Small Strokes of Listening: A Few Reflections on Diversity from the Dance/USA 2012 Annual Conference

Editors note: A version of this essay originally appeared on Dance Exchanges blog and is revised and reprinted with permission of the author. You are encouraged to continue this discussion in the comments section below.

By Ellen Chenoweth

While attending Dance/USA’s 2012 conference in San Francisco last month, I saw Joe Goode’s When We Fall Apart at Z Space. Early in the work, Goode explains that he’s writing, but the letters aren’t missives, but actually “small strokes of listening.” There were a couple of incidents at the conference that highlighted the importance of listening, for me. How can we dance and listen at the same time? Are we really listening to each other? Whose voices are being ignored and whose are being amplified?

The first incident came early in conference activities, on Thursday night at Keith Hennessy’s performance of Turbulence at CounterPULSE. While the performance was going on, an audience member, Marcel Williams Foster, spoke with one of the performers, Julie Phelps, about what she thought about the work and how much freedom she felt she had in the process of creation. Phelps and Foster decided that Hennessy would be open to having their discussion extend into the general performance space. As I remember it, at a brief exchange at a microphone Phelps stated that she felt she had some degree of influence and autonomy in the creative process, but maybe not as much as she would have liked or expected.

Foster asked once, “Did people in the audience hear that?” From the back row I nodded vigorously and hooted, but couldn’t see — or hear — anyone else responding. Foster asked again, “Did everyone hear that?” Again I verbalized my witnessing/hearing, but again, couldn’t tell if anyone else had. I’m not blaming anyone in the audience, there were a lot of elements competing for attention on the stage, but it did make me wonder: What are we missing? How do we effectively call attention to the issues we think are important? How do we have a meaningful conversation even when circumstances are difficult?

The second incident that highlighted the importance of listening came at the closing plenary of the official conference activities. Entitled “20/20 Vision: A Community Forum,” and moderated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, director of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, seven artists were selected to share their work in a slideshow presentation. Following the presentation, the artists were brought back on stage for about 5-10 minutes to have a quick Q&A before the conference closed for the year. Questions about diversity and race and Dance/USA’s role in the field were raised, with numerous voices frustrated that such a crucial discussion wasn’t given a real place at the table.

The atmosphere in the theater had been a little sleepy, with over-saturated conference attendees nodding off at the end of a long few days and performance-filled nights, but now the air was crackling. Bamuthi Joseph and Dance/USA Executive Director Amy Fitterer both responded to the audience and tried to provide some closing thoughts, but to my surprise one final performance was still scheduled to go on — the traditional Tahitian dance company Te Mana O Te Ra, which gave a spirited performance. But the unfortunate effect was the discussion had been silenced by a dance. The irony was heightened even further as the house lights came on and the ushers begged us all to leave to the strains of the 1980s hit “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. At the moment it seemed like a blithe anthem to dance, no troublesome issues here. It was clear that everyone in the room wanted more space and time for the discussion, but the theater had another event booked in the space in a few minutes, and the conference had already gone into overtime.

And so I was left wondering again: How and when do we listen to each other as a dance field? How can we create spaces that make room both for dancing and for discussing? Bamuthi asked what questions we would be taking home with us, which ones we would be taking back into our communities and translating. Here are some that I’m still sitting with, and riding the bus with, and taking with me as I fall asleep.

  • How can we be both lovely and real? (Thanks to Kevin Iega Jeff from Deeply Rooted Dance Theater for his comments that led to this question.)
  • What will our field look like 50 years from now and how are we building towards that picture?
  • What are the questions we’re not asking?

Borrowing a couple from Liz Lerman’s hallmark Dance Exchange Four Questions:

  • Who gets to dance?
  • Why does it matter?

Are we looking at the forest or the trees in our national conversations? Are we looking at the world wide web or getting lost in the pixels?

  • Borrowing from conference keynote speaker Simon Sinek, everyone wants to feel like they belong. How do we create this feeling of belonging for as many folks as possible? (in our audiences, in our performances, in our field)? And are we really seriously committed to doing so?
  • Are we serving cultural institutions or artists and art?
  • How can we train ourselves and each other to be more effective story-tellers, connectors, communicators?
  • How can we move forward and get smarter together?
  • What are the best forums for having the meaty discussions around charged topics like race or gender?
  • How can we best take advantage of this rare and precious time when so many of us gathered in one physical spot?
  • How can we effectively highlight work in a format that is not a showcase?
  • What does it mean to be an explicitly national service organization in an increasingly globalized world?
  • What are our shared values?
  • What is making this community of movers move?
  • How do we ensure that important conversations don’t get marginalized?

I’m sending this post out into the world, intending it to be composed of “small strokes of listening” and I hope that we can continue the dialogue, both in virtual and physical spaces. During various conference presentations, consultant and writer Jennifer Edwards helped me think of virtual spaces as if they were studios, or dance-making spaces. My hope for our field is that we can create virtual spaces for conversation that are as beautiful as the physical spaces we hope to dance in, with enough room for everyone to move, and some curious onlookers as well. And then I hope we can create spaces in our physical world to wrestle with these discussions and questions as well. Here at Dance Exchange, we have a studio that’s 45′ ×47′, and we’d be happy to host such a forum or in-person exploration.

Ellen Chenoweth started working with the Dance Exchange in 2009 and was involved in the leadership transition that took place in 2011 as founder Liz Lerman passed on the reins of the organization to the new Artistic Director Cassie Meador. Ellen is currently managing director of the Dance Exchange. She started her career in arts management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and also worked at the American Dance Festival. She has been a speaker at national conferences such as Americans for the Arts and Dance/USA. She graduated with honors from Rice University and holds an MA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. In the D.C. area, Ellen worked with Dance/MetroDC’s Forward Five program for emerging choreographers and co-organizes a crowd-sourced arts funding initiative called Kitchen of Innovation. She also serves on the Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Commission. At the Dance Exchange, Ellen oversees the curation of a weekly series of events and enjoys building partnerships on a local, national, and international level. She attended the Institute for Leadership Training, a new Dance/USA-led mentorship program for dance artists and administrators. She received her M.A. in Dance from Texas Woman’s University in 2009.


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