Follow the Money

Young dance artists confront the discouraging logistics of working in New York now

 Editor's Note: Dance makes great financial demands on young practitioners—and provides a very small return. Painters, writers, and composers can create their works alone in small studios, but a choreographer's raw materials are big rooms with resilient floors and highly skilled human beings. The former, in New York, are expensive and scarce. The latter are legion, as the city is still a world dance mecca, but these artists must be housed, fed, trained, treated civilly, and looked after if they're to perform in top condition. Actors and musicians face similar circumstances, but the dance world is our oyster bed. This week we're touring its entry level.

For this special section, Jim Dowling, who has a Ph.D. in economics and organizes the Monday-night dance jam at the Children's Aid Society in Greenwich Village, surveyed three dozen dance professionals, exploring aspects of their struggle to live and make art here. Josephine Lee, a labor organizer, and Kimberly Bartosik, a choreographer and former Merce Cunningham Company member, examine the recently released Dancers Compact, a bid for better interpersonal relations and working conditions. —ELIZABETH ZIMMER

illustration: Ryan Sanchez


The Etiquette of Dancing for Free
by Josephine Lee and Kimberly Bartosik

Dance, like many other local industries, found its finances sliding after 9-11. According to John Munger, research director at Dance/USA (the national umbrella organization for dance presenters, companies, and foundations), corporations cut 2002 grants by 45 percent from the previous year, while foundation support slipped in 2003, and state budgets are finally showing the effects in this fiscal year. Beverly D'Anne, director of the dance program at the New York State Council on the Arts, notes that though her budget is substantially lower than 10 years ago, state funding for dance has "only" dropped from $2.8 million to $2.4 million since the attack on Lower Manhattan.

These losses hit hardest at the bottom of the dance food chain. In 2001, the most recent year for which figures are available, organizations with budgets over $1 million—11 percent of the city's dance companies and presenters—received 77 percent of contributed income, while the smaller troupes, with budgets under $250,000, made up 76 percent of the field and received 11 percent of the funding.

On March 9, Dance/NYC, the Soho-based satellite of Dance/USA, released the latest in a series of reports tallying spending by local dance audiences. Their final figure, $135 million spent annually on tickets-plus-dinner, is a key economic reality for dance presenters and major companies—but doesn't speak to the circumstances of individual artists who keep producing work even as rents skyrocket, plum "day jobs" get harder to find, and health insurance premiums spiral out of reach.

Sarah Vasilas came to town for an internship, "and a week later 9-11 happened—my introduction to New York." She describes days spent running between rehearsals, a paying gig at Crunch, bodywork, and a class she teaches. She's putting together weekend gigs busting hip-hop moves with bar and bat mitzvah kids and their parents, and an upcoming piece for Riverside Church. "Even though it's cutthroat, we can thrive, can really grow by working together."

Job and apartment are the chicken and egg of life here. Dancers ante up $500 to $1,000 per month for apartment shares likely to be far from the studios of Manhattan, across an ever widening arc of neighborhoods including Red Hook, Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Flushing, and St. George; they now need $70 monthly MetroCards, instead of bicycles or shoe leather, to get around.

Aside from rent, health insurance is the largest expense they face. Dance Theater Workshop's Artist Services program offers a standard HMO plan at $350 to $375 per month, so much that many choose to carry no insurance whatsoever. If they become ill or injured, delays in care can have devastating consequences, like the cancer that took Homer Avila's leg three years ago. Too few dancers are aware they may qualify for free or low-cost government-sponsored programs such as Family Health Plus and Healthy NY, or get care at Bellevue and pay on a sliding scale, based on income.

Other living costs may come to $1,000 more per month. Dancers may spend $100 on classes, with some paying twice that; $20 to $200 to attend performances, though Theatre Development Fund vouchers help; $100 or so in food costs, if they shop at food co-ops and other discount outlets.

Other needs get squeezed out. Anne Gadwa, an emerging choreographer who supports herself as operations manager for Movement Research, slips into the third person when discussing clothing: "I get castoffs from roommates who are moving out. Anne needs a new pair of shoes, though." Many cite debt from college or recent performances, with monthly payments between $150 to $250, and sometimes much more.

To cover costs, dancers work as administrators for presenting organizations, teach through arts agencies that send them to different schools each day, and in rare cases, earn close to a living wage at the more established companies. Eric Fogel, 28, dances with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, among other troupes: "Dealing with the logistics of being a dancer takes creativity. I have learned to market myself for all types of dance, from ballet, musical theater, classical modern, and postmodern to hip-hop." He earns as much as three-quarters of his income dancing, and bartends to make ends meet.

Other dancers work as secretaries, life models, nannies, exotic dancers, waitpersons, or graphic designers. They take part-time gigs to accommodate rehearsal schedules, or work full-time to get benefits. A bright spot is the increasing demand for bodywork, including Alexander, Pilates, and various types of massage. Dancers trained in such techniques can develop their own practices or work for a chain like Sal Anthony's. But hourly rates don't account for unpaid travel to clients, time spent promoting the practice, or training.

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