Category Archives: Dance Studio

DEFYING GRAVITY: The art of Indian dancer Sanchit Babbar

I am so happy for my former Ailey school PT pal!! Great Article!!

Via http://www.bkreader.com/2017/03/defying-gravity-art-indian-dancer-sanchit-babbar/

Dancer Sanchit Babbar Photo: Nir Arieli

“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton

I was husky when I was a boy; or at least, “Husky” was the word written on the label of the jeans my folks bought for me to wear when I was 10.  But, by the time I was 14, I sprouted skywards, the result, I imagine, of an eruption of teenage hormones; so it was that nature provided me with a new physique, aided in no especial intention or exertion of my own.”

When Park Slope habitue– dancer Sanchit Babbar—shared with me that he had been overweight until he was twenty years of age, I was shocked.  I mean, come on!  Look at these photos!

“I was so lazy,” he says, his Indian accent faint and delightful. “I was very overweight.  I never walked anywhere in New Delhi.  I took a car or went by motorbike.  I ate what I wanted, when I wanted.  And then one day I went to a dance class that friends were taking and the guest teacher from The Danceworx Academy of Performing Arts–Anthony Noa–did a single pirouette.  That’s what made me decide I wanted to be a dancer.  I couldn’t get over the perfection of that turn.”

And in 2 months, Sanchit (a Hindu name meaning “collected”) had shed 50 pounds through dedicated exercise and a thoroughly switched out diet.  “My teacher’s first instruction when I told him I wanted to become a dancer was ‘lose weight.’  And so I did. In India, we have great respect for our teachers.  We don’t question them.  We trust in what they say to us.  Actually, that has made my journey in ballet easier, really.   I do what they tell me.  Anthony (Noa) told me, “If you work hard, you can be a dancer,” and I have never doubted those words.  And I always work hard.”

Photo: Nir Arieli

Sanchit– who teaches ballet at Bridge For Dance and is a member of the American Liberty Ballet –came to New York City from India on a scholarship to The Ailey School, the official school of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.  “They are such a great dance company… Everything about Ailey inspires me.  I saw Revelations for the first time on my computer in New Delhi. It was the ONLY way to see it!” Sanchit explains, “…In India, there aren’t really any dancing schools.  Touring companies rarely come there.  There aren’t established ballet companies,” he said.

“Sure, there’s folk dancing; Bollywood movies are probably the closest you could get to dancing in India.  To pursue dance, you need to go elsewhere. Though challenging, I was willing to do whatever it took to dance…including convincing my parents that I was making the right move.”

“My parents would have preferred that I stayed in India, of course;  get a job, get married, have kids.  I have had to be so determined in my choice to dance—for myself, of course, but also to show my family I mean business, that there is no room for doubt.  When I hear my parents ask about my ‘fall back plan’ I say, “If you have a fall back plan, that’s the plan that will happen.  I have no fall back plan because one way or the other, my life will be about ballet.”

“I’m Hindu…we believe that nothing is permanent. So I knew my initial feeling in America of being a fish out of water would pass.”

Sanchit’s scholarship at The Ailey School included housing and when he finished his training there, he moved to Park Slope.

“I love it here,” he said. “One of my first memories of being in Brooklyn was seeing the Van Leewen trucks in the morning.  I don’t eat dairy but they have this incredible vegan coconut cream/cashew based ice creams that are creamier than anything I had ever had.”

“I grew up in my time at Ailey.  Remember, I was older than everyone else in class…I was already 22.  I was intimidated.  I was playing catch up all the time;  not just in class. Culturally; other dancers had knowledge they just took for granted.  I had to work for it.”

Sanchit explains that his teachers didn’t teach him how to dance so much as they taught him how to be mentally strong: “It’s so important to hold yourself to the task at hand,” he said. “You have to ask yourself questions all the time, about your body, about your technique, about the art of ballet, about your commitment, and to– above all– ignore the negative voices that always want to get in.”

