A Super Bowl halftime show can be gaudy in the most ordinary way, bringing to mind a line from an essay by the choreographer Merce Cunningham: “The music doesn’t have to work itself to death to underline the dance, or the dance create havoc in trying to be as flashy as the music.”
At a halftime show the choreography can certainly aspire to be as flashy as the music. But the dancers are something else: Far from creating havoc, they frame the action. And in a space as vast as a football stadium, that’s paramount. They bring structure to the stage; like a corps de ballet, they complete the picture.
On Feb. 13, Super Bowl LVI’s halftime show — a group affair with Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar — will feature professional dancers, 115 in all. And, as usual, those dancers will contribute more than they are given credit for as they push their bodies to express the emotion and the force of the music.
But theirs aren’t the only bodies involved. Along with the professional dancers — the ones who get paid — there are volunteers, or field participants, who have been incorporated into the shows for years in various ways, often cheering on the musical artists and moving to the beat as enthusiastic audience members. This year, there will be around 400.
But when some professional dancers reported on social media last week that they had been approached to be volunteers, there was immediate, indelible outrage among dancers and their advocates.
Taja Riley, a dancer and activist in Los Angeles who has been a vocal supporter of dancers throughout the drama that has sprung up around the halftime show, wrote a post saying that many dancer friends had been contacted, “asking if any dance artists (with emphasis on pre-Dominantly African American Movers), would be interested to ‘volunteer for free’ as talent for the Super Bowl Halftime show.
“I’m sure I don’t have to explain but the Super Bowl is the most PROFITABLE GLOBAL SPORTING EVENT ON ANY GIVEN YEAR.”
Brandy Lamkin, of Dancers Alliance, an advocacy group, said in an interview that this isn’t the first time professional dancers have been asked to be field performers but then end up dancing. “Normally,” she said, “that’s not the case, and they do have field performers that don’t really dance or do minimal movement and those are volunteers.”
And it’s a fine line in terms of the movement they may be asked to execute. “In certain situations, you have it where, yes, it’s minimal movement,” she said. “Meaning the volunteers, for the most part, were just standing there, but they may have wanted them to, ‘On this part, everybody lift your hands up and sway side to side at the same time.’ Nothing major.”
But in other cases, she said, they are learning choreography and performing full sets of eight counts of movement.
On Tuesday evening, SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents artists working in film, television and radio, issued a statement saying that they and “the producers of the Super Bowl halftime show have met and had an open and frank discussion, and have agreed that no professional dancers will be asked to work for free as part of the halftime show. SAG-AFTRA will be advising our professional dancer members that they should not be rehearsing or working on the Super Bowl halftime show without compensation.”
So, problem solved? Not completely. The halftime show conflict isn’t just about the Super Bowl but about the ways in which dancers in any discipline are undervalued — especially commercial dancers who work with major artists. “Every gig is different,” Riley said in an interview. “There are people that do jobs for $75 a day. Or $50 a day, and they get away with it because it’s a nonunion gig. And then for union gigs, if they’re low budget, sometimes they can work on microbudget scale,” a designation reserved for performances that meet certain strict financing requirements.
“That’s where they can work down rates for dance artists,” she added.
And the way rates are calculated means that “dancers are continually underpaid in overtime,” Lamkin said, adding that it was part of a broader issue: dancers working under old contracts with bad terms.
They are also essentially anonymous. Who outside of the industry can identify a dancer in a video? And who, for that matter, can name a choreographer? This year at the Super Bowl, Fatima Robinson is doing the honors.
To perform without adequate compensation devalues dancers as artists. It suggests that dance is just a hobby, not an artistic or athletic pursuit. Riley, who has been in the profession for 15 years and danced in two Super Bowls, the ones featuring Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, sees another problem.
“There’s no differentiation of my pay scale and the dance artist newbie that just walked onto the scene, just moved to L.A. a couple months ago, and this is her first job,” she said.
For dancers, this is debilitating. “There’s nothing to work up to,” she said. “We are stuck in the mailroom.”
