It’s an annual tradition as ingrained as throwing Gatorade on the winning coach: the moment when the Super Bowl half-time performer takes to the stage and the football field is filled with “fans” cheering them on.
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that those audience members are in fact hundreds of unpaid “volunteers” who participate in nearly two weeks of rehearsals ahead of the Super Bowl, many of whom are trained dancers recruited from the same agency that represents the paid dancers on the halftime show stage.
The arrangement is now under scrutiny after Taja Riley, a professional dancer, who called out the people behind the nation’s highest-grossing sporting event for not paying the trained dancers used in the show. She accused the NFL and Roc Nation, who are producing the half-time show, for exploiting the labor of mostly Black artists.
Riley, who has been paid to perform in two previous half-time shows, said the unpaid dancers are treated as volunteers but are required to attend nine days of nine-hour rehearsals. While she hasn’t been privy to this year’s preparations, Riley said that at the previous Super Bowls she participated in, “the schedules those volunteers were given, and what they were coaxed into … they will be doing more than just acting as ‘concertgoers’”.
This year, the call for volunteers went out to dancers represented by Bloc, the same agency that represents Fatima Robinson, who is choreographing the performance. Riley was tipped off about the recruitment of dance artists for unpaid work. She said she was surprised because Robinson is someone she admired and looked up to not just as a dance artist but one of the “African-American leaders for our community”.
“She’s done what I hope to do, of having the esteem and deepened relationship with other artistic collaborators,” Riley said.
Robinson, who has worked closely with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, including Pharrell Williams and Kendrick Lamar, has defended this year’s half-time show, saying the 115 paid dancers are the highest number of dancers to be paid to perform in a Super Bowl, and that the only thing required of the volunteers is that they be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”.
That dismissive characterization of the expectations of the volunteers is incongruous with what others have said is being demanded of them. If it were the case, then why not simply pick anyone off the street rather than recruit trained dancers? Regardless, even extras on a typical union job are paid for what truly can amount to simply “walking and chewing gum”.
“If they are just ‘concertgoers’,” Riley asked, “why would they have an excessive schedule like this? For award shows, they file in the day of and are just fine with one full day of rehearsal before the show. What would be reasonable is two days, not nine. If they are really just there to be concertgoers, they should really only have, maximum, an eight hour work-week.” This year’s show involves pyrotechnics, which Riley and another dancer, Devyck Bull, who was booked as a paid dancer for this year’s performance, said is one justification for the intense rehearsal requirements – and also a reason why people should be both trained and fairly compensated.
Bull replied to Riley’s social media post, saying he was hired to perform at a previous half-time show, he’d discovered that a large number of performers weren’t being paid, and were under the impression that no one was.
“It just didn’t sit well with me,” Bull said. Bull felt he was “less experienced about speaking up”, but when he saw Riley’s post, he felt he was able to go public. After he shared what he’d heard in comments on Riley’s Instagram, other dancers told him he was making a mistake, and was going to end up “blacklisted”.
Bull said they were right: the next day, he was told he’d been cut from the half-time show.
Bull received an email from someone at Bloc on 20 January telling him that the agency had “just received an update and unfortunately they will no longer be needing you for the half-time performance”. The agency representative told Bull he’d be notified “if anything changes”.
Bloc did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the NFL or Roc Nation, which produces the half-time show.
As freelance contractors, dance artists lack mechanisms like unions that could allow them to organize and operate in solidarity with one another in these situations, Riley said. However, when she gets a job, she tries to find someone else who is hired on it, and get a group chat going to coordinate who has what supplies, what everyone is bringing, and other logistical necessities. That kind of communication could allow everyone to get on the same page. And if the paid dancers were willing to stand together, it could make a difference for the larger number of unpaid dancerssome of whom have 10 years of professional dance experience.
Roc Nation and Sag Aftra have suggested since Riley spoke out that some sort of “agreement” was reached between the production company and the union, with Sag Aftra praising the payment of 100 dancers and saying they’re advising their members not to accept the volunteer positions. But it’s not clear that anything has actually changed since Riley first brought attention to the issue: there are still only 100 people getting paid, and 400 expected to pay to give up nearly two weeks of their time.
“This is not just for the Super Bowl, this is for every industry gig,” Riley said. “These are really hard questions that there’s maybe no right or wrong answer to, but there may be an ethical and unethical answer.”