The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this is the moment for dancers to behave badly

Alvin Ailey staff members Robert Battle, Linda Denise Fisher-Harrell, Troy Powell and Sarita Allen pose for a photo at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's gala at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 6. Noticeably absent from the event were the company’s dancers who boycotted the event amid contract negotiations.
Alvin Ailey staff members Robert Battle, Linda Denise Fisher-Harrell, Troy Powell and Sarita Allen pose for a photo at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's gala at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 6. Noticeably absent from the event were the company’s dancers who boycotted the event amid contract negotiations. (Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post)

Donors paid $1,000 a plate for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s gala last month at the Kennedy Center. But when the plates arrived, the partygoers got a shock.

By that time, as black-tie patrons drifted from the bar to their assigned seats at candlelit tables, it was clear the life of the party was missing: There were no dancers. They wouldn’t be dining beside their benefactors. Instead, there were empty seats at the tables. There’d be no spotlighted parade of performers snaking through the dance floor. The word spread quickly: The Ailey dancers had boycotted their own gala.

They’ve been in negotiations since December over a new three-year contract. Spurning the annual fundraiser — which they’d never done before — was meant to draw attention to their salary demands. Last week in Miami, the dancers stayed away from a smaller opening-night reception. 

In an art form prized for its grace, these actions could be considered disrespectful, unbecoming, ungrateful. But as the often difficult life of a dancer has come into focus over the past several months, there is reason to see the Ailey dancers’ boldness as a healthy sign.

Dancers behaving badly is good news, for them and for the art. 

Recent events have revealed the medieval nature of the dance world. In on-the-record interviews, with me and with the New York Times, for example, dancers accused Peter Martins, head of New York City Ballet, of harassment and physical abuse. He denied the accusations. An investigation into the reports, commissioned by the institutions that Martins led (the ballet company and its affiliated School of American Ballet), “did not corroborate the allegations of harassment or violence,” according to a statement issued by both organizations. Martins resigned last month while the investigation was being conducted.

Yet reports of abuses in the dance world continue, arising far beyond a single company. Over the past several months I’ve spoken with dancers in the commercial scene in Los Angeles and in the modern dance world in New York and other parts of the country. Their stories depict a sector rife with mistreatment. 

Dance is a silent art in more ways than one. From a young age, students are taught to obey without argument. When they enter the profession, often right out of high school, they’re thrust into an adult world with no experience living on their own, no higher education, and little or no supervision. They put up with unpaid apprenticeships and they’re expected to be grateful, and they are. They depend on their company directors for everything — salary, roles, advancement through the ranks — and they frequently have nowhere to turn if that relationship turns sour. They all know a line of hopefuls waits to take the job they’ll forfeit if they prove to be too difficult, or too fragile. So they keep quiet.

“You’re trained to be subordinate, not to speak up, not to ask questions, not to even talk. You’re submissive,” said Frances Chiaverini, an American dancer living in Frankfurt, Germany. “It’s so normalized.”

Last summer, she heard daily complaints from other dancers of “marginalizing experiences”: women told by male choreographers to wear less clothing; male artists bursting unannounced into women’s dressing rooms to flirt; doctors instructing dancers with foot injuries to strip naked. 

“We should have a forum where we could witness one another’s stories,” Chiaverini said. She launched “Whistle While You Work,” a website where dancers can post anonymous accounts of sexism, discrimination and harassment. Yet though she publicized it widely through dance networks, Chiaverini has been disappointed by the submissions so far: fewer than two dozen, some of them her own.

Where is the #MeToo movement among dancers? By many accounts, it’s been smothered by fears of losing work.

“Even before you get a job, the level of competition is so high that it feels like you don’t have much of a say,” said Elisa Clark, who has danced with the Ailey company, Mark Morris Dance Group and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. “You worry that if you’re too outspoken you’ll be a problem, and it’s, ‘let’s just find someone who’ll obey the structure and the system that’s in place.’ ” 

“Dancers are told they are immediately replaceable, and it’s true,” said Katherine Helen Fisher, a Los Angeles-based dancer and choreographer, who has worked with company directors Moses Pendleton and Lucinda Childs. “It all relates to economics and value. And how we value ourselves.”

Supply and demand is one thing, but it’s heartbreaking to hear that lousy conditions follow. Does it have to be that way? The idea of self-value brings me back to the Ailey dancers, and why their disobedience — their independence — is encouraging. As artists elsewhere have been speaking up about their treatment, the Ailey dancers, in their acts of wordless absence, have joined those ranks.

Theirs is a story of dancers finding a voice in a very public way, and drawing strength from one another. Dance can be seen as a passive world, until a group of artists boycotts their gala. By spotlighting the economics behind what they do, they reveal another facet of a dancer’s life.

With its $40 million budget for the entire organization, Ailey is the fourth-largest dance institution in the country by budget size, after NYCB, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, according to Griff Braun, New York area dance executive of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the dancers’ union. “But in their first year, Ailey dancers earn about $850 per week, compared with $1,000 to 1,250 per week at the ballet companies,” he said. Ailey dancers earn “20 to 30 percent less than corps dancers at comparable companies.” The disparity continues for senior dancers, he said.

With only 32 dancers and frequent touring, the Ailey dancers perform more than those in troupes with similar budgets and more dancers, Braun said. 

The company disputes AGMA’s salary statements, wrote Christopher Zunner, Ailey’s public relations director, in an email.

“The Ailey dancers are paid comparably to the dancers in major ballet companies. And across the board, Ailey’s dancers have the best salaries and benefits of any modern dance company in America,” Zunner wrote. “Once we did the research, our analysis of the figures did not bear out AGMA’s claims.”

The comparison with other companies is important, said Samuel Lee Roberts, a nine-year veteran of the Ailey company and an AGMA delegate. “We’re hoping that will be enough to realize the value of each dancer and how they should be taken care of.”

Valuing dancers is the key issue. Is a dancer who is yelled at in rehearsal or body-shamed being valued? The intrinsic value of a human being seems to fade in and out of the picture when you look closely at the dance world. It can be the most difficult concept for dancers to get across to their leadership. Economic value is an easier idea to address. Even when both sides disagree, wages can be openly discussed.

How dancers value what they do is at the heart of the labor actions arising in recent weeks. Of course, it’s easier to take action as a group, with union representation, than for any individual dancer to lodge a complaint on her own, without a support structure. Even in their collective action, the Ailey dancers are not alone: The dancers and stage managers of ABT voted in January to authorize a strike, reaching a tentative agreement just before the company’s opening night in Washington.

In speaking with Roberts, it’s clear the Ailey dancers’ salary demand is tied in to the zeitgeist, mirroring an atmosphere in which we’ve seen the value of human life grappled with in many ways. Roberts said he and his colleagues have drawn inspiration not only from the #MeToo movement but also from the high school students who survived the massacre in Parkland, Fla., and rallied against gun violence. 

“It’s reflective of what is going on in the country,” he said in a recent phone interview. “People are standing up for what is fair and just, people who are being mistreated from all aspects of life.”

“I think that we are at a moment within our organization, and within our country, where we really have to make this move, to create a better future for all the dancers who will come after us.

“And for the organization as a whole,” he continued. “The dancers being treated well only increases the health of the company. If they’re loving what they’re doing, it only makes for a better performance. And people want to see that.”