The beginning of the year is often seen as a great time to reset and establish what our goals and intentions for this new season might be. However, aside from things that we want to adapt and take with us into the future, it can also be beneficial to acknowledge the things we want to leave behind. As dance artists, we often set goals that revolve around our fitness, technique, and abilities: things that we feel we can control. Yet, there are some things we can’t quite command, but that doesn’t mean we can’t shine a light on what’s wrong and ask for better.
For dance artists, auditions are a fact of life. It is how we get our dance jobs, build our careers, and shape our futures. Naturally, with so much riding on dance auditions, they can be full of stress, trepidation, and anxiety; and many of the traditional audition practices implemented by potential employers can be outdated, unhelpful, and downright toxic for dance artists and dance organizations. It can be difficult to know what to expect at an audition, but it doesn’t have to be this way. So, in the spirit of the new year, I sat down with many different dance artists to hear their experiences and then chatted extensively with the multi-talented dance artist and advocate, Taja Riley, to examine some audition practices that are better left back in 2021.
It is unreasonable for [employers] to expect financial compensation from hopeful attendees who just want the chance to be seen.
Would you charge a fee at a job interview?
When conversing with colleagues about auditions, one of the most despised practices that inevitably surfaces is charging for auditions. Although money is tight in the arts, and many dance employers excuse the charge as a way to pay for the audition venue, subsidize current employees who are attending as demonstrators, or claim for it to be an “audition class fee,” potential employers ought to be prepared to cover all costs. Dance is the only sector where this practice is common and barely raises alarm. Can you imagine being asked to pay a fee for attending a job interview in any other field? Granted, auditions differ from traditional interviews, and even within the dance field, they can vary greatly from job to job. Many who choose to charge for their auditions often offer a full class, citing that as justification for the added fee.
However, if dance companies, choreographers, or anyone holding an audition feels a cash crunch, it is unreasonable for them to expect financial compensation from hopeful attendees who just want the chance to be seen. The dance artists in front of them are likely not any better or worse off financially than they are.
Some dance auditions don’t charge for the day of the audition, but instead offer a prohibitively expensive workshop leading up to the audition. While this sounds innocuous, many of the auditions strongly suggest or even require dance artists to attend the “workshop” in the days or weeks preceding the audition. There’s nothing wrong with offering a workshop and charging for it, but when it becomes clear that participation is necessary to even be considered for a position, that is problematic. It would be best if financial barriers to a job interview were as limited as possible. As one Atlanta-based dance artist notes, “Not charging for the audition but charging a high fee for a workshop preceding the audition that will give dancers a big leg up at said audition is pure nonsense.”
Dance artists, of course, can use their own logic and reasoning to decide if it is worth their while to attend an audition or an audition workshop that is charging a fee, but it doesn’t have to be an accepted part of “just being a dancer.” Riley notes that you are already paying indirectly to be present at the audition, whether that’s through plane tickets, gas, uber rides, COVID tests, work coverage, and more. When you add it all up, it starts to feel a little ridiculous to pay a fee on top of all of that.
There are other ways to book jobs, and perhaps networking could be an added focus rather than just auditioning. Also, it is much easier for an individual to control, manage, and nurture their networking connections than it is to individually influence an audition experience.
Compensation should be an open topic
Let’s clear up something once and for all–a dance audition is a job interview, and when looking for a job, that usually means pay is a crucial component in the decision-making process. It would be best if the pay scale and structure were open knowledge at the beginning of the audition process, but even if that isn’t the case, questions and discussions between potential employers and employees surrounding pay could become less taboo. It is paramount for dance artists to know ahead of time what they can expect and how to plan accordingly. There’s nothing worse than being offered a job at the end of a grueling audition process, only to find out that the job pays very little, or worse, pays nothing at all.
Riley, who has been on both sides of the audition table, believes that the casting call before the audition should contain a clear description of the kind of compensation offered, the kind of artist the production is looking for, and the proposed period of work. “There’s inefficiency in the casting breakdowns…it’s helpful when casting is informative and thorough… Social media flyers don’t have enough information.”
