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Dance Funding: A Proposed Experiment

I’ve been on the periphery of lots of discussions lately about dance talent (musician/caller) pay, particularly in the contra dance world. I have a few hypotheses and a proposed experiment that I wonder if any dance communities would be interested in trying out.

It’s hard to talk usefully about money without using actual numbers. Otherwise, everything gets mired in assumptions. So the idea of transparency is fundamental here.

For those who aren’t touring musicians or callers, it may come as a surprise to learn that dance professionals are often paid less than the cost of the gas it takes to drive to the dance. It’s not uncommon for the pay, per person, to be less than $15/hour after accounting for immediate expenses, not including longer-term costs like instrument purchase, music lessons, car repair, insurance, web hosting for band sites, etc.

To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a rant against dance organizers. They’re good people doing a usually-thankless job, and they’re working hard to preserve and protect their communities of dancers.

There’s an essential tension in that dances are community events, and we all want to make sure that people can afford to attend them. My dance organizer friends (I used to be one, too) often point out that raising pay is impossible without raising prices, and they share their fear that raising prices will make dances inaccessible to poorer dancers. This is an important point! But I find myself wondering what data exists to help guide us.

There are lots of assumptions all around about “what would happen if”. Do we have data? If we did, I think it would make life a lot easier for dance organizers (who currently describe not being sure what their communities could support) and talent alike.

Hypothesis 1: most dancers have no idea how much dance talent gets paid.

Hypothesis 2: many dancers can afford to pay a few dollars more.

Hypothesis 3: if dancers knew how much dance talent gets paid, many of them would be willing to pay more to help.

In conversations with non-organizer dancers over the years, I’ve found people to be almost universally shocked to learn that, in 2016, the people who drove 700 miles (or even 40 miles!) to play the gig might be getting paid less than $80 to do it. I have lots of anecdotal evidence for Hypothesis 1. Anyone want to propose an experiment?

I’ve heard a lot of dancers say that they personally wouldn’t mind paying a bit more. This is part of why I advocate sliding fee scales. We used this model very effectively at Epic Skill Swap, and it helped solve a lot of thorny financial issues. Many dancers are mid- to upper-level professionals working in the tech and education industries, and it seems like a safe bet that Hypothesis 2 is true. Anyone want to propose an experiment? Has anyone surveyed their dance community to get actual data (anonymized, of course) about SES and ability/willingness to pay?

My experience is that sliding fee scales work much better when the participants can understand what they’re being asked to pay for and can clearly visualize the effects of their involvement. Thus my proposed experiment.

My proposed experiment

My experiment relates to Hypothesis 3. It goes like this:

  1. The dance organizers acquire a portable whiteboard (you can make a big one for less than $10 from materials at any building supply center like Lowe’s or Home Depot). This whiteboard will be prominently displayed at the front of the hall next to the caller, either suspended from a speaker stand or mounted on some form of easel. The idea is that it’s passively in view of all dancers, in a direction they tend to look, all night.
  2. The whiteboard gets annotated in table format like this:
    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $x $y
    Current door revenue per person: $0 $0
    Pay per person: $x $y
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?

    $x and $y are whatever the dance has offered as guarantee (not all dances do this).

  3. Periodically throughout the evening, but at least at the end of the first half (just prior to the last dance) and near the end of the second half, a dance organizer will update the board based on the amount of money taken in at the door. So then the tables might look like:
    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $100 $100
    Current door revenue per person: $64 $64
    Pay per person: $100 $100
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?

    and, later,

    Caller: Band:
    Guarantee per person: $100 $100
    Current door revenue per person: $64 $126 $64 $126
    Pay per person: $100 $126 $100 $126
    Thank you for your generosity!
    Will you help support our talent by giving some extra money to the organizer at the door?
  4. This is important: organizers ask dancers to help with this, on mic, during the announcements section. They also cheer the dancers when the door revenues cross the threshold of beating the guarantee, and they cheer the dancers for their generosity at the end of the night. We’re very overt about seeking financial support and about thanking people directly, immediately, and specifically for giving it.

The idea is that transparency gives all the people in the room a chance to see what’s happening and to evaluate how that sits with their financial priorities and values, and it gives them both a clear mechanism for effecting change and a method for getting feedback and social recognition for their efforts.

I think you’d want to run the experiment for at least three or four dances before you’d have much useful data to look at.

What do you think? Anyone interested in trying it? What issues do you see? How could we improve the experiment? Any other ideas about experiments to try?

Thanks for helping think about this and talk about solutions!

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