If you’ve been following the most recent wave of “dance industry horror stories,” on social media, there’s a good chance that you’re aware of the situation. Or if not, maybe you read about it in the news. It’s made its way into The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Page Six, Deadline, Univision, Yahoo! News and countless more. Dancers are making headlines in a way that’s rare for our line of work. Unfortunately, it’s not for the reasons that we’d like.
The Super Bowl Halftime Show is making history by hiring 115 professional dancers, more than ever before. However, it recently came to light that The Super Bowl has also been attempting to recruit hundreds of professional dancers to dance for free, committing nine days and over 72 hours of their time. Professional dancer Taja Riley has been rallying a call to action on social media after bringing attention to the matter. She writes:
“The show may be at halftime, but any dance artist participating should be PAID IN FULL”
To be very clear, these volunteers in question are not paid, fed, or provided any type of compensation despite mandatory rehearsal hours and a televised performance. The only benefits provided are experience, resume credit, and the ever-looming offer of “exposure.” This is an issue that’s problematic on its own, but it became amplified when Bloc Talent Agency, a renowned talent agency for dancers in Los Angeles and New York, presented the “opportunity” to dancers on its roster.
Dancer, artist and activist Melany Centeno is another of many that has taken to the internet to protest the act. “We’re tired of not being respected, not being treated like the skilled artists that we are, and like the athletes we are,” she said. “Enough is enough. Businesses are going to look for ways to cut costs, and the best way to cut costs is to get things done for free. Dancers just so happen to be at the bottom of the totem pole of artists and tend to be the ones that are exploited the most, the ones who are underpaid the most, and the ones who are undercut the most, even though we do the most physical labor.”
Taja and Melany have been joined by an entire community of dancers that have been coming together on Instagram to support the movement:
Matt Marr (@mattmarr_): “Agents should not even be emailing this out to clients. Stop enabling poor practices or it leads to standard practices!”
Smac Mccreanor (@smacmccreanor): “If they want volunteers, use a studio audience sign up email or put up a poster on a damn street light. It’s not just the dance skill they need, it’s the whole professional package that is necessary for this insane commitment. They need and want the talent, so they NEED to pay for it.”
Bridget Scheiner (@bridgienix): “Using the term ‘volunteerism’ as a legal loophole for free labor to a specialized skillset on the most profitable televised event in the nation is also disrespectful to all of the non profits in the world who do rely on true volunteerism to support their charitable & humanitarian causes.”
The controversy surrounding the Super Bowl stirred up enough conversation to gain the attention of SAG-AFTRA (the union that represents on-screen talent), who immediately jumped in to assist in solving the problem by meeting with the producers of the Halftime Show. Together, they reached an agreement that “no professional dancers” would be asked to work for free. Good…right?
Unfortunately, this does very little to solve any problem. This agreement only identifies “professional” dancers as members of SAG-AFTRA. This definition leaves out a large portion of dance talent. An entity as large as the Super Bowl has no shortage of funds to pay dancers what they deserve, and is instead opting to bring on performers that are willing to work for free. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a win to me.
“The problem with the union is that it only represents the people in the union,” Melany says. “Now they’re soliciting students or up-and-coming dancers, so there will still be dancers on that set that are being exploited for their time. They know they want to hire dancers because dancers take direction better, but the union is only protecting the paid dancers on the job.”
All volunteers are required to donate eight full “mandatory,” days of rehearsal on top of show day performance. If these volunteers are untrained performers, this might be seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Choreographer Fatima Robinson claims the volunteers don’t need to be professional dancers, only need to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” She’s backed by casting producer Kristen Terry, who claims that the 72 hours of rehearsal are a matter of safety.
Melany balks at this. “That’s a flat-out lie,” she claims. “Anybody who’s been on any job knows that the stage is maybe built a few days beforehand. Camera blocking happens the day of, maybe a day or two before. What are y’all talking about?”
There’s so much that remains awry in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. I’m eager to see what type of talent is showcased on the field during the Halftime Show and the results of the time, money, and energy that the current crop of volunteers contributed to. Unfortunately, free labor is not unheard of in the dance industry, and it’s time to change the standard. Especially at such a high level (in this case, the most-viewed, highest-grossing American television event of the year).
It’s an issue that has plagued dancers for decades with little progress. Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook allow us the space to be heard and speak our voice, but now it’s time to take the next play down the field. I’m passing the metaphorical football to you, dancers. It’s time to be accountable, and it’s time to be better. What’s the next step?