Aside from unclear language surrounding pay, an even more insidious and misleading process is asking dance artists to work on an unpaid “trial” basis, or encouraging them to continue to “keep coming to class.” Both of these options are taking financial advantage of them and leading them on in a very real sense. It’s possible that at the end of the day, a paying job will come from all of that work, but it is equally possible, if not more likely that nothing will come from their efforts. Unpaid “trial” periods are doing nothing but getting free work out of a dance artist, and asking that they continue to take the class is nothing more than ensuring higher class attendance and marketing another avenue for the employer to make money while using future employment as a lure. As one New York-based dance artist shares, “I remember one time when I went to this audition workshop. I didn’t get the job and they told me to keep taking their class. That annoyed me, I felt like they were trying to get me to keep paying for class even though they’d already told me no.”
Everyone’s time is valuable
Aside from payment, time is another crucial component that is frequently abused in the dance audition process. There is so much wasted time, and this can result in a lot of lost income. Many take time off of work or schedule their other jobs around an audition, so when potential employers are inconsiderate of a dance artist’s time, it can be disheartening and financially damaging.
To start with, giving audition notices an approximate end time would be highly beneficial. That way, attendees can have a rough idea of just how long they might be required to stay. This gives all auditionees a clear picture and a plan for their day, enabling them to stay focused on the present instead of worrying that they may not make it to their next job. If a long audition process or a full “rehearsal style” experience is truly necessary, whether due to the sheer volume of attendees or the artistic whims of the auditioner, potential employers can show their respect for everyone’s time and energy (including their own) by communicating and then staying within the stated start and end times of the audition.
Be open to questions about the job, the culture, the pay, or anything else that potential employees deserve to know.
At a recent audition in January with an inefficient sign-in process, one dance artist showed up twenty minutes early and didn’t even set foot in the room until three hours later. Many of her compatriots in line never made it inside, since they were turned away after being told their body size wasn’t right for the job, even though the casting before the audition was extremely unclear and no ideal “type” was described. “The lack of respect for people’s time made me the most upset… People shifted their schedules around and even flew in from other cities… under the impression that they would have a chance to be seen. I would’ve been really angry if I was told to leave for my body size, especially when the description was so vague.”
Additionally, auditions should only be held if there is truly an available job. In this day of social media currency, some companies and choreographers hold auditions for either a nonexistent or a very limited number of dance jobs to generate social media footage or create a buzz about their company, performance, or work. As one dance artist relates in her experience auditioning for a major music artist a few years back, “I think 2,000 dancers showed up and they were only interested in hiring ten. They called so many dancers because they were filming a documentary about the upcoming tour, and we were basically used to make the audition seem like a big deal. Mostly it was just us waiting around, and at the end of the day, they only hired people who had worked with that artist before.” Generic open call type auditions are acceptable when there are a large number of jobs to fill or if new talent is truly being sought, but if the intention is simply to hire old talent and use the audition to generate social media interest, this is somewhat dishonest and quite disrespectful of people’s valuable time and energy.
Finally, once the audition is over, it would be nice to have a clear expectation of where they stand, walking out of the studio doors confident about when they will hear about the job. Many leave an audition not knowing when they can expect to receive word about it, and some never do. It’s never okay to ghost dance artists. Following up in a timely and reasonable manner is not asking too much, in fact, it’s common courtesy.
Overall communication and behaviors
Typecasting is familiar in dance auditions and it can be an understandable practice. But with that being said, there is a right way and a wrong way to use typecasting. If audition postings are clear about what kind of dance artist or what kind of look they are searching for, it can save quite a bit of time. “I’ve shown up to multiple auditions only to be cut based on my look without actually dancing…auditioners need to be specific about who they are looking for in the notice so that the right people show up and don’t waste anyone’s time” notes a Los Angeles dance artist.
To streamline, candidates could submit their headshots and resumes digitally ahead of time. However, there is something to be said about seeing how a person looks, acts, and carries themselves in person. Additionally, many headshots may look nothing like the actual person, and headshots cannot convey the energy and attitude someone brings into a room. So, if a digital submission isn’t possible, the casting notice should contain a detailed description of the kind of individuals they are looking for. This would save time, energy, and effort on all sides on the day of the event, since those not fitting the description would not bother to attend. Typecasting is probably always going to be a factor in auditions, but it doesn’t have to be quite so demoralizing.
