What Do Dancers Really Want? Knight's Gift to the North Carolina Dance Theatre Has an Answer.

The Knight Foundation recently awarded $1.1 million to the North Carolina Dance Theatre to help them acquire new work and expand their program offerings. But the real story here is in the details. A small percentage of the gift addresses perhaps the most fundamental challenge facing nonprofit dance troupes and their dancers.

With regard to the gift, Dennis Scholl, the foundation's vice president of arts said, "We try not to be prescriptive when we fund." And a closer analysis of the gift reveals he's more or less sincere. Most of the gift will help the theatre expand their repertoire, provide innovative programming, and develop new audiences. Specifically, the funding will create an endowment to let the theatre acquire prominent contemporary pieces or acknowledged masterworks for its five-production season.

But what's most interesting (to us, at least) about the announcement is where a mere fraction of the $1.1 million is going. The foundation is allocating $100,000 — about nine percent of the total grant — in support of its Sustaining Star fund, enabling the company to increase the number of weeks that dancers are employed and ensure that it remains competitive in attracting and retaining top dancers.

This funding goes to the heart of what ails many nonprofit dance troupes: artist retention. After all, it goes without saying that being a dancer, particularly in this economy, is difficult. Pay and job security haven't improved as the economy recovered from recession. In fact, in what likely comes as no surprise to anyone in the field, dancers earn less, work less, and face higher unemployment levels when compared to other professionals with comparable education levels. And it's just not about money; the Sustaining Star fund provides dancers with the guarantee of more work.

What's more, the theatre did their homework prior to creating the fund. Doug Singleton, the theatre's executive director, compared the salaries and workloads of their dancers with peers from around the country. They found that the theatre dancers' salaries were average, but that dancers didn't work as many weeks as their peers. The average work week for peer dancers was 24 to 36 hours — theatre dancers were paid for only 28 hours.

As a result, Knight decided to allocate some of their grant dollars to the Sustaining Star fund to provide dancers with something rare in the nonprofit performance art world — something almost resembling peace of mind.