Anatomy of a Paycheck
Rent. Car insurance. Gas bills. Electric bills. Groceries. Copays. Union dues.
An itemized list of expenses probably doesn’t appear in your dreams of joining a ballet company. But when you sign your first contract—which, for many dancers, means moving away from the financial security of home—reality hits. Sure, you’ll be getting paid to do what you love, but for a beginning corps dancer, that paycheck won’t be too cushy. As you begin to fend for yourself, questions like, “What roles will I get to dance?” are suddenly joined by more mundane ones, like, “How will I pay my rent?”
“When I first got in the company I thought, ‘Oh gosh, there are all these things I have to do now,’ ” says Sarah Pasch, who joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2011 and moved up to the corps last September. But with a little bit of creativity and thrift, says the Goodwill bargain-hunter, “it’s definitely manageable.”
“For me, it was important to not get carried away with getting myself everything I wanted,” says 19-year-old Mahallia Ward, who joined the Joffrey Ballet in 2011. “Having a salary for the first time, you kind of feel like you can do that.”
The dancers of the Joffrey and PNB are members of AGMA (the American Guild of Musical Artists), and the union negotiates a pretty good deal. In exchange for union dues, they receive benefits including health coverage and pointe shoes. James Fayette, AGMA’s New York area dance executive, urges dancers to “maximize whatever benefits are available to you” and to think ahead—far ahead. Even first-year dancers, he says, should consider setting up a retirement fund.
So what’s the breakdown of a rookie corps dancer’s budget? Curious AGMA members can visit musicalartists.org to find the first-year corps contracts for a number of AGMA companies, but how does a dancer manage her money once the contract is signed? Pointe looked at standard starting salaries at four AGMA companies—PNB, the Joffrey, Cincinnati Ballet and The Washington Ballet. Then we asked four entry-level dancers, Pasch, Ward, Sirui Liu, who joined Cincinnati Ballet in 2011, and Nicole Haskins, who joined The Washington Ballet last year, how they spend and save.
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Minimum weeks of work per year: 40
Monthly rent: $760 for a studio apartment
Food (average cost per month): $700. “It fluctuates if I go out more,” says Pasch. On tour, the company gives the dancers a $69 per diem for costs like meals.
Transportation (average cost per month): $200 for gas and car insurance. Pasch saves money by walking to work. She doesn’t drive often, “usually just on the weekends.”
Dance-related expenses: PNB gives dancers a “physical reimbursement” fund (about $600/year, Pasch says) for costs like warm-up gear or running shoes. Pasch uses hers for yoga classes.
Off-season income: As an apprentice, Pasch collected unemployment during layoffs, but as a corps member, she relies more on money she saves during the season. “I get paid a little bit more, and we haven’t had many breaks,” she says. No side jobs for Pasch; she uses downtime for restful fun.
Helpful hints: Pasch says that while it’s important to be thrifty, “you don’t want to hold yourself back from everything.” She likes to spend money on dining out with friends and seeing other dance companies that pass through Seattle.
Minimum weeks of work per year: 38
Monthly rent: $750 for a one-bedroom apartment
Food (average cost per month): $650. “I have a bad habit of buying coffee out twice a day,” Ward says, “so that adds maybe $30 a week.”
Transportation (average cost per month): $89 for a train pass, plus the occasional cab ride home from the theater. For a typical performance week, cabs can add up to $120 ($30 per trip).
Dance-related expenses: An avid swimmer and yogi, Ward takes advantage of the Joffrey’s free gym membership and Bikram classes. On tour, she spends about $45/week for Bikram (she likes to scope out local studios).
Off-season income: Ward transfers at least $100 from every paycheck into a savings account, which she dips into during breaks to cover her rent. She also collects unemployment, which she puts toward other costs. She doesn’t have any regular side jobs but may teach a few private lessons for extra income this summer.
Helpful hints: “Often I feel like I have less money than I do,” says Ward, “because I automatically put some away, but I’m really fine if anything happens or if I’m tight for rent. I make myself feel like it’s tighter than it is. Otherwise, it really slips through your fingers.”
Minimum weeks of work per year: 34
Monthly rent: Splits rent on one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend; her share is $250
Food (average cost per month): $350. “My first year in the company I bought lots of food you just need to microwave,” Liu says. She recommends Lean Cuisine’s Sweet & Sour Chicken.
Transportation (average cost per month): $200 for gas and car insurance. Liu drives a hybrid car, which keeps her gas costs low.
Dance-related expenses: Liu estimates that she spends $250 every 3–4 months for supplies like leotards and warm-ups. Through Cincinnati Ballet, she gets free access to a gym and Pilates equipment.
Off-season income: “I save money every month, so when the off-season comes, I still have money I can use,” says Liu, who spends her breaks traveling the U.S. and visiting family in China.
Helpful hints: Liu’s advice to new corps members is simple but sound: Keep two bank accounts, “one for using and one for saving.”
The Washington Ballet
Minimum weeks of work per year: 34
Monthly rent: Her share of rent in a house with three housemates is $975 for one bedroom
Food (average cost per month): $200. “I do a lot of cooking,” Haskins says. “I usually bring my lunch to the studio. It ends up saving money in the long run.”
Transportation (average cost per month): $80 for the public bus. (Haskins owned a car when she danced with Sacramento Ballet, but found that “DC is not that car-friendly.”)
Dance-related expenses: Though TWB gives dancers a free gym membership, Haskins opts to pay $50/month for a gym closer to her house. She also spends $120 on a massage every couple of months.
Off-season income: During downtime, Haskins teaches, choreographs for Regional Dance America and picks up small performance projects, “so that I’m also keeping in shape,” she says. If she’s not working on paid side jobs, she collects unemployment.
Helpful hints: Haskins uses a free website, mint.com, to track her spending. “When I was first trying to figure out how to make a budget, it was so helpful,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask older dancers for financial advice: “Everyone knows what it’s like to be starting out.”
AGMA First-Year Dancer Salaries for 2012
Pacific Northwest Ballet: $1,015.50/week ($4,062/month)
Joffrey Ballet: $834.64/week ($3,339/month)
Cincinnati Ballet: $671.88/week ($2,688/month)
The Washington Ballet: $810.90/week ($3,244/month)