By Alex Zarlengo
An open letter to 9-5ers:
Imagine, if you will, a standard office worker. No particular profession needed, but think standard. A CPA perhaps, maybe someone in middle management or HR. Someone with an MBA. Anyone really. Now imagine this person applying for a job but in a sort of “Twilight Zone” setting. At the crack of dawn they rise and make their way downtown so they can arrive at the interview location early to sign up. During the interview process, rather than being taken on an individual basis, they are crowded into a room, and made to take some form of mental test coupled with a rigorous physical activity. During this test they are judged on height, weight, eye color, and ability. Even if our imagined office worker has the skills and a relatively solid resume, they may not be accepted if they don’t have the right look.
He makes it through the first round. He’s temporarily elated. He prepares for the second round of his interview. He then enters a room and stands before a table of men. He’s feeling the fatigue from this morning but presses on. He pleads his best case for the job, why he’s the best. He displays more talent and promise. The men behind the table say “Thank you for your time” and he is dismissed. He leaves that day not knowing if he got the job will not. They will only call if he gets the job, not if he doesn’t. He exits the office space through a gaggle of perspective applicants that look suspiciously similar to himself. He won’t hear from this interview. He wonders if it’s because he’s too fat, if his hours in undergrad were worth it, or if he’s just plain not good enough. He spends the rest of the day working a series of odd jobs to support himself. He collapses into bed in the early hours after working at the local bar. He has a master’s degree.
He rises again the next day to interview at another company. He barely affords his subway ride to this one. He spent all his money on new resumes and other accoutrements for this interview, but it was a necessary expenditure in order to compete. He endures a similar process to the one from the day before. Again he leaves with no firm answer.
After a week with no correspondence, he receives a phone call saying that he got the job he applied for that day. FINALLY. Validation. He quickly signs the contract. He will make $600 and work a six day week, will have to move temporarily, will receive no benefits, and when he’s done with this contract he will have to start the process all over again. There’s a clause in the contract stipulating he must maintain visible abs. He will have to repeat this process even if it means working for the same company. But he’s working in the field he loves.
If this sounds like an absolute nightmare, you’re right. However, this is the reality of the very real process by which thousands upon thousands of dancers, singers, actors, and all other manner of performer attempt to gain employment. All the while juggling multiple side jobs, abject poverty, and the constant notion that they might not be good enough to make it. Couple that with the societal notion that their profession isn’t a “real job” you have a perfect storm.
According to an article published in 2012[i], professional dancers, for lack of less lyrical phrasing, figuratively toe the poverty line. The study by Dance NYC (surveyed professional dancers ages 21-35) further cites that 40% of performers in New York City work three to five jobs to make ends meet. The average professional dancer living in NYC earns $28,000 a year, just above the poverty line in the United States. Of that sum, only 55% of this income comes from actual dancing, meaning that most dancers juggle an endless string of side jobs to support themselves. Meaning just for the chance to GET to an audition, dancers must potentially compromise one of these jobs just for the opportunity to get a job in their actual field of work.
Knowing all this, it provides little comfort that most of them still somehow get by. Director of DANCE NYC, Lane Harwell asserted that for “the future of the art form, we need to invest in our dancers and improve the lives of our workers” The Affordable Care Act has been nothing short of a godsend when it comes to getting insurance, but still, it creates a sense of job envy knowing that people actually receive such insurance benefits on top of pay that typically at least doubles their own.
Beyond this, it’s worth noting that the life milestones that typically unfold: marriage, children, and home ownership become less accessible. In this era of social media we watch our peers achieving these typical milestones, while we still struggle to get established in the performing arts. Meanwhile we, like nomads, continue to move from place to place, job to job. All of this, in the pursuit of getting paid for what truly inspires us. So while the life of the performer has its glamorous moments, know that the grass on our side of the fence may not be as deeply rooted as your own.
So to all you people who work in an office setting, who work the standard 40 hour workweek, and the 9-5 schedule who put up with a morning commute, know that you live like kings. You live with the security of knowing that the job you have, provided you keep at it will still be yours after months or even years, with the promise of growth and promotion. Know that you will get health and dental insurance and not worry about getting sick at any moment and having to cope with the costs. You know that this job will only propel you to something greater and perhaps even more secure. Know that you may never stand in the spotlight or leap through the air, but know that sometimes it’s better to have your feet firmly on the ground.
Your “artistic” and underemployed friends
[i] Souccar, Miriam Kreinin. "Workin' Hard for the Money: Dancers on Poverty Line." Crainsnewyork.com. N.p., 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2017. <http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20120227/ARTS/120229923/workin-hard-for-the-money-dancers-on-poverty-line>.