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Let’s Talk About DWYL

Over the coming month, SeattleDances will feature articles on the often tense relationship between dance and money. It’s on our minds as we prepare for our 2nd Annual Carnival Fundraiser on September 11, but it’s an ongoing topic of concern for many in the community. —SeattleDances Editors

Last January, Miya Tokumitsu wrote an essay for The Jacobin that broke down the myth of “do what you love,” showing how damaging it can be for workers of all kinds. The article made the Facebook rounds, and put a kink in who knows how many New Year’s resolutions for whom 2014 was going to be the year they finally followed their passion. I read it, something in me progressively crumpling because it all sounded so familiar—both for people of my generation and for people in the arts. For artists, doing what you love has long (always?) been an active choice, an acknowledgement that art, and perhaps a personal calling, is more important than making money. The love in itself is a way to give purpose and value to something that doesn’t get much societal support.

Anna Conner + CO in rehearsal
Photo by Julia Cross

What Tokumitsu does is demonstrate how DWYL has crept into the mainstream workforce. The DWYL mantra is admittedly seductive; it’s a siren call that promises personal fulfillment at a time when people’s identities are increasingly wrapped up in their jobs. A closer examination, however, reveals deep cracks in the wisdom of such an ideology. “Work becomes divided into two opposing classes,” she explains: “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” DWYL creates a moral high ground for those of a certain class who can afford to pursue deep, meaningful work. It relegates the less affluent classes to what amounts to morally “lesser” work, even when those tasks—caregiving, sanitation, retail—are crucial to the day-to-day running of society. Furthermore, DWYL ends up being harmful to everyone. Here’s the clincher: “Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern — people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth.” Working for cheap, free, or a net loss. This is something artists know plenty about. Apparently so does everyone else.


I point to this article because it said what I suspect many people felt, on some conscious or unconscious level. It sums up nicely a day-to-day challenge for people in the arts: do what you love and struggle financially, or sublimate your passion to something that affords you more creature comforts (like a basic savings plan). People make it work. They find creative ways to earn an income while pursuing their passion. Above all, they do it anyway. More power to them.


Art and money make strange, uncomfortable bedfellows. The starving artist is an old tale, and the question of how to compensate artists for their work is an ongoing struggle. Most people think artists should be paid—an easy answer. Who does the paying? How to pay artists, choreographers, dancers, administrators, writers? These are the questions the arts community faces on a daily basis, but we don’t always do anything about it. We’re busy. We justify not getting paid. As a writer and a dancer, I often say that I expect to be relatively poor. Then I think about this assumption and wonder if that is the right attitude to take. Sometimes I’m shocked by my own expectation—am I being realistic? Pragmatic? Or defeatist? I’m not sure. Some of each. I’m also not exactly sure what to do about it, but I think public conversation is key. SeattleDances can help with that.


The conversation has been on Seattle’s collective radar. Last summer, CityArts ran a piece on “The new hunger artists.” Seattle Star published this in April about the work of being a contract dancer and a freelance dancer. Seattle Times ran this article when Whim W’Him announced that it would become a full time dance company. And now Velocity’s STANCE is taking on “Acts of Labor” as its current theme.


Over the next few weeks, SeattleDances will have an editorial focus on the relationship between economics and the dance life. We will turn over a few stones and examine what’s underneath. This topic especially is one we’d love to hear from readers about. I bet you have thoughts, opinions, or experiences that relate directly to money and dance, getting paid or not, the decision to dance for free or for exposure. Maybe you disagree with something I’ve said, or something the mainstream has said. Please, speak up. Leave a comment. Send us an email. Start a conversation. Talk to your dance friends, but talk with others as well. After all, this is bigger than just a dance issue. This is a question of art’s place in society and what role the public should play in supporting that art. Finding answers to these questions starts with a public conversation.


Suggested Reading List

In the interest of starting conversations, here’s a short list of recent articles on the topic of art, work, and compensation.

How Much is A Dancer Worth? — Michelle Lefevre, Article19, May 22, 2014

The Paradox of Art as Work — A. O. Scott, New York Times, May 9, 2014

The Untenable Economics of Dancing — Andy Horwitz, Culturebot, March 27, 2014

Just Say NO! — Linda Essig, Creative Infrastructure, March 21, 2014

An Open Letter From a Dancer Who Refused to Participate in Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Performance — Sarah Wookey, Blouin ArtInfo, November 23, 2011

Working to Dance, Dancing to Live — Emmaly Wiederholt, San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 25, 2011