Leadership Training Program Forges Bonds, Fortifies Leaders for a Rapidly Changing Field
Editor's note: Each year Dance/USA matches early-career dance leaders with established dance professionals for the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training. Learn more about the program.
By Lisa Traiger
Fifteen years after Ryan Smith and Wendy Rein founded RAWdance in San Francisco, Katerina Wong, the award-winning company’s associate artistic director, stepped into a collaborative leadership role. In the fall of 2019, Wong became RAWdance’s third artistic director, forming a leadership triumvirate as Smith and Rein moved east, to develop a branch of the company in New York’s Hudson Valley. Wong, an energetic choreographer, dancer and arts administrator with New Jersey roots, is still finding her way in her challenging new leadership role. Thus, her participation in the 2019 cohort of the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training (DILT) has enabled Wong to acclimate more easily into her role as an artistic director.
Each year DILT matches seasoned arts leaders with early career dance professionals in an effort to fortify the field for future generations. The program allows rising arts administrators to enhance their leadership and decision-making skills, expand their experiences and gain a broader perspective on the national dance community. And arts leaders with a lifetime of experience share their knowledge, skill and expertise with the next generation in an effort to strengthen the field. During the 2019 program, when possible due to COVID-19 lockdowns, DILT mentees made a site-visit to their mentors’ organizations where they experienced first-hand many aspects of a multifaceted dance organization. While Wong has taught and choreographed in China, served as a guest artist in the St. Louis Public Schools and at the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron, and has danced with numerous modern companies, she was seeking ways to enhance her leadership skills for her next step as an artistic director.
“I feel fortunate to have had so many varied experiences in the dance field from performing and collaborating with a wide number of choreographers in the Bay area, to creating my own work in partnership with different organizations, to working as an art administrator and marketer for larger arts institutions,” Wong said. “But I felt that this was the hands-on education that I’d always been looking for, and that is so hard to replicate outside of an educational institute or degree program.” She hopes that her conversations and experiences with her mentor, Amy Miller, a company director at Gibney, will enable her to draw from the different pieces of her experience and, in Wong’s words, “step into a role as a formal leader in an organization.”
Looking back on her own career, Miller shared, “I’m really, really lucky to have had literally dozens of mentors over my life. At this point, as a 45-year-old professional dancer feeling on the cusp of still dancing professionally on stage, but also moving my energies and my ideas [toward an] administrative capacity … through social justice initiatives … I feel like I’m getting a chance to synthesize 30 years of mentors’ advice. Things that didn’t make sense to me 30 years ago, that I wrote down and had been chewing on all that time, they now make sense to me. Now I’m really connecting the dots between all of these beautiful experiences I’ve had.” She performed with Ohio Ballet and was a founding member and artistic associate of Cleveland’s GroundWorks Dance Theater. Presently Miller is a director of the Gibney Company, along with Gina Gibney and Nigel Campbell. She has readily shared what she learned throughout her career, as a DILT mentor for the second time, having mentored Vershawn Sanders-Ward of Red Clay Dance Company in 2017.
Wong’s DILT site visit in November 2019 provided her with behind-the-scenes access to her mentor’s organization. Miller considered carefully what would most benefit her mentee.
Mentorship as Exchange Rather Than Training
“Katie and I did a lot of conversing beforehand about what she was interested in. I also thought a lot about what I thought our staff could learn from her — where it could be an exchange of information, rather than like a training, which is a lopsided offering,” Miller said. Wong spent a weekend viewing the Gibney company’s fall performance (twice) and joining an audience engagement forum and other Gibney events. “We had tons of conversations about what we felt [in the works presented] resonates in the dance world, in social justice, in society,” Miller noted.
Wong also had one-on-one meetings with the organization’s marketing director, development director, the community action team, and a private sit-down conversation with founder Gina Gibney. At a cultivation event, Wong observed how the Gibney organization facilitates conversations surrounding violence prevention with young people. Miller said, “Katie got the see sessions and hear folks speak about the impact and the blossoming of that work.”
Following the site visits, Wong and Miller set up regular two-hour monthly phone conversations throughout the year, which were primarily driven by Wong’s questions and needs as the mentee. These have helped Wong move into her new leadership role: “When we first talked, I was in the heat of the transition, just stepping into my role as artistic director. I had a lot of questions about change management and what it means to enter into this space where two founders have been impactfully working for more than 15 years. What can I bring to the equation? How can I support them in their transition? What is it like to share leadership?”
Since Miller works collaboratively with Nigel Campbell and Gibney, her match with Wong was a fortuitous one. As a director within a leadership triumvirate, Miller said, “It was a really amazing parallel for Katie and I to be able to tackle some of those first questions and then from there our conversations were so organic.”
“The leadership paradigm that we share was a huge part of our engagement,” Miller added. They delved into logistics, the physical perspective, socio-emotional dynamics, planning, strategizing, how decisions are made, conflict resolution, and more over the nearly year-long connection. “A lot of those conversations took us to a place of valuing time spent on differentiating roles based on affinities and strengths, passions and interests, then discovering ways those strengths dovetail together to soften the competition between us and to acknowledge that everyone has different affinities that they can bring to the table.”
Leading During Crisis
They spoke, too, about leading through crisis as the global pandemic took hold. “We had a conversation soon after all of us started to shelter in place,” Wong said. “It was really beneficial for both of us to be able to sit down and see one another — we did a Zoom call.” She continued, “I spoke to Amy right after RAWdance had to cancel our home season, which we’d been working on for over a year. I completely understand that this is something we’re all facing; it’s not a unique experience, but it is still very personal. We … spoke about going through the process of what it means to postpone a show. And the significance of bringing something back six to eight months later, how that feels as an artist and as a director. Amy was such a great sounding board, just listening to me process these experiences.”
And then, learning from the loss, Wong heard her mentor say: “Try to find in this a peek of the sun through the clouds. Let’s take this moment and be kind to ourselves, but see where it might be safe to breathe, to reevaluate, do more breathing, to dream of what could happen after all of this is done, and to reframe and restructure how we are personally understanding this situation.” Those were words Wong used to carry herself through mourning the loss of a season and a year’s work.
As mentor, Miller, too, found sustenance and meaning in forging a collegial friendship with Wong. She said, “I’m a huge proponent of the one-on-one connection. That’s why I love this DILT mentorship program. I learned so much from Katie .... She is so thoughtful and so joyous and so curious and has so much energy. She loves the dance field and she loves what she’s doing. She loves even the minutiae of an email up to producing huge shows.” During their conversations, Wong helped Miller deepen her own ideas about the ecosystem of the field, wrestling with the meaning-filled question: “With the time we each have on this planet, what do we want to do and how do we want to feel while doing it?”
As DILT came to a close, Wong and Miller envisioned remaining connected for the long term. “After my experience with Amy,” Wong said, “I am huge advocate for the power of mentorship …. We both made it pretty clear that it feels like a lifelong connection, even if we don’t keep up every single month with our two-hour call, we feel very open to contacting each other whenever possible, supporting each other in the future. I feel very grateful.”
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for publications including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.
Photo: top, Amy Miller, a company director at Gibney in New York, N.Y., left, with DILT Mentee Katerina Wong, artistic director of San Francisco's RAWdance, during Wong's site visit in November 2019, courtesy Katerina Wong.
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