You know that “starving artist” cliche – artists doing what they do for the love of it, throwing financial concerns to the wayside. Yet apart from romanticized narratives, artists are people living in the world just as everyone else does: with bills to pay and financial security to keep in mind. “Know your worth” is another cliche, but also a crucial idea.

Indeed, practices that verge on financial exploitation (or even go all the way there) are all too common in the dance world. One way in which that’s done is asking dancers to work for “exposure” – in other words, working for free (without monetary compensation). Yet dancers can benefit from these arrangements: in resume-building, gaining experience, and growing one’s network. Those are actually critical ingredients in growing a viable dance career. Sometimes dancing for free can simply help passion projects happen, and that’s also valuable.

All in all, it’s not so cut-and-dry, black-or-white. So, what’s a dancer to do if they’re informed that a particular opportunity will be compensating them in “exposure”? How can they best navigate this tricky space? To whom can they turn for help? To get some perspective on these complex (and important) questions, we turn to accomplished dance artists and DancePlug instructors Mariah Spears and Alexie Agdeppa.

The right place and time: the context

Agdeppa, a long-time SAG-AFTRA member, firmly believes in “being compensated for your time as an artist, whether or not there is exposure involved….your body, time and energy are your instrument.” If it’s employment – if you’re not doing it solely for enjoyment, health, or personal growth (as a “hobby”) – “the amount of exposure should not prioritize fair treatment or compensation,” she affirms.

You need to decide if that value is worth it for where you are now - Mariah Spears

At the same time, there have been exceptions to that general rule of thumb for her: such as for a friend’s choreographic passion project or “performing in live events such as the dance industry's Carnival in Hollywood.” Other occasions which she sees as acceptable exchanges of labor for “exposure” include when you might have a chance to catch the eye of casting directors, producers, or a potential agent. It can be one of many effective forms of networking.

That could be through a class, workshop, or “short-run performance”, if these opportunities come with a “reliable, trustworthy connection,” Agdeppa believes. Whether or not it’s a “worthwhile exchange of time and effort for exposure without compensation” seems to be a good question to bring to these cases.

Know your worth: where you are

There’s the job or event at hand, and there’s also where you are, Spears highlights. She believes that everything you engage in has value (or, at least, potential value) – and not necessarily monetary value. That value could be in relationship-building and experience, for example. “You need to decide if that value is worth it for where you are now,” she notes.

Another thing to consider is opportunity cost; since we can’t be in two places at once, and only have so much time and energy, could taking a certain opportunity come at the cost of another opportunity – one that's better for you right now? A key thing to note here: since we don’t have a crystal ball with which to see into the future, we need to become comfortable with the uncertainty inherent in those sorts of questions. It’s just in the air in the industry, Spears says.

“There’s never a solid 'this is the right or wrong thing to do’…you can only decide by what you know at the time,” she adds. One just has to take an honest look and weigh all of the factors at hand. “Be really clear about where you’re at and what has value for you,” Spears advises. She recommends periodic “check-ins” with what that currently is for you – say, every three months or so (which could go along with doing quarterly taxes, maybe even the close look at personal finances that might come along with that – it could all align well!).

“We get in the trap of doing things for free and for free and for free…some [artists] don’t stop to look at [their own] value,” Spears says. “We’re a business, and we need to treat ourselves like one.” All things considered, that’s actually a fairly good analogy; businesses do give away value (such as to charitable causes and events) – but not all the time. They wouldn’t remain businesses for long if they did. Neither can a dancer’s business, the business of themselves.

You’re not in it alone: resources to support and protect you

Navigating that kind of uncertainty and weighing all of those options (and yes, becoming comfortable with doing so): those are no kind of small asks. The good news is that you don’t have to do so alone. Spears mentions Dancers Alliance as a great support. They can help you “to know if you’re getting a good rate…they know industry standards,” she shares.

Agdeppa advocates for union membership, as well as involvement with organizations such as Dancers Alliance (she also names) and The Entertainment Community Fund (formerly The Actors Fund). “As a community, you have the opportunity to voice and fight for what is fair and just for yourself as a performer…to act in solidarity for a common outcome,” she asserts.

If it’s employment [...] the amount of exposure should not prioritize fair treatment or compensation - Alexie Agdeppa

Spears reminds us that agents, managers, coaches, and mentors can also be great resources when it comes to these questions. Use these individuals “as a resource, and don’t be afraid to be upfront and tell them where you’re at – your values and focus right now,” she encourages. “That benefits both parties, so they want you” to be open and candid like that. Additionally, in cases when it might be possible, they can help you learn how to negotiate compensation.

Only you can decide

Spears shares an anecdote from her career that’s a good illustration of a lot of the above. She recently went to an audition, one for a job that “definitely had a bigger budget” (so it wasn’t a question of being able to adequately compensate dancers). It became clear to her that the audition organizers were going to use footage from the day for commercial purposes – without paying the dancers in the footage.

She called her agent to get their perspective (and never sign anything without first showing it to your agent, she adds). They told her that only she could say if the audition was worth it to her, worth being in commercial footage for which she wouldn’t be monetarily compensated (working for free, essentially). Ultimately, “I didn’t feel that it was right for me, so I stepped out,” Spears shares. It all stayed diplomatic, cordial, and professional. That goes to show that just because you show up somewhere doesn’t mean that you have to stay, if staying wouldn’t be best for you. You’re allowed to change your mind.

“It wasn’t right in that moment for me, but for other people in the room it might have been,” Spears is also careful to point out. There’s support out there for you in the decision, but ultimately only you can decide. “It’s about your values and focus right now – and that’s going to shift all the time,” Spears says. Check in with your current value and what you most value – right now. An answer will come. Know your worth and step forward. You got this! 

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