Poverty Mentality in Dancers
and what can be done to help defeat it.
When I began studying ballet, I was worried what my father would think about my decision to train to be a professional dancer. I thought that I’d receive the usual rejection due to homophobia or the idea that artists are air-headed hipsters. Instead he said, “No. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried how your going to live.” Indeed, it was a legitimate worry.
Dance students have the intelligence to realize that the career they are training for is not for the faint of heart. Many know that the possibility of getting hired is slim, even if they have talent and experience. But, there are many students who fall into ideology,” I don’t want dancers who want to dance. I want dancers who have to dance.” (George Balanchine). For them, entering the professional world of dance is like stepping off a precipice in a void. A dancer must be prepared for some bumpy roads. For many this results in poverty, that often winds up becoming more of a bad habit than necessary. But, the poverty is not only economic, it involves a multiplicity of implications for a dancer’s life.
Performing artists are among the most underpaid of educated professionals in the world. And, dancers remain at the bottom of the ladder even in that group.
2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics (1) report:
The median pay for dancers is $14.16 and choreographers was $15.87 an hour, the dancer must have trained during high school and provide consistent on-the-job training until they retire (company class etc.) The number of jobs filled and available is 25,800. That’s all dance jobs: Ballet, Modern and Contemporary Dance, Musical Theater, Social Dance, Industrial, Television and Film. (not competitive dance, which is not considered to be a dance profession in the industry because for most, it does not provide a consistent income.) The rate of increase is 13% or 3400, which is above the 11% average. But, with literally millions of dancers looking for work, this is small consolation. 30% work as dancers, 57% work as educators and choreographers, but this is a fuzzy number because of several factors, the early retirement age of dancers, the crossover of educator-dancers and more.
These are daunting statistics for a profession that takes decades of study to prepare towards a career. Dancers earn much less than what most other performing artists do. And, dancers as athletes, though the short career span is the same as athlete-competitors, the earnings are so small, it’s not worth comparing to professional athletes. Financial ruin in dancers is usually a job or a paycheck away.
But dancers push on anyway. Why would anyone choose a life where fame and fortune is rare, and a pittance of an income is likely? The answer is “What I did for love”(2) Dancer dances because they love to dance. If they danced simply because they wanted to dance, they would likely lose interest. Dancers perform because the proscenium is their home. In the guise of movement, regardless of whether it is abstraction, narrative or symbolic, the dancer gives her or his body in motion to an audience as visual music, story, poetry, and fine art.
Then when they’re done at the end of the day or wee hours to the next morning, and they’re spent, ready to collapse, a three figure paycheck is rewarded for their efforts. They’re reminded about what their worth is to a society that has bigger fish to fry. It makes perfect sense that the self-image of the artist as valuable and viable to a community, may decline into deficit.
Many dancers may receive support from parents. Indeed, it costs a small fortune to train a dancer from beginner to completion by age 18 in ballet, More, for modern/contemporary dancers where the industry expectation is to hire dancers with university degrees. (Note that this standard was exclusive to the modern dance population for many years. Now, all dancers now have online access to higher education; a development of only the last 15+ years since the advent of the “Internet 2.0.” But, for most others, the age of 18 is considered optimal for dancers to obtain an apprenticeship or better.) For some dancers there are patrons, or benefactors, others there are grants scholarships and fellowships. But these are few and far between. Then, just getting hired is difficult, even for the best of dancers. Fortunately, the art form has added opportunities to dance in smaller more contemporary companies, as well as hundreds of international ballet competitions to perform and gain offers. These are not ideal situations for dancers to grow. But, with the growth in opportunities, has followed the population growth of employable dancers, leaving limited opportunities for dancers to perform for a living. And, often many such opportunities may cost a small fortune to get. And, it is not only women who suffer challenges. for men, gaining support in the arts is even tougher, in a society, where the job title of “dancer” for a male, is suspect. The obvious financial stress of dancers, is also magnified by a host of other factors, and redefines poverty as a habitual mindset.
The Poverty of Social Castigation: The Hierarchy of Position and Rejection within the Dance Community.
I know of only one dancer who claimed to get hired or accepted in every audition he took. Such are the egos of dancers to trump up such claims. Most dancers suffer rejection. But, the worst suffering of all is the idea that poverty is supposed to be the life of a dancer!
