Last year, one of pop’s rising stars was heading to London for a show and needed local dancers to accompany her. The singer’s management only wanted the best, a handpicked group who could live up to the high standards expected from the US entertainment industry. It was an amazing opportunity, with one large catch: the gig didn’t pay.
Some dancers, however, jumped at the chance. “Instead of payment you were going to get ‘exposure’,” said Windy Tsoi, a dancer and choreographer, who says the story is typical.
“Some dancers were going for that because it was a good opportunity and gives you more of a profile and helps to build your CV, but it’s not a good deal. It’s not fair. At the end of the day we deserve fair payment.”
Last week Emma Portner, a choreographer who worked on Justin Bieber’s Purpose world tour in 2016, made headlines by outlining her alleged treatment. Via a now expired Instagram story, Portner claimed she made “less than minimum wage for the hours I invested” and that she “couldn’t afford to eat [and] was sweeping studio floors to be able to practice my craft”. Bieber’s management team declined to comment when approached by the Guardian.
None of the dancers and choreographers the Guardian spoke to thought what Portner described was typical, but all said that poor pay, insecure working conditions and cash-in-hand payments were part of the job. Andrew Hurst, the chief executive of the industry body One Dance UK, said things could change if performers were able to speak out.
“Unfortunately, our research shows that freelancers are not always valued in the same way as those who are employed,” he said. “Dancers need to say no to contracts that offer unfair or unsuitable working conditions, and feel empowered to speak up.”
But for those searching for work, speaking out may mean losing out on work.
“We do get stressed,” said Tsoi, who is the co-founder of the At Your Beat studios in London. “Some months I get a big commission but some months we might not get anything so it’s stressful and you think: what can you do to keep the income coming in and keep those opportunities? It can take an emotional toll.”
While on tour dancers form a vital part of a star’s live show. Some, such as Beyoncé, have kept the same core group of dancers for more than a decade, with individuals such as Ashley Everett and Kimmie Gee becoming stars in their own right. The recent concert film Homecoming, which showed the lead up to Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in 2018, gave an insight into the work dancers and choreographers put in – with months of rehearsals building up to a show dominated by dance.
The choreographer and dancer Jamel Prodigy (AKA Derek Auguste) was a leading figure in the voguing scene. For him feeling valued is the most important thing in the artist/dancer relationship. “If someone decides to buy a Louis Vuitton bag, the value of the bag exceeds the price so they are going to pay. It’s the same thing with a voguer. Do you value this guy?” he said. “Often what we are asking for is so little, and artists don’t value it. They want to tap into our market and jump on the bandwagon.”
Auguste had a positive experience with FKA twigs, who wanted to work with him to understand voguing and ballroom in 2015. She went to an underground voguing event, took part and earned the respect of people in that scene. “If you’re giving me blood, sweat and tears then that’s better than any dollar amount,” he said. “She was a dancer too and that support probably came from her own experiences.”
The pair danced together at live events and shot a music video, but for Auguste – who works part-time in the hospitality industry to support himself – opportunities are often fleeting, with the vague promise of “exposure” used as a bargaining chip even after 17 years in the industry.
“[Artists] pitch the exposure: ‘Would you be interested in being a part of this, it’s a great opportunity for exposure?’ But in reality the talent they’re already reaching out to is already exposed, they’re known. We do so much more for them and they do nothing for us. They recycle dancers like they recycle looks.”
Auguste had a public falling out with R’n’B star Teyana Taylor last year after he choreographed her video for Work This Pussy. The row made its way into the pages of the New York Post’s gossip column, with one source saying Auguste “ran with the money” he was supposed to pay the dancers. He claimed he was given less than half the agreed amount by Taylor’s team and therefore decided to pay only a select group of principal dancers. Her management team said that they would pay the dancers adding that she “assumes responsibility for her projects”.
Strike a Pose, the 2016 documentary about the five surviving members of Madonna’s backing dancers who worked with her on the Blond Ambition tour in 1990, showed the long-term impact this insecure lifestyle can have. Luis Camacho, Jose Gutierez, Salim Gauwloos, Carlton Wilborn, Gabriel Trupin, Kevin Stea and were all plucked from relative obscurity to become dancers on one of pop’s most notorious tours. Known for its raunchy staged moments, including mimed masturbation, the Vatican objected when the tour came to Italy, calling the show “sinful and blasphemous”.
The dancers all spoke about the brilliant time they had on tour with Madonna, but once it was over some of the tensions between the star and her dancers surfaced. Trupin, Stea and Crumes eventually sued Madonna for the use of backstage footage of them in Truth or Dare (AKA In Bed With Madonna), the documentary that was made during the tour. The case was dismissed in 1994 after an out-of-court settlement was agreed, but the relationship with the singer was ruined. Wilborn auditioned for Madonna’s 2001 Drowned world tour but was not selected as she moved on to live shows where props – like a mechanical bull which she rode on during part of the set – took priority over dancers.
“It’s a struggle,” said Tsoi. “It’s not like every month I get a big job. I have regular classes that I teach and on top I have a music video or a corporate campaign. It’s extra income that’s not regular. It’s hard. But, ultimately, you have to throw yourself out there and attend auditions.”