Dancing on air? Spare a thought for freelance dancers...

Posted by ap507 at Apr 29, 2015 03:25 PM |
To mark International Dance Day (29 April), Dr Heidi Ashton discusses the challenges many freelance dancers face, including low pay and declining working conditions

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

Today is International Dance Day so let’s spare a thought for the hidden dancers.

You may not notice the dancers as they disappear through a stage door or sit on the bus or tube on their way to a job or a studio. These are the dancers that appear on your television screens in the background or on stage in the chorus. They have worked and trained hard for well over 10 years and have been chosen in a highly competitive industry to train and to audition and to get that job.

The dancers on The X-Factor and The Voice are not the main attraction but they have had to learn all of those routines by heart in just a few days, every step danced perfectly every time. As an audience we’d never know that the routine was changed 2 minutes before they went on, and that’s because they’re good at their job.

In January 2015 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published their annual analysis of the creative industries and once again they reported record highs in growth. The industries included are worth £76.9 billion and the Gross Value Added has increased by 15.6% since 2008, compared with 5.4% for the economy as a whole (DCMS, 2015).

On March 13 2015 the DCMS tweeted that, “Our creative industries are growing stronger each year, creating more jobs and driving economic growth”. It appears however that the freelance dancers working in the sector are not sharing in this success, with pay and conditions in steady decline over the last 2 decades.

Freelance dancers begin training at a young age, some before school age. If they want to be in a position to audition for a professional training college they have to undergo intensive training from a young age and many young dancers train most evenings, weekends and during school holidays. The training is long and difficult. They have to work not only on their technical abilities including strength and stamina but also their artistic and performance skills.

At the age of 16 or 18 they will face stiff competition to gain entry into a professional training college. If they are one of the chosen few they will commence a further 3 years of intensive training, honing all of their physical and performance skills and often also training in singing and acting.

As one dancer put it: “These days you have to be a triple threat if you want to work."

A triple threat is a performer who can sing, dance and act.

Once their training is complete they face the world of work. They need to find an agent to take them on so that they can be put forward for auditions. When they get an audition they will be up against hundreds of other hopefuls and will endure many rejections in their efforts to gain work. In the audition they will have to learn various routines very quickly and perform them for a panel who will cut down the numbers in each round. Sometimes it’s just one full day but often they have to return time and time again for ‘recalls’ before securing a job.

The job, however, is insecure, can end at any time without warning and may or may not pay them enough to live on. In the West End the average cost of 1 ticket for a larger show is about £75. This will pay the performance rate of one chorus dancer. From that £75 they will need to pay their agent commission, then tax and NI, then travel and with what’s left they will need to survive in or around London. In December 2013 the revenue for West End theatres rose by 11% to £530 million (SOLT, 2014).

On Broadway chorus dancers performing the exact same steps are paid almost double.

One American dancer said: “I’d love to work in London but I heard the pay is terrible, you can’t live on that."

Television isn’t much better, with rates having deteriorated significantly in recent years. A dancer appearing in a music video would be paid around £350 in the 1980s - today they are lucky to get £250, and as the recent problems with one of Kylie’s shoots demonstrates producers are not above asking dancers to work for nothing. Similarly a recent twitter campaign in the UK named and shamed Coca Cola for asking dancers to work for two days, paying their own travel in order to be involved with a viral flash mob video. On both occasions dancers were told that this would be good for their CV.

Britain should be proud of its creative industries and the achievements made. We are very good at what we do and we have a wealth of highly trained and talented people. They have helped to create the wealth that has received such acclaim and they have worked hard to achieve it: do they not deserve to share in the rewards?

When you next see a dancer on your television screen performing effortlessly spare a thought for the years of hard work, training, practice and dedication that lies behind it all.

Happy International Dance Day.

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