America loves football, but we may love the Super Bowl halftime show even more wholeheartedly. In 2020, for example, the Super Bowl’s football component attracted 102 million viewers, but 104 million people watched the halftime show, which that year featured J.Lo and Shakira.
The Super Bowl is the biggest TV advertising event of the year by far, and the halftime show draws excitement weeks in advance. This year’s has been no exception, with enormous buzz around anticipated performers Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Mary J. Blige.
But stars alone do not a superb halftime show make. It takes hundreds of dancers to make the event into a complicatedly choreographed, riveting, hashtagged, and widely discussed extravaganza of a performance that helps the Super Bowl reach $482 million in ad sales. (Not to mention the massive revenue from Super Bowl tickets: the NFL does not release this, but the Los Angeles Times reports that the cheapest ticket for tonight’s Rams vs. Bengals game is $5,663, and that the average ticket price is $10,540.) And this year, despite the incredible amount of money generated by both the game and the halftime show, those dancers have revealed some grotesque exploitation.
The situation mirrors that of many creative industries, where labor is extracted from talented and ambitious young people who are expected to cheerfully accept “experience” and “exposure” in lieu of fair compensation. Like all artists, the Super Bowl dancers deserve better.
This year’s show will feature 115 dancers who belong to the SAG-AFTRA union, paid and recognized as professionals. But four hundred other, less fortunate dancers are also part of the event. In late January, some of the latter group of dancers revealed on social media that they’d received a DM inviting them to “volunteer for free” at the show, and that the show was looking for “predominantly African American movers.”
An extensive rehearsal schedule was demanded of the volunteers, with eight days of practice and rehearsals running for as long as nine hours the week of the show. Dancers who had participated in past Super Bowl halftime shows said this was typical. Strict confidentiality is required of these volunteers, and no social media about the rehearsals or show is allowed, raising the question of how volunteers are supposed to benefit from this “exposure.”
Roc Nation, the production company responsible for the halftime show — as well as the head choreographer, Fatima Robinson — insisted that “professional” dancers in the halftime show would be paid, that they were only seeking volunteers for the “field cast,” and that those volunteers would not be “asked to learn choreography.”
These dissembling defenses were pure boss nonsense. Many professional dancers had received this volunteering offer. As well, the Los Angeles Times and others reported that unpaid dancers worked side by side with professionals on last year’s halftime show, and dancers said that field cast volunteers were frequently asked to perform choreography and dance moves.
Taja Riley, a professional dancer who has been part of Janet Jackson and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime shows, made an Instagram post accompanied by a video of herself singing, “I don’t work for free,” attaching a satirical clip of an artist attempting to pay for a pair of pants using “exposure” as currency. Emphasizing that the Super Bowl was the most profitable televised event of the year, Riley and other dancers then engaged in a pressure campaign that attracted extensive media coverage, including from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
The fact that the show’s choreographers were specifically seeking black dancers to work for free seemed especially outrageous to many, in a time of extensive lip service to #BlackLivesMatter in both the corporate and creative worlds. But what rankled most were the enormous profits made at the expense of dedicated, hardworking people, and the scam of working for free.
The target of the campaign was not only the Super Bowl and the production company but also the relevant union, SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), which Riley and others felt had been complicit in the volunteer dancers’ exploitation by failing to insist that everyone working on the show be compensated fairly. In response, SAG-AFTRA announced in late January that it had reached an agreement with Roc Nation that no professional dancers would be asked to work for free on the halftime show, and that the union would be advising its members not to rehearse or perform for the Super Bowl without compensation.
For Riley and many in the dance community, this wasn’t nearly good enough; they thought, rightly, that no one should be asked to work for free for such a massively profitable enterprise as the Super Bowl.
After further public outcry and continued media frenzy, Roc Nation announced this month that the four hundred “volunteers” would be paid $15 an hour for their work on the halftime show. That’s a victory, because minimum wage is better than nothing. But Riley and others think it’s still insufficient, given the massive profits involved and the labor required of the dancers. Riley remains skeptical, based on her experience, that there is much of a difference between the work of the “field cast” and that of the “professional” dancers; the Los Angeles Times reports that last year the “professional dancers” received $712 for the show, and $45 an hour for rehearsals.
The dancers understand this situation well. In all creative fields — journalism, art, museums, music — exploitation of ambitious, talented people is common, and bosses use workers’ desire for exposure and experience to extract free labor from them. Consider the continued existence of unpaid internships in such industries — literary magazines that pay writers nothing and many other “volunteer opportunities.” It’s one thing to make art that might never become profitable for the pleasure of it. But the Super Bowl halftime show, while it exploits such inspiration and desire, is one of the most profitable sporting events in the world. Its disgraceful annual exploitation of hundreds of dancers shows how cynically capitalists treat artistic work.
As well as winning $15 an hour for the field cast, Taja Riley and her fellow dancers have also struck a blow against the pernicious culture of voluntarism in the culture industry. They’re right to keep demanding a better deal.