Leadership Corner: Michelle Ramos, Executive Director, Alternate Roots and Chair, Dance/USA Board of Trustees

Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its feature, Leadership Corner, disseminating the voices and experiences of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted below or on our Facebook page.

Michelle Ramos, JD, PhD, has committed her career to serving our most marginalized communities, those adversely impacted by issues of by race, gender, socio-economics, inequitable laws, and public policies. Michelle was recently appointed executive director of Alternate Roots, and excited to lead this 40-plus year old institution that sits at the intersection of arts and social justice.

Prior to her legal career, Ramos, a retired professional ballet dancer, worked as an executive director for multiple non-profit arts organizations and served as a program officer for Women’s Foundation of California. She was director of Dance/NYC from 2006-2010. She has served as a panelist for several organizations including the NEA, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Ramos consults in communications strategy, diversity and equity training as well as leadership with non-profit organizations in addition to her legal practice. 

She is the proud mother of a professional dancer, and since retiring from her own dance career Ramos has become a competitive Ironman triathlete and marathoner.

Dance/USA: You have a long history with dance. You were introduced to it early. Tell us about that. 

Michelle Ramos: Dance has been with me for my entire life. My first exposure was as a five-year-old growing up in Denver, Colorado. My mom who was a single mom, scraped some money together and took me to see the Colorado Ballet’s Nutcracker and I left the theater and told my mom, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a ballerina.” Fast-forward 10 or 11 years later, I was training at Colorado Ballet as well as at Cleo Parker Robinson’s studio. I danced for Colorado Ballet for a short time, but my ballet career was cut short by a foot injury and I ended up going into the commercial dance arena, working for Disney, and doing music videos. I was lucky to have had a dance career both in concert and commercial dance.

D/USA: When did you leave performing?

M.R.: I retired officially from dancing professionally at 28, although I continued to teach dance for another decade thereafter. I taught dance throughout law school in Santa Cruz, Calif., at Dancecenter, when I was raising my daughter.

D/USA: How did you grapple retiring from dancing at 28 and moving forward? 

M.R.: It was pretty easy for me. I had to decide if I wanted to drag my little girl around the world with me to get dance jobs, or be a “responsible mom” and stay put and let her have a more stable childhood. She made the decision for me. I wanted to do what was in my daughter’s best interest and what was most stable and solid for her. Turns out it didn’t dissuade her interest in the art form at all!

I joined the ballet right out of high school. I didn’t go back [to college] right away. I was working in the hotel industry for a short time after retiring from my dance career. Then at age 30, I went to pursue my undergraduate degree because I found a program at the University of San Francisco that would give me credit for my dance experience. I basically did my bachelor’s degree in two years because of credits they gave me for work experience. I have a B.S. in Organizational Behavior.

D/USA: What made you decide to return to the dance field in an administrative role?

M.R.: Once I was back in school doing my undergrad, I loved school because I wanted to be there. (I tell parents of college aged kids this, because not all kids want to be there, let them wait if they don’t, or else you waste their time and your money.) Once I got to college in my 30s, I thought it was awesome: ‘I’m learning things and this is exciting.’ And after my undergrad and working in the hotel industry as a human resources director, I figured out that I always had a fascination with law. I have a family history with respect to law and criminal justice; I had an uncle who spent his life in prison and his landmark lawsuit Ramos v. Lamm changed how prisoners were treated in the state of Colorado. 

In school, I realized I wanted to keep going and work in law. I went straight to law school at just about the time my daughter was a teen and was going to New York for summer dance intensives. She caught the dance bug and went to American Ballet Theatre and the Ailey school. One of the instructors at Ailey said she should be in New York year ‘round. I knew as an ex-dancer what a great opportunity that would be for her. I had just finished law school and my husband, at the time, was unhappy in his job so we all sat down and figured out how to make it work. The next year we picked up and moved to New York, which was crazy, because neither one of us had jobs there. I thought I would get to New York, pass the bar and become a lawyer. Then I failed the bar and I needed to get a job. I was applying for legal jobs and, of course, no one would hire me without passing the bar. I asked myself what else I knew? Dance. The second dance job I applied for, at Ballet Hispanico, was it. Verdery Roosevelt, then executive director hired me 72 hours after I submitted my application. That began my arts administration journey.

My title was administrative director, but I basically ran the school. I had never run a dance organization before, but I had been teaching dance for eight years and helping the director run the school. I had worked in human resources. I had worked in the hotel industry. I had the business skills and the dance knowledge. I was able to put it all together in a dance administrative job.   

D/USA: As executive director of Dance/NYC were you surprised by anything about the dance industry in New York since you never danced there?

