Here’s a little story about being careful about what you sign. About a year ago, I took a Persian dance workshop which was a lot of fun. Afterwards, a couple of us wanted to continue learning and practicing on our own with an eye to actually performing some of the group dances. A statewide organization was being formed at the time and I was soon presented with a contract and encouraged to sign on. If you’ve spent your life doing Middle Eastern dance as I have, just the sight of a several page contract spelling out dos and don’ts for members was unusual in and of itself. Most dancer organizations are very informal and, unless they turn themselves into a nonprofit corporation, never have any kind of contract documentation at all. However, nothing in the contract struck me at the time as either ominous or onerous, so I was quick to sign on.
Fast forward now to close to a year later. Persian dance practice has been delayed over and over and over again due to scheduling conflicts among the dancers. I had begun to believe that Persian dance was as doomed in our town as the Persian army was in the movie 300. Finally, a compromise time had been set and we met together for our first practice. Our first meeting was devoted to picking out the group dances we would do and, in the process, I was informed for the first time that I would need to pay a fee to the original dance teacher in order to learn this choreography since I had not been at the workshop where it was taught.
I was shocked. Horrified. Flabbergasted. Filled with righteous indignation. I had never, in all my 3o plus years as a dancer, heard of anything like this. Dancers are typically free to re-teach anything that they learn in a class or workshop. This was censorship! An infringement on the free flow of information between dancers!
I spent the weekend seething and then I received an e-mail this morning that abruptly cooled me off. Remember the contract I spoke of earlier? Right in the very first section of that contract, it mentioned that dancers with this particular organization agreed to pay a fee to learn second hand choreography. Dancers who had taken the workshop, but hadn’t signed on with the organization were free to pass on what they learned to whom they liked and credit the choreographer as is traditional amongst the Middle Eastern dance community in the U.S. But by signing this contract, I had inadvertently given up my free speech rights where the transmission of dance knowledge is concerned.
I don’t know why I didn’t catch that deal-breaking paragraph right away–maybe it was because I had never seen such a fee system in use before or maybe it was because I was too eager to sign on the dotted line. Regardless, I wasted no time in immediately sending in my resignation which was promptly accepted.
Asking artists to choose between their art and their right of free speech is a false choice. Artists need both and should never, ever let it go.