“Seeking Female dancers with strong Commercial and Contemporary technique”
“Strong, versatile contemporary dancers, male aged 18+, with strong ballet technique”
“Asian female dancer”
“Principal Male and a Principal Female dancer (ideally a couple)”
“paid minimum wage”
…. Oh audition season. The time when I’m reminded again just how appallingly difficult it is to get a job as a contemporary dancer.
I’ve written a bunch of different posts about professional best practices and fair employment in the dance world, but today I want to look at the kinds of job notices I see most often, specifically the kinds of information that’s given out, and the kinds of information that are a mystery.
Companies are VERY certain about who they want to hire, sometimes going even more specific than the kinds of notices I’ve listed above – I’m not even going to touch for now on how “conventionally attractive” is an implied undercurrent in WAY too many job ads.
In any other profession it would be illegal to say you were looking for an employee of a specific gender, let alone a specific race, or even appearance. The excuse given is that in the arts these dancers have to play certain characters, but in contemporary dance that’s often simply not the reality. Of course the problem with gendering the positions you’re looking to hire is that transgender and non-binary dancers are going to stay the HELL away from those positions, meaning in turn that there’s an incredibly dense glass ceiling for non-cis dancers – as a non-binary dancer, I don’t think I’ve seen one job notice in years that I could even apply for. Non-white dancers, who are used to seeing racially specific job notices, also hold back from going for non-specific jobs, and I don’t think higher-level dance companies are paying any attention to the issue of these – frankly discriminatory hiring practices.
…imagine if dance companies had to think about company diversity when they applied for their grant money….
But broader than these issues of identity is the issue demonstrated not just by the identity attributes listed in job postings, but by the technical training attributes that invariably come after: companies are hiring with an exact idea of what kind of dancer they’re looking to find, and they prescribe their requirements INCREDIBLY tightly in order to limit their auditionees. Companies are narrowing their creative potential if they don’t look at the range of dancers and then decide who they want. Frequently they make it impossible for newer dancers to get a job regardless of their talent, while almost invariably favouring those dancers most priviledged within white-dominated institutions of vocational training – white dancers, dancers wealthy enough to do unpaid work, dancers who took expensive extra-curriculars all through school and summer workshops during undergrad.
Dancers who want these jobs frequently have to sacrifice their economic stability while they wait for one. If you want to be auditioning you need a job that is incredibly flexible, and which can be dropped at any moment, and those don’t pay well. That’s not an option that’s open to very many people. If you have an ongoing medical expense, for example, and no safety net, you cannot afford to work as a dancer under these conditions.
Which brings me neatly to the things we frequently don’t know, and the first one is PAY. Simply saying that a job is or is not paid is not sufficient information to tell potential auditionees whether it is equitable, legal, or survivable. The practice of keeping pay rates secret in job postings is incredibly beneficial to employees and crippling to dancers, and needs to stop. If you’ve put aside paid work to go to an audition, got the job from a pool of tens, if not hundreds of others, and then get told that the compensation is a $100 performance fee after six months of rehearsals… do you leave? Do you leave knowing that someone else will take that job? Knowing that you need experience to get a job that will actually pay you? Knowing that if you refuse you can’t work with this company again? Companies now can essentially offer what they want, knowing that the dancers’ position is not strong enough to call them out on it.
What else don’t we know:
Generally we don’t know enough to determine whether a current audition is or is not a waste of our time. Which sucks, especially when companies often do know that they want. Vividly I remember going to Amsterdam to audition for a contemporary ballet company who for the first cut threw out everyone wearing a leotard. Yep. How could dance companies waste less of people’s time?
Well what about links to a sample of current work?
What about a summary of the audition content so that dancers can prepare?
What about the audition dress code? And what changing facilities will be available?
How about the rehearsal hours?
What about allowing dancers to agree on their own rehearsal dates if it’s pick-up work?
What about a statement of non-discriminatory practice?
What about a company mission statement?
What about requiring dancers to show their teaching if they’ll have to teach as part of their company work?
What about an explanation of how this job will or will not lead to full time employment?
What about the support given to dancers to stay trained and employed during the off season?
Dance companies, in short, should be competing for the best dancers my making themselves personally, professionally and economically appealing. They should open themselves up to multiple definitions of “the best dancers,” rather than pulling a bucket from the ocean at random and only looking in there.
People will probably argue against this post by claiming “well you need dancers with the skills to do the work,” to which I say… yep! So let’s start hiring in a way that lets you see all the dancers with the skills to do the work.
“A ballet company needs dancers with a certain look to go in the corps” …and they always will, until someone gets their act together and does something different.
“Companies need men for partnering,” … if you could find women and non-binary dancers who could do the partnering would you hire them? Or is this really about keeping couples looking straight?
I’ve heard most of the reasons for not changing these practices, and the result is a dance world that is not changing. Where excellence always looks the same, the money always goes to the same places, and a field that used to be one of the post ground-breaking and politically diverse is struggling to make the impact on culture and society that it had in the past.
If we start by recognizing the humanity of the dancers we hire, maybe we can start changing the humanity of audiences too.