M.R.: What surprised me the most was simply the volume: the volume of companies, the volume of choreographers, the volume of artists. It was exciting, but it was almost overwhelming to realize how big of an industry it was. And, even though New York is a very large city, it’s still a small city when it comes to dance. I realized the breadth of diversity of dance artists was super exciting. Up to that point I had only been exposed to traditional classical ballet and a little bit of modern dance. I had seen flamenco, Middle Eastern, and tap … but a lot of styles that were more cultural I had never been exposed to before. It was a great education to be in that milieu and learn about the breadth of the dance field

D/USA: Where are you now?

M.R.: Before being appointed the executive director of Alternate Roots in January, I worked for the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice policy think tank that works on criminal justice reform across the country. It was an amazing two years working for Vera.

It’s advocacy, policy, research and data support for reducing the prison population. Before Hurricane Katrina there were more than 6,000 people in prison in New Orleans and based on how many people live in the city —  350,000 —  until six months, ago New Orleans was the largest incarcerator in the world, not in the United States, in the world. They brought Vera here after Hurricane Katrina to help reform the criminal justice system, which was very dysfunctional. Since that time we’ve been able to reduce the prison population from 6,000 to about 1,500. But if we were equivalent to the national average, based on the population of the city, we should have about 800 or 900 incarcerated individuals. People who come from New York and walk through our prisons and see our court systems, see how civil rights are violated here and they remark, “This is like a third-world country.” 

When I was deciding where I wanted to do this work, New Orleans is ground zero for criminal justice reform. If you’re going to have an impact, New Orleans is the city to do it in; it’s the city that needs the most help and the most reform. 

D/USA: Your most recent day job was outside the dance field, yet you chose to remain connected to Dance/USA and take on the chairmanship while immersed in this completely different field and environment. Why?

M.R.: When I made the decision to return to the legal arena around 2010, I said to myself, “I have this law degree and I really need to pursue this because it’s my second passion next to dance.” And I went full throttle. I enrolled in a law master’s program because back in Los Angeles I applied for jobs and no one would hire me because my resume was nothing but arts administration. I went into a master’s program where I did a nine-month fellowship at the ACLU in L.A. and another at the Innocence Project. Then I worked at some legal non-profit projects to build my resume in the legal arena. That enabled me to apply for and get legal jobs. 

But I remained involved in dance. I was a mentor in a nonprofit dance mentorship program in Los Angeles. I was asked to serve on the panel for the Department of Cultural Affairs for Los Angeles. I consulted for arts organizations in Long Beach, where I was based. I always kept my fingers in the dance arena.

Even here in New Orleans, I serve on the board of a small dance social justice organization called Dancing Grounds. I have been doing some consulting and mentoring. I was consulting with the Arts Council of New Orleans for the first six months I was in New Orleans before I joined Vera. 

I had always hoped that eventually I would be able to sit on the other side of the table as a board member. I always said to myself, “I’m going to be the best board member ever.” I knew well the challenges of cultivating and training good board members, so my goal became being the best board member, I’m still working toward that goal.

Today I not only get to serve on a local board but a national board as well, for organizations that I love and care for and that really means a lot to me. Now with my appointment at Alternate Roots, it’s like the icing on the cake: I’m where I want to be, working in both arts and social justice and helping to lead the dance community nationally and locally. I am incredibly blessed everything turned out for me the way it has.

D/USA: Tells us about your goals for Dance/USA.

M.R.: One of the top reasons I was driven to come back and reengage with Dance/USA is Amy Fitterer, our executive director. I absolutely adore her. When I see Amy on the stage at our national conferences, I have flashbacks to when I first met her and it’s remarkable how far she has come personally and what she has done for Dance/USA. I made the decision to come back to Dance/USA because of Amy’s vision and the possibilities for what the organization can be and the direction it can go. I want to support that work.

The organization is going through a strategic planning process that will inform the future of Dance/USA and the field. We’re looking to implement a lot of changes and be more inclusive to the entire dance community not just a portion of it and … I couldn’t say no to leading the process to spearhead Dance/USA in planning for the future with Amy. I’ve been involved with the organization for so long and the direction she is taking it is definitely the right one, so to be a part of curating how it will move forward … there was no way I could say no.

D/USA: What kind of growth and change have you seen in Dance/USA over your long association? 

M.R.: People talk a lot about how the dance field is shifting. I don’t think it’s so much that the field is changing, but the awareness of dance and the field has been raised. When people speak about Dance/USA broadening its constituency or looking at smaller organizations or engaging organizations of color, sometimes that’s framed as if it’s new for the dance community. But some of these organizations have been around longer than Dance/USA. It’s about awareness raising. 

The other issue that is really shifting the direction of the dance field is audiences. What will dance audiences of the future look like? Probably very early in the organization’s history, I suspect that the organization was created for a specific niche of dance with a very specific lens as to who should belong to the organization. But as we’re becoming more inclusive and embracing more [all?] dance forms, that older membership structure is going to have to be evaluated and that’s very much a part of our strategic planning process.

