Exploring both the employee and freelance worlds as a woman, I have come to understand the drastic financial differences of working for an employer and working for yourself—"this is what I can pay you” versus “this is what I am worth.” After finishing my undergraduate degree, I worked with an organization where I taught dance and fitness for 7 consecutive years. As a woman and artist, I was never taught to ask for the rate I deserve when contemplating a job opportunity and was happy to take the $28 an hour offer with the potential for a $2 raise after a few months of observation. I taught contemporary dance and Pilates to the masses 7 days a week, packing classrooms to their maximum, working overtime with a sporadic schedule, maxing out at $30 an hour for almost a decade.
The work was exactly what I thought I wanted to be doing and felt lucky for the opportunity to be doing it, but the hourly rate I was making and the amount of work I was putting in was unsustainable. I was unable to receive over-time pay because I was technically a part-time employee despite working 60+ hours a week. My requests for a potential full-time position or raise were repeatedly denied, and I was told on more than one occasion that I was “replaceable.” My years spent with this organization and the confrontation around whether or not I was worthy of more proved that I had outgrown the system that was in place—an oxymoron-perpetuating undervalued and underpaid dance artists while simultaneously advocating for arts visibility.
The years I spent training and the experiences I sought out shaped the movement artist I am today. These experiences are irreplaceable. It is possible that someone else could easily have taken over my job duties, but it never sat right with me that my employer refused to value who I was as an individual, my accomplishments, or what I was capable of manifesting for the organization. Does my resume define my wage, or does it enhance the conversation around possibility? As dancers, years of experience are expected for an entry level position, yet there is a culture around underselling the value of what one has to offer for the chance to have experience. Once experience is acquired, when is it acceptable to begin questioning if your wage is equal to your level of work? Who gets to decide?
After completing a masters level education, countless hours of dance training around the world, and 10+ years of teaching contemporary dance, I have gained a greater sense of autonomy, something I wish I had found sooner. Instead of trying to figure out how to survive on less than I feel I deserve, I found the empowerment necessary to advocate for what I know I am worth. Once I understood that I had the power to determine my hourly rate, more opportunities presented themselves and I felt able to choose what was best for myself.
How can dance artists develop and exercise their autonomy without first undergoing deprecating behavior? How is the dance field working to ensure the futurity of the craft without first honoring a livable wage to those who wish to devote themselves to the work? Dance educators are invaluable to a world that seems to be moving more and more to a virtual existence and away from person-to-person connection; they cultivate a living, breathing community using the body as a vessel constantly in dialogue with the tangible space around us. Perhaps a shift of thought: promoting autonomy early on, normalizing clear conversation around wage and possibilities of growth, and erasing the notion of replaceability with encouragement to achieve a sense of empowerment in self and work.