For example, outdated “body checks” are still occurring, even in 2022. At a recent audition, there was a stated height requirement, which is standard, however, according to one auditionee, after the choreographer’s team checked their heights, they were also asked to strip down to their sports bras while waiting outside to examine their physiques. Dance artists down the line were allegedly cut for being “too thick.” As she notes, “The body description used for the audition was extremely vague and up to interpretation. More specific language like ‘dancers need to fit ___ size costume’ might’ve worked better if needed, but I think in general we should be past underestimating people’s abilities based on their body shape and size.”
Of course, things can always change at a moment’s notice. The goals of the project might shift, which means that, for example, a previously mixed-gender cast suddenly needs to be male-identifying performers only. This can be quite frustrating, but dance artists are typically tolerant of last-minute changes of plan. If across the board, employers are as clear as possible about what they are looking for ahead of time and communicate any changes transparently with the attendees on the day of the audition, it would be less of a disappointment, even if your specific “look” is no longer needed. In the arts and entertainment, things are rarely straightforward, as most understand. However, there really is no need to make things more confusing through unclear communication before and on the day of the audition.
When potential employers are inconsiderate of a dance artist’s time, it can be disheartening and financially damaging.
From a logistics standpoint, it would be helpful for auditioners to know roughly how many people to expect and plan accordingly. This could also help them save time and money by knowing just how long they might need to rent a space for. If one is expecting 300 dance artists and 600 show up, it will definitely lengthen the process and it can hurt the auditioner’s budget and bottom line. Being able to streamline the process would save them time, money, and effort. They could utilize the aforementioned digital submission process to get a handle on how many bodies they can expect and work from there.
On the other side of the table, many have reported having no proper space to warm up or being left outside for hours due to overcrowding. In a recent audition experience, one dance artist related her experience with a packed venue that forced her out onto a patch of concrete where she was expected to warm up and learn choreography for several hours before she was finally allowed inside the studio. Colder weather locations like New York or Chicago also see people waiting outside for long periods during the winter. It is unreasonable to leave people out in the cold and then expect them to perform at their best. “I went to one agency audition,” says a female dance artist, “and there were about 250 people and they had all of us wait outside as they taught and auditioned groups. I was on the sidewalk for eight hours and they only kept two people at the end of the day.” Aside from the weather, it is quite irresponsible in this time of Covid to not cap auditions. “It’s a little ironic,” says one Los Angeles dance artist, “to get Covid testing done and then see us in groups of 100+ girls.”
These issues are a global dance problem that won’t be solved overnight. Toxic practices are perpetuated when ignorance and fear are present. Many dance artists are at a loss for how to advocate for themselves because they are afraid to become “that dancer.” There is fear of job loss, blacklisting, retaliation, and much more, so many choose to stomach the poor treatment instead of questioning it. As Riley puts it, “Well, you don’t know what you don’t know. Many are afraid that they’ll be marked as ‘hard to work with’… but dance artists should counsel up. I pride myself on speaking with my mentors before I navigate or strategize something.” Riley is on to something here: increased communication within the dance community can help young dance artists to steer past obstacles that may have hampered those before them. The importance of a strong mentor and supportive community cannot be overstated.
At the end of the day, a dance audition is a job interview, plain and simple. Extra financial, physical, or time-consuming strings don’t deserve to be attached just because the job is in the arts. Dance artists should be treated like their time and talents are valuable, not expendable. Many of these toxic practices are easy to drop and certainly aren’t necessary to the audition process as a fundamental whole. It will take time for these entrenched behaviors to dissipate, but hopefully, as in-person auditions pick back up, we can all at least start to eliminate them moving forward. There’s no need for the audition process to be the harrowing experience that it so often is.
Special thanks to Alice Bacani, Jackie Buckmaster, Jill Elaine Collins, Nell Goza, Myra Joy Veluz, Sydney Wolford, and several other anonymous dance artists for their vital insight on this piece.
An extra thank you to Taja Riley for her time and dedication to this matter, both in conversations with myself and with her advocacy work as a whole. Her thoughts and contributions were invaluable.