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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Incredibly Profitable Super Bowl Halftime Show Asks Pro Dancers to Perform for Free

Dance artist and industry activist Taja Riley says the requested “African American movers” shouldn’t be working for free.

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Image: Jamie Squire/Getty Images (Getty Images)

The Super Bowl—the biggest annual spectacle of braun, billionaires, and ad revenue —hasn’t even happened yet, but controversy is already clouding the NFL’s upcoming Pepsi halftime show.

On Thursday, professional dance artist and activist Taja Riley, who has toured with Janet Jackson, performed alongside Beyonce in her 2016 Formation halftime show, and danced in Rihanna’s televised Savage x Fenty shows, posted screenshots on Instagram from dancers around the industry who were asked to “volunteer for free” as field performers for the upcoming Super Bowl halftime show. The show is set to feature Los Angeles’ iconic musical artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar.

Riley’s post includes emails allegedly sent by a Super Bowl coordinator and forwarded to professional dance artists by dance agency Bloc LA, as well as texts from a dancer in the “field cast” hoping to recruit other artists to participate in the show. That dancer wrote that a casting manager wanted “predominantly African American movers,” although the field performers would be doing “very little dance.”

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The proposed schedule for field performers included in the email shows nine days of work with a total of 72 working hours between rehearsals and day-of performance. Seven of these days include 8+ hour rehearsals, for none of which the dancers would be compensated. The email also stipulates that all rehearsals are mandatory and that participants will be expected to provide their own transportation to all rehearsals and events.

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While the field cast is separate from the main cast of dancers and the Super Bowl has typically employed volunteers from host cities for the field performance, dance artists were concerned that they had even been asked to participate in something far below their pay grade and dance ability. Exposure is never proper payment to offset the costs of participating and doing the work. As one of the richest institutions in sports, this news is a slight to dancers of all levels who just want to get paid for their craft.

Jezebel has reached out to Bloc LA and the Super Bowl coordinators for comment, and will update this post once we have received a response.

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“This is a slap in the face to anyone in the dance industry … Dance artists are athletes, and this is a sporting event, so we shouldn’t be working for free,” Riley said in a follow-up post, noting that as someone who has performed in multiple Super Bowls, the halftime show is already one of the lowest paying union gigs dancers can take. Riley implored choreographers and industry workers to “stop asking ‘African American Movers’ … to participate in an event as volunteers to exploit our community. Our Dance Community. our black community. Our cultural community.”

Notably, this is hardly the first time this has happened at the Super Bowl. Performers in The Weeknd’s halftime performance last year revealed that they were also unpaid volunteers. This ask, while unfortunately not uncommon, continues a troubling trend of highly paid institutions devaluing the people who perform alongside musical artists as props. Dancers are often perceived as lowest on the artistry totem pole, regularly having to follow-up with major choreographers and musical artists for payments, work protections, and even credits on IMDB. If they decide to speak out over the predatory nature or degrading wages of a job, they often risk the gig itself and their reputation amongst choreographers, making it even more difficult to book work in a cutthroat industry. As artists themselves, commercial dancers are integral in elevating the production and entertainment value of such widely consumed performances, but are rarely recognized for their work and dedication.

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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.” Suffice to say, this event will make a metric ton of money for the NFL owners and ad executives lounging comfortably up in their suites, while dancers and performers working their asses off to perform at a high level receive meager wages or nothing at all.