By Lyndsey Winship
7 September 2020
When lockdown hit in March, it didn’t stop dancers dancing. The flood of online classes, short films and Instagram clips are testimony to that. But it did stop many of them earning. Outside the big ballet companies, most dancers and choreographers are freelance (81% according to One Dance UK). Some were eligible for financial support, others fell through the cracks. Ever creative, some have found new ways to make money, like Sam Coren, formerly of the Hofesh Shechter Company, who started fixing and building bikes. Or Daisy West, a dancer with Mark Bruce Company, who designs greetings cards on the side. But it turns out having a second job is nothing new to most dancers, in a competitive industry where contracts are often short and pay is poor. A 2015 survey by Dancers Pro found that more than 50% of dancers earned less than £5,000 a year from performing. The current ITC/Equity minimum fee for an independent production is £494 a week. “There’s always been a need for a side hustle,” says West.
The precariousness of the dancer’s life has come into sharp focus during lockdown, and many artists now want to see a change when we come out the other side. “The systemic injustices of the industry have been unveiled more than ever,” says dancer and Rolfing practitioner Hayley Matthews. “For too long there’s been a prescribed necessity for dancers to live precarious financial lives.” Lockdown has “exposed a lot that was really fragile and difficult about this industry”, says Rachel Elderkin, a dancer, writer and podcaster who also works front of house in the West End and has a sideline dressing as a Disney princess for kids’ parties. “Even though [as a dance artist] you’re the people who create work, the money goes to organisations and as a freelancer you have to apply for opportunities.” The funds don’t always trickle down.
Dancer, choreographer, writer and model Valerie Ebuwa was due to have her first solo project, Body Data, screened at the V&A in April, but coronavirus put paid to that. She released the film and accompanying talk online. Dancers are “always at the bottom of the pile”, she says in her talk on Instagram. “Why don’t dancers get paid as much as musicians, or any other [artists]?”
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