The toughest job interview on the planet exists exclusively with performing artists. It is the only employment situation in the free world where the employer is allowed to reject upon the basis of gender, look, age, weight, race, how they move, even their personality. The amount of time and money required for performing artists to market themselves, compared even to MBAs and other white collar workers is exponentially higher: they have to have a resume/C.V., just as the rest of the world does. But, they also must have heavy presences on multiple websites, agents, videos, DVDs, photos, and for some of the more elite dancers, agents and publicists. Rejection in hiring and casting, as well as by peers, (remember that this is a young person’s performing art), and staff is common even among so called “stars,” but more often, rejection happens because of the mindset of the individual.
Mature dancers take the high road, and are undeterred as to whether or not the director likes them: Dancers simply want to dance;. But, no dancer worth their meddle will make themselves indentured to the subjective desires of a director, or even less, the desires of peers attempting to push them aside. These dancers will leave a ballet company, or theater contract with grace. Bob Dylan’s, “She Belongs to me” (3) reflects this: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist; she don’t look back.” Once the right environment in which to dance is found, a dancer may flourish. But, this model is not as usual.
Dance is a young person’s art. Far too many dancers are under-educated, due to the deferment of higher education and world view, for the cloister of a dance studio and theater. Thus, juvenile behavior continues even among more mature dancers, directors and choreographers. Rejection often comes in the form of backstabbing and competition for roles by their peers, for favor with artistic directors, choreographers and artistic staff. Dancers may proverbially, throw themselves on the floor if they have to, to get roles. Many use manipulation, coercion and the undermining of others, to get ahead, believing the falsehood of the law of the jungle, and that subterfuge will help them succeed. This is not only painful to victims, but does real harm to the reputations, conscience and trust of people around those who know no other way to operate in the world than to do harm to others as a means of success. This is common among dancers who spent their childhoods in sweaty studios training and competing with their classmates: often the impulse to undo one’s neighbor is honed by lack of exposure to any other way of life.
The “bun-head’ monks life of a dancer, certainly isn’t a sane lifestyle, and many dancers will take advantage of the short time they have to have fun outside the studio. They often push the “party-too-much” buttons, to the detriment of the next day’s rehearsal or performance. Others may get smart and go online to get University degrees. Education is a buffer against those who use deception as a method to get ahead, and wind up with nothing once their careers end. In the end for everyone, pain is going to happen, but suffering from it is a choice.
The Poverty of Physical Injury
After years of dancing, many performers suffer with injuries. There is no standard in the US for dance teachers. But, teaching dance and ballet requires pedagogical training and minimal professional experience in the field. But, fewer than five percent of instructors of ballet and other forms took time to get training in advance and few than that danced for a living. The result is that teachers ignorant of their craft and the culture of dance as well how to instruct and engage their charges, may cause injury to students or professionals. Or students may have been trained very well by very good teachers. But, in reality, injuries usually occur when a dancer is tired, mistakes happen and things simply don’t go well. During the course of a career many injuries heal. But over time, any malady can become chronic and lead to deterioration of the dancer’s instrument, her body. Inevitably retirement follows. But, unlike most people and like most athletes, retirement inevitably occurs at far too young an age. However, unlike most athletes, dancers are artists first; the athleticism only exists to support their life as artists. Thus, their retirement presents a double blow: the loss of ability to move and display their craft, and the loss of a usable instrument in which to perform their art form.
Of course, injuries occur in dancers with mediocre training, but not as often as one might think: injuries and the general wear-and-tear of dancer/athlete’s bodies usually occur simply because: a dancer dances. Injuries cost time and money. A dancer doesn’t dance to heal from an injury and often, not workman’s compensation, industrial commissions, nor insurance can back them up…and then, of course, the clock is ticking: age is the primary factor in career termination. Dancers can’t wait to dance because its is an art form that happens in the present tense. It is a sober truth that dancers’ careers are limited by the confines of individual youth. As Artist-Athletes, each dancer has their time to learn, rise, abide and and then cease as dancers. For an artist of maturity, the end happens far too soon.
The Poverty of Societal Strata: The Hierarchy of Position and Rejection in Society.
We live in a society that has an agreed to believe that if a person does not do something that earns enough to provide food and shelter for his/her family, they must be lazy bohemians. Western culture, particularly, American culture, places artists in a class of people that are believed to be living off of the backs of those who do real work. This mindset infers that “real work” creates the only tangible value to survival, shelter and sustenance. The sad truth is that all civilizations thrive upon three specific needs, (A) Food (B) Shelter (C) Community. But, most people believe that the (C) Community is based upon the needs of “A and B”. The truth is that it is really founded upon the varieties of communication and interaction people have with each other. And, it is such communication itself that is held as the full domain of the arts!
Sane communities are not tranches of individuals vying for place and power. Civilizations with such divisions have failed miserably. They failed, because they replaced art with entertainment, replaced caring for each other with conquest and war, replaced sharing ideas with covert stratagems to gain power and treasure, and equated achievement with the acquisition of material, rather than understanding of their neighbors and the cultivation of ideas. With such affaires de l’Etat, it is no wonder dancers have bought into such a socially accepted poverty conciousness that places intellectuals and artists in low castes. So, in response, in order to create meaning, artists, particularly dancers, will often put themselves in a place of suffering.
Dancers and many artists tend to believe that they must suffer for their art, when the truth is that the two main tasks of art is to show society their own pain and suffering, and to reveal that communication and love is the remedy. But, just witnessing this suffering and acknowledging such love is often too uncomfortable to observe for many audiences. Thus, society dismisses art as a lark, luxury, spectacle and low brow entertainment, when it hypocritically values competition, sport and subterfuge, as a replacement for the insights art provides. This is so prevalent that it has become a super-meme for the mindlessness of modern society, desiring an escape from reality. The result is that dance and art becomes relegated to competitions, spectacles and entertainments. These distractions lull and numb like a narcotic easing the pain of adversity and conflict.
Meanwhile, artists continue to display their trade when and wherever they can. There will always be audiences brave enough to know that art is about revealing the hidden realities of the world. Herein lies one of the main functions of a trained and experienced directors, choreographers, and dancers: to present and reflect the world as it is in reality back upon itself. This reflection is sent through the mirror of art, which is, in our case, the art of dance.
Conquering the bases for hierarchical cultural belief is, likely, a major portion of mankind’s next step in human cognitive evolution. The arts job is to push this cognitive evolution forward. Artists must challenge the world everyday. But, this requires challenging cultural rejection as serious workers with needed, real and tangible service and as functioning human beings in society. For dancers who lead balanced lives, it is dance and dancing that is important, not how the world quantifies them! But, those dancers who subconsciously buy into erroneous beliefs, are often those who’s low self-images become a prophesies fulfilled: they follow cultural rejection by making themselves insignificant living poverty inspired by their own mentality.
A Poverty of Self Image:
The worst part of injury self-afflicted upon the artist is in self-reflection. For dance, this is literal and palpable. How many people stare at themselves in $50,000 worth of mirrors everyday and, along with a group of experts, scrutinize their image repeatedly? Dancers are almost the only people to do this. In the desire to become successful, like the rest of the culture, dancers often view themselves and each other in the false quantitative, non-analytical concept of “better or worse.” This contradicts the art form’s qualitative nature. Like the rest of society, dancers often believe that “good and bad” has honed their career into professionals. Oddly, it is part of an aesthetic that begs not to be quantifiably judged, rather viewed as to whether it succeeds or not in communicating a feeling, message or narrative.
So then, does it follow that, for example, if a dancer may not have good turns or jumps, that they then are bad dancers and by association, bad people? No, of course not. But, the sub-conscious ideal of the perfect dancer remains embedded and engramed in many dancers’ minds: if they are not perfect dancers, they are not perfect people and thus are not good dancers … or good people!
But, does dance provide pain and suffering itself? I say no. People who are part of the culture of dance harm themselves and each other, ignoring the truth that it is this exact pain and ardor they should be presenting to the public as performance, but never as personal. This is a sub-mimetic inflicting abject poverty mentality of actors, dancers, singers, musicians that is so apparent that books have been written about it.
Three Steps towards a Prosperous Mindset for Dancers
So, how can dancers, as part of the world’s populous, stop doing harm through nonsensical beliefs such as superstitions about better or worse, and hierarchy? How can they actually realize a positive outcome in their lives careers, while being a mirror for society as a whole?
There are a few ideals and concepts that can help a dancer overcome an abject mind. They are drawn from the specifics of dance training itself, particularly ballet. The history of ballet comes from the French and Italian courts where decorum, social protocols and rituals of honoring one another were tantamount to surviving in a culture that itself was mired in hierarchies. But, now the arts can glean from these, reinventing them into functional services to waken and open the artists mind to what is important in dance, giving them tangible reasoning for why they dance and perform.
If a dancer is going to heal such a declined state of life, they must change their minds. The first point must be that “good and bad” in art are subjective. The second point is that good is a state of peace that is absent of bad. Stop the belief in a state of being where some subjective level of hierarchy is all that remains of life. The catch is, of course, that this is difficult when the studio mirror is believed to be the tool that tells all. Rather, it is in the consistent practice of the art form that mirrors the world; not an image in piece of glass! End the belief that a specified perfection dominates that results in poverty of “bad”. This only causes suffering. Instead, take that suffering as a mirror to the world while performing. Don’t let it fester inside them and depress. Otherwise, you create an insidious wheel. Here is what can be done to alleviate such a poverty of mind.
A) First and foremost: as a dancer you must understand that you must BE IN SERVICE TO THE ART FORM! As an art form, dance is a concept that creates, molds, actualizes and is performed as real, This concept takes form and action, in a repetitive manner. For example, for a dancer’s first day as a student, to their last day as professional, they will be performing plie’s: “bended knees.” If treated as a practice that is -mindful-, a contemplation, a ritual, possibly as as if it is a prayer or meditation, the mundane process of taking yet-another-class, performing another show, becomes a cultural treasure. In this, you should serve the art form and promote it as a profession that requires as much present attention and as much meaning as any other.
Ergo, it is up to individuals and artistic institutions to mutually replace concepts like “good and bad” with the concept of working towards creating “art.” There are few people and companies doing this today. Alonzo King, Juri Kylian, Bill Forsyth and others, have played with it. The idea that dance can be a contemplative art form needs to be incorporated institutionally, but it starts with individuals like you trying it for yourself. Because, art is a form of communication of feeling and as well as a commentary using the creators as a mirror for the world, you can turn that mirror by remembering that the concept of art itself is what can change minds.
Artists do not control this truth; they are simply the instrument which reveals to society its “face,” but done so in the abstract. So, follow your instincts and intuition to work with each other to bring your work to fruition. If you are to make a living creating art, you must keep your eyes on the prize: but the prize is not payday. It a response from an audience substantiating what they’ve witnessed as transformative to their minds transcendent to their hearts.
B) Second. Raise your eyes and be confident. Be in control of your lives. Don’t stand for getting less pay. Regardless, if you are a union performer or not, do not allow yourself to be under paid. You are not lesser in the value of what your work is to society, and definitely not in its cultural value: demand to be paid and taken care of by clients if you are a freelancers, or employers if you work for a company. Most of all, don’t accept second best. As artists, we have to provide a clean visage by which the world can see itself through us. Ergo, NEVER allow ANYONE to degrade you for what you do! If nothing else is gained from this essay, remember only this: Without you, the performer, there is no art. Without art, there is no civilization!
C) Third, use the reasoning that supports the balletic act of “Reverence.” The instruction of bowing, applause and acknowledgment is given at the beginning and end of each class and performance in schools and companies where mindful protocols are kept. The reasoning behind “Reverence” is rarely explained. So, the following may be a the good brief capitulation of reasoning, that you can use as a format to dispel the specter of poverty of mind, to which you mind subject yourself. Therefore, before, (during) and after class, you should give reverence and applause to
1) Yourself for having the courage to practice this art form. Dance isn’t simply an art you do for fun or work or whatever. It is a discipline you practice to enhance your life and the world around you.
2) The musician(s) who accompany you, (even through recordings), for providing the collaboration which makes this a musical art form.
3) The teacher for passing on the information in such a way that it continue to enhance your life, and thus, the world.
4) The audience for allowing you the opportunity to transform them and thus the world through your practice.
5) Your fellow dancers, both present and not for supporting the art form, yourself and each other in the practice….and most importantly,
6) The Art of Dance, to which you are in service, that gives you the ability to enhance the world and yourself through the technique and art supported by the technique to practice.
Do this, and the amount of stress you experience may exponentially diminish, or become insignificant. Then, the concepts of “better and worse,” will disappear like all those who haven’t figured out that dancing is about dance, not ego. Reverence is a display that ultimately levels everyone into mutual respect: Respect is expected of all people, all stakeholders with whom we share this world, and in dance, Reverence is the alpha stroke by which it is communicated and displayed.
We have to remember that, the arts, as complex forms of communication, are rituals by which society codifies itself, and maintains its sanity. If not, the insanity of hierarchy, competition, and fear will continue. So, if you are a dancer, if you are a teacher, don’t just dismiss the class, and turn your backs upon each other. Formalize a bow to these 6 points. Shake each others’ hands and know that what you do is precious – it is priceless. And, ultimately, it is as important a career choice as a farmer, a doctor, a lawyer or politician.
© Philip S. Rosemond March 16th, 2012, revised and updated, August 3rd, 2014
(1) Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Dancers and Choreographers,
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Bennett From Michael Bennet’s “A Chorus Line.”