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Warning: This article may be upsetting.

I want to invite you to use your imagination with me. Imagine a world where dancers get paid enough for their work so they don’t have to leave a six-hour rehearsal day and go wait tables, ring up merchandise at the Gap, or partake in another non-career related field in order to make rent. What would that be like? I can tell you what it’s like… It’s amazing!. It is the true realization of the dream that so many of us had when we become were dance students at an early age.

I was one of the lucky ones. Not only did I work under a great contract with Kansas City Ballet, I worked for an organization that was fiscally responsible and operated in the black (meaning that the company is operating within the budget)  for the majority of the decade I worked there.

Living in New York City, I am witnessing something disturbing. One, I can see more than ever how poorly the arts are funded in this country. It is sickening to me. However, what I most love about artists in this city, I also despise, and that is the dedication we have to our love of dance. We continue to create whether there is financial support or not. We refuse to let our art die, because without it, a huge part of us and our society would die with it. Here’s the problem. We’re not making any money. Not one person I know became a dancer to become rich, but most have hopes of being able to eat and pay their rent. Without pay, or at least working towards providing pay, it reminds me quite a lot of (gasp!) a hobby.

Now, I turn my eyes on the leaders of dance organizations. Just because dancers are willing to work for free doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. There comes a level of organization when it stops being ok to not pay your dancers. I’m not talking about pick-up companies trying to make a name or experiment with a new choreographer’s vision. I’m talking mostly about larger ‘established’ companies who run the gamut of having a plethora of unpaid trainees for several years at a time with no sure sign that they’ll be hired. I’m talking about companies who have full company members who aren’t all on salary, yet they’re still being expected and required to rehearse for a full 30-hour work week. To be a professional, one must be paid for the tasks he or she is undertaking. Thus, if the dancers aren’t getting paid, it can’t be a professional company.

I know I am making harsh statements, and the economy is killing dance companies left and right. My heart is breaking. My heart goes from breaking to anger when I see companies living outside their means at the expense of the artist.

Dancers, I’m now going to slap you all on the wrist. Let me begin by saying that there are projects that we partake without pay, and this is ok. I do it myself from time to time. It is important to give back for charity or to help friends get their work off the ground. If it wasn’t for the generous people I have surrounding me, I wouldn’t be able to create the work I have been doing. I will say this, however. I operate on their time frames. If I have to shelve things for a bit because they have work, so be it. I know this isn’t always ideal in every situation, but this is how I try to function.

When dancers spend more time doing work for free, especially on higher company levels, we hurt ourselves. Much of that time spent could be time spent looking for a paying job. Now, there are many companies that cannot at the current moment pay their dancers what they deserve. We have to have the strength and feeling of self worth in these cases to know that it is not ok to work six-hour rehearsal days and then go stand on our feet for hours waiting tables. Inevitably, we’re going to be so exhausted that our dancing will begin to suffer, resulting in injuries, and resulting in a shortened career. The second is that we are sending a message to the top, stating that this is ok!

As humans, we complain. As human dancers, we complain more. The biggest gripe I have heard from dancers is usually the “money gripe.” There’s never enough. I get it. We know what we deserve for what we do, and yes, usually it just isn’t there. Here’s what I have to say to that. SHUT UP! If you signed the contract, you agreed to the amount that is or is not there on that page. Until we stop signing on the line for nothing, we will continue to allow ourselves to be treated this way.

I am in no way trying to paint upper management as villains or dancers as weak. I do, however, believe that we have to find a way to meet on common ground. For myself as with many others, I was able to find this along with my fellow dancers by unionizing with the American Guild of Musical Artists. (I want to add that in Kansas City Ballet, we sought to unionize in order to preserve and enhance an already good contract.) For many smaller companies, unionizing may not be feasible. To those dancers I say this, official union or not, you must find your voice. I spent the last few years of my time with KCB as a union delegate for AGMA, and through that process, I helped negotiate the first contract. I gleaned tremendous amounts of knowledge about contracts, the behind the scenes of company management, and most importantly, communication.

Kansas City Ballet negotiations for its first AGMA contract (pictured: James Fayette, Catherine Barnickel, Charlie Martin, Matthew Donnell, Matthew Powell, Geogg Kropp, Breanne Starke, Rachel Coats, & Nadia Iozzo)

This may come as a shocker, but directors are people too! With professional and respectful communication, most people will at least listen to your concerns. If your director will not, or if he/she threatens to fire you, then you shouldn’t be working for them anyway. If you aren’t getting paid, then how much worse off could you be? Yes, you may not be able to dance, but trust me. Dance is a love affair similar to our human relationships. If you are the only one giving, then no matter how much you love your partner, you will grow to resent them in time. Don’t let this kill your passion.

So how do you talk to management?

Step one: Be unified. Everyone, or at least the vast majority, has to be together.

Step two: Stop whining. No one listens to babies.

Step three: Talk to each other and decide what issues you want to bring up. Make a plan.

Step four: Elect someone you trust as a liaison. This should be someone or a group of individuals who are confident and clear spoken. It’s also helpful if they have a good relationship with the management. Let management know that you are doing this if you can. It will help them keep their guard down as much as possible.

Finally, step five: Breathe. Your director wants a healthy organization. Trust in that. If you enter into talks from the standpoint of helping better things, then you have nothing to lose.

Dance and the welfare of dancers are my passions. Just as in any field, getting paid to do what one loves is a dream come true. Without taking action it will only stay a dream and never become a reality.

Written by Matthew Donnell

Matthew Donnell

A graduate of North Carolina School of the arts, Matthew Donnell is a freelance dancer, actor, clown, instructor, and film maker residing in NYC. After a decade with the Kansas City Ballet, he turned his focus toward musical theater and teaching. He strives to bring the humor of his life into his art in order to promote artistic health for himself and those around him.