Why I’m Dancing for a Contract

I have danced in more than 50 music videos, with artists such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, Prince and many, many others.

Every dancer’s worst work experience, I can guarantee you, has happened on a music video. It is a crapshoot for each video we accept. The music video industry is the dance world’s lawless Wild West. That is why we have decided to stand up for ourselves.

It’s About Time music video dancers have a fair union contract. If you see me or my fellow dancers on the Grammys, we are working under a union contract. If you see us in movies, commercials, or Dancing with the Stars, for example, we have a union contract. But when you watch dancers perform in music videos, we are working without a union contract and without basic protections on the job and no hope of insurance or pension benefits.

Conditions can be appalling. Just one example. I did a video for a huge superstar back in ’92.

I showed up to the set as a dancer. The director walked me over to the producers and introduced me as the choreographer, much to my surprise. I had never even heard the song before. They told me the choreography was for a dramatic riot scene. There were fences and big barrels full of flames and pipes shooting fire all around the set. Suddenly, I had 30 minutes to try to arrange a riot scene dance with running, fighting and climbing around the fires and try to keep everyone safe so no one was burned or scarred for life.

After the riot scene, I was told to choreograph a tribal dance sequence. I had to come up with the choreography out of nowhere. The dancers had to learn the moves on concrete in a corner with no mirror or music. Sixteen hours into the shoot, they started painting our entire bodies in grease body make-up and put us in loin cloths. They took six hours in the middle of a cold night in downtown L.A. to paint us for our dance sequence and then they wrapped the video without ever having shot the dance, right as our makeup was done.

That was irritating, but the real issue was then they had no way to get the make-up off us. They had no plan — no towels, no soap, no bathrobes, nothing to get the paint off. Finally, the producers agreed to get us one motel room with a shower to share. We had nothing but the little bars of motel soap, which didn’t work on grease. We ended up having to scrape the grease paint off each other with our fingernails in our underwear in the showers. This was after being on set for 24 hours straight.

And this is just one story. I’d like to say that the experience was something completely extraordinary, but truthfully, many of us have come to expect those sorts of conditions. It wasn’t really so much of a surprise. Next time I’ll tell you the one where we were locked-in on a sound stage for the night, not allowed to leave, with bodyguards carrying guns at the doors — seriously.

On January 11 and 12, our union, AFTRA, and the major record labels, including Sony, UMG, Warner, EMI, Disney and most of their subsidiary labels, will return to the bargaining table to continue negotiations for a music video contract for dancers and other professional performers.

We want to establish standards, such as those for safe working conditions and health care, so that future dancers will be protected and respected for their work. We push our bodies to their limits and one tiny incident can be potentially career-ending, especially if we don’t have health benefits.

Today we are rallying outside of the Sony Music Building in Beverly Hills to remind the record companies that we are not a bunch of kids off the street, unorganized and apathetic. We are skilled and highly trained professionals who want to better our community. We have worked for years developing our craft. We just want to be protected in music videos by the unions we already belong to.

After 30 years of waiting, it is about time!

For more on the music video campaign, visit AFTRA Dancers and Dancers Alliance on YouTube.

This article originally appeared on The Frying Pan.