Unions 101: What You Need to Know About the Dance World's Worker Organizations

Commercial dancer Galen Hooks was a board member for SAG-AFTRA. (Joe Toreno)

Picture this: You just landed your dream role in a Broadway show. But instead of jumping right into rehearsals, you're first asked to fill out an application for something called the Actors' Equity Association (AEA).

Uh, hold up. What's AEA?

It's a union that covers dancers. Depending on your goals, you'll likely encounter either AEA or one of its sister unions—the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG–AFTRA)—at some point during your career. Each one is a group of dancers and other performers who've banded together to improve the conditions of their employment.

Union membership isn't free (dues are usually a percentage of the money the member makes each year), but it comes with solid benefits. “Unions allow for collective bargaining, and are able to enforce workplace protection," says Galen Hooks, an L.A.–based performer who's a former board member for SAG–AFTRA. “They also provide health care plans and pension contributions, and set standards for your salary or rate."

Erik Johnson, the AGMA representative for Milwaukee Ballet, notes that companies aren't necessarily trying to withhold services and protection from dancers. Unions just provide extra security. “Without a union contract, a company isn't obligated to provide certain things," he says.

The three unions are part of an umbrella union, Associated Actors and Artistes of America. They cover similar ground and respect each other's efforts. “Generally, AEA covers dancers on Broadway and in operas, while ballet companies are represented by AGMA," says Dale Daley of the performers' advocacy group The Actors Fund. Commercial dancers usually become members of SAG–AFTRA.

Each union has its own set of requirements and restrictions, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed when you have an opportunity to join. “Most dancers say, 'I know it's a good thing, but what does it mean for me?' " Johnson says. Some companies and jobs require union membership—but sometimes, choosing whether or not to join is a personal decision. Use the chart below to help decode what membership might mean for you.

Breaking it Down

Union: American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)

Eligibility: If you're hired into a company that's covered by AGMA, you'll most likely be expected to join, or “buy in." But you can also join independently by filling out a form on the union website.

Benefits: AGMA members benefit from salary guarantees, worker protection, health insurance options and retirement pensions, among other things. Being an AGMA member allows you to attend AGMA-only auditions. Membership can also act as a gateway to the other unions. Notably, AGMA members are allowed to take nonunion work.

Restrictions: AGMA members who book SAG–AFTRA or AEA jobs aren't guaranteed a union contract.

Website: musicalartists.org

Union: Actors' Equity Association (AEA)

Eligibility: Performers may apply after they've been hired for certain AEA jobs. In some situations, you can also join the union if you have prior membership in SAG–AFTRA or AGMA.

Benefits: AEA offers many of the same benefits as AGMA, along with frequent major auditions that prioritize AEA members.

Restrictions: AEA members are prohibited from taking nonunion work and must abide by AEA regulations covering everything from guest appearances to benefit performances.

Website: actorsequity.org

Union: Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG–AFTRA)

Eligibility: As with AEA, you'll usually have to get a SAG–AFTRA job to be eligible to join the union, or you can earn your eligibility through membership in a sister union.

Benefits: SAG–AFTRA provides specific protections for music video performers, including safe working conditions, guaranteed breaks and shelter from the elements. It also offers perks like industry workshops and a members-only casting directory.

Restrictions: SAG–AFTRA members are prohibited from doing nonunion work, and in the fast-paced commercial scene, that might be frustrating.

Website: sagaftra.org

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