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Life on Spec

“On spec” is an abbreviation of “on speculation”. It’s a business term referring to production in hope of success.

This is how we work in tango. We invest time, money, and energy in hope that people will show up, in hope that the organizer will pay fairly, in hope that respect from students, partners, and patrons will take a financial form.

Too often they tell us we should work for free “because it’s good promotion”. I am blessed to have lived from my art for more than a decade already, and I ask every new student how they found me. It’s almost never from one of those underpaid gigs.

I just did it again … wrote classes, paid for travel, gave students precision and power they’ve rarely received, and walked away with numbers too embarrassing to print.

One of the worst ironies in the business is that the fewer students show up, the harder we work. They get extraordinary value and we are in the red. Equally ironic is how hard it is for teachers and organizers to cancel an event for low attendance, because we recognize and want to serve the passion of those who are in the room.

I solved part of this problem years ago by eliminating “drop-in” classes. I only teach occasionally and by pre-registration. But the problem persists when I work with organizers who invite us to be part of their events. These people are friends and their events are beautiful. I want to participate, but I often end up working for red. I’ve even had organizers try to shift the responsibility for promoting my classes to me, after I’ve already lent my name, images, and presence to enhance their promotion.

Artists are afraid to demand too much, or settle for too little, so we silently collaborate in the “contract of hope”. The two-stage payment system can empower both artists and organizers to establish a base which feels secure to both, after which the final level of success of the event can be shared according to a formula.

The uncertainties that organizers face need not be passed on entirely to the artists (musicians, DJs, performers, and teachers) who participate in their events. Pay can be reimagined in two parts, one part is a guaranteed base, and the other part is variable, sharing in the level of attendance at the event.

I’m now asking organizers to provide a base pay per class, funded by  a €10 price increase per weekend registration, and offering every participant access to one class. Organizers should not be afraid of a small price increase when participants are paying 5x the registration fee for travel, accommodation, and food.

An event with 200 participants would have €2000 to devote to instruction, dividing this fairly between invited teachers. If only 50 people register, there is still €500 to pay for classes. The class schedule should be announced after registration is closed. If there are fewer registrations, then fewer classes can be offered. Students who want to take more than one class can pay an additional fee, which could be split between organizers and teachers.

We live in a moment of history and culture which generally denies the value of art. Yet we who dance know that art is one of the few things that makes us feel alive, that brings meaning and mystery into our days. That plain fact should be reflected in our budgetary ethics.

Breaking the contract of hope and insisting on a new one will be scary. But as Audre Lorde and many other wise people keep telling us, fear is the emotion that comes with doing the thing that we need to be doing.


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