Dancing for Free: Damaging yourself and others?

For all professions, if you do a job for someone you’d be expected to be paid for that. Whether payment is simply your mate buying the next round of drinks or letting you borrow something, to the exchange of money as a professional courtesy. However so often within the dance industry people are expected to work in exchange of “you’ll get your name seen”, “it will lead to paid work” or “it’s good publicity”.

Throughout my degree we’re constantly told not to work for free. The reasons for this are simple, if you work for free once, you’re likely to do it again. For new graduates this method of working is not likely to be stable, as working for free will not provide enough income to cover the costs of even getting to many of these so-called “publicity opportunities”. Leaving you out of pocket and in need of a second paid job to cover this foot fall.

Many new graduates are eager for work in their sphere and will snap up these opportunities, and while we’re taught on my degree not to work for free, many of the tutors have done. There is the old quandary of “do as I say, not as I do”. Obviously if you’re in a position where you are able to give the required hours over to a project for free, there aren’t many personal reasons why you shouldn’t. However, I do think that there are wider reasons why dancers shouldn’t expect jobs for free.

The first of these is the precedence it sets for other dancers. If you’re working for free and doing so successfully, other dancers may believe that that is the right way to go. In this case it is right to be honest with those that you come into contact with and when asked about how you’re able to do this for free, you should be open. “I’m only able to do this because last year I worked overtime most weeks” or “I can afford to work for free because every morning I’m at my other job”. Being open and honest about the amount you’re actually having to work to finance this opportunity will offer other younger dancers with a greater idea about the hardships/hardwork that goes into financing this kind of career. Furthermore, if the people in charge are more aware of the work you need to out in to even be able to turn up they may be more willing in the future to offer some sort of payment.

Which brings me on to my next point, by working for free dancers are allowing directors/managers to believe that all dancers are willing to work for free. While this is perhaps not such a big issue for them as they’re likely to find a dancer that is actually willing to work for free. It’s the further unseen implications of this belief that trouble me. If we’re allowing dancers to be hired for free, we’re effectively placing a value on their profession as nothing. This means we’re saying dance is worth nothing. During our school careers I think many dancers reading this will have been told, “make sure you keep your options open”, “dance won’t pay the bills”, or “you can’t build a career around dance”. Is there any wonder we’re being told this at such a young age, if older dancers are allowing the profession to be exploited for free?  I believe that if there was a cultural shift away from the exploitation of dance, where dancers are always expected to be paid for their work, younger students will be able to commit to a greater extent towards having dance as their only profession. Which in turn may will mean dance training will get stronger within the UK, but that’s perhaps a story for another post.

The use of the terms, “you’ll gain experience doing this” is also a little worry-some. Many dancers already have experience and once they’ve graduated from training are in desperate need to gain experience from paid work. Experience from a free opportunity is likely to be different to experience gained from a paid opportunity and this relates to my last point. The experience you’re gaining by working for free is from an organisation that doesn’t see your profession as worth anything to them. I’m sure that many companies are actually understanding and would love to be in a position to pay for your time, but some companies are likely to minimise their efforts towards anyone they’re not having to pay for. This could be through the use of language they use towards you, or the amount of space they give you to warm up or rest in, and as such the experience will be different to work that you’re being paid for.

Overall, I believe that working for free is something that dancers should avoid, not for themselves but for every other dancers in the industry. As working in this way serves to belittle the profession, and places a benchmark to which organisations can expect dancers to work for free in the future. Placing a value on your own work will also give companies a greater expectation of your talents and shows that you believe you provide a good service. Furthermore being paid will also give you more incentive to engage with the process a lot more, and so if it is a long term project that you’re sinking a lot of time into, being reassured that this is getting you some money will ensure that you do not begin to resent taking up the opportunity.

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