internet search suggests that a member of the corp de ballet makes $1,500 per week. He describes how the average rent in the city of Manhattan for a cramped one-bedroom is $3,150 per month and that it can get hard to find a two bedroom for under $1 million. “If the dancer gets paid for 38 weeks per year, that comes out to $76,000 per year, and that is a good salary in New York City as long as you can share a studio apartment in an outer borough with two or more other members of the corp (or you can marry an investment banker).” Principal dancers, essentially the “A” list celebrities at ballet companies, make roughly about $1,000-$2,000 more per week than the corp de ballet (think below the line talent). Principals make more with the additional guest performance or teaching gig, but only a small percentage of dancers who join the company ever become principals.
New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet Contract Negotiations
In May of 2011, after nine months of negotiation, the New York City Ballet and its dancers reached a resolution as to new contract negotiations. The contract, beginning in August 2011, gave the dancers a 2.5% salary increase instead of the 3% increase they had requested. It was considered a victory for the ballet company, as there was a “freeze” or the company “contracted away” pay increases for the dancers during the entire year. The dancers subsequently picketed the NYCB May 2011 Spring Gala. At this time, the ballet company was facing a $6-million deficit on its $62 million operating budget.  The contract expired in August 2012,and during March 2014, the dancers ratified a new labor agreement. The company has yet to announce the details of the contract, but says that it will increase wages.
The San Francisco Ballet Company, dancers, and AGMA came together for contract negotiations between spring and fall 2013. According to Steven Morse, a member of San Francisco’s corp de ballet, the dancers argued for a 3% increase, and while they did receive an additional workweek for this year, the dancers received only a 1% wage increase and a freeze on any wage increases for this year. Steven says the cost of living in San Francisco has gone up 40% during the past 2-3 years, and that it is getting harder and harder to find affordable apartments. The San Francisco Ballet headquarters are located in downtown S.F., a high-priced area, and the corps de ballet dancers are having to commute from outer boroughs and make it to early morning rehearsals and stay late into the night. Steven expects that the cost of living will continue to go up.
At any ballet company, there is always the possibility of dancers being let go because of company wage issues. Firing dancers is often an easy way for a ballet company to save money, since their employment contracts are on a year-to-year basis.
If New York City and San Francisco want to keep their opera houses and prestigious ballet companies, the dancers need to get the wages they want. The dance world is supported, but it is not adequately funded and the issue is relevant to Employment Law and Entertainment Law.
Addressing the Problem
So what is the solution? A collaborative effort on the part of dancers, ballet companies, AGMA and those who want to keep dance alive can make a difference. Some possible solutions are: encouraging dancers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their careers and to find work as independent contractors showcasing performances. Another method might be to ask for more support from national and local arts endowment groups. The Screen Actor’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild of America have waged wars by going on strike, do dancers need to do the same?
While there is no definite answer, more eyes on the dance world from guilds besides AGMA and from labor and entertainment lawyers is a step in the right direction. Dance Editor for the Huffington Post, Brittany Breyer, outlines practices that could influence a healthier dance economy: more individualized dance contracts with each dancer in the company, co-operative organizations that advocate for the arts, and generating more performances and wider audiences.
Another idea is to use new media to bring dance into people’s lives through easily accessible- user-oriented ways. While these avenues may not immediately result in dancers experiencing the wage increases they require, it is one way to increase awareness and generate transparency within the dance world. More and more ballet companies are loading videos on YouTube, advertising online, and creating dance programming on iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon among others. The CW’s “Breaking Pointe” was a reality television show featuring the Oregon Ballet Theater. Shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” have also featured classical ballet dancers as part of their guest performances. Also, Prince, Under Armour, Sprint, and others are increasingly using ballet dancers in advertisements. These companies specifically have been using the incredible Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theater. Making dance available online can generate interest, income, and a wider audience. On the Boards, a Seattle organization dedicated to presenting contemporary performance and TenduTV, a New York based digital network for performing arts, announced a digital distribution partnership in October 2013. The programming consists of almost all dance and operatic performing arts and distributes select performances from video to on-demand streaming platforms and available for online purchase. Increased audiences and support might help ballet companies meet their operating budgets and debts while also giving dancers the salaries they need.
While I can’t spend my time encouraging you to go to the ballet, or even to donate, or convince you of the benefits of ballet on your psyche (trust me…I have articles) what I hope resonates is the incredible perseverance of these artists. Ballet dancers have endured little to no pay for centuries in order for their art form to exist. Only that amount of passion can make everything beautiful at the ballet.