One of the programs that best exemplifies this new vision for Dance/USA is Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA). I have seen that program’s growth from the first iteration. I’m blessed to have sat through two of the four panels that awarded grants and I have seen that trajectory shift over time. That’s a perfect example of the transformation that Dance/USA is poised to go through in the strategic planning process and beyond. 

Now we need to evaluate, to look, to analyze, to broaden our scope and figure out where we need to be going as a field. What we did initially was fine 35 years ago but the field is different, we have different people on staff, it’s a different organization and the membership is growing broader and broader. How are we responsive to that growth and how can we be the most effective “national” organization for dance, both in the United States and beyond?

D/USA: You are changing the internal culture to change the public face of Dance/USA.

M.R.: Yes. When I speak on diversity and equity I say this all the time: the first EDA panel that I served on, I stepped into the room and looked around the table and saw who was in the room with me and I literally had to step out of the room to compose myself because I started tearing up. Because I had never stepped into a room and served on any panel in my entire career that looked like that panel. I never walked into a room of a dozen people and saw so many faces that looked like mine, or faces of people who had never before been at the table. It was mind blowing because I never experienced a panel where everybody at the table was represented. That was a big wake up moment. When we went through the process, the questions that were asked, the commentary that was discussed — I’d never experienced that before either. It was a moment for me personally where I felt that Dance/USA was getting it.

EDA is the microcosm for what the strategic planning process will be for Dance/USA: doing both that internal work and the external work. 

D/USA: Will this evolution in Dance/USA change the field as a whole?

M.R.: I do a lot of speaking and trainings with other organizations — I’ve worked with theater, opera and straight for-profit businesses. I feel like this moment in time is primed for these conversations. That said, people are in different stages. The more I engage, the more I see where different organizations are. I can definitely say that Dance/USA is leading in the dance field. In this strategic planning process, diversity and inclusion are going to be embedded in everything this organization does. It’s intertwined in everything from programming to decision-making around planning … and that’s huge to me.

In 2009, I led a diversity session at the annual conference in Houston. Back then I just called it diversity; now we use the term equity. I remember there were maybe 15 people at the session and 13 of them were people of color. I thought we’re just talking to ourselves here. People were scared to have a conversation and engage. Now at our conference we have 80 people in the room and we need more chairs. We have entire programming  tracks devoted to diversity. That kind of growth is, in my estimation, remarkable. While I think we’re doing great, there’s always more work to be done. If you think it’s done, that’s part of the problem.

I also think that the idea of intersectionality — working across sectors —  is another area I would love to explore. That will be a part of our strategic planning. In the art world we tend to be very siloed — sometimes we’ll bridge over to theater or fine art. Most recently I’m intrigued by the intersectionality of social justice, criminal justice and art. Obviously that’s my area and one of the programs I created at Vera. I brought local New Orleans artists to speak at our monthly staff breakfasts because I felt that policy and data research staffers could benefit from a different lens. I brought artists in to show their work and broaden the staff’s view and make them more excited and passionate and motivated in seeing the work they’re doing through a different lens. They get to see artists who were previously incarcerated, hear their music or spoken word or see them dance. Understanding that artists have a role in transforming their communities is also important. 

D/USA: You have a demanding full-time job, you sit on two outside boards, and you just graduated from a PhD program. What do you do to stay sane and healthy?

M.R.: I continue to dance. I teach ballet one day a week, Mondays. I volunteer teach teens and adults at a small studio in New Orleans. It’s very classical, going back to my roots. I try to take class when I can. I had knee surgery and I’m still working on getting back to where I was. Growing up as a dancer, I didn’t get to participate in sports because I was always cautioned not to. I wanted to do the athletics I never did as a kid, and like everything I do, I just went into it full throttle. For years I did a lot of running and competed in triathlons. One of my most memorable sports moments and frankly life moments was completing the Ironman Triathlon in 2009. I still run when I can. 

The most important thing in my life, though, is my daughter, Ellenore Scott. She was on the cover of Dance Teacher Magazine for the month of August 2017. She’s the light of my life. She was Ailey trained, went to LaGuardia, danced in a few small companies in New York. Then she went on “So You Think You Can Dance?” and  was a finalist in season 6, which launched her commercial career. Now she works on Broadway and was associate choreographer on the remounting of Cats and Falsettos. In 2018 she will be associate choreographer for Kong and Head over Heels on Braodway. She’s doing commercials and … she founded a project for young female choreographers called the Breaking Glass Project, which she ran for three years from 2010-13, again another project before it’s time. Now there are female projects popping up all over. 

I was never like the “Dance Moms” on television. I did say to her: “If you want to dance right out of high school and not go to college do it.” She did and never looked back. She has a huge career and she’s happy. A college degree is not a guarantee of success. You can be successful without that piece of paper. I’m so proud of her. 

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room and has written for Dance, Pointe, The Washington Post and the Washington Jewish Week.


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