A survey of dancers in the UK last summer reported that “more than half of professional dancers earn less than £5,000 a year from their performance work.” That’s professional dancers. “The statistics also show that around 50% of dancers’ jobs pay less than the minimum wage, and that 70% of dancers have performed in ‘unsuitable work environments’ in the past 12 months.” Add to this how short dancers’ careers are and you wonder why anyone would try to make a living as a dancer.
These statistics sound familiar. Over the past two years my colleague Sasha Anawalt at the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications at the University of Southern California, and I worked on a project examining the dance community in Los Angeles County. We began by wondering if we could figure out ways to look inside a creative community and make it more visible. Visibility is the first step to being heard. Visibility is power.
We chose dance because it’s a smaller community than music or theatre or film. Dance is also a community that has traditionally been less visible than other art forms in LA. And though LA has a significant history in dance as well as a thriving commercial dance industry, it’s also had difficulty getting broader artistic recognition. Multiple attempts to organize the community have failed to get much traction. When you talk about dance in LA, no one is entirely sure what the community actually looks like.
So We Decided To Ask
Over the course of four months in 2015, 1,036 members of LA’s dance community took a survey about their lives in dance. Then, last summer, we invited the dance community to come together to look at the results and figure out what they mean. You can see the results here at DanceMapLA.
The survey results are interesting, but not unexpected. What was unexpected though was that when we got dancers together to talk about the results, it turns out that they don’t even have a common language to talk about their work or about how their field functions.
And if LA dancers can’t even agree on a language in describing what they do, how do they describe it to the larger community?
The larger community, including The New York Times, has begun to notice that there’s something interesting going on in LA dance, some suggesting that the city is becoming a significant center of dance. But some dancers suggested that one difficulty in promoting LA dance is that like much of the city’s art, it comes out of the streets and isn’t necessarily transportable outside its communities.
As for what dancers in LA look like, as expected, they earn little – half making less than $5000 a year from dance. Seventy percent make less than $40,000 a year from all sources, including other jobs they take to subsidize their dance careers. Remember – these are people who identify themselves as professional dancers. Which of course begs the question, what constitutes a professional dancer? This is a highly educated group of people – 60 percent have a college degree, and presumably they could do something else if they chose to. But they choose dance.
But when a field cannot pay its professional practitioners enough so that they can reasonably support themselves how does it affect the art? Dance careers are short enough due to physical limitations; lack of money and resources makes it even more difficult to sustain careers and ideas.