At the halftime show, the difference between dancers and volunteers comes down to choreography. As part of a statement issued by Roc Nation, the executive producer of the halftime show, Jana Fleishman, executive vice president of strategy and communications, said: “The professional dancers are completely separate from the volunteer-based, non-choreographed field cast. As in years past, it is completely up to the volunteer candidates to participate. Volunteers are not asked to learn choreography.”
It’s confusing. The rehearsal schedule for the volunteers, including on game day, adds up to 72 hours. That’s a lot, especially if they’re not learning choreography. But where does minimal or everyday movement end and choreography begin? If Judson Dance Theater, the experimental 1960s collective, taught us anything, it’s that pedestrian movement very much counts as choreography.
In an Instagram post, the Los Angeles dancer and actress Melany Centeno wrote, “yes Dance is work — no matter how simple (try to get 40 pedestrians to step on their right foot at the same time in time to music. GOOD LUCK).”
And if volunteers aren’t asked to learn choreography, what were they doing last year when they filed onto the field to dance to the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”?
The stadium was alive with a sea of dancing bodies performing solos that expressed the angst of a pandemic year. Watching them, spread apart and socially distanced, we were transported back to the days when the only dancing that could take place safely was the kind you did at home. But it wasn’t only that: Even getting them onto the field was a striking act of choreographic timing and precision. It was more than a corps de ballet completing the picture; they were the picture. For me, it was a thriller, a performance that was transcendent even on television.
Clearly, the volunteers were as integral as the professional dancers. Keenan Williams, a dancer and a member of 321 Hype with the Orlando Magic, performed as a volunteer in that Super Bowl, held in Tampa, Fla. He said his thinking was that it would be a way for him, a freestyle dancer, to expand his range by working with a choreographer.
In advance of the rehearsals, Williams said he received an email explaining that if he could learn a TikTok dance, he qualified. When rehearsals started, he found the situation to be different. “There were simple movements, but it’s definitely not TikTok movements,” he said. “It’s an actual production. It’s more organized. It’s more structured than in TikTok dancing.”
It was serious and painstaking. “If somebody moved their foot the wrong way,” he said, “it was, ‘run it back, run it back. Nope. Run it back from the top.’”
He said rehearsals took place over 10 days and were long — around 8 to 10 hours a session. Lunch and water were provided, Williams said; he also got to keep his costume, the red jacket, the helmet and gloves. (“Because of Covid and everything,” he said, “they were like, don’t give us back the clothes.”) While he knew what he was getting into, he said: “At least we could have gotten a stipend or something, you know? You can’t make a living off of exposure.”
But even exposure and self-promotion are challenging when it comes to the Super Bowl; the confidentiality policy is strict. “Honestly, I didn’t even tell my mom I was doing the Super Bowl until 10 minutes before I got on the field,” Williams said. “We couldn’t take videos of rehearsals and they didn’t want us posting on social media. They were watching everybody during rehearsal, even on our break time.”
Dancers may be seen as being replaceable and disposable, but what they bring to a production is invaluable. We’ve seen halftime shows that prove what musical acts look like without dancers. Lonely. Desperate. I am still scarred by Adam Levine’s performance with Maroon 5 at Super Bowl LIII. He had a drum line and a choir as well as an adoring, cheering crowd — probably all volunteers — but he saved the dance, an unfortunate striptease, for himself. Its awfulness was remarkable. He doesn’t move like Jagger. But dancers can — and more.
It’s strange that at an event that promotes physical prowess by the players on the field — and where, like dance, precision is prized — dancers are so devalued. Both players and dancers will need ice baths after the game. “My attitude toward this is, as dance artists,” Riley said, “we’re not just independent contractors, we’re not just artistic performers, but we’re athletes. We’re athletic, artistic performers. And so at an athletic sporting event, no athlete should be doing that for free.”
Will the recent outcry change anything for dancers? SAG-AFTRA took a stand. The world is paying attention. And Lamkin said she hoped it would help dancers see that “the more we accept those underpaying jobs with bad conditions, we can’t ever move forward.”
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