Dancers’ rights & responsibilities

Image credit: Flora Wellesley Wesley; photo by Peter AguilarImage credit: Flora Wellesley Wesley; photo by Peter Aguilar

In June, I broke my wrist in a cycling accident in which I ‘got doored’ by a Black Cab passenger. With two impact fractures of the left scaphoid (small bone at the base of the hand), I needed a cast for six weeks followed by another six weeks stepwise rehabilitation. Having invested in Equity membership (complete with injury cover) last autumn when I took on a fairly high risk dance job, I found myself in the lucky position of being compensated £150 for every week that I was unable to do or apply for dance work. Equity’s insurance is for accidents – “sudden, unexpected, unusual, specific event, which occurs at an identifiable time and place” – rather than ongoing/recurring injury, so it’s not perfect by any means. However, there are other sources of help that Equity offers, such as the Equity Benevolent Fund, which is open to Equity members. (Grants are given out to people when they can find no other sources of help.) Acting on Equity’s advice, I sought a referral to the NIDMS Dancers’ Clinic from my GP. Being able to go to physiotherapy sessions with doctors who specialise in dance injury, an NHS provision that was lobbied for by DanceUK and Equity, was terrific. There are clinics in London and Birmingham and soon one will open in Bath, too.

There are a host of reasons to join the union as a performer. For freelance dance artists in particular, now feels like an opportune moment to do so. June was a turning point for Equity’s live performance department: it introduced the Equity Freelance Dance Network in an explicit bid to reach out to artists in the independent dance sector.

Lately, publicity around Equity’s work within the dance sector has been very negative; the union has been under fire for the disappointing lack of progress regarding negotiations over dancers’ working wages in Royal Opera House productions. I understand the inclination to judge a union on its case by case dealings, its failures and successes, but I also think that fixating singularly on them – at the expense of addressing other fundamentals at play in the bigger picture – is myopic and damaging. Personally, I feel that being hyper critical of Equity from the outside misses the point a bit; it almost feels hypocritical.

I know for a lot of dance artists, making their dance work pay is not necessarily the end game; rather, it is about creating ways of making their dance work possible. I appreciate that there are different kinds of value and currency involved in artistic exchange besides money altogether. But I don’t think this appreciation need prevent a rightful quest to address systemic issues around pay and etiquette in the field. I think we are in need of a tipping point. Jobbing dancers, dance artists, anyone who ever belongs in the pigeon hole of ’employed’ performer rather than ’employer’, I propose we engage with Equity. It is a democratic organisation (already established!) where policy and priorities are decided by its members. It is poised to do better with us, for us. I feel we have a responsibility for its strength and influence. Let’s unionise – and not by half.

Nicolas Keegan, the Equity Councillor for dance, has been actively in dialogue with Beth Doran in Equity’s Live Performance department for three years now. I met with Nick and Beth in the Summer 2014 when I was particularly infuriated by a spate of call-outs for unpaid work dubbed ‘performance opportunities’ that had been streaming across online noticeboards and through my inbox. What I was struck by was how the two of them had, in the time they’d been conceiving this network, developed such a solid basis of understanding. They were hearteningly clued up on the predicament of the freelance dance artist (eg. issues like how short and transitory many contracts are, and how scarcity of work can have a detrimental impact on expectations in the work market). Reassuringly, they were also eminently open and curious to listen and learn more – from broad-brush issues and complaints to specific contractual case studies. Beth has been doing field trips to meet casts and companies at work and seeking access to educational institutions and their student bodies in order to raise awareness of this new network and its aims (to read their Mission Statement, scroll down this page). Meanwhile, Nick has very much been an Equity advocate in the field, bending colleagues’ ears where he can. What I learnt in June renewed my faith in Equity’s potential as a vehicle to help freelancers out in their working lives. I realised how ignorant I had been about what Equity is and how it functions. Here are some things that have been cleared up:

Equity is not a policing organisation.

Equity is neither a nanny nor a service, though it does provide some services (eg. insurance policies, tax workshops).

Equity is empowered by its members; their number and their proactivity.

There is no rule that one is not allowed to accept unpaid or low paid work as an Equity member. It’s still your choice.

It only takes one member to approach Equity with an issue for them to act on your behalf.

Image problem?

Beth Doran admits that Equity has an image problem in commonly being perceived as just a services union. In its heyday in the sixties and seventies – anytime before Margaret Thatcher – Equity was a closed shop and an Equity Card was a precious commodity, something of a passport into the entertainment industry. 40,000 has been its biggest number of members since the closed shop status quo came to an end. Nowadays, you still have to prove that you are a professional and have been employed in the industry but Equity is no longer an agency; its task has been to transform itself into something akin to Unite or Unison.

The deputy system

This is the system whereby there is an appointed ‘deputy’ in the workplace – the face of the union without being employed by the union. In other workplaces deputies are known as ‘union reps’ or ‘shop stewards’. This person acts as a conduit interfacing with the dancers, the employer and Equity. Most commonly, they report any issue to Equity which is too big or too confrontational for them to deal with alone and Equity then speaks with the employer as a representative of the cast, thus avoiding the deputy having to face any personal flack. If the deputy wants to approach an issue alone, Equity provides support and advice.

At present, it is rare for the deputy system to be set up in short term projects or small casts, which accounts for the majority of freelance contemporary dance projects. The onus is on members to contact Equity to activate this system.

Archaic opera rates – but how are they legal?

