One week before Thanksgiving, Melany Centeno, a professional dancer with a decade of experience, posted a call-to-arms on Instagram. Centeno enjoyed the rapper DaBaby’s new “Bop” video, calling it “super fire.” But after messaging colleagues who danced in the clip, she accused DaBaby of underpaying some of them — as low as $200 for at least 20 hours of work, according to three dancers who participated. “I’m not gonna stand idly by and let other people be exploited and not speak on it,” Centeno declared.
The Dancers Alliance, an organization founded in 1990 that aims to “improve the careers of professional dancers through education and solidarity,” echoed this sentiment last month in a pair of posts. In December, a casting agency put out a call for a new Beyoncé video shoot; a great opportunity, except that the Dancers Alliance thought that the pay rate — $250 for a day’s work — was unfairly low. “Our SYSTEM IS BROKEN,” the Alliance wrote. “This flawed system is never going to change without DANCERS TAKING THEIR POWER BACK!”
This is the daily reality for many dancers: They apply vital jolts of energy to music videos, but may still struggle to pay their bills. Creators’ rights conversations have gained force in the music industry, allowing some artists to get more favorable record deals and own their music, but these gains have missed dancers.
“Our community as a whole is suffering so much in an ever-growing, ever-profiting industry,” says one member of Dancers Alliance, which has chapters in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Miami. “We’re all at the end of our rope trying to defend why we’re worth more than $500 for a music video.” (The member asked for anonymity due to fear of retribution, as did most of the dancers who spoke for this story; relatedly, Beyoncé’s fans, known as the Beyhive, recently launched an online harassment campaign against dancers who suggested that they had been underpaid by the star.)
Music video viewership is growing at a rapid rate, with on-demand video streams up more than 40% year over year in the U.S. Those streams generate money for labels and artists and also count towards chart position. In many major videos, dancers play a key role in attracting clicks — the “Bop” clip, which features dozens of dancers surrounding the rapper, would be an awfully lonely affair if DaBaby was the only one in it. “We’re dancing next to, in front of, under, on top of, along with these artists,” says a second member of Dancers Alliance.
But even as dancers perform some of the most physically gruelling tasks in the music industry, one former major label employee with experience budgeting music videos says, “I am very confident that the record companies don’t really know what the value of the dancers’ work is.”
The dancers who spoke for this story say they harbor little animosity towards artists like DaBaby and Beyoncé. Most dancers believe that artists are unaware that union contracts regulate video shoots, uneducated about respectable day-rates in a field outside of their expertise, and not directly responsible for allocating video budgets.
But it seems like everyone has an excuse — or incentive — to overlook dancers. Many artists don’t know the issues facing the dance community. Producers and labels are focused on keeping costs down. Agents aim to place dancers in jobs, not necessarily to fight for better pay. Choreographers are wary of upsetting the artist or label that hired them by advocating for dancers — and the choreographers might also be underpaid. “It’s a whole-industry problem,” says the second Dancers Alliance member.
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Want to know WHY non-union rates have not increased over $500 a day in the last 20 years? With non-union music videos such as the Beyoncé MV, that’s shooting as we speak, for $250 + 20% agency (per day), dancers, choreographers, and agents are NOT upholding the DA baseline standard of at least $500 + agency. Dancers accepting these low rates for this caliber artist or any artist is UNACCEPTABLE! Choreographers not sticking up to production companies about proper DA baseline rates to hire professional dancers is UNACCEPTABLE! Agents NOT informing production companies and upholding their roster of clients’ to DA baseline rates before the call is sent out is UNACCEPTABLE! This flawed system is never going to change without DANCERS TAKING THEIR POWER BACK! We MUST stand by the DA baseline non-union rates for ourselves as a community! But it takes EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US! . #dancersalliance #dancecommunity #dance #professional #professionaldancer #musicvideo #beyonce #artist #nonunion #thesystemisflawed #unacceptable #dancers #choreographers #agents #rates #wages #worth #knowyourbusiness #knowyourworth #wemuststandtogether 🙌🏼🙌🏽🙌🏿🙌🏻🙌🏾
This leaves dancers with little protection. The union SAG-AFTRA negotiated the first contract with major labels to regulate music video shoots in 2012, ensuring that, in some scenarios, dancers were guaranteed pay and that money would be put towards the union’s health and retirement fund. But the minimum pay scale only kicks in — starting at $515 for a 12-hour work day, plus a usage fee — once a video budget exceeds $100,000. And labels have creative ways to make videos that are not covered by the union. (Rates will increase slightly in 2021; SAG-AFTRA did not respond to a request for comment.)
Dancers Alliance attempts to cover the $100,000 loophole and non-union shoots by setting minimum rates of its own — the organization advises its members not to work for less than $500 per shoot-day. But artists and major labels are not required to abide by that rate. And since the supply of talented dancers outstrips the demand, the people in charge of major-label music videos with budgets below $100,000 can always claim that the benefits of exposure preclude any need for payment.
One dancer who spoke on condition of anonymity describes the lack of negotiating power: “Oh, you don’t want to take this rate? We’ll find somebody who can.”
