New York City Ballet corps member Gwyneth Muller admits that when she signed on as a company apprentice, she didn’t even glance at her contract. Then reality set in. She had to move from the School of American Ballet dorms to an apartment and juggle living expenses, healthcare costs and the notoriously high NYC rent.
Beneath ballet’s tulle and tiaras lies a profession. Dancers can be so excited when they get their first job that they overlook critical points of the contract.
Understanding the fine print is key to making the art of ballet into a career. “It’s funny—when you start you’re not even concerned with wages,” says Muller, who now serves as NYCB’s American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) delegate, acting as a liaison between company members and the union. She notes that any dancer who gets an offer—be it from NYCB or elsewhere—should look closely at the number of weeks the company spends in season, keeping in mind that they only get paid when they work. Dancers need to consider whether they can afford to live on what they will earn.
A beginner has little leverage in terms of salary. But each company offers different benefits, and it pays to take a look at what dancers will—and won’t—be expected to cover themselves. While virtually every company has a shoe allowance, some do not cover off-site physical therapy, and many offer only partial dental or healthcare.
Dancers at most of the larger ballet companies are represented by unions like AGMA. “They give dancers a voice,” says James Fayette, a former NYCB principal who now works as AGMA’s New York area dance executive. Collective bargaining agreements usually mandate regular breaks and a maximum amount of rehearsal time, which can make a real difference in a dancer’s worklife. Union membership is usually required at unionized companies, and dancers must pay fees to the union out of their salaries. Since the contract covers dancers of all ranks and seniority, examining the terms means a new dancer can get a sense of what lies ahead. “It’s a way,” Fayette says, “to understand what the position can grow into.”
Jesse Tyler, an Atlanta Ballet company artist and AGMA delegate, is glad that his current company is unionized. “At my previous company, we were supposed to get a five-minute break every hour,” he says. “They were good about it, but if they hadn’t been, I couldn’t have done anything. At Atlanta Ballet, I can say ‘It’s time for a break,’ and there’s no question of it being an issue.”
Muller notes that as a dancer’s career evolves, priorities change. “As you get older, you realize this is your life,” she says. “Maybe you have rehearsal issues. You haven’t been getting your breaks and you feel that you’ve been working too many hours. Suddenly, you find yourself asking, ‘What does the contract say?’ ”
Kristin Schwab, a New York dancer, is a Pointe intern.