Navigating the Paradox of Dance and Passion.

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I am signing off from a decade-long dance career, and a life lived in leotards and tights, false eyelashes, and endless ballet and dance classes. In light of all the experiences over the years, spaces, and places, I plan to use this opportunity to reflect on a dance industry that was a love-hate relationship in theory and in practice. Love for the many great experiences, fantastic memories, and wonderful people, and hate for the reasons we shall soon see below. This dance industry, which I would argue is the epitome of a labour-of-love kind of job, has taught me some important lessons about work, our society’s obsession with making our passion our jobs, and how this plays out in our evolving (aka Neo-liberalised) world. This article focuses on precarious developments in the dance and ballet industry; however, I believe anyone with a “passion” job – from activists to artists – can doubtlessly resonate with the processes represented here.   

The contradictions in the dance and ballet industry are numerous and deeply ingrained to be almost unquestioned. One must sacrifice youth, body, health, social life, and home life, spending every last penny to succeed in this industry – while simultaneously pretending that this sacrifice is all you ever wanted and being grateful for any and every dance job that comes your way.  

This culture in the dance industry where decent pay / fair working conditions, let alone any balance for other priorities, are often thrown out the window in favour of the expectation that you should be grateful for whatever opportunities are afforded. I am confident I am not the only dancer with a treasure trove of stories of frustration and woe; any dancer I know could write a trilogy of their experiences of not being paid after a dance gig, working without any day off, or negligent overtime rehearsals in studio and on stage.

Even all too recently, I did a job where some of the younger dancers were paid far lower than the legal minimum wage while putting on a show for a company worth over 3 billion euros [cue the righteous leftist outrage!]. These agencies/producers/choreographers (who should know better) thrive on this narrative of dancers doing it for the “love of it” and for the experience gained now, for their dream of greater success later. This practice thrives off the socialisation of young, eager professionals in an oversaturated “passion” job market, easily exploitable, both in terms of remuneration as well as the environments and requirements they are subject to.

*disclaimer- while obviously, not everyone in the dance industry is out to gaslight, manipulate, and exploit eager young dancers, one cannot deny the culture of the passion job creates space for these more malignant practices to be employed all too easily. Choreographers who come in on their high horse of good intentions often fail under the pressure cooker of capitalism, which propagates the practice of producing more while paying less. A similar process occurs in the teaching sector, where choreographers can end up charging exorbitant sums of money for classes or workshops, taking advantage of younger dancers’ hope for future work.  

The demand of dancers to constantly prove they want this career means often putting other essential life requirements on hold, for example, one’s health. I cannot count the number of times I – like every other dancer and ballerina – have gone on injured or sick or cancelled important health appointments due to the urgent and superseding need to satisfy the whims of the job and cast no doubt of my commitment to it. One could easily blame dancers for not setting basic boundaries in these moments. Yet, the reality is that going on stage is often the difference between a much-needed pay-check and not affording next month’s rent, or the difference between a renewed contract or being out of a job for next season.  

This ultimately breeds a culture apprehensive about standing up for one’s rights- i.e. voicing opinions for fear of “being difficult” (also known as not being booked again). These environments are often enshrined by a hierarchical, don’t-talk-back arrangement, made even more toxic when large egos and insecurities are in play. There are many times looking back as a dancer, where I should have spoken up, both for myself and for the dancers who have come after facing the same fundamental challenges.

Yet, it isn’t any secret that the working culture often discourages dancers from practising constructive conflict and voicing legitimate concerns that should be raised in any typical working environment. This is excruciatingly important in an art form like dance, which often skirts between the professional and the personal and can lead to situations where dancers are easily subjected to vulnerable, unsafe, abusive or oversexualized conditions. 

This attitude/expectation of ultimate love for the art form often blinds us dancers to our own abuses within it – repeatedly rationalising precarity and overly stressful environments as opportunities to grow, learn, and network. But the question begs- when is learning enough? When is it enough experience? When are one’s love and sacrifices proven enough to guarantee respect and rights?

Unfortunately, we often refuse to see the more self-destructive aspects of the dance industry in a world where we are increasingly led to believe it is both a privilege and an expectation in life to do a career we love. And while, yes, it is lovely to get paid for something you actually like doing, what we are discussing moves well beyond that to the ways the industry works to exploit this “passion.” 

The adage – if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life – resonates like the new testament in today’s labour market. This mantra has become commonplace in our attitude to post-modern work and obscures the Marxist reality that, at the end of the day, it is a job – ultimately in place to pay the bills and put bread on the table. We are not the owners of this capital, but merely renting our bodies for hourly or daily hire.

However, one effect of this “passion job” under Neoliberalism is that it goes beyond this Marxist reality and blurs the lines between the public (i.e. working) and private realms. It enables the economy of labour to consume more and more of the personal until it all, in one way or another, becomes a part of what can be made more productive, efficient, commodifiable, and profitable. In other words, by convincing us our jobs require our passion to the point of total devotion, more of our time, mental and emotional energies, and day-to-day decisions revolve around this production of labour and human capital. 

For the dancers out there, my parting wisdom as I leave- like an old Gandalf in tights – is to remember that despite it being such a truly magical journey to be a dancer, it is also okay not to love everything about your job (*it is also ok to not make it your job). And that means standing up for those things you don’t like or feel uncomfortable with- whether it is that costume, that payment, those working conditions, etc. The industry lives in the four walls of capitalism and will always try to usurp the creative, playful, and slow act of creating art in favour of demanding more content, more work, and more innovation faster- and for less money. But we are not victims in this process, and while it is helpful to understand the bigger picture, the industry will not change unless there is pushback and activism (always with a view of open discourse, of course ).

Being able to dance (or do your passion) for a job is a fantastic honour and privilege indeed and comes with many worthwhile advantages. We should remember why it is that we need to fight for this to be a healthy, sustainable, and loving relationship rather than a love-hate one many of us end up experiencing.    

Written by Jaslyn Reader.

Jaslyn has spent over ten years in the dance industry working in London, Asia, Europe and the US- from Opera Houses to major film productions. Alongside dancing, she studied her masters in International Relations and her thesis “Understanding gender in global cultural policy” has been shared at academic conferences in Europe. She has recently hung up her ballet shoes and now works for the German development organisation on feminist development.”