Dance Commentary: Contract Dispute Between Union Artists and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — ‘Buked and Scorned?

By Debra Cash

The Ailey dancers’ demands around salaries and the length of their contracts reflect the resurgent strength of organized labor in the cultural sector.

A scene from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Revelations.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is arguably the most important touring dance institution in this country. I’m willing to bet that more audience members have been transformed into dance lovers by experiencing Revelations or Ailey’s Blues Suite than any other dance except The Nutcracker.

Yet with a contract set to expire this week, a bargaining unit of the Ailey company — 32 dancers plus two stage managers — has been at the negotiating table under the auspices of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) with no resolution in sight, according to a press release and petition sent out by AGMA yesterday apparently designed to ratchet up the pressure on Ailey management.

The Ailey company’s annual budget is approximately $45 million. AGMA Director of Communications Alicia Cook responded to questions from the Arts Fuse by mentioning that AAADT refused to share a detailed budget with the union, so that, for instance, it cannot disentangle the revenues earned by the company and by the Ailey School. However, the press release notes that the artists believe their compensation accounts for no more than 15 percent of Alvin Ailey’s overall operating budget.

According to AGMA

The Artists are asking for their guaranteed work weeks to be increased from 35 weeks to 43 weeks, so that they have time to safely rehearse repertoire and keep their bodies in condition during a long and grueling season. The Artists are also asking for salary increases to bring their earnings in line with other dancers and stage managers at leading companies.

Most audience members — and most aspiring and local dancers — would be shocked to realize how little some of the best and most successful concert dancers in the United States earn. According to AGMA, first year dancers earn $42,000 on a 35-week contract, a number that was reduced during pandemic closures to $38,400. (Keeping the dancers on payroll at all when the company could not tour and in-person classes were suspended — even assuming AAADT was able to obtain federal and local relief funds — is to be applauded.) Fifth-year dancers earn $53,200. (As an unranked company, Ailey dancers do not have specific opportunities for promotion.) If these were 52-week contracts, the equivalents would be livable if not princely. But few dancers can fill in all the extra weeks with equally well-paying, not to mention reliable, freelancing. Those of us who guide young dancers argue that they must have a portfolio career, combining their dancing with other activities whether that be teaching, modeling, or making lattes, but that Ailey dancers are in the same situation is distressing.

Adding another eight weeks of paid rehearsal time would not only help the dancers keep their instruments in condition — a basic requirement for doing the job — but by my calculation, would bring their salaries up to $51,600 and $65,360.

AGMA goes on to say

At the table, the Artists have repeatedly highlighted the structural inequality built into Alvin Ailey’s business model. Alvin Ailey’s artists are primarily BIPOC, and they are compensated well below other peer dance companies whose rosters happen to be made up of a majority of white dancers.

This is somewhat disingenuous. AGMA benchmarked its numbers against companies they represent that have comparable budgets — American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, and Boston Ballet. All of these are classical ballet companies. Classical ballet companies are overwhelmingly white. Where racially diverse, ballet companies’ BIPOC dancers tend to be Latinx and of Asian descent rather than Black, a situation that is slowly, slowly shifting.

There are other majority Black contemporary dance companies, such as PHILADANCO, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, but they are too small to be usefully compared. And I can’t think of another dance company in this country that in ordinary, nonpandemic years tours as much as Ailey.

From the press release

Alvin Ailey’s primarily white senior management, however, is compensated at or above industry standard.

In full disclosure, I am friendly with Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle, with whom I taught at the Bates Dance Festival before he was named to succeed Judith Jamison as the company’s Artistic Director in 2011 . I like him a lot — he’s smart, unpretentious, and enthusiastic — and have been impressed with the repertory and commissioning choices he has made and the shine he has renewed at the company. There is no question that AAADT senior management is very well compensated. Nonprofit management team salaries are a matter of public record. Battle, in the most recent accounting I could locate, was paid $419,316. Executive director Bennett Rink has worked for the company since 1994 when he was manager of special events, and worked his way up to the top spot where he earns $512,140. Compare this to Boston Ballet where artistic director Mikko Nissinen earns $666,193 and executive director Meredith “Max” Hodges earns $387,676, or ABT where, before Covid, the artistic director earned $462,492 and executive director $466,515. (There have been staffing changes at ABT since that filing.) Salaries, at nonprofits, are set by the board of directors.

