Tips & Advice

Unions for dancers explained: What dance artists should know

A group of people holding hands together. Photo by Freepik.
A group of people holding hands together. Photo by Freepik.

Unions are having a moment, as they say, in the United States. In the arts, that union activity includes the SAG-AFTRA and (recently resolved) WGA strikes. There are many different unions that serve dance artists. Each covers different corners of the dance sector, and each has slightly different rules and regulations. There are many different long names and acronyms. It’s easy to get confused and have many questions: do I join, do I have to join, which union do I join, and what can I expect? 

First things first: why join a union, you may ask? Unions help keep everyone involved (both performers and their employers) clear on performers’ rights — in payment and in benefits such as healthcare, working conditions and beyond. They allow for “collective bargaining”, a fancy word for workers (yes, artists) coming together to negotiate for their rights

If artists together decide to ask for more, they can – and strike, if it comes to that. Additionally, unions are only as impactful as how much members speak up when they’re encountering contract violations; enforcement matters. Dancers know it intuitively: we’re stronger together. 

Should I join? Union perks and drawbacks 

It’s also important to acknowledge tradeoffs that come with union membership. There are application fees and regular dues. Some unions also prohibit taking non-union work. Striking can come with periods of being barred from working (to note: efforts to help artists through those periods do often emerge). 

For those tradeoffs, one receives valuable protections – such as standards in pay and working conditions, as well as conflict resolution and other legal protections. Union membership also comes with various perks, depending on the union: exclusive auditions, healthcare coverage and discounts on essential services, for example. 

Let’s look at the specifics of each U.S.-based union that represents dancers. 

American Guild of Musical Artists: AGMA (

Is it for me? 

AGMA members are “singers, dancers and staging staff in opera, concert dance and concert choral performance.” If you’re in a concert dance company or dance in operas, this is your union! 

Above and beyond collective bargaining, do I get any special perks? 

AGMA membership comes with a variety of benefits in finance, auto and healthcare. In order to support fellow members experiencing financial difficulty, members can contribute to the AGMA Relief Fund. Should members experience financial hardship, those funds are there to help. 

How and when do I join? 

One can apply to join AGMA when working under an AGMA contract. That comes with which company or project you’re working for. 

As a member, can I do non-union work? 

AGMA permits its members to work under non-union contracts “within its jurisdiction” (in other words, the sub-sector of the arts and entertainment sector that it covers). 

Actors’ Equity Association: AEA (

Is it for me? 

Actors’ Equity represents all stage actors and performers – so if you’re dancing in a musical or other theatrical production/project, this union can represent you. 

How and when do I join? 

Under Equity Open Access, any performer or stage manager who has been paid to work on a production in the United States can apply to join AEA. 

Are there any special perks?

AEA classifies its benefits as contract benefits (such as minimum pay and working condition standards, as well as health insurance and conflict mediation) and membership benefits (including member discounts, seminars and special events, and tax assistance). 

As a member, can I do non-union work?

AEA members are not permitted to work under non-Equity contracts or for non-Equity theaters. 

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

Is it for me? 

SAG-AFTRA represents performers “in film and digital motion pictures, television programs, commercials, video games, corporate/educational and non-broadcast productions, new media, television and radio news outlets, as well as major label recording artists.” If you’re dancing in film, television or music videos, or doing motion capture for a video game, this union is for you! 

Are there any special perks? 

SAG-AFTRA members who earn at or above a minimum salary on “SAG-AFTRA covered employment” are entitled to the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan. Other perks include pension plans and an exclusive casting database. 

How and when do I join? 

Prospective members must meet specific eligibility requirements: “proof of SAG-AFTRA, SAG or AFTRA covered employment as a principal performer…; proof of three days of SAG-AFTRA, SAG or AFTRA employment as a background actor; or employment under an affiliated performers’ union.” It’s more about the projects you’re working on than simply deciding to join. 

As a member, can I do non-union work?

Working under a non-union contract as a member can lead to fines and even expulsion from the union. One can work on a non-union project, however, if the producer agrees to them working under a union contract (making the producer a “signatory” – and, interestingly, that’s actually something that the union encourages). 

American Guild of Variety Artists: AGVA (

Is it for me? 

AGVA members include dancers who dance in theme parks, non-book touring shows (in other words, musicals without dialogue), cabarets/clubs, and for “private parties and special events.” Dancers who work as acrobats in circuses also fall under AGVA’s jurisdiction. 

Are there any special member perks?

AGVA member “perks” include health insurance, the AGVA Sick and Relief Fund (for members who experience financial hardship), and exclusive auditions. 

How and when do I join? 

AGVA membership comes with signing an AGVA contract (for an AGVA venue or project). Performers may also apply to join as an Independent Variety Artist or as an artist who self-produces “shows and appearances.” 

As a member, can I do non-union work?

This information is a bit hard to find – but one source affirms that in most cases, yes. “AGVA serves to support its members’ careers and economic livelihoods” – so it does not want to impede members from obtaining gainful employment or building their careers, in any corner of the entertainment industry. 

Works referenced:

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

Unions for Dancers 

Should Freelance Dancers Have a Union?

Can SAG-AFTRA Members Work Non-Union Jobs?

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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