Missing the Pointe: How Ballet Unionization Efforts Fall Short

Published June 7th, 2017 -  - 06.07.177


Intense athleticism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when an audience watches a ballerina pirouette across a stage. Making challenging movements look effortless and graceful is part of the job, but make no mistake: ballet can be just as demanding and just as dangerous as a professional sport. Allynne Noelle knows that all too well. Noelle became a professional dancer at the age of 15. During her 17-year career, she has broken two ribs, had two metatarsal stress fractures, and tore her Lisfranc ligament midway through a performance without realizing it. Her last injury forced her off stage and into an operating room to remove the scar tissue in her right foot. Luckily, her surgery and rehabilitation were covered by workers’ compensation, but Noelle could not afford to purchase health insurance on her salary. She returned to the stage two years later, but her dance company didn’t offer her health insurance, leaving her uninsured for four years.

Unfortunately, Noelle’s story is not a unique one. The world of ballet is one filled with chronic and severe injuries, expectations that dancers will work through the pain, and too little compensation. The high risk of injury makes health insurance crucial, yet many dancers go without it. Unionization aims to solve many of these problems, but ultimately does not address them all. The labor issues in ballet have been largely ignored, but are beginning to come to the fore as dancers demand better working conditions

Too Many Injuries, Too Little Pay

Statistics on the rate of injury for ballet dancers reveal that they suffer injuries that are comparable to athletes in terms of severity. One study found that the rate of injury over an 8-month period was 61%, which is comparable to the rate of injury in contact sports like football or wrestling. Injuries frequently result in an average of 10.5 days of time lost per injury. A significant portion of these injuries were overuse injuries, caused by grueling rehearsal and performance schedules. Common overuse injuries include patellofemoral pain syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, stress fractures, and chronic hip and lower back injuries. The prevalence of overuse injuries is not surprising, given the physiological stress ballet places on the body. Common ballet positions like demi-pliés and en pointe require dancers to put a great deal of strain on their lower body, particularly their ankles and feet. Even with the most precise technique, this type of weight bearing over the course of nine-hour work days, coupled with dancers’ propensity to push through pain makes injury unavoidable.

One would think that ballet dancers are well compensated for their efforts. As it turns out, that is not the case for the vast majority of dancers. Members of the corps de ballet for the New York City Ballet, one of the most prestigious dance companies, make approximately $1,500 per week for 38 hours of work for a total of $57,000 per year. Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet members earn $1,204 and $1,036 per week respectively. In smaller dance companies, corps de ballet members may take home significantly less than dancers at these more well-established companies. While these are by no means objectively low wages, they may be insufficient in the context of a high injury profession like ballet. Because most bigger ballet companies tend to be in larger, more expensive cities, many professional dancers face high costs of living. Additionally, the chronic and severe injuries dancers face undoubtedly result in high health care costs. For those without access to health insurance, those costs have to be covered out of pocket or through workers’ compensation. When compared with the median salary of professional athletes, who face similar rates of injury, ballet salaries seem inadequate.

Is Unionization the Answer?

High risk of injury and lack of negotiating power have led many ballet companies and dancers to look to unionization to address these problems. The American Guild of Musical Artists is the union that represents a wide variety of performing artists, including ballet companies. The AGMA currently represents about 20 ballet companies across the country. Dancers hired by AGMA companies are expected to join, and dancers can elect to join independently. Members are required to pay a $500 initiation fee, $78 per year in basic dues, and a working due. Union membership comes with many benefits for dancers. The AMGA plays a large role in advocating for work environments conducive to preventing injuries. The union helps negotiate for health care plans, better working and rehearsal conditions, and retirement plans. At a time when union membership in other industries is on the decline, more ballet companies are electing to join the AGMA in hopes of lessening bargaining inequalities between dancers and the ballet companies they work for.

Unionization has played a pivotal role in improving workplace safety and access to healthcare. The AGMA ensures that the collective bargaining agreements it negotiates include provisions about workplace conditions and regulated work hours. Furthermore, union members and employer representatives administer the AGMA Retirement and Health Plans. The entity provides healthcare and pension plans for AGMA members. The Fund does not offer insurance to union members directly, but individual companies who choose to provide healthcare or pensions are eligible. As such, unionization makes it easier for members who wish to provide health care and retirement fund to do so.

While unionization has made healthcare more accessible and workplace safety a central part of all contract negotiations, it has been less effective in achieving long term wage increases. AGMA-led negotiation efforts have shed light on exactly why ballet companies are so resistant to raising wages. In 2011, the New York City Ballet was engaged in heated negotiations with its corps de ballet. Negotiations were so contentious that dancers picketed the company’s annual gala. Ultimately, the company and dancers were able to settle on a 2.5% increase for the next year, 0.5% less than the dancers requested. The two-year contract provided for no pay increases for the upcoming year. The gains made through the negotiation process are undoubtedly important and demonstrate that unionization can have some impact; however, the discussions about the financial state of the company provided important context for understanding why unionization may not be able to fully fix ballet’s wage and benefits problem.

At the time of negotiations, the New York City Ballet faced a $6 million budget deficit. Due to the deficit, both administrative employees and orchestra members took salary cuts and freezes. Dancers blamed the financial state of the company partially on the company’s management, claiming that out of touch marketing strategies may have been part of the company’s marketing problem. The New York City Ballet did explain that it was changing its marketing strategies to appeal to demographics outside of its loyal audiences. The dancers’ critique of the company’s advertising method may be valid, but the fact remains: dance companies like the New York City Ballet face a complicated financial reality.

A 2016 study conducted by a dancers advocacy group showed that in New York City, dance-related revenue is up. However, the general trend is not indicative of the trend amongst all ballet companies. The figure includes many sources of revenue outside of ticket sales, such as tuition and investment revenue, and includes dance companies of all sizes. Increases in revenue were also accompanied by expense increases. Additionally, dance companies have experienced a 20% decrease in attendance of paid performances.

Ticket sales and tuition fees are not the only source of revenue for ballet companies. Corporate sponsorships are an important source of revenue for companies. Corporate partnerships have been relatively commonplace in the art world. However, corporate support for the arts has been steadily dwindling over the last decade. A study conducted among New York City dance companies found that corporate donations to the selected companies have declined 62% since 2008. Dance companies outside of New York City are also experiencing similar declines in corporate donations. Corporate funding used to be a dependable source of income for larger dance companies, often allowing them to cushion the impact of fluctuations in ticket sales. With increasing expenses, decreasing audiences and decreased corporate funding, dance companies are finding themselves in difficult financial situations. In light of these financial realities, unionization may only be able to go but so far in ameliorating the wage issues dancers face.

Conclusion

The world of ballet presents a series of wage issues that have no easy fixes. Part of this is due to the economic reality many dance companies face. Dance companies, like other performing arts, face dwindling audiences and less private and public funding. These factors inevitably lead to budget cuts that end up hitting dancers the hardest. Dancers may have to take a page from other unionized workers’ playbooks and resort to more drastic measures, like boycotting. Some in the ballet world suggest that dancers take a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers and seek work as independent contractors to address the wage problems that unionization does not, but independent contractor status presents its own host of healthcare related  issues to contend with. While there are no clear solutions to the ongoing labor problems dancers face, increased public awareness about these issues may be a step towards solving them.

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