The Greatest Superbowl Halftime Controversy Since Janet And Justin Exposes Cracks In The Dance Industry

The Greatest Superbowl Halftime Controversy Since Janet And Justin Exposes Cracks In The Dance Industry

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – FEBRUARY 04: Halftime performance with numerous field cast during the 2018 Pepsi

 This year’s halftime show is mired in controversy after a call was put out for 400 “field cast” to participate in the halftime show as volunteers alongside 115 paid dancers on a union job. After substantial protest, it was announced that these field cast members would in fact be paid $15/hr, California’s minimum wage. However, they could be expected to be on-call as many as seven full days without any guarantee of their participation or payment. 

 It’s not unusual for people to volunteer for things they love, and the Super Bowl is no exception. Tampa, for instance, called for 8,000 volunteers in 2021 despite it still being the height of COVID, from greeters to city ambassadors. But in this case, professional dancers were outraged at the Super Bowl, their union and the dance agency promoting the gig, to have been offered to volunteer their labor instead of a contract at union rates.

What went wrong here to cause such outrage? There are three main factors at play:

1.        This is not your grandma’s charity ball. It’s the Super Bowl, the world’s most lucrative sports event. Jezebel ran the numbers: “To do some math for a second, economists claim the Super Bowl can bring between $30 to $130 million for host cities. The 2022 Super Bowl ticket packages listed on the NFL’s website start at $5,950 per person and go up to $21,250 per person. CBS reportedly made a record $545 million in ad revenue during the 2021 Super Bowl, while other reports say the sporting event is ‘worth billions each year.’”

2.        Unions and producers are responsible for ensuring rules are followed. Dancers have expressed disappointment that SAG-AFTRA, the “world’s largest labor union representing performers, broadcasters and recording artists,” didn’t handle this more thoughtfully, particularly given that similar concerns were raised just last year by dancers confused by the mixing of paid and unpaid participants in the 2021 halftime show.

A SAG-AFTRA rep noted, “SAG-AFTRA has worked with the producers of the Super Bowl Halftime Show to ensure that all professional performers are covered under a collective bargaining agreement. SAG-AFTRA representatives will be on-site during the performance and the union has taken every effort to ensure that everyone appearing in the Halftime Show, regardless of their professional status, are made aware of their employment rights.”

ROC Nation, producer of the halftime show, said in a statement, “We strictly follow and adhere to all SAG-AFTRA guidelines.”

Despite the $15/hour pay rate now being offered, dance industry professionals like Taja Riley have expressed concern this still doesn’t match the typical SAG-AFTRA rates, regardless of whether field cast are categorized as dancers or as extras, the concept that seems closest to the role of these field cast members designed to bring up the energy at the halftime show.

3.        Requiring people to be available without compensation is a poor labor practice in any industry. Field cast were provided a deal memorandum with rehearsal dates, but a “TBD”  for start and end dates and payment based on time worked. This essentially keeps performer lives on hold, without a clear understanding of how much they will make.

This mirrors a broader, nefarious trend within the American workforce to expect workers to be on call for shifts regardless of whether they ultimately get called into work and paid for their time put aside . Dubbed “just-in-time-scheduling,” retailers and foodservice have used it to cut down on costs — at the cost of stability and predictability for workers. According to the Brookings Institute, up to 40% of the workforce deals with the stress of unpredictable scheduling. CNN also commented on research finding: “Unstable and unpredictable work schedules continue to be the norm for service sector workers — especially for workers of color, and for women of color in particular.”

This year, some companies like Walmart are making more of an effort to provide regular schedules, with speculation this is more due to the low unemployment rate and worker shortages than any particular benevolence on their part. But given the supply of aspiring (and actual) professional dancers for paid roles far exceeds the regular demand, such dynamics have not hit the dance industry where employers maintain the upper hand.

Dancers as Professional Athletes

“If you can walk, you can dance,” goes the saying, reflecting the range of ways dance has become a major part of American society. Dancers range from casual Tik Tokers, to hardcore clubbers, to experienced professionals building a career and performing in venues like the Super Bowl halftime show. 

Mirroring the spectrum between weekend warrior basketball players seeking pickup games at the park, to Steph Curry and other pros in the NBA, dancers sit on all sides of the economic equation. Those who seek dance out as a hobby are often used to paying for classes or buying tickets to a club or concert. On the other hand, professional dancers rely on dance to survive, and have invested in themselves and their bodies to perform at the necessary level just as all categories of professional athletes do.

Where does one draw the line between amateur and professionals, and what does that mean for big productions like the Super Bowl’s halftime show? What sort of treatment should dancers reasonably expect?

Controversy over this year’s show has led to deeper questions about the idea of dance as not just a hobby, but an industry—one that needs healthy, happy dancers if we are all to thoroughly enjoy our Super Bowl Sunday—or the Grammys, or Coachella, or any number of other events where dancers are not the main artists on the marquee, but are critical to help set the tone.

Where the Industry Can Go From Here

The show must go on, and it will, with Mary J Blige, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Eminem headlining today’s halftime show at approximately 8 PM EST. When the teams head home, the dance industry will still have to address what it means to treat dancers as professionals.

