Theater archives

The Etiquette of Dancing for Free


Many dancers spend their working lives in silence. They rehearse and perform as directed, facing financial, physical, and social instability. But recently the downtown Dancers Forum has been organizing to improve conditions.

Dancers Forum (DF) originated in 1996 at a Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) retreat entitled “Doing the Dance: Redefining the Life and Needs of the Dancer,” held at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In a speech to this unprecedented gathering, choreographer Kathy Westwater said, “To love what you do is a gift… It is important that we don’t turn that love into a carte blanche for unsatisfactory situations. It’s relevant to remember the reasons we went into dance, and to use those memories to make choices now. Are we presently getting those things we wanted long ago?”

Dancers expect a life of uncertainty. Thousands come to New York each year, prepared to make little or no money doing what they love. The major ballet companies and a few large modern troupes, such as Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey, have union contracts with the American Guild of Musical Artists that stipulate weekly salaries, health and dental insurance, supplemental unemployment benefits, and a retirement plan. But most downtown dance artists work with no benefits or protections, and until recently, talking about conditions was considered taboo.

In 2002, DF published a document designed to improve working relationships between dancers and choreographers. The Dancers Forum Compact (which can be accessed electronically at is intended as a flexible model for initiating communication and promoting improvements in the workplace, and has been distributed to dance companies and university dance departments. Forum members have conducted workshops on it at Tisch and at Barnard. Phyllis Lamhut, who teaches choreography at Tisch, says, “People who are graduating are very fearful to step into the dance field. A document like the Compact can guide them.”

The Compact, forum organizers say, “responds to the need for dancers and choreographers to clearly define the terms in which they work together, since many circumstances leave contractual information unwritten… in a state of amicable ambiguity… Rather than imposing a system of ‘work for capital,’ an exchange of respect for mutual labor is encouraged.”

A users group meets quarterly in New York, but the Compact’s impact is still unclear. Few choreographers are actively using it. Bill Young, whose small dance troupe operates from his Soho loft, emphasizes that all companies function differently and can’t be bound to the same standards. “The real beauty of what [Dancers Forum] is doing is creating a dialogue… It makes people aware of their working relationships,” he says.

One dancer who participated in its creation feels that the Compact’s existence is a positive start but that vague language weakens it. She says, “I have doubts about the effectiveness of something that leaves so much open to interpretation, and then is not signed. The document would be most effective if personalized to reflect the philosophy of each company, and then signed so everyone involved remembers what they agreed to.”

Dance/NYC recently reported that over 8,600 people work for local dance organizations on a volunteer basis — 77 percent of the entire workforce in the professional dance community. Substandard conditions exist because dancers and management are unlikely to challenge them. They tend not to think of art as work or artists as workers. DF member and Merce Cunningham dancer Jonah Bokaer says, “It’s always tricky exchanging labor for capital in the dance field, because there isn’t a fixed value for either rehearsal or performance work.” No compact or contract will affect labor relations if management and dancers do not deem it important enough to enforce.

Forum members assert that the document will help to ensure the vitality of the field. Westwater wants the Compact to be “a process that all people can enter into. Dance needs to take on the larger questions that other industries have. It’s not going to hurt the creative process; it will just give a maturity to the form, and to everybody who participates in it.”

Dancers Forum holds a general meeting on May 3 at 6 p.m., at Dance/NYC, 63 Greene Street, #506. On June 5 at 4 p.m. at DTW, 219 West 19th Street, Dancers Forum holds a town hall meeting to discuss the use of the Compact.