Ailey artistic director Robert Battle. Photo: Dario Calmese

Battle, the public face of the company, is Black, as are Tracy Inman and Melanie Person, co-directors of the School, and Tiffany Barnes, who directs the school’s Junior Division. Bennett Rink is white, as is chief financial officer Pamela Robinson; Ines Aslan, chief external affairs officer, is Latinx. Given the demographics of the arts sector, there doesn’t seem to me to be an especially racially unbalanced staffing ratio in Ailey leadership, certainly not one that accounts for the differences in salaries between dancers and management.

What it does reflect is two fraught conversations happening in the cultural sector. The first is one around investing in institutional oversight, fundraising, and management rather than in the compensation of frontline workers. We’ve seen this in academic settings for decades now, where university administrators and financial managers are treated as professionals whose compensation “has to compete with corporate salaries,” while more than 70 percent of most college courses are taught by adjuncts with PhDs who are paid laughably small stipends, accrue few benefits, and have no job security. All of this is possible because of the classic imbalance between supply and demand. In both dance companies and universities, the message is that you are lucky and should be grateful to have a job — and that if and when you leave it, there are lots of talented people lined up ready to take your gig.

Professional concert dancers, who skew young and who have by and large short performing careers, have been asking why, given their investments in training, they cannot command middle-class incomes that at least cover the high cost of living of a place like New York. (Even if you’re living out of a suitcase on the road, the landlord back in Brooklyn still expects to get your rent the first of the month.) The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the pay of professional dancers — and it doesn’t define the genre — is $26.57 per hour, $30.96 in New York, which comes to something on the order of a full-time $64,000 per year equivalent.

It has to feel unjust that athletes at the top of their fields with similar levels of training and dedication routinely find themselves multimillionaires. Certainly, unless you are Misty Copeland, there is no possible comparison of the likelihood of auxiliary income like product endorsements. So it’s back to making lattes.

The Ailey dancers’ demands around salaries and the length of their contracts also reflect the resurgent strength of organized labor in the cultural sector. It used to be very hard to get artists to acknowledge that they were workers, but those days are past. While dancers at ballet and major modern dance companies have long been represented by AGMA and SAG-AFTRA, that representation has not been as visible as unionization in the commercial entertainment industry on Broadway (Actors Equity), in the film industry, or even in the orchestral pit of the Metropolitan Opera. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ curators, administrators, and conservators — all of the nonmanagerial employees who were not already represented by another collective bargaining agreement — are ratifying their first contract under the auspices of the UAW this week. The labor movement, despite its shortcomings, is being seen as one of very few instruments available to effect long-overdue structural changes in the sector.

In 2018, the Ailey company reached a four-year agreement with its dancers minutes before their existing contract expired. But as we emerge from Covid into a changed environment, no one can predict this year’s outcome.

Debra Cash, executive director of Boston Dance Alliance, is a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse and serves on its Board. All opinions in this article are her own.


  1. Valentina Kozlova on July 1, 2022 at 10:45 am

    Unfortunately it is absolutely true. Dancers treated poorly and dance institution on the verge of sliding down.
    Interesting enough, in smaller dance organizations I found more humanity towards dancers.
    It is completely off balance — the salaries of executives or artistic directors compared to the dancers in the big companies.
    Some doing a great job, like Alvin Ailey, some are not. Yet dancers are the ones who deliver on stage with their craft.

    It is totally absurd to treat dancers with poor salaries in the US, and totally humiliating. If the dance world in the US is looking to diminish high quality dance — it is succeeding.

    In my days of dancing I earned a very good pay, now it is pathetic for dancers. The board commands, it makes important decisions. I am sure members of the board are well off but its role is to help and guide and Spport the dancers.

    Valentina Kozlova

    Former Principal of Bolshoi ballet, NYCB.
    President of Valentina Kozlova Dance Foundation,
    Founder of International Ballet and Contemporary dance completion,
    Member of CID – UNESCO
    Member of European Dance Federation.

  2. Anonymous on July 1, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    The most recent 990 from Alvin Ailey actually states compensation for the Artistic and Executive Directors as:

    • Debra on July 1, 2022 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks for the update, I didn’t have this data.

      • Anonymous on July 5, 2022 at 4:46 pm

        Going off of the information in that very link, it is important to note that of the 10 highest paid people in the organization, 7 are white.

        • Judy on July 5, 2022 at 5:38 pm

          This is a step away from slavery

        • Anonymous on July 12, 2022 at 9:41 pm

          Reqlly surprising that the author didn’t know how to get info from the 990, the most reliable and well-known way to find out salaries of the most highly compensated employees of any nonprofit. Also, Ballet Hispanico tours almost as much as Ailey. Surprised also that the author couldn’t come up with another company to compare to Ailey.

