Conference 2013 Report: From Racial Equity to the Future of Dance

By Karyn D. Collins

From crucial networking sessions for artistic and executive directors to share programming hits and budgetary misses to paperwork how-to’s for grants and insurance, to sustaining partnerships and forging bonds in the community, Dance/USA’s 2013 Annual Conference held June 12-15 in Philadelphia reflected the wide spectrum of interests and issues confronting the organization’s members.

Workshop sessions took place at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts as well as in the nearby University of the Arts in the city’s downtown theater district.

Conference 2013 Report: From Racial Equity to the Future of DanceThe conference also included the recognition of several important dance pioneers. Barbara Weisberger, founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet,  which is about to launch its 50th anniversary season, received the organization’s Ernie Award, named for the late arts advocate (and Weisberger’s close friend and colleague) Ernie Horvath. The award is given to an individual whose achievements have significantly empowered artists and supported their creativity, either individually or as a community. Dance/USA also honored the tenacious Philadanco founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown. Sharon Gersten Luckman, former executive director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, received the Dance/USA Trustees Award for her long-term commitment to the field.

While these awards and other workshops reflected the multi-faceted concerns of Dance/USA’s membership, a particular focus of this year’s conference was racial and ethnic equity and awareness, whether onstage, in administrative offices, or in the studio.

These sessions included the keynote address by Aaron P. Dworkin, founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit that focuses on breaking down stereotypes about blacks and Latinos in classical music. Other related programming during this year’s Dance/USA conference included two multi-hour racial equity training sessions, as well as a workshop addressing racial issues called “Can We All Get Along? Addressing Racial Bias in Divisive Times,” which mined participants’ personal stories to explore the issue of racial equity.

“I feel there’s a real openness to doing this. There’s a hunger,” said Tammy M. Johnson, the consultant who provided the racial equity training sessions, when asked about her participants. “I think that’s because, one, the changing demographics. It’s a reality that has to be dealt with, not only just to get butts in the seats, which is a very reactionary way of dealing with this, but I also sense that there are a lot of people who are really interested in having community engagement and figuring that out because they know that’s where dance needs to be.”

Johnson said her sense of issues from her discussions with those involved in the dance world is that many in the field are still, by and large, thinking in terms of diversity, a term she called “old-fashioned checking boxes.” Johnson said she’s been encouraging people to think more in terms of racial equity, a term that encompasses racial inclusion and fully utilizing the skills, talents, and insights of people from other races and ethnic backgrounds. But, she said, a bigger challenge, even beyond getting people to realize these conversations can happen in a positive way, is to get people to grasp the incredible complexity and nuances involved. The term racial equity encompasses racial inclusion and fully utilizing the skills, talents, and insights of people from other races and ethnic backgrounds. But a bigger challenge, even beyond getting people to realize these conversations can happen in a positive way, is to get people to grasp the incredible complexity and nuances involved. “For equity it’s about taking action that fundamentally changes the rules of the game and meets people’s needs. It’s not just about having someone be in the room. It’s about having that person be in the room and be fully present, fully empowered, and involved. They’re not just a token; they’re fully engaged,” Johnson said. “I think there’s a genuine desire to do all of this in the dance field. My sense is that people want to do the work to make this happen. But right now the dance field is on a learning curve to get where it needs to be.”

Dance/USA officials said the sessions with Johnson and other programming were a conscious response to comments that the 2012 conference had not adequately dealt with these issues in a meaningful way. Moving forward, just as Dance/USA deals on an ongoing basis with legislative, fundraising, production, audience engagement, and other relevant topics in the field, racial equity will continue to be an area of focus where programming and resources are involved.

Diversity wasn’t the only key issue at the 2013 conference. Several sessions prompted discussions about their role in the dance world. In dance technologist and choreographer Sydney Skybetter’s session on “Competing Visions of the Scary, Messy, Profitable (?) Future of the Dance in America,” he noted that a lot of colleagues seemed to be asking, “Are we in the business of sustaining dance or sustaining dance organizations?” The lively discussion that followed covered topics from dance on television and new media to a charge to goal set for the coming years on where the state of the dance community will be. Skybetter encouraged those at his session to remember their visions that brought them to the dance in the first place.

