Dance/NYC, a nonprofit organization that promotes knowledge and appreciation of dance in New York City, is on a mission to count every dance worker — from choreographers to ballet teachers to Colombian folkloric dancers — in New York City and its surrounding areas. The census will be among the largest undertakings of its kind in the performing arts, the organization said.
The project, which begins on July 20, seeks to understand who makes up the dance work force and the social and financial hardships that these workers face. The data will help identify economic gaps and opportunities for fair wage standards and other policies across the sector.
Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, the organization’s executive director, said that to address economic inequality and gauge the health of the industry, “we need to look at it from the vantage point of individuals, because helping workers create healthy, thriving businesses creates healthy, thriving industries.”
The goal, she added, is to “create tools that are systemic, and that can address inequities across the sector.”
Duque Cifuentes said she hoped the survey would land in the hands of every dance worker, pointing to the pervasive Shen Yun advertisements across New York City as an example of the type of visibility Dance/NYC hopes to achieve.
Like the U.S. census, the approach to outreach is complex and multipronged: Organizers plan to disseminate printouts across the city with QR codes that link to the survey; establish kiosks at dance events and festivals; partner with community organizations and unions; advertise on social media; and, like the federal census, hire staffers to make old-fashioned phone calls and to knock on doors to reach as many dance workers as possible. Data will be collected through Oct. 31 and the research will be made public in June 2023.
The organization chose the term “dance worker” to encompass all of the labor within the “economy of dance,” Duque Cifuentes said. That definition includes lighting, costume and scenic designers along with teaching artists, accompanists and dance administrators, fund-raisers and researchers.
The idea for the initiative was born in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when employers in the arts were struggling to make payroll and dancers found themselves out of work within a matter of weeks. Duque Cifuentes said seeing people’s livelihoods collapse as they questioned the future of the dance industry provided an immediate case study for why labor protections were “needed more than ever.”
In a 2021 study, which surveyed more than 1,000 dance workers about the affect of the coronavirus on the industry, Dance/NYC found 72 percent said they needed money for housing and 75 percent had filed for unemployment since March 2020.
“What surfaced during the pandemic was, ‘We need health and we need quality of life,’” she said, noting that Indigenous people and people of color suffered the largest losses of income in the sector. “This initiative is the reflection of individual dance workers saying enough is enough.”
In addition to establishing wage standards and worker protections, Duque Cifuentes said the data would help guide the organization’s grant-making efforts and advocacy work.
“Our desire is to, with our findings, address some of those systemic inequities head on and to really tear the veil,” she said. “We want to have the data that backs up those stories that we’ve been hearing for decades.”