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Dance may be Israel's top export, but dancers can't make ends meet

In a recent conversation following a rehearsal for an upcoming show, the idea of fair pay came up for the fiftieth time this week. As a modern dancer I am sorely underpaid. The choreographers I work with are sorely under-supported. The well from which we draw our daily bread is dry in this country and in many others. There are the rumors of monthly artist stipends for freelancers in Europe but I am bent on believing that these are an urban legend if not complete lies. Okay, actually it’s true that my peers in Belgium tear open fresh envelopes with checks from the benevolent Belgian government each month. But for the rest of us, who don’t eat waffles and fine chocolate on a daily basis, making ends meet as a freelance artist is flippin’ hard.

Each time I think about the amount I am paid for an hour of rehearsal (30 shekels at best) I feel flustered and frustrated. I have worked for 12 years in the field and spent an additional 15 years training before that. And yet I am paid less than a secretary. My work is physically, emotionally and creatively demanding and I deserve to earn a fair salary. In order to keep myself in proper shape, I have to take dance classes, which cost money, let alone paying for physiotherapy appointments that cost 250 shekels for between 20 and 25 minutes. These extracurricular activities are essential to the performance quality I bring to the stage and they all but drain the little money I do make for rehearsals. Considering the upkeep of a dance career, I resolve to demand fair payment.

And then I always come to the same point. Will the difference between the 30 shekels I currently make and the 45 shekels recommended by the Israeli Union For Performing Artists for dancers of my status really make a difference? Emotionally, yes, but realistically, it won’t be a significant enough jump to erase the need for supplementary income. So, do I demand fair pay from the artists I work with who can’t pay their own rent because the money they earn teaching goes into my paycheck or do I swallow those 15 shiny shekels and keep my head down?

Yesterday I came across this letter, written by a dancer who chose to cause an uproar by exposing the demands of famed artist Marina Abramovic for her L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art gala earlier this year.

In some ways it shocked me to hear that this kind of penny-pinching corner-cutting management extends all the way to a highly respected institution such as the L.A. MOCA. As the dancer writes in the article, she was asked to lie naked on a table while dinner was served to guests paying 100,000 dollars a seat. The compensation for these performers, who were offered no security measures or backup, was 150 dollars.

It only shows how rampant the underpayment of artists, namely dancers, is on all levels –  from fringe to highly institutionalized establishments. Dancers are probably the least organized of all performing artists when it comes to unions. I am a member of the Committee for Fair Treatment of Dancers at the IUPA and I can say that the level of desensitization to unbelievably out of line contracts, late payments (if at all) and free labor in the dance world is truly shocking. It’s the wild, wild west. No regulations, no consequences for unfair treatment.

The catch is that anyone who makes a stink is immediately replaced. Dance, which is often a labor of love, is too often paid for in love and smiles. And like my fellow dancer says, “The grocery store doesn’t accept smiles, does it?”

On the whole I find dance very appreciated in Israeli culture. And yet the budget for contemporary dance does not reflect that. The Ministry for Culture and Sport is happy to boast that dance is “Israel’s best export” but at the same time, they’re one step away from paying us in peanuts.

Aside from following in the footsteps of the brave writer of the article above, what are we to do? When the union can’t affect the change needed, and taking a personal stand often means finding oneself instantly outside of the professional loop, what are the options? I know that complaining is only good for the moment. In the long run, I want to find a way to improve my situation and the situation of dancers in Israel going forward. One easy solution is more government funding. A pipe dream. Another is to sacrifice my career in the hopes that my shouts will reach the right ears. Chances are that I will fade into a chorus of disgruntled voices. The Dancers’ Boycott has been talked about for years but fear beats it to the punch every time.

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    1. Lauren

      It’s too bad that world leaders put war ahead of culture. If we can’t have a future in the arts, civilization is truly ending.

      Reply to Comment
    2. sunnyboy motau (South Africa)

      You written the honest truth I thought it only happened in south africa only but I was wrong, some people or organization still take dance as a hobby or an extra muralactivity and it doesn’t doesn’t deserve fair compesation.
      Dancer or performing artists bring more money to the economy how many actors,dancers,singers,writters,filmmakers,designer the list is endless we provide services from our own sweats yet we are paid or treated defferently we are artist but mostly entertainers and creativity bring we develop inspiration for marketing people e.t.c I support what you saying a fair payment and treatment Iis needed our dancing/ performing field.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Michael W.

      Economics 101 … to be continued.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danaa

      If it is any consolation, the situation for dancers is not much better in the US, and may, in fact, be worse. Unfortunately, dance is a form of art appreciated by too few to make it a paying job for more than a very select few. Stated more bluntly, the supply may exceed the demand, because the aggregate demand is too sparse to sustain the numbers of willing – and capable – dancers. It is, not surprisingly, somewhat better for male dancers, because there are fewer of them. If you want to see dancers living in penury, the dance scene in New York is good place to look. About half of all the dancers – be it ballet, contemporary or musical theatre, supplement their income by working as waitresses in between gigs (at least it’s better than strippers). Another quarter work as dance teachers. The rest may have other additional occupations, such as fitness trainers (those are the lucky ones). A miniscule proportion supplements income with modeling – which is great, if sporadic.

      So what’s the good news? it’s probably the sad fact that many a salaried worker in the US are joining the ranks of the serfs, so dancers and other artists may soon have company among the multitudes. Which suggests to me another good potential side-occupation for the starving dancer: motivational speaking on how to negotiate from a position of weakness and survive the experience and even thrive now and then. I know quite a few small companies where employees may pay handsomely to learn the tricks of expanding much creative energy without an ounce of security, and still find satisfaction – somehow.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Michael W.

      … and this ends tonight’s lecture. Thank you Prof. Danaa.

      Reply to Comment