Certainly, there were a number of workshops on organizations staying afloat in tough times. The session “What To Do When the $*&% Hits the Fan?” for example, was one of two that dealt with insurance issues. The “… Hits the Fan” session specifically outlined hurricane and natural disaster-inspired suggestions from ArtsReady, an initiative of South Arts. Those suggestions included:

  • Determining priority lists and chains of command for making emergency calls and decisions like canceling performances and evacuating buildings, and designating staff to deal with media inquiries and connect with first responders depending on the emergency.
  • Going over insurance policies before disaster strikes to determine coverage for injuries to staff, performers and audience members as well as damage to property, flooring, equipment and costumes and possible coverage for lost ticket sales or refunds.
  • Storing backup copies of data, records and other key documents in a remote site that can be accessed by key staff to ensure continued operations during a prolonged crisis.
  •  Designating and training staff on procedures in case of a crisis.

“The goal is to make business continuity and sustainability a priority in the arts,” said workshop leader Mollie Quinlan-Hayes, director of the ArtsReady program.

Other sustaining-the-organization-themed workshops included sessions on developing residency programs, creating dance-based community centers, establishing innovative community outreach initiatives, pooling resources with other dance organizations, and the importance of networking.

These were all mentioned by members attending the conference’s closing plenary during which members were invited to call out themes and issues discussed during the conference that had resonated with them. There were even to UN-Conference sessions, where participants could contribute ideas and issues that they felt were not included in the main conference programming. Facilitated by Ian Garrett, director of The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, the first session primarily focused on the relation to self as artist or artist’s company, and audiences and funders. The second session focused on changes in the way administrative professionals are being engaged in the new structural paradigms, how new group forms are included in discussions of the field, and how managers can engage emerging group forms in a more fluid way.

Among the questions raised were: How do we see outreach on both sides of the work and funding equation feed growth? How is funding different now? What is funder advocacy and the models of public/private funding? How can young artists think like entrepreneurs? How, in general, are people using their time? What trends can we learn about the way people spend their time and how it is changing and how that impacts dance? What would a dance census of organizations, audiences and funders look like? How do we not just sustain a group, but a career in the field? Can an individual be passionate about supporting and participating in dance, perhaps with different companies and in different roles over a lifetime? If one wants to have a family and a house, must she depend on an institutional job? As we’re working towards careers, how are we keeping studio practice at the center: is artistic work still the goal? When does one’s need for personal sustainability surpass the need to create? So many are resisting institutional models and they want mobility in the field. How? Can we expand the dance workforce census to be a wider group of age and location? These are among a few of the many issues and questions that fed lively discussions.

Diversity issues were ever present.

Dworkin, the conference’s opening plenary speaker pointed out that Given the shift in audience demographics compared to population statistics, arts organizations needed to rapidly shift their  thinking and become more aggressive in the approach to diversity and equity issues at all levels –on and offstage.given the shift in audience demographics compared to population
statistics, arts organizations needed to rapidly shift their  thinking and become more aggressive in the approach to diversity and equity issues at all levels –on and offstage – in order to survive.

“Are we in the arts telling stories that are incomplete?” he asked before continuing, “And if so, I don’t feel we’re fulfilling our role.” Dworkin said part of the problem is that there hasn’t been a mandate from the arts community to make diversity a priority. By comparison, the National Football League instituted the so-called Rooney Rule in 2003, which stipulates that all NFL teams must interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head coach or senior operations position or else face heavy fines. Dworkin said the marked improvement among the diversity of NFL head coaches (22 percent in 2006 compared to six percent in 1988) would seem to indicate the Rooney Rule’s effectiveness.

Aaron P. DworkinDworkin said he thinks it’s important for the dance field to do an industry-wide diversity assessment so that it can become clear to everyone where the dance field stands. He also warned against merely reacting to complaints, saying those types of solutions were always problematic and never satisfied anyone.

But, statistics without a mandate to act from the arts community’s leaders were meaningless, he added.

“In the arts we have no field-wide initiative that addresses diversity; not a single one,” he said. Dworkin noted that when all eight NFL coaching vacancies were filled by white coaches in 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the result was unacceptable and that the league would look at new ways to expand and improve the NFL’s diversity efforts. Said Dworkin, “In the arts, where are our leaders’ statements about the fact that our numbers are unacceptable? I’m unaware of that and those types of aspects of leadership matter.” Dworkin pointed out that every industry is trying to address the issue of diversity but said the arts needed to do more and to be proactive on the issue.

“While our roles may be different and while we may not want to have (a strict mandate like the Rooney Rule),” he said, “we certainly know there needs to be a change and until we bring about those initiatives, I fear we will not be successful.”

Photo: Dance/USA Honors Celebration, from left, Amy Fitterer, Barbara Weisberger, Joan Myers Brown, and Sharon Luckman, by Alexander Iziliaev


Karyn D. CollinsKaryn D. Collins has been a journalist for 28 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in N.J. and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.


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