On Sunday, America will collectively zone out on a high-octane four-hour rumpus with our hands stuffed into a bowl of nacho cheese Doritos. Each year, the NFL’s players, coaches, team owners, league employees, and halftime artists are all compensated handsomely for their contributions in making the Super Bowl the must-see, cultural sporting and entertainment event of the year, responsible for gluing our sedentary asses to the couch for an entire day. Meanwhile, halftime organizers have bestowed upon some 400 professional dancers just $15 an hour (the minimum wage in California)… and a muddled deal memorandum.
The fact that the Super Bowl is now paying the dancers at all is a positive development, considering that the performers had until now been asking them to perform for free — but for their hard-earned contributions to the “greatest show on earth,” dancers are still getting table scraps. As dance artist and activist Taja Riley expressed in an interview with Jezebel on Sunday: “This is a prime example of how we’re taken advantage of.”
In January, Riley, who has toured with Janet Jackson, performed alongside Beyonce in her 2016 Formation Super Bowl halftime show, and danced in Rihanna’s televised Savage x Fenty shows throughout her 16 years in the industry, 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. Produced in partnership with Roc Nation and dance agency Bloc LA, the show is set to feature Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar, along with 115 paid professional dancers. The unpaid “field cast,” on the other hand, would walk away with a sort of gift, instead: a once-in-a-lifetime experience and nationwide exposure. No cash.
In response to dancers’ cries of protest, on Tuesday evening, SAG-AFTRA—the union that covers and protects performers—issued a statement to The Los Angeles Times: “SAG-AFTRA 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.”
While on the outside, it appeared as if the NFL’s latest scandal (of which there are too many to count!!!) had been resolved with a nice, rosy paycheck, Riley told Jezebel, “It’s not resolved at all.”
Riley provided us with a photo of the field cast’s new deal memo, provided to her by a union-eligible professional dancer, who is represented by a dance agent and is working the halftime show as one of the 400 lesser-paid dancers. The cloudy terms of the memo demonstrate how the dance industry and the entertainment industry at large often collaborate to enforce a belittling pecking order, putting dancers in precarious positions at gig after gig.
For starters, Riley said Roc Nation made the field cast line up and sign the memo on the spot on Saturday without a SAG-AFTRA representative present—a predatory tactic that does not allow dancers time to review the terms of the contract with their agents, counsel, or fellow industry workers. Riley says SAG is not only supposed to approve all union contracts before they are distributed to performers, but that union reps should have been present in case performers had any questions, especially given that Roc Nation had just agreed to cooperate with the union.
“We are in a system of misinformation, and that’s the reason why we’re stuck in this generational curse, because we are bullied or coerced into signing things, before actually reading or reviewing and going over it,” Riley said. “The fact that 300 People went along like sheep lined up behind somebody else that was lined up behind somebody else to sign this, just because everyone else was signing it…that says it all right there.”
Then, there’s the issue of the “classification” field: The memo refers to the dancers as “field cast participant.” But Riley says, by SAG-AFTRA’s own strict standards, dancers can only be classified as “performer” or “extra,” each of which have a minimum pay rate mandated to protect the dancers from unsatisfactory wages. Extras, according to Riley, should be getting at least $20 per hour. This cast of dancers, however, are classified as neither, meaning there’s wiggle room in both the amount they’re paid and the number of hours they can work.
The scope of work listed on the contract uses verbiage like, “participate in all rehearsals,” “learn safe movement…in an active environment with many moving parts, “listen to group leaders and field cast staff direction,” and “provide other performance related assistance per direction from our Field Cast Team.” But Riley says the definition of the “Field Cast Team,” which is conveniently left out of the contract, matters: If the group leaders are performers, and the performers are working under the direction of the choreographer, then the field cast might technically be working under the choreographer’s direction, too. “If you do any choreography at all, if you are taught any language at all directly from the choreographer, then you have to be titled a performer,” said Riley. “There’s no way around that.”
The memo also does not list a start date, instead listing a tentative schedule of seven working days without hours listed. That means that the dancers will need to be on call and available all day for each day listed on the sheet, which prevents them from taking on other jobs. When dancers are expected to be available for an entire day, Riley says they are typically paid a day rate, which, for performers, is $45 an hour.
“This was an opportunity for SAG-AFTRA to step up,” said Riley. “Had they not dropped the ball again, 400 performers wouldn’t have improperly signed a contract under duress.”
Jezebel has reached out to Roc Nation, Bloc, and SAG-AFTRA for comment. According to Riley, SAG-AFTRA is also currently investigating claims that more than half of the field cast for The Weeknd’s 2021 Super Bowl halftime performance were unpaid volunteers, who performed similar choreography to the paid cast.
Sadly, dancers in all corners of the entertainment industry know how this story goes. Dancers are often considered a required element in producing a field-wide spectacle. Their presence increases the staying power of any performance, elevating, for example, just another Beyoncé concert to the historical and cultural exhibition that was Coachella’s Homecoming. Still, when it comes to their own recognition, dancers often don’t receive credit from a mainstream audience—remembered as just one nameless body in a sea of matching performers. The moment they set foot on that freshly painted field, however, they are the show, and for every unpaid or underpaid performer, there are thousands more on smaller stages across the country.
“This sets the precedent, regardless of the outcome,” said Riley. “If it’s bad, it sets a precedent that it’s okay for a small production to get away with this, as long as they know the loopholes and are great affiliates to SAG-AFTRA. If there’s a good outcome, then dance artists should be able to put more pressure on agencies and choreography teams to just start doing the right thing.”
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, halftime show choreographer Fatima Robinson said that she is represented by Bloc and that’s why the volunteer call was distributed by the agency. Robinson also noted that she began her career dancing for free before becoming an extra in the 1991 film “Boyz n the Hood.”
Today’s work environment, however, is vastly different from the substandard conditions dancers were subjected to thirty years ago. Dancers—and workers everywhere—are no longer accepting the bare minimum from their employers. They know that a dance career is so often a precarious one, banked on the unwavering hope that they’ll continue to book consistent gigs and that their bodies won’t give out on them in the process. They are also well aware that their time was never as important nor as valuable as the singers and players who walked the very same ground—a fact that is no longer acceptable.
The fire currently raging amongst the industry dance community isn’t the only one. With national media coverage alerting a wider audience to the disparities amongst performers on the most recognizable field in the world, the general public is beginning to understand the plight many dancers face: toiling in obscurity for years only to be given an opportunity to work for free, while that work, which requires decades of experience and performance etiquette, can be physically grueling and artistically challenging. For Riley, that sort of awareness has the potential to change everything. But it’s not up to fans alone.
“This situation has brought dance to the mainstream, but now we have to continue that momentum,” she said. “Even as problems get solved, this raises another question: Why didn’t the rest of the entertainment culture take us seriously? Why don’t award shows take us seriously enough to give us our own category? Why don’t late night TV talk shows feature us?”
This horrifying debacle, then, was never really about the NFL (though the league is surely complicit in the devaluation of anyone other than themselves). It’s about artists, who have long suffered to make liveable wages while devoting their bodies to their craft, as well as the entertainment industry at large, which has failed to honor and protect them. Riley told us that she’s pissed. Honestly, we all should be.