What price a dancer?

By Jaya Karan On June 12th, 2017


If dancing brings so much joy to both the dancer and the audience, then is it wrong to expect payment? It’s something I rarely considered when dancing was just a fun pastime. I danced here, there and everywhere – mostly for free or hardly any payment. But the question started coming up more often, especially as I spent more time and effort on my dance training, which eventually lead to starting a dance company and all the expenses that came with it. After a particularly negative experience many years ago, I decided never again to perform for free as it devalued our work. But it hasn’t been an easy decision to stand by.

There have been so many missed “opportunities” because of my refusal to work for free. The big budget ones where somehow the client can pay everyone from the venue to the caterers…but not the entertainers. I’d name a fair price but then wouldn’t hear back. Clients easily found other dancers ready to accept the limelight over payment.

Then there’s the guilt factor with charity organisations seeking a freebie or heavily discounted fees. I explain that their cause sounds wonderful, but I still need to pay my dancers. Dancers who work their toenails off (yes, literally), in a job that is demanding and exhausting. Plus, how can we give freebies when the dance industry itself feels like a charity organisation, always needing funding to stay alive.

Often it’s not so black and white. For example, is it ok to perform for free as an occasional favour for someone you know, or does it add to expectations about getting dancers for cheap? Is it ok to undersell our service in the hope of getting some “exposure”? And anyway, how do you change an industry where most dancers themselves aren’t concerned about being paid?

There are no easy answers, so for now I’ll continue to decline corporate clients who offer unfair payment, no to charity organisations who can budget for everything except the dancers, no even to friends if my gut instinct says it doesn’t feel right. There is nothing wrong in asking fair payment for honest, hard work. So next time you approach a dance company requesting a quote, remember that behind every 5 minute show is the unseen rehearsal time, costume expenses, studio hire, administration, music editing, travel, hours getting ready and waiting backstage before we even get to say “It’s show time!”.