Stepping into the annual Dance/NYC Symposium last Sunday was an adrenaline rush for dance educators. With a record number of 500 attendees, we were all embracing old friends and respected colleagues. Sprawling out over six studios at the Gibney Dance space on Chambers Street, the all-day affair covered topics from technology to fundraising to diversity initiatives. The glamour event of the day was a simulcast talk between Misty Copeland and Virginia Johnson; the film event was the showing of the Emmy-nominated documentary PS Dance!
I attended two back-to-back events that I would call serious fun. The serious part was the panel on diversity and inclusion in dance education, and the fun part was Camille A. Brown’s exhilarating master class titled “Journey through Juba and other social dances.” (See this wonderful “Choreography in Focus” with Camille.)
The first was moderated by Camille, who asked the panelists to spread themselves around the room rather than up on a pedestal (as it were). They were Theresa Ruth Howard, Joan Finkelstein, Maria Bauman, Ananya Chatterjea, and Zazel-Chavah O’Garra. Also in the room were dance educators Charmaine Warren, Ron Alexander, Davalois Fearon and many more. The tone ranged from strident to uplifting, but the comments were always stimulating. Some memorable moments:
Theresa Ruth Howard: “The small dance studios are feeders to the big companies, but they are not part of the conversation. They are doing the work of diversity, but the big studios get the funding.”
Joan Finkelstein: “From my experience, the dance community is the most diverse of all the arts in NYC.”
Ananya Chatterjea: “There is no support to bridge the gap between studios and the university. The university system collects students of color. The women of color are the bodies of excess.”
Davalois Fearon: “A photo of me was posted on the University of Milwaukee’s website even before I got there. But the training was all about pointed feet and erect spines. It was European-based and everything else was Other. So I said, ‘If you’re gonna put me on your website, you can’t ignore my perspective.’ Then they started to listen.”
A disabled dancer: “The groups working to find their place in the diversity agenda are sometimes pitted against each other. We’re the new kids on the block. Dance pedagogy, casting directors etc have the opportunity to enrich the conversation but we’re seen as a problem. We need to talk openly about these ideas.”
A public school teacher: “I don’t need my students to perform at the Joyce. I want them to become responsible, caring citizens.”
Maria Bauman: “We need to undo racism through community organizing, not because dance world is flawed but because we are a microcosm of the community.”
Theresa Ruth Howard: “College should teach the complete dance history. Stop segregating the information.”
Maria Bauman: “I am not always an advocate of diversity. Disabled dancers can get together, black dancers can get together, feeling affirmed and getting together at the same time. Sometimes I just want to dance with my folks.”
This was a rich discussion with everyone listening to each other and no one shouting down anyone else.
Nevertheless, after hearing these points of view, it was a sweet release to follow the charismatic Camille Brown in a series of shoulder moves, knee-knocking, and clapping with your whole body pitched forward. (For my body, the forward-tipping stance is more comfortable than the held-up spine of ballet.) The drummer kept the momentum up so our energy never flagged. With a positive and encouraging demeanor, Camille showed us basic structures that we could riff off of in our own ways. Her shoulders and hips kept in constant motions while she talked gently about how slave dances evolved. “Find the freedom in oppression.”