Where Have All the African American Audiences Gone for Concert Dance?

By Roger Lee

The Dilemma
Many professional dance companies in major U.S. cities dream of having more African American audiences for their work. Reality sets in as artistic and administrative staff look out over the crowd and wonder where all the African Americans audiences have gone. Sure there are a few people of color scattered among the sea of dance lovers, but not nearly enough to fulfill the dance field’s collective desire for more racially diverse crowds.

While many professional dance companies have expressed interest in attracting and retaining multicultural dance audiences, specifically African Americans, they have collectively blamed marketing for their dilemma. The national dance field seems to believe that by developing and executing multicultural marketing plans that these particular audience members will come in droves. This approach may help bring in African Americans audiences, but retaining them is a totally different story. Why is this the case? Because marketing is not the main problem here. I repeat: Marketing is not the sole reason why audiences for concert dance in major cities lack African American ticket buyers. This may be news to many dance makers, but it is not news to many African American audience members.Marketing is not the sole reason why audiences for concert dance in
major cities lack African American ticket buyers. This may be news to
many dance makers, but it is not news to many African American audience
members.

While marketing usually gets the full blame, I believe the real problem can be found in the actual dance programming. After writing my arts administration master’s thesis on the role that culturally relevant themes play in building and retaining African American audiences for dance concerts in Philadelphia, I have come to the conclusion that a lack of relevant programming and artistic content is keeping these multicultural audiences out of mainstream dance venues across the United States. I also believe that even the most tech-savvy marketing and social media campaigns cannot make up for a lack of relevant artistic content. One research report eloquently concluded that regardless of tech-savvy marketing campaigns, relevant programming is a must for attracting culturally diverse audiences.

So what is an artistic director and dance program manager to do? Why not start by learning more about the collective desires of their prospective African American audience members and building suitable programming into the season for their tastes? This will help provide greater insight into what relevant programming could look like for some multicultural audiences.

African American Arts, Entertainment, and Cultural Values
Recent research reports show that African American audiences value culturally relevant arts and entertainment programming. To help determine the cultural relevancy of programming, African American audiences use the “FUBU test.” The results of this test are the real determining factor for most African American ticket buyers looking to attend arts and cultural events. FUBU refers to products created for and by African Americans and is an acronym for the popular phrase “for us, by us.” You may have seen it on t-shirts or other apparel in recent years, as it’s also a brand name. In order to pass the FUBU test, arts and entertainment programming must feature culturally relevant themes that may include black history, religion, and music while showcasing African Americans in both artistic and administrative roles. This culturally diverse audience wants to see their culture represented both on and off stage through artistic content, performers, and staff. This helps provide a sense of relevancy and makes audience members feel as if they are a real part of the programming.

African American audiences feel a sense of pride and ownership when they can identify with the themes and creators of live performances. It is important to note that when African American audiences feel connected to the artistic product being presented on stage, they are much more likely to support it through priceless word-of-mouth promotion and monetary donations. This claim was validated during an African American focus group conducted by Chicago-based Slover Linett Strategies, a non-profit arts consulting firm. When a young male was asked why he supports the arts, he responded that it is the African American community’s responsibility to support African American dance. The majority of African American audiences agree that it is their civic duty to support their own arts, entertainment, and cultural programming.

Before African Americans started their own arts and cultural organizations, they were creating their own independent work in various visual, literary, and performance art disciples. In the 1960s, a large volume of black artists came together to form the Black Arts Movement, the artistic version of the American Civil Rights Movement. Black artists wrote essays, poetry, and songs, painted works of art, and produced dance and theater concerts in response to overwhelming American racism. The Black Arts Movement was not confined to just African Americans, rather it encouraged all people of color to engage in creative expression. The Black Arts Movement gave people, particularly people of color, an artistic voice along with creative control of their own arts and cultural programming.

In today’s society, African Americans are still very interested in maintaining their artistic voices and exercising their creativity. According to Mikael Wagner, an African American audience communications specialist from San Francisco, African American audiences generally want to be directly involved in developing creative programming for their own communities. He argues that mainstream organizations often develop creative programming for urban communities without ever visiting, consulting, or engaging with the communities they serve. Rather, mainstream organizations often end up making assumptions about what multicultural audiences want and need. This comes at the risk of losing that audience’s trust, interest, and support. Wagner states that this supports the all too popular theory where “lost” multicultural communities need “saving” by established mainline organizations. In reality these communities simply want their voices to be heard, their ideas to be implemented, and their creative programming to be more culturally relevant to the lives they live.

To help create more culturally relevant arts and cultural programming for the African American community, Wagner encourages mainstream organizations to partner with such African American community strongholds as churches, recreation centers, beauty salons, and barber shops. Michael Kaiser, president of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., shares a view similar to Wagner’s, arguing that African American organizations, leaders, and community members should be heavily involved in creating arts and cultural programming for their own communities. To up the level of African American community involvement in their creative community programming development, Kaiser proposes that mainstream organizations partner with organizations of color when presenting the work of minority artists.

