Lately, everyone tells me “words matter,” regardless of the subject. A writer might argue language has always mattered, but the point well taken and agreed upon underscores the perilous word choices involved in current discussions of fractious topics such as bringing equity to the arts and, specifically, to Black artists working in the field of dance. What are the immediate steps and what will be the first real, visible indication that balance is improving?
Concise answers and reactions to these questions come from recent conversations with San Francisco choreographer Robert Moses and separately, with Denise Saunders Thompson, president and CEO of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD).
How to increase equity? “Ask different questions,” is the reply from Moses. Or preferably, don’t ask the same tiresome questions.
“The notion of change is sophomoric,” Moses says. “The idea is to give people honest opportunity to be part of whatever they’re intending to be a part of. The questions get tiresome because they come from the same place. It’s not interesting if it doesn’t have anything to do with what needs to happen.”
Moses poses a question of his own: “Should we have more representation? No, we should have more influence. More actual ability to exercise that influence and power. All those things will be happening for the better of everyone,” he says, heavily emphasizing the “everyone” in his declaration. “It has to be in as many hands as possible. Part of the conversation that seems to be important is a shift in focus. I’m not concerned with the way the questions are formatted. It’s not about you or me, or about bias or Afro-pessimism or any other system. It’s about talk that’s useful. An organization that powers those things is what I care about. The conversations then can take place that move us all. We’re not spinning our wheels and using portions of a cultural experience to affix something to the moment. This conversation should have veins deep enough and rich enough to feed everybody. In a lot of ways, it’s still surface stuff. That’s why IABD is important; because they’re making their voices in education, society, and the arts get out into the open.”
IABD’s Thompson, whose organization — founded in 1991 and based in Silver Spring, Maryland — is recognized as a preeminent dance service organization and institutional voice for the Black dance sector, says immediate change is desired, but frankly, not possible. “People are complex. The desire for immediate change requires people to make immediate decisions. I feel and I see within the field that it is difficult: There is money, power, and policy that limit our ability within the field. If we make the decision to abandon and risk, to not follow policies and procedures, to step into an unknown zone, then change can happen quicker.”
One sign that a shift has occurred will be obvious, she suggests. “I was on a Zoom call today, and the question was asked if we, as leaders in the field, felt constantly called upon to serve on boards and director positions. The people on the call who were white said they were always, constantly asked. Some of the people on the call noticed that I was laughing and asked why. ‘Look at this Zoom room,’ I said, ‘I’m the only Black person on this call.’ I said it was the first time I was asked to be on an advisory committee. People were surprised, but yeah, we’re all swimming in the ocean toward land and we’re looking around for the first time.”
The field Thompson describes as “siloed” has another large obstacle limiting its flexibility. “We say it’s ballet or modern dance or flamenco or other categories, but can’t we just say it’s all dance? We get stuck because we identify and lump the different sectors into compartments.”
Despite the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, IABD is not waiting. The 30th Anniversary, 33rd Annual IABD Conference and festival originally planned for a weekend in mid-January 2021 instead has spread into an entire year of virtual events. Following the kickoff events in January, each month features activities including discussions and keynote presentations, workshops and seminars, performances, master classes, film premieres, new videos, and works drawn from the Black dance canon.
Annual auditions will be held online in March; in 2020, the IABD granted over $500,000 in scholarships and welcomed the participation of more than 30 companies. As has been true during the organization’s three-decade history, Thompson says “everyday” activities continued to be robust: promoting dance by people of African ancestry or origin, supporting a broad network of Black-led professional companies and individual Black artists, publishing newsletters and a choreographers’ directory, raising visibility for artists of color through educational programing and advocacy, and more.
Moses is an IABD member and first participated in the 2002 annual conference. In subsequent years, the Robert Moses Kin dance company has performed at the conference and the choreographer has participated in retreats resulting in partnerships and friendships. “The conference is the only kind of that size where we fall into the conversations we want to have with our peers. They’re exactly what you get from that diverse body of people. It’s not all about dance, it’s about community service, aesthetics, business, and finance when you’re undercapitalized. It’s about all segments of the arts community and how they stay healthy and well.”
