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Beth Doran: Dance Artists as Workers: the Launch of Equity’s Freelance Dance Artist Network
The purpose of a trade union is to negotiate terms and conditions amongst the workforce it represents. Equity represents dancers, and other professional performers and creative practitioners in the performing arts industry. Equity has negotiated collective agreements with all the large dance companies, examples being The Royal Ballet and The English National Ballet, where the dancers work under good conditions and receive fair pay. Almost 100% of the dancers in these companies are Equity members and in these conditions it is relatively straightforward for Equity to achieve positive outcomes for our members.
Our strength in this area is in contrast to our standing within the freelance dance artist community, where although we have a significant number of members, we are arguably not an accepted part of the dialogue and identity of the freelance dancer’s working life. As dancers you are a group of workers who inhabit disparate workplaces, work on casual, changeable terms and conditions and short term contracts. This presents a significant challenge for Equity as a trade union, as we attempt to find connections within a worker group which is so dispersed and amorphous. This working context is not so dissimilar to those in the acting profession, who also operate within a precarious working environment. The difference here and a significant reason why actors are more likely to be Equity members, is an issue of identity. Actors associate Equity as their union at the very start of their career when their working conditions are most precarious, whereas many dancers outside of the organised dance companies do not.
I strongly believe that dancers can and should identify with Equity. Dancers need representation and support as much as any other group of worker; there must be an independent collective voice speaking for the dancer workforce. As I have talked to dancers over the last couple of years, the desire to be part of a collaborative network has come up time and again, as a mechanism of support and an information resource. I presume that many in the freelance dance community are unsure that Equity can be the vehicle to activate this sort of network, but the trade union movement as a whole is founded on the principles of community networks and activism. In my mind there is no reason why this principle of community networks cannot be transferred to the dancer community.
This is why Equity will be launching the Equity Freelance Dance Artist Network.
The Network will be founded in partnership with working dancer members and will initially launch as an online resource. The Network will be a place where you in the freelance dance artist community can find information on basic working and contractual rights and examine the expectations you should have about the conditions in which you work. The Network will also give you access to a discussion area, allow you to receive information on the development of the Network and articles on the work which Equity is undertaking in this area. If you are not already an Equity member, as the Network develops I hope that you will join the union so that we can together achieve the aspirations which Equity has for the freelance dance artist community.
Equity’s immediate aspiration is that every dancer working professionally in the field should be connected to some form of Equity contract or guideline. For the larger dance companies who receive National Portfolio Funding from the Arts Council, this means the use of the Equity/ITC Ethical Manager contract, which few currently do (although there are some admirable exceptions with a small number of dance companies who use full union contracts). In addition, as a reflection of the fact that there is presently little Equity input in the area small-scale and collaborative dance projects, in the coming months we will producing guidelines of best practice for small scale choreographers, plus further guides on collaborative models of production and partnership agreements.
The Network is still in the planning stages, but when you will eventually be able to sign up to it doing so will involve registering your support for our mission statement. This mission statement, written by some of our working dance members, is set out below.
“To improve standards and empower the varied community of freelance dance artists working in the subsidised dance sector.
To raise and improve awareness of our rights as workers and therefore demand value for the highly specialised and versatile work that we do, with the aim of breaking stereotypes, and building the value of our profession as a whole.
This does not mean making unreasonable demands that could decrease the quantity of jobs in the arts sector, but aims to create an empowered and responsible community that will no longer have a reputation for accepting inferior conditions.
Dance can be a highly physical and demanding profession and as workers we are among the most vulnerable in the performing arts industry. This means we must be united in protecting our working standards and the economy of our profession.
Subsidised companies have a responsibility to use union contracts and rates for dance artists. We have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to not settle for less, and allow our skills and our profession to be undervalued. A dancer should not be made to feel replaceable if they expect a basic standard of working conditions.”
We would love for you to be a part of the Network when it is established. In the meantime, I want to hear your thoughts on what I have written above. If you want to contact me directly I have put my contact details below and I look forward to hearing from you.