After reading todays Guardian article Side hustle essential: how Covid brought dancers to their knees by Lyndsey Winship, I was compelled to reflect on my past decades worth of work and the underlying precarity that I have managed to withstand as I have navigated the rocky terrain of the arts world.
I never really thought about the precariousness of the dance industry when I first started training and it wasn’t until my MFA that those more experienced than myself began sharing – very transparently – the challenges and barriers you might face if you choose dance as your career path, that I considered it.
The notion of a side hustle, however is pretty much how I’ve established my working life so far. I call it a portfolio career for lack of a better term, but essentially, I’ve had my art and then I’ve had projects and work – still in the creative industries*- that have helped support the making of my art. Every now and again the art becomes the sole bread winner in the balance but more often than not, these projects are the most time-consuming and least profit-making, which is not sustainable, hence the side hustle. But of course our love for our craft gives us a false sense of value of such endeavours, and we just keep on keeping on, right?
Training to be a dancer is a very hard slog. Being an artist, is not easy. Learning how to hone your craft and develop an artistic voice that can transcend the body and manifest in a multiplicity of ways is definitely for me, a way of life. Dance is a way of thinking, living and dreaming and despite any distractions or necessary diversions away from your craft, it absolutely always lives within you. This wholeness of your craft is where the true value lies – the ideas, the sensitivity, the ability to adapt, the intuitiveness, the versatility, the determination, the commitment… the list goes on, but the wage stays low.
Overall, there is something that is fundamentally broken within the system. We train hard to become sensitive, open, thinking, feeling people and because we know the true value of the work goes beyond any monetary value, we sacrifice our own well-being and frankly, futures, because we develop this warped ability to life off of that warm fuzzy feeling arts projects give us. That warm fuzzy feeling however doesn’t pay the bills or feed our bellies and it certainly doesn’t help establish us as important, valuable, often highly-skilled cogs in the big machine.
In the grand scheme of things, I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I’ve worked on many projects where I’ve been given a very fair fee for the work I’ve done and there’s been no expectation (really!) to do more outside of that contract. That being said, the highly-saturated and competitive nature of the creative industries right now means that many organisations can often leverage fair fees because there’s always someone willing to undercut you – and any work is better than no work right? This in turn breeds a work force that perhaps on paper are getting paid a fair fee, but are living in fear of losing out and are therefore willing to work countless extra hours, unpaid, to continuously prove their worth. And so the cycle continues. We need more transparency in the industry. We need balance and a zero-exploitation policy, where the people doing the work – the artists – are fairly compensated. Among ourselves we need stronger community, less competitiveness and a collective value and care for the work we do and the work of others.
*I am one of the privileged ones. The jobs that probably started off as side hustles for me, have often led me towards unique experiences and opened up opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. I say that with real sincerity too as I know countless others who haven’t been so fortunate.