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The Poorest Art: Dance And Money (I)

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I've come to a conclusion about dance and money: if dancers did not sometimes sleep with rich people, American dance as we know it would cease to exist.

Absurd and degrading as this conclusion is -- can you imagine the same being said of any other art form? -- the dancers and dancemakers I've tried it out on have reacted with, at most, a laugh. Many haven't reacted at all, as if this idea were already part of their lives. Dance's capital is its sensual appeal; it has little other resource.

Just how poor is dance? There are far too many ways to answer this question. Let's start with a simple answer; let's talk to a dancer.

This is Penny. Every inch the ballerina, birdlike and elegant, she's also -- though you might not notice it at first -- hard as steel inside her cloud of tulle and sequins.

The base rate for ballet dancers in most markets is, Penny explains, $500 a week; the contract is usually per week even when year-round health insurance is included because the season does not run for a full year, but for 30 to 40 weeks. Cost of living increases and seniority, as well as rank in those companies which use the corps-soloist-principal system, might raise one above this base; men also often are paid more. Penny reckons that, in a good year, her salary might amount to 18,000. Throw in some income from teaching, guesting as a Sugarplum in a regional Nutcracker, and unemployment for the summer (ballet dancers routinely go on unemployment in the summer), and you have perhaps 26,000 in Penny's most lucrative year. Penny is in her upper-30s; she has been a ballerina for 17 years.

"But," Penny says, seeing the expression on my face, "you must be in the same boat." I can understand why she would think so. All artists talk poor. But though most writers I know make little or nothing from their writing, they can trade on their MFAs and their literary cred for college teaching gigs. If they have jobs, they make at least 50,000; even as adjuncts, they can bring down Penny's max and then some. And you have to consider expenses: what do writers pay for -- a laptop every few years? Throw in daily coffee and you're still nowhere near a dancer's overhead. Penny's ballet classes, shoes, and some basic physical therapy are all covered by her company, but she must pay for dance clothes, classes over her 12 to 22 weeks off ($12 to $14 a class, minimum of three times a week), as well as any outside training her body needs -- yoga, Pilates, etc. -- at $15 to $50 a session. Rolfing, massage, and bodywork, which many dancers find essential, go higher; one popular local bodyworker charges $250 for a first session and $80 to $90 for follow-ups.

What all this means is that Penny pays out everything she takes in. She has no savings and no debt; she's learned to live "close to the bone." That edge you see in her dance? Her steel is real.
And Penny is one of the lucky ones, actually on contract. According to John Munger, former director of research for Dance/USA, surveys of several markets showed that at most 6 percent of serious dancemakers (including companies and independent choreographers) offered salaries; the rest paid in a variety of ways -- set honoraria, per hour rates, or box office cuts. These independent contractor payments might go as high as $12 per hour for rehearsal and $50 for each performance, or as low as a few hundred dollars lump sum for a project lasting a year or more. "Most serious dancers make less than $25,000 a year from dancing," Munger says. Many make less, and many make their primary living outside dance. Average number of jobs that serious dancers reported in a survey in Washington D.C.: four.

But this is how it's supposed to be, right? Beautiful young things staffing brasseries and coffee shops, leaning slenderly by your side as you decide between a French 75 and a glass of white Bordeaux, their art sweat the shining patina of your evening out? It's fine that they're poor --they're young, they're living la vie bohème. Retirement and health care, that's for adults. And we don't think dancers are adults. Peruse, side by side, the average dance review and the average art review (book review, pop music review -- anything) and you can see how we infantilize dancers and how, while we view other artists as masters of their craft and serious thinkers, we see dancers as mere talented bodies.

A few of these talented bodies make more. According to Munger, seven or eight companies in the U.S. offer 52-week contracts with two weeks paid vacation, just like any other job. Some dancers -- "but not more than one hundred in the U.S." -- command $2,500 a week, adding up to $130,000 a year; add in the guest appearances these dancers can make and the number goes up from there. Over $100,000 -- this is starting to sound like money. But when you consider that most of these dancers live in New York City, you can hardly call them rich, and you can't compare them to top artists in other fields -- coloratura sopranos, virtuoso violinists, splashy postimpressionists.

If we thought of dancers as tax-paying adults, if we took them seriously, then we'd have to take seriously the message common across practically all dance: that the life of the body matters. The moment matters: it matters how you feel, what you do to your body and to other bodies. This is what dance, unforgivably, says: the flesh is good.