  3. Lillian Wexler on July 1, 2022 at 6:48 pm

    I have been in dance administrator for over 35 years with both large, leading ballet companies as well as smaller contemporary companies. The salaries for top level staff in large companies – artistic directors, executive directors and development directors – are indeed out of whack compared to the dancers among whom very few principles command high salaries. The former have 52- week contracts with benefits like health insurance, 401K’s and vacation time. The dancers are generally on 35-week contracts, except for NYCB who I believe employs their dancers year round. These administrative positions are demanding and many of these professionals deserve their salaries. However, if it weren’t for the dancers, none of the administration would have jobs. Dancers who live in NYC or San Francisco or any large, expensive city need to earn a living wage that compensates them for their training, artistry and raison d’être of the companies’ missions. Spread the dough around…there are ways to do it.

  4. Scott McLennan on July 2, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for this. Truly unjust treatment of these artists. I’m not sure I understand why it’s disingenuous for the union to compare the contracts of similarly budgeted organizations and point out that the one with the highest percentage of BIPOC artists pays these workers less than their non-BIPOC peers. Structural racism remains a significant problem throughout the arts and organized labor and I am hopeful the Ailey dancers achieve justice in their fight.

  5. Judy Milner on July 5, 2022 at 5:48 pm

    This is a tragedy. This is criminal. You can feel the arrogance of the white people in this organization up o. The 4th floor. It’s sickening. How did Judith Jamison allow this? Why do we give our treasures over to white people or allow them to take from us? I sincerely believe that Alvin Ailey the founder, feared that this is what they would do with his name and estate. What do these people, including Robert Battle, be doing that surpasses the importance of what the dancers do. The audiences come to see the dancers not Robert and certainly not the Executive Director whatever his name is.

  6. Joan Lancourt on July 6, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks so much for ‘taking us behind the scenes’. As a former ‘dancing candy cane’ in the early years of Balanchine’s Nutcracker, dance has always been a powerful force in my life, and the Ailey company has been a mainstay during COVID with its regular, mostly free, streaming of programs – and its touring – keeping us connected to the arts when physical presence was not possible. As responsible consumers of the arts, we have both a right and a duty to know what the working conditions (which very much include pay) are, and to begin to figure out how to help remedy the inequities – unless we are OK acknowledging our support of ‘sweat shops’ and current forms of wage ‘slavery’ – which I can’t imagine any of us want to do. It means that we need to add meaningful national support for the arts to our political activism – shifting away from outrageous defense budgets to support for social justice/racial equity, and the cultivation of all the skills and core values the arts promote (e.g. team work, creativity, cross-boundary collaboration, innovation, holding the mirror up to our social and physical current realities, empathy, constructive feedback, a commitment to artistic, social and physical excellence, etc.) And as a former board chair of 2 local theater companies, I can attest to the shock I felt when I learned what the actors and artistic directors of our small to medium sized theater companies earn. Granted, the scale is very different from major companies, but it is really bare bones as many of the theater budgets could only manage to hire a scant # of equity actors. The state of the arts in the US in terms of comp and benefits – aside from major celebrities – is really more than depressing.

  7. Kevin Iega Jeff on July 10, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    Outside of the financial details specific to the Ailey company, this is not new news. I first learned of such disparities in 1977, at the age of 17, while completing studies at Bernice Johnson Dance Studio in Jamaica, New York. As young students within that Black affirming program, we were inspired to look beneath the surface of suppressive structures to seek truth, and to foster a path that would gradually shift the diminishing paradigm. This work was/is deeply layered and emotionally messy, since it’s labored by centuries of systematic degradation and disinvestment.

    It’s clear that this long current paradigm is not sustainable. It’s change will require leadership and collective engagement that is selfless, conscious and committed.

    Truth is, while Alvin died an accomplished man, he did not die a wealthy man. Through his vision (and others), he paved a way for BIPOC (and White) dancers, despite his oppressive circumstance, That’s the great wealth in his achievements.

    The next phase will require an acute application of what’s been learned spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically and materially,, as we continue this work within manipulative and hostile environments. I pray that we have the collective patience and fortitude to do so.

  8. Debra Cash on July 19, 2022 at 11:30 am

    I did get the 990. They are always a few years behind.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts