Performers Unions: Being Protected, Part 1
By Jill Wolins
Being a professional dancer involves much more than just dance. High profile jobs that most dancers wish to obtain involve contracts to be signed by the performer; some of which that are “union” contracts. There are a handful of labor unions that involve and protect dancers. Labor unions, in general, are centered around bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for union members. The unions will usually aggressively support members in any dispute involving alleged violations of contractual provisions.
Contractual violations for dancers usually revolve around the area of working conditions. Dancers who are being expected to work longer than standard hours or company managers failing to give breaks are two examples of contract violations. If dancers don’t have enough “turn around” time, work late at night, and are expected to be back extra early in the morning without “turn around pay,” this would be a contract violation. Requiring a dancer to dance too close to a hazardous area, such as fire or pyrotechnics, may also be a contractual violation. Each union contract is particular and unique to suit the needs and specifications of each show and job. Every cast of every show elects a “union representative” who is familiar with the rules of the contracts. This “Union Rep” is in constant communication with the union headquarters to ensure quality working conditions for all of the dancers.
To become a member of a dancer’s union, you must have a union contract. This is very tricky to attain because union auditions are exclusive.
To attempt a union audition, some unions require current membership. Non-union dancers, in the hope of landing a union job, and therefore union membership, usually have to wait long hours to be given a chance at auditions. It is not a requirement to audition non-union dancers at union job auditions. Producers can, and do, turn away dancers that may have been waiting hours because there is insufficient time. Union auditions make it mandatory that union dancers are considered first.
As with all unions, dancers’ unions require new members to pay a membership fee. The fee is usually, approximately $1,500. Accurate initiation fees can be found on each union’s website. The fee can be paid in installments, and unions will establish payment plans; taking portions of the fee from a dancer’s paycheck. Some unions allow non-members to work a few union jobs before they are required to join the union. For example, if an older dancer is working (they know it is toward the end of their career), and they book their first feature film, they may choose not to join Screen Actor’s Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA), if possible. This would be a sensible choice in this case because the dancer would not anticipate doing enough film work to warrant paying a steep initiation fee. Sometimes dancers will wait until they are forced to join because they simply don’t have the money to pay the “incoming member” fee. Other dancers jump at the opportunity to join a union, as it is easier to obtain union auditions, and they wish to enjoy union working conditions and benefits.
SAG and AF TRA were previously two different unions that merged in 2012. SAG is the union for screen actors/dancers in movies and commercials. AFTRA covers dancers/actors in union television appearances. All contract, residual, and membership information is available on the website.
“Equity” currently represents actors and dancers of the live theater. This would include Broadway shows, National Tours, and Regional Theaters. Equity has a tier system organizing contracts. All contract information is found on the website. The Equity website also posts all audition notices by region of the country.
AGVA represents variety artists. The biggest show AGVA currently represents is The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. All dancers, actors, Little People, and Radio City Rockettes sign AGVA Contracts.
AGMA covers dancers, although the title may suggest it may only cover musicians. Dancers in prestigious companies like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater sign AGMA contracts.
Although dancers for recording and musical artists currently have no union, The Dancers’ Alliance is working in that direction. Their mission is to be the unified voice of dancers and choreographers and negotiate equitable rates and working conditions. This would include dancers for music videos, and sometimes live gigs with recording artists.