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Out of Step: Dance Livelihoods and Decent Work

Fête du travail et de l’agriculture. In Haiti, May 1st was consecrated as a paid national holiday in the 1961 Labour Law. Celebrated worldwide, International Workers’ day flows well with entrenched ideals that go back to Haiti’s struggle for independence: that the people who do the work should not only enjoy the full fruits of their labour, but that these should allow themselves and their loved ones to flourish.

May Day happens to fall two days after International Dance Day (April 29). This year the Haitian dance scene SHOWED. OUT. Events were held across the country – open houses! master classes! lectures!

One of the fewer discussed aspects of the art, though, is how fares the dancer-as-cultural-worker? Where does she learn the craft? How does he chart a career? How much will she earn – and when can she expect to make more than a living wage? What happens when he gets injured, falls ill? How does a dancer make ends meet in their old age? Is decent work for dancers something that’s attainable, or just a pipe dream?

Decent work, according to the International Labour Organization, is work that is “productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment” for all genders.

Today, sticking to that one (and easiest) indicator – pay – with a bit of digging you can find (deplorable) statistics on dancer incomes in certain developed countries. In Canada, for example, dancers earned on average $15,100 per year, a whopping 64% less than the national median for all workers, and about half the average recommended living wage.

Its much more of a challenge though, finding equivalent information for the Global South. Over the last decade there’s been a more sustained effort to quantify the economic heft of the cultural economy here in Haiti, for example. Barbara Prézeau-Stephenson’s La richesse culturelle d’Haïti : mythe ou réalité ? (2007) was the first widely accessible foray into the field. More recently, Ayiti Mizik, Haiti’s musicians’ professional association, published the nation’s first ever music industry mapping. Unfortunately, neither of these studies covered dance and choreography, or livelihoods associated with them.

Cap-Haitien, where I lived for just over a decade, is one of the rare places in Haiti with a local folkloric dance association. We can thank the regular performances for cruise boat tourists visiting Labadie for that. With some nudging, I was able to get one of the dancers to reveal that they were paid 750 gourdes per performance, but no pay for rehearsal (this was in 2009, when the equivalent US dollar value was $18.75). In comparison, minimum wage had just been raised from 90 ($2.25) to 125 gourdes ($3.12), and the starting salary for a doctor at the local public hospital was 15,000 gourdes ($375 US) a month. Today a living wage is estimated to be at minimum 1,750 gourdes per day (42,000 gourdes per month, and in today’s constantly in free fall exchange rate $495 US).

As it stands, cultural worker + developing economy = extremely precarious living conditions by default. Hopefully in the not too distant future we’ll see more energy, intelligence and action devoted to changing this equation.

In the meantime, happy May Day, and stay on beat!

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