What can learn from the Super Bowl’s biggest halftime scandal since Janet and JT? Just as Janet’s unexpected reveal brought up important, and much broader conversations about gender privilege and body-shaming, this case has called attention to the challenges professional dancers experience in making their passion a sustainable career. Two key questions have emerged: What needs to change in the dance industry for dance to be a more viable career path? And what should responsible employers do to better support dancers?

To get more insight into these questions, I spoke to Taja Riley, a dance artist who has participated in multiple Super Bowl shows alongside Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez.

Taja led much of the organizing around this year’s halftime show, and shared the following three reflections regarding the future of the industry: 

“One of the major keys in starting the conversation is with the shift of subconscious dialogue behind the term “dancer.”

It needs to sing to people, as a profession of known value. In the past when people hear the word dancer, they think of Tina Turner’s phrase “private dancer, Dancer for money,” mistreatment through the cinematic lens of the dance world in films like “A Chorus Line,” even belittling Industry phrases or slogans “Will dance for food,” “starving artist,” “dancing monkey,” “backup dancer” or the infamous audition term “CATTLE call.” We need pop culture’s mainstream media attitude to carry more respect when it comes to dance professionals.

That’s why I use “Dance Artist” or “Dance Athlete” as my preferred label/title of profession. Everybody knows what it means to “dress to impress”: it dresses up the mentality of what you do, and co-signs it with a pre-conceived companion word of high value.  Take for instance: the silent leverage of the business suit. A man in sweats vs a man in a suit goes to corporate elites to pitch an idea — who wins default attention? Now what if the man in the sweats were to be co-signed by the hotshot CEO in the suit? Maybe the fairest on Park Avenue might take a deeper interest into the man with the sweats. 

Adding a word that already holds familiar value or presence in someone’s head to one that they aren’t familiar with, changes the outfit of respect from 2nd hand sweatpants to a Versace suit in the high-brow entertainer’s public perspective in an instant (even if I figuratively dig both thread expressions). And the truth is, dancers are often seen as at the low end of the artistic totem pole, behind “artists” and “athletes.” But truly, we are both, and bring so much purpose and magic to productions.

Responsible employers should view themselves as leaders, and the greatest leaders know how to listen to their teams and really view them as equal collaborators.

Every single time I’ve worked with or read about a team that has treated the cast+crew as a team of equal collaborators, they surpass the minimum bar of “SUCCESS” for the product and they move straight into creating “CLASSIC” or “TIMELESS” productions. Media is over saturated with content, but the thing that always stands out is when the energy jumps off the screen. They will say they “can’t put their finger on it” but they just keep getting drawn to it. Any skilled creative knows that in order to achieve that, there must be an amicable synergy with all the behind-the-scenes players. It should feel like a family operation. A well-oiled machine of trust, passion, and inspiration. 

I think it diminishes or threatens what we are truly doing as dance creatives when the people that we collaborate with behind the scenes subconsciously or actively gaslight people, instead of reaffirming that there is purpose behind every work no matter how big or small. It’s all in the approach of how the production functions and if it’s run with love and professionalism, or by anxiety, pressure + deadlines. Energy speaks volumes and ultimately impacts our treatment.

Most often the dance artists are the ones that have to adjust, deflect, or dodge these behind the scenes blows, like being asked to sign contracts without prior review, being paid late, told “you’re replaceable,” or other disrespectful practices.

When the truth is, we are just as much as part of the creative team as the Director, the Cinematographer, the Actor, the recording artist.

If our employers and creative colleagues truly don’t see value in dance artists, then they really need to start asking themselves…why have us there? And if that answer is “because dance artists are background,” then I would ask them “What art director or set designer knows how to build a set that will choreograph or freestyle movement, rehearse or workshop ideas, express emotion, develop the recording artist, make last minute changes, come camera ready, accent musicality, or even set the scene of atmosphere needed to tell the story, regardless of how high or low budget?” Funny thing is, if you have the budget to create a set that does alll of that, you might as well just pay us whatever that is, and I guarantee you we would still execute it Andre 3000% better than the manufactured set they made. 

Picture Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Music Video without the Dance Artists, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” Chris Brown’s “Run it,” Missy Elliot’s “Gossip Folks,” Britney Spears “I’m a Slave 4 You,” or N’Sync without the “Bye Bye Bye” choreography. Pop cultures most iconic events, trends, music, video content, and people would not be nearly as ICONIC without DANCE, and more specifically DANCE ARTISTS. So when we are not shown proper respect, it’s hurtful and just plain weird at this point. We are overdue for an engraved seat at the table with our names on it.” 

So how do we get there? Scott and Brian Nicholson, identical twin dance artists, creative directors and choreographers best known for their work with Ariana Grande, shared that they could envision a world where “A healthy and respectful work environment will lead all aspects of the equation to shine, thrive, be sustainable, and profitable.

Strangling one aspect will kill off another. Those in charge and in places of power hold a large key to the piece of the puzzle. [Those with more] immediate say and power can take action, although some with smaller keys collectively can open more doors. It’s top down and bottom up, at the same time.”

Taja further explained, “I think that at the very least employers who contract dance artists to promote or elevate their products/talent should consider this concept: The people who work for you and alongside of you are your most important and valuable customers. We will add more value, if you treat us like we have value.”

Full disclosures related to my work here. This post does not constitute investment, tax, or legal advice, and the author is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided herein. 

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