The cruel reality for dancers is that their work does not change whether the video is union or non-union, $15,000 or $150,000. “We’re top-tier athletes,” says the second member of Dancers Alliance. Yet they’re not treated like it. In contrast, actors enjoy a minimum-pay scale regardless of the budget for a film or TV production covered by the union. One casting agent tells Rolling Stone a model makes at least four times as much for lounging on the same set where dancers sweat for $500.
Even in situations where a minimum pay scale should be guaranteed for dancers, there are ways for labels and artists to skirt union regulations. “Record labels are able to report that they are doing a low-budget video that falls in that tier where dancers don’t get a minimum scale,” explains the former major label employee. “Now are they telling the truth? Not necessarily.”
Labels can also dodge the payment requirements by delegating the video operation to an organization that is not bound by SAG-AFTRA — i.e., not one of the major labels. “They set it up so essentially [the artist’s label is] doing the video,” the former major label employee says. “They’re not beholden to the union contracts, so they can do whatever.” The “Bop” video and the planned Beyoncé video were not covered by the union, according to four different dancers, even though both artists are major-label acts.
In addition, the people in charge of music videos in non-union settings can work to classify dancers as independent contractors instead of employees. That makes dancers even more vulnerable to pay cuts because independent contractors are not covered by minimum wage rules.
Major labels “set it up so essentially [the artist’s label is] doing the video, they’re not beholden to the union contracts, so they can do whatever.”
DaBaby was paying some dancers $200 total for an eight-hour rehearsal (a few also had four hours of additional rehearsal) and a 12-hour shoot (that went long), according to Centeno’s video and other clips on social media. (Sources from DaBaby’s label, Interscope Records, say they are actively working to resolve dancer compensation for this video.) A recent casting call for a planned Beyoncé video was promising $250 per shoot-day, according to the Dancers Alliance, which shared screenshots of the casting call.
In a statement, Anissa Williams, who served as casting agent on the planned Beyoncé video shoot, said the frustration caused by the casting call was the result of a misunderstanding. “It is false information that Beyoncé was casting for principal dancers at a rate of $250,” Williams said. “My associate, who is also a dancer, created a casting breakdown for a diverse group of women which included actors, models, and dancers to work as background talent. We made an error on the casting breakdown by not specifying background talent, but this was quickly corrected. And furthermore, this casting wasn’t utilized when creative and dates changed. As soon as we heard there was a grievance, we reached out to the Dancers Alliance to clear up the misinformation but phone calls were not returned.” (“Background talent” refers to people who appear in a video but do not speak or dance any choreographed movements; the rate for these roles is guaranteed at $174 per shoot-day, but only for videos with budgets above $200,000.)
In a separate statement, a representative for Beyoncé’s label emphasized that “Parkwood Entertainment supports dancers’ rights.” “Using Beyoncé’s likeness and name to publicize dancers’ grievances is wrong,” the rep adds. “Parkwood abides by union guidelines when hiring and paying dancers.”
Dancers Alliance responded that “[Anissa Williams Casting] is a professional casting agency that put out multiple, clear breakdowns calling for principal dancers, actors and models at a rate of $250. Dancers Alliance had clear communication with casting over the course of a few days via emails, DMs, texts, and phone calls. No casting notices were rectified. Dancers Alliance is not interested in perpetuating false information. Our goal stands to uplift our community through education and positive activism.”
The statement continued, “Dancers Alliance agrees that using an unrelated artist’s likeness to air grievances is wrong. Unfortunately, this particular situation pertained to this specific artist, and the music video was, in fact, non-union. Dancers Alliance would like to thank DaBaby’s camp for helping turn a negative into a positive [by working to resolve dancer compensation]. Our community looks forward to working with them in the future.”
It’s possible that recent legal changes in California will give dancers in videos more protection: The state recently passed a bill known as AB5, which makes it harder to classify workers as independent contractors. The impact of the young bill remains unclear, but “the law now presumes that any worker is an employee covered by the minimum wage law unless the employer can demonstrate three things [simultaneously],” explains Catherine Fisk, a professor at Berkeley Law who specializes in labor and employment law. One of those is “that the employer exercises no control over the employee’s work.”
“Dancers are not trying to get rich,” one former professional says. “The goal is to make a living.”
It’s hard to make that case on a music video shoot. “Even if it’s for an hour or two, if [the label or artist] tells them when to get there [and] what to wear, [dancers] are entitled to minimum wage,” argues Darci Burrell, a California lawyer who specializes in workers’ rights. In Los Angeles, the minimum wage for an employer with more than 25 workers is currently $14.25 an hour.
This legislation may help ensure that dancers in music videos shot in California at least earn the minimum wage. But the dancers who spoke for this story argue that minimum wage is not appropriate compensation for highly skilled performers engaging in physically demanding work that’s often incredibly profitable for their employers. And as long as no pay scale is contractually guaranteed on some videos, dancers will likely remain subject to underpayment.
The goal for music video dancers, one former professional says, “is not to pull more money from the recording artists. Dancers are not trying to get rich. The goal is to make a living.” “It’s not feasible to have these [payment] numbers living in Los Angeles,” adds the first member of Dancers Alliance.
The people controlling music video budgets often “cut the costs and don’t give two shits about the person who can’t put good food on their table [and] can’t get healthcare,” says another professional dancer. “There are a lot of loopholes and a lot of grey areas, and they use those grey areas to exploit the dancers.”