Performance Experience - Is It Always a Good Thing?
Most students and teachers are aware of the important need for dancers to gain performance experience. Dancers who have a strong performance history are often more comfortable at auditions, are given main roles and are singled out for special duties.
Yet how are dancers to get performance experience? For some dancers, it is through competitions, school recitals, and at school community performances. For others it will be to offer their performance services for free. It is the dancing for ‘no pay’ that bothers me and I believe it to be a dangerous practice.
What is a Pro?
An agent once said to an acting friend, "why are you a professional actor?" She replied, "because I love my work."
"Wrong answer," replied the agent.
"Because I enjoy the artistic fulfillment."
"Wrong again," the agent replied.
My friend was a bit baffled and finally asked what answer she should be giving. The agent replied: "the answer is for money!"
Now I believe this is a bit harsh, however the theatrical agent was making a distinction between amateur and professional endeavors. In today’s world, it comes down to being paid, not necessarily skill. Professionals are paid, amateurs are not.
Dancers aspiring to a professional career will reach their goal the day they receive their first pay for dancing.
Let's get back to the discussion of the amateur (unpaid) dancer wishing to gain valuable performance experience. Dancers at this point in their career must be very careful when choosing where to perform. Performances at recitals, competitions and local community events are excellent choices.
Dancers performing at shows, venues or events for free that would normally have used paid professionals are being irresponsible. When considering performing for ‘free,’ ask yourself, ‘am I taking away a paid professional job?’ If the answer is no, then please, grab that opportunity and go for it! If the answer is yes, then DO NOT PERFORM.
My reason for this is simple. While understanding how crucial it is to get performance experience (and how tempting), if you take away that paid job, the client will probably never pay for dancers again. Why should they? They can get dancers for free. Result, one less paying client for the professional dance world -- forever!
Some of you may also be thinking, but if I don’t grab this opportunity, someone else will. Maybe, maybe not. But do you really want to be the one responsible for creating a future with no professional dancers?
I should point out here that a dancer's minimum wage is for a dancer with less than 1 years professional experience. This often means there is little difference in performance standard between a top amateur and a new professional. A client considering whether to pay for a new professional or a top amateur for free will probably choose the amateur. It is up to us to draw this line.
If you continue to perform for free, after a few months of this work, you may be ready to start being paid to dance. If you have gained enough experience, you will definitely want to be paid and may even feel a bit exploited because you aren’t being paid. So you now start to request payment for your dancing. Surprisingly perhaps, you will probably be refused.
Again, why should you get paid? You’ve been happy dancing for free until now, so what’s changed? The client won't care that you are a little more polished or experienced, they will probably remove your performance opportunity and find someone else to dance for free. So now you have no performance opportunities, plenty of experience and no money. Perhaps now is the time to find an agent.
Please be warned most agents won’t touch you if you’ve been dancing for free. It makes it very difficult for them to start charging for you when people know you dance for free. This is especially true in smaller cities or dance communities.
An additional problem could be that by the time you are ready to be paid and turn professional, there may be no work available as the amateurs have it all. This is a real occurrence in small cities.
I also recognize that many of you may be performing at these types of events under the guidance of your teachers. Please take the time to talk to your teachers and explain this situation, or even show them this article. Teachers have a responsibility to help you gain performance experience and in this hunger to provide you with opportunities, often overstep this line. The teacher's heart is usually in the right place when she takes these performance opportunities the long term damage outweighs the short term benefits.
I believe it us up to us, the dance community to protect these professional performance opportunities. We can not expect clients to always understand why they should pay for dancers. So let's get together and protect the very performances that help to promote dance at the highest levels. Keep the dreams alive for our students to one day ‘turn professional!’
So please, next time you consider a free public performance, ask yourself, ‘am I taking away a paid professional job?’
Comments are welcome! Please share your ideas here!