Diversity and inclusion in dance is a hot topic that has reached critical mass, bubbling over from the insular dance world into mainstream media.
Articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines point to America’s predominantly lily-white ballet companies and ask, “Where are all the Black swans?” Ballet’s lack of diversity and inclusion is also the subject of websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook posts. Then, last year, Misty Copeland became the first African-American principal ballerina in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theater. Not too long after that, ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and NYCB’s School of American Ballet launched “diversity initiatives.” Sure, over the years others have scaled ballet’s racial and ethnic barriers, but too often their achievements, no matter how monumental, failed to spark major institutional change. Now, it looks like, in the words of Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.’”
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance held an historic audition to open doors for talented young ballerinas of color to America’s premier ballet schools and companies. Only 50 or so were expected to attend the event held in Denver at IABD’s annual convention. Over 100 showed up. Some came from as far away as Japan. Also, over 15 ballet companies and schools, including New York City Ballet, Joffrey, Memphis Ballet, Washington Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, sent either artistic directors or other recruiters.
After an all-day audition conducted by Delores Browne, a teacher and former ballerina with the New York Negro Ballet Company, one of the historic ballet companies from the 1950s and Dance Theater of Harlem’s Robert Garland, with predominantly highly-trained participants. Several were offered scholarships and some reportedly received offers to join second companies. The familiar we-can’t-find-any excuses were replaced by folks actually putting their money where their mouth is.
Most recently, evidence that diversity and inclusion in America’s cultural institutions is truly a trending topic could be found on Feb. 28 at Dance/NYC’s 2016 Symposium in lower Manhattan. Over 300 dancers, choreographers and artistic directors joined funders, government officials, educators and dance writers at an all-day conference devoted to the subject.
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker opened things up and set the tone in a one-on-one with Dance/NYC President Lane Harwell. Telling an overflow crowd how as an African-American youngster in Austin, Texas, he saw performances by Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that transformed his life, Walker urged “young people to take risks as Mitchell did in the 1970s when he founded DTH.”
Walker pointed to the continued “lack of diversity and inclusion” in America’s traditional and prominent dance companies, singling out New York City Ballet, saying that even though he admired its founder, George Balanchine, he still “didn’t understand NYCB’s layer of deeply held bias against women of color. Which is why I love DTH so much because it was, in fact, a disruptive cultural intervention. So I’ve been on a journey to push against that institution’s bias.” Adding that then “a little thing happened along the journey and it’s called Misty Copeland.”
“Copeland is both an exquisite ballerina and a beautiful Black woman,“ Walker said, explaining that when NYCB saw the impact her presence had on ABT’s ticket sales, they apparently finally realized, “Wow! There is something going on here.” Yet, Walker quickly pointed out, diversity and inclusion is about more than increased box office numbers. “Culture is intrinsic to who we are. One of the things foundations can do is name or frame issues for public discourse, and what I want the Ford Foundation to do is to move things that are often at the margins to the center.” The Walker-Harwell conversation set the table for the symposium panel discussions that followed, particularly the keynote tete-a-tete between ABT principal Misty Copeland and DTH Artistic Director and former principal ballerina Virginia Johnson.
Highlights of the symposium included a discussion of a New York City Department of Cultural Affairs’ Diversity Initiative survey involving hundreds of New York cultural organizations. Acting Commissioner Edwin Torres and Deputy Commissioner Kristin Sakoda led an analysis of trends, successes and deficiencies while suggesting strategies for cultivating diverse cultural leaders for the future. A panel explored ways to ensure public school students have access to dance education. Folks looked at the need to track trends in the city’s creative sector and, on the economic side, the importance of affordable real estate, adequate government funding and support for economic and community development.
“Funding organizations should have equity as a value that shows up in their work,” insisted one funder on a panel tackling “Philanthropic Approaches to Advancing Racial Equity.” Another stressed the need for real data on the impact diversity initiatives have on both organizations of color and others.
A panel titled “National Voices: Embodying Equity and Inclusion at Dance/USA” allowed the symposium’s main organizer to take a good look in the mirror with the help of Denise Saunders Thompson, chair and executive director of the International Association of Blacks in Dance and others, while choreographer Camille A. Brown facilitated a discussion around issues of diversity and inclusion in dance education.
All in all, as Dance/NYC explored problems of diversity and inclusion, the intersection of art and social justice was clearly a place where dancers of color have lived for a longtime and now their cause seemed to be getting the attention of others. Whether theirs would be voices crying out in the wilderness or harbingers of real change remains to be seen after all, as Walker said, “Institutions that are privileged don’t really want to change.” That sounded a lot like the old adage that power concedes nothing without struggle.