With the pandemic leaving him unable to attend the conference in person to present new work, Moses has been doing what other choreographers have done: “You get your feet under you.” After the initial shock, the desire to connect with people who are moved by his work led to compromise: creating works screened online. Virtual work presentations are distant, colder, and lack the malleability of performers responding to live audiences, he says. Even so, Moses has picked up new skills and reaffirmed tried-and-true creative processes: investing in editing and music software and choreographing as usual, but in socially-distanced outdoor settings.
The short videos are released monthly. “They’re smaller, not 40-minute things, so the scale switches,” he says. “Originally, I thought we’d be back in theaters after two weeks, then it was summer, then January, now June or July. This may be the hardest but best ways for an organization like IABD to move into the future. Maybe there’s opportunity to get into something new and more solid.”
Thompson says about Covid’s impact on the dance industry, “We’re all leveled, even the big companies, along with the smaller arts organizations.” The IABD entered the pandemic coming off a high point: the annual conference in January 2020 in Philadelphia celebrated founder Joan Myers Brown’s 50th anniversary and had record attendance with over 1,000 preregistrants and hundreds of people who attended classes and conferences. (The inaugural conference, with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, launched in Philadelphia in 1988.)
During the past 11 months, Thompson says, “What’s sustaining us is our community. Even though Black and Brown communities are hit the hardest by the pandemic, they have continued to step up and support our work. We’ve taken a hit in revenue, but it has not flatlined for IABD. It’s encouraging to know how much people want our organization to survive.”
She and the staff have been somewhat surprised to discover how important IABD is to artists. “We have kept them aware of where to get funding to keep their families alive. We are important to our community in ways I never imagined. That makes me feel humble and committed.”
The online support and virtual events will continue, but every initiative is undergoing scrutiny to discern what is sustainable. “We’re looking at being a hybrid of live and virtual. Connecting virtually expands our community beyond the physical, in-person possibilities. We’ve had people [attend or present work] from Norway, Australia, Asia: Technology has broken through the fourth wall.”
About the larger issues facing the field, Thompson says IABD is still reacting, trying to figure out if increased focus and recent dialogue about the challenges related to equity for people of color have resulted in discernible change. “We’re still within the moment. We can see slow movement in ballet in policies, but if we look at booking, touring, fundraising, there are still large differences between IABD companies and these large dance companies. I don’t understand yet where presenters are on who they’re programming. It’s a little disheartening. That’s the system change that will get us there, but we’re not all in that same space right now.”
She says people trying to get back to “normal” face harsh realities. The new “normal” hit the Mayfair Performing Company in Chicago, a studio in operation for more than 60 years that is now reportedly “closed indefinitely.” According to Thompson, Mayfair saw attendance drop from over 400 students to just 33 students during recent months. Additionally, Johnson says American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland is put into the position of spokesperson for thousands of underrepresented Black ballet dancers because her voice has the rare resources of a large, powerful company to raise visibility. “If you compare that to an ethnic dance company that’s been in Georgia for 30 years or a collage dance collective that’s been around for 10 years, they have Black dancers with the same experiences as Misty, but they don’t have the same platform.”
It is imperative that journalists and people with questions listen more, speak less, and learn more about present-day concerns of dance practitioners and audiences. Above all else, fear or preemptive judgements must not stop people at work in the dance world from taking bold, possibly discomforting future actions.
Thompson chooses her words about the future with care and realism. “Even corporations are putting themselves on pause and readjusting how they work with different communities. This time of extreme pause and reflection has pulled our eyelids back. We have a clear envisioning of the changes that need to happen across the board, in all industries.”
Far from hibernating, smaller dance companies and streamlined organizations with strong member support like IABD have learned to operate during hard times. Despite economic disadvantages, they are “more nimble and able to weather the storm,” inspiring confidence about IABD’s role.
Moses is emphatic about the future. “Young artists don’t need me to make something wonderful happen. There is innovation that comes from what’s been and then there’s that absolute break that comes from something completely new. The past? Something that’s inspired by African art and shifts into a Western framework. The break? I don’t know what that is. It depends on a 15-year-old art maker who’s tired of conversation and uses his or her desire and does something having to do with movement forwards.”