The Atlanta Ballet Strikes Apprentice Program to Achieve Pay Equity

Ask any dancer what it’s like to make the jump from school to a full-time paid position in an upper-level ballet company, and they’ll likely tell you that bridging the gap between student and professional can be precarious.

This is especially true in the United States, where companies often require dancers to enter as low-paid apprentices, dependent on family or other outside sources of income.

As of August 2022, Atlanta Ballet has eliminated its apprentice level. Going forward, entry-level dancers who pass the main company audition will start as full members of the company, earning an entry salary based on a collective bargaining agreement scale, with salary increases over three years. Last season’s roster of 39 company members, six of whom were apprentices, now includes 40 company dancers and no apprentices.

The decision comes at a time when ballet companies seek to increase racial equity, recruit high-level black and brown dancers and create more access for members of underrepresented communities to train and enter into the profession.

Tom West, executive director of Atlanta Ballet since September 2021, initiated the movement last April after seeing a position on the pay scale that didn’t make sense to him: less than $500 a week for apprentices. . West, a relative outsider to the ballet field, told his fellow business leaders, “Can we agree that’s just not fair?”

West believes low salaries create a barrier that disproportionately affects dancers from underrepresented communities — the very dancers Atlanta Ballet seeks to train through its Decade 2 Dance scholarship program and attract to its company.

“Once someone’s been through a decade of training,” West says, “we’re like, ‘Oh wait, two more years. And we’ll pay you a little, but not enough to live on. You are not a student. Are you a professional.

It sends a message to dancers graduating from the Atlanta Ballet Center for Dance Education that a ballet career offers neither a living wage nor a financially secure future. At this inflection point, many are choosing college and more lucrative career paths.

Apprenticeship programs are easy on corporate budgets, but tough on young dancers wanting to prove themselves. Atlanta Ballet dancer Ashley Wegmann, who is one of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) delegates for Atlanta Ballet company dancers, says apprentices without outside financial support typically occupy a second jobs and triple in apartments to make ends meet.

During a stage performance of The Nutcracker, a smiling young dancer in a light blue floral dress kneels on the floor in front of a Nutcracker doll and stretches her skirt to the sides.  To his left is an older male figure dressed in a blue jacket with a fur collar, white and blue striped pants, and dark boots.  He looks at her and smiles as other dancers in Regency period costumes stand behind them and watch.
Kaitlin Roemer, shown here as Young Marie (with Jacob Bush, left) in Atlanta Ballet’s 2021 production Nutcrackerskipped the apprentice level when promoted from Atlanta Ballet 2 to main company in fall 2022. Photo by Kim Kenney, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

At the same time, they face intense physical demands, taking responsibility for their own roles while also covering for other dancers. And after two years of trying to get noticed, there’s no guarantee the company will have a full job for them.

Over the past two decades, most American ballet institutions have created intern programs or second companies to advance students to professional levels. These junior programs vary widely in terms of organizational structure and compensation – some are tuition-based or unpaid, while others offer a stipend or small salary. Atlanta Ballet 2, for example, provides students with stipends and dancing shoes, as well as opportunities to practice, dance in their own productions, and perform corps and ensemble roles with Atlanta Ballet.

But most companies have also retained the apprenticeship level, so dancers may go through four or more years of low-paying or unpaid positions before they can start earning a living.

Atlanta Ballet aims to change that. Now, first-year company members earn a base salary of $700 per week for 36 weeks. This gradually increases so that by year three, dancers earn $1,000 per week for 36 weeks, with annual contracts governed by a collective bargaining agreement between AGMA and Atlanta Ballet.

Previously, Atlanta Ballet apprentices could only be considered for specific types of roles, such as corps de ballet or ensemble. Now all members of Unranked Society can audition for all roles, a move West hopes will create a more inclusive environment.

Atlanta Ballet joins a short list of AGMA dance companies without an apprentice rank. Allison Beck, Atlantic Center attorney for AGMA, hopes more organizations “will follow suit, given that eliminating substandard apprenticeship wage rates is essential if ballet hopes to stay a relevant and welcoming art form”.

In 2018, Atlanta Ballet joined The Equity Project: Increasing Black Presence in Ballet, an initiative led by Dance Theater of Harlem, International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA. Since then, the company has worked to create a more inclusive work environment. The students, teachers, and administrative staff became increasingly diverse, and the hiring of Claudia Schreier as choreographer-in-residence was a notable success. But the company’s inability to attract and retain more than a few African American dancers has made it difficult to produce work that reflects and resonates with Atlanta’s population, which is approximately 50% black.

West hopes to change the minds of skeptics in the local community who in 2020 denounced Atlanta Ballet’s shortage of African-American dancers, saying the company’s promises of diversity were not sincere.

“What we’re doing right now is looking carefully, partly with fresh eyes, but with a very open heart,” West says. “All I can do is take actions that feel right to me,” he says.

“Over time, the community will decide whether we think so or not,” West says. “For us, the proof must be in the work.”

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