Opera companies tend to have unique contracts negotiated with Equity. As a category of work within the industry, they represent a historical anomaly. Prevailing precedents were set decades ago and have ossified in the doldrums of ‘Low Pay’. The project fee is a flat weekly wage for the whole contract and supposedly the hours average out at 35 hours per week over the mixture of 5-6 day rehearsal weeks and 2-3 day performance weeks. The story goes that somewhere along the line there was a most unfortunate (or convenient, depending on your position) conflation of walk-on artistes without lines and dancers who don’t speak. The tapering of actors’ pay in this manner is not something I personally condone but at least in this scenario there is a ladder to climb. What of the so called dancer-not-trained-to-speak? Dancers have acquired the status of lowest paid performers at our peril; currently, Royal Opera House contracts have cast dancers earning 1p under the 2015 London Living Wage based on the basic fee on a 35 hour working week (£320.01 per week, the Royal Opera House’s current ‘going rate’).

Equity is openly not content with the rate of pay and has been negotiating with ROH but because there are invariably so few Equity members in these casts, they have very little power to leverage change. Insisting on higher rates in this weak position caused the English National Opera to ‘de-recognise’ Equity for a number of years. This meant that they would not negotiate with it. Scottish Opera currently do not ‘recognise’ Equity and will not negotiate with them. Plainly, it is not progressive to burn bridges; received wisdom is that it is better to maintain a good working relationship between workers, managers and unions in order for negotiation to be possible at all. Equity’s job is to represent its members, not dancers in general. If only dancers in general were actually and actively part of the union. Nicholas Keegan spelt out his logic around how Equity’s negotiation position can be strengthened in his latest blog.

First Open Meeting of the Equity Freelance Dance Artist Network

In mid-October, I attended the first open meeting of Equity’s Freelance Dance Artist Network and felt genuinely excited by the feeling that a sound campaign was afoot.

Nick and Beth are grounded and realistic but also aspirational. They were not promising quick fixes but rather articulated fixed goals and have a plan of action. Equity is embarking on a new campaign to develop guidelines for best practice – ‘Small Scale Choreographer Guidelines’ – for choreographers in tandem with the Independent Theatre Council’s (ITC) Ethical Manager Agreement. The ‘community recommended rates’ will not necessarily be enforceable but rather will serve as a resource for people to refer to that will have an impact on conversations and expectations about pay and, with any luck, budgets too. Beth Doran wants to get a mixed group of people together reflective of the work force at large – people who will be willing to facilitate the development of guidelines. Beth’s targets are to get NPO companies using Equity contracts.

One aim of mine is to see arts organisations across the board being educated about and brought into line with what conditions and payment dancers need to do their work well. I have noticed a disturbing pattern of dancers being the overlooked, un-budgeted for aspect of choreographic commissions in visual arts contexts. Commissioners and galleries are often offenders, negligently relieving themselves of accountability by keeping their distance from budget breakdowns altogether or offering paltry token amounts in the guise of ‘per diems’ in lieu of actual fees. Dance exhibitions are often popular and reflect well on the host venue. When the production ethics behind them are poor, they simply don’t deserve the credit they get.

Part of me feels that our issues are genre-specific; this newfangled opportunity to attend meetings expressly for freelance dance artists feels like a positive ‘re-boot’ opportunity. That said, my appreciation of the solidarity of unions in general is growing; the TUC’s Britain Needs a Pay Rise march on 18 October caught my attention. I think it is crucial that there is no confusion between advocating for higher wages for dancers and undermining the pay of other workers. While Article19 has been instrumental in raising debate around dancers’ pay, the tactic of trying to bolster the case for dancers being better paid by undermining the rights and occupational threats of others (cellists, in this case) struck me as besides the point. (Of course musicians fear injury – repetitive stress syndrome this a real worry for them, and in any case, everyone needs to look after their health to be able to work and live well.)

I want to campaign for better working conditions and pay not just for myself and my colleagues and dance friends but for the sake of dance, because when wages are poor, I think the dance art can suffer just like the dance artists. The status quo of being paid and treated well as a dancer ought not be the ultimate nirvarna or a preserve of “the best”, an elite few, as one recent graduate I spoke to phrased it, his expectations tempered to the current climate. As dancers, we need to ensure we are fully acquainted with our rights and rates as workers in different contexts; rates range across subsidised and commercial sectors. That achieved, the challenge that lies ahead is to precipitate a “mentality shift”, as Nick puts it, as much as anything else.

This Freelance Dance Artist Network campaign is part of a much bigger cultural narrative about workers’ rights – from the unpaid intern to the below-inflation salaried employee to the highly skilled freelancer. Other artists have made good headway in discussions such as I’ll Show You Mine where perspectives and experiences are pooled. Jamila Johnson-Small mentioned this new Artists union in response to Charlie Ashwell’s latest blog Work Vs Work. I am certain there are many great suggestions that indie dance artists could voice to help improve our situation. Being vocal and proactive, unified by the structure of a union, I genuinely feel we can effect an amelioration of attitudes and values towards the work of dance artists, slowly but surely.

It’s all food for thought. I simply encourage us not to overlook Equity. We have the agency to shape and inform it if we choose to, but not from the outside. You can sign up for news from the Freelance Dance Artist Network for free here: Equity membership costs £148 for the first year, £120 per year thereafter. For the injury cover alone, I would argue it is worth it. But don’t just do it for that. We need to get involved and involve, become informed and inform, to properly realise the potential of unionising. Rights and responsibilities: two sides of the same coin.