The truth is that most African American audience members have a distinct set of arts and entertainment values. They are particularly invested in arts and entertainment programming that celebrates their own cultural heritage. Focus group studies show that African American audiences simply find this particular programming to be most uplifting, entertaining, educational, and culturally relevant. According to Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s Research into Action report, culturally relevant arts programming may circle around themes of religion, cultural heritage, race, and ethnicity. They also state that these themes can serve as powerful motivators in persuading African American audiences to attend arts, entertainment, and cultural events.

According to audience engagement research by the Smithsonian Institute, themes of music and spirituality are of great interest to African American audiences. These particular themes of interest were confirmed during an African American focus group conducted by W.G. Smith & Associates in Durham, N.C. Focus group participants were asked to design their dream arts and cultural event series. Reoccurring ideas included ongoing events celebrating African American history, churches, jazz, gospel, and R&B music, black dance, theater, poetry, visual art, fashion, and hair. Focus group participants also expressed interest in producing and presenting their events in African American community landmarks including parks, community centers, schools, barber shops, salons, and churches along with more traditional theater venues.

W.G. Smith & Associate’s focus group study concludes that most African Americans have broadened the standard definition of arts and culture. Their new definition includes elements of entertainment like community and sporting celebrations, slam poetry jams, dance battles, and fashion and hair shows. It appears that African American audiences desire more culturally relevant arts and cultural programming in a variety of formats, not just inside of traditional theater halls. African American audiences desire more culturally relevant arts and
cultural programming in a variety of formats, not just inside of
traditional theater halls. Much of what African American audiences would classify as arts and culture would be viewed as entertainment and fashion in the eyes of mainstream arts organizations. This distinct difference in these arts and cultural value systems may place a strong barrier between African American audiences and mainstream arts organizations. This barrier may result in African American audiences further developing their own brand of arts and entertainment while alienating the work of mainstream organizations. Perhaps this is where the African American audiences for concert dance have gone: back to their own environments, creating their own work.

The Solution
It appears that most African American audiences take pride in their own distinct values when it comes to arts, entertainment, and cultural programming. Thus they have abandoned many mainstream arts organizations, including dance companies, and gone off to create their own more culturally relevant work. So what can be done to draw more African American audiences for concert dance in major cities?

While foundation and government funders have proposed that mainstream organizations diversify their programming, boards, staff, and artist roster to better reflect the racially diverse communities that they serve, Michael Kaiser believes that this approach will only have an adverse effect on multicultural arts and organizations. He believes that mainstream organizations creating multicultural work will steal audiences, funding, and support from multicultural organizations. As a result, Kaiser recommends that mainstream organizations partner with culturally specific organizations when developing diverse programming.

Similarly, research by The Smithsonian Institute indicates that arts organizations have to work to gain the trust of multicultural audiences before trying to increase attendance and retention by this important segment of the population. They argue that African American audiences are most likely to respond to long-term, repeated efforts that celebrate their heritage instead of one-time-only Black History Month programming. Since loyalty is of great value to the African American community, mainstream arts organizations will have to work hard and consistently in order to build meaningful relationships, trust, and support from their African American audiences.

In essence, it appears that the majority African American audiences value arts and entertainment that celebrates their cultural heritage in a wide variety of formats. This important audience is interested in having a voice in developing artistic programming for their communities. Research studies agree that African American audiences desire loyalty and authenticity from the mainstream arts organizations that create events for their communities. This loyalty may come in the form of partnerships or long-term, concentrated efforts that bring forth culturally relevant programming for their communities.

In order to attract, retain, and engage more African American audiences for concert dance in major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and beyond, dance concert producers and presenters will need to evaluate the cultural relevancy of their artistic products and make adjustments where necessary. I believe that dance concert producers and presenters can create relevant, engaging, and entertaining dance concerts for African American audiences by exploring culturally relevant themes surrounding black history, music, and religion. As a result, African American audiences will feel uplifted and identify with these dance concerts, finding a personal connection to the work being presented on stage. This type of audience engagement stands at the foundation that leads to increased donations and priceless word-of-mouth promotion. Once this level of engagement takes place, I believe that dance administrators will no longer have to worry about where their African American audiences have gone. They will be able to look out at the gathering crowd happy to see this desired audience in their seats supporting the city’s dance work.

Roger Lee provides clients with dance lessons, entertainment, and writing as the owner of Roger Lee Dance, LLC. He performed professionally with SHARP Dance Company and Mid-Atlantic Ballet.  Roger has also guest taught hip-hop at The Rock School of Dance Education and Koresh School of Dance. His writing has been published in Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life Magazine, Dance Advantage, The Dance Journal, and on Examiner.com as the Philadelphia Dance Examiner. Roger obtained his M.S. in Arts Administration, Magna Cum Laude, from Drexel University and his B.A. in Dance and Media Communications, Magna Cum Laude with Honors, from Ursinus College. His work can be viewed at www.rogerleedance.com.

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