Should dancers work for free?
“Unpaid! Great exposure!”
As dancers, we all know that the arts are undervalued in North America, and that the dance world is full of unpaid projects. There is a fine line between volunteering your services and being taken advantage of.
So, the big question is: Should you work for free?
In a perfect world, dancers should always be fairly compensated for their work. As a dancer, it is important to know your worth and to protect yourself against a potentially abusive situation. You’ve trained and put in the work to hone your skills needed for a career in dance. If you are at the point in your career where you are auditioning for dance jobs, you should be getting paid for any jobs you book. What you have to offer is valuable and you should be compensated fairly for your time and expertise.
With that said, we do not live in a perfect world and many dancers find themselves in a situation where they accept a dance job that doesn’t pay. It’s a personal choice and often comes down to whether or not the individual has other means of income to support them. This could mean help from family, another job, or savings. Here are a few examples of common situations that lead to dancers taking unpaid work.
Dance Company Apprenticeship
Many dance companies offer unpaid apprenticeship positions that can last anywhere from a few weeks to an entire season. Usually, the apprentice attends all rehearsals, understudies the company dancers, and may or may not perform. Many dancers accept unpaid apprenticeships in order to get their foot in the door, with the hope that it will lead to a full time company position.
Sometimes dancers are asked to lend their talents to a charitable cause. If a dancer is in a stable enough financial position to perform for free, they might decide to donate their time and give back to the community this way.
For international dancers looking to apply for an O-1 work visa for “artists of extraordinary ability,” the application involves submitting a portfolio of work experience. For dancers who are just starting out and need to prove they’ve had an “extraordinary” career, some dancers opt to take unpaid work to achieve this.
No matter the job, it is always important to understand why you are taking it and what you are signing up for. If you are told that an unpaid job “will be great experience and exposure,” ask yourself whether it is worth it, and if you can get “experience and exposure” elsewhere while also being paid. Ask around to hear other people’s experiences with the company wanting to hire you. The more you know, the less likely you are to be surprised or disappointed down the line.
My hope for the future is that dancers will always be compensated fairly and won’t have to question whether or not they should take unpaid jobs. Until then, dancers must be proactive and educate themselves before signing on the dotted line. You are valuable and deserve to be compensated for your time and talents. You are your biggest advocate and if something doesn’t feel right, you have the power to turn it down.
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