“My mother is very strong.  When I first started at Ailey, I wanted to go home to India and she was the one who said, ‘No! Stay there and finish what you have started.’  I’m grateful for that advice.  But there was so much I didn’t know how to do; cook a meal, do my own laundry, how to shop in a Western grocery store.   My family isn’t rich but still, I was very spoiled at home in India.  Part of my dance training has been about getting stronger in taking care of myself at all levels.”

Sanchit Babbar

Photo: Nir Arieli

“I’m Hindu…we believe that nothing is permanent,” said Sanchit. “So I knew my initial feeling in America of being a fish out of water would pass.”

I ask, “But how do you deal now with challenging situations?”

Sanchit smiles.  “I turn to my mentor (Noa).  We skype.  We talk on the phone.  He doesn’t allow me to entertain negative thoughts.  He tells me that whatever I think, then I am right!  I only want to be right about succeeding so those are the only thoughts I have.”

Sanchit learned from Noa and passes lessons on to his own students. “I tell my students, “It’s not pain you are feeling, it’s your brain!”  What I mean is that when we allow ourselves to disappear into our art, pain disappears, too.  The brain focuses on the art, not the hurting calf or foot.”

I ask him who is dancing idol is and without missing a beat he says, “Baryshnikov, of course!”

“I get excited when I’m watching him do something breathtaking and I hear some part of myself whisper in my brain, ‘You could never do that, Sanchit.‘  That voice in my brain never stops me.  It energizes me!  I immediately want to rush back to class and do whatever I saw over and over again until I can do it.”

Pain, Sanchit explains, is a great teacher.  “Dancing, of course, can be physically painful.  But moving to America, leaving my family, having a dream which is hard to explain to my people at home… these all cause pain, too.  Americans seem to fear pain… not just physical, but spiritual and intellectual, too.”  He adds, “I’ve learned that the right choice is rarely the painless one.”

“My goal is to dance at the Royal Ballet.”

And by the way, he has no fall back plan!

Dance Magazine:The Cult of Thin by Deirdre Kelly

The Cult of Thin

Despite calls for change, ballet’s obsession with extreme thinness persists.

During a recent performance of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a corps member at a prominent company complained that she was so hungry she thought she’d faint. The dancer next to her started to worry that she herself wasn’t hungry enough. “In shape for us is being hungry,” she said later on. “Eat nothing and see how far you can go.”

Although most professional ballet dancers are naturally slender, having been selected at a young age for advanced training partly for their physique, even those with genetics on their side can be made to feel their bodies aren’t good enough. Dancers interviewed on the condition of anonymity confide that weight gain can get them fired while thinness can help them advance. Even though the field has made progress, and has become more aware of the health risks of dieting, directors having “fat chats” to tell dancers to slim down remains routine.

Roots of the Trend

Ballet has long idealized a sylphlike physique. The fixation on thin became amplified in the 1960s when Balanchine’s preference for long and lean ballerinas promoted a thin aesthetic that influenced other companies worldwide. Often, those who perpetuate unrealistic body standards today are former dancers who came of age during his reign.

Calling Out The Problem

At ballet’s first-ever international conference on eating disorders, hosted by Dance UK in London in 2012, former Royal Ballet artistic director Monica Mason spoke out against ballet’s emphasis on thin dancers. “Any director of a company who said they have never had an anorexic dancer would have to have been lying,” she stated.

Since then, ballet companies around the world, admittedly some quicker than others, have begun to heed the call for change. Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo declared her determination to instill a healthy body image among her dancers when she took the reins of English National Ballet in 2012. The following year, The Royal Ballet created the Mason Healthcare Suite, where health and well-being programs ensure that no dancer feels a need to starve themselves to succeed.

The Consequences

Scientific evidence shows that emaciated dancers are unable to sustain the demands of today’s athletic choreography. “Extreme thinness often leads to individuals cannibalizing their protein stores, which results in losses in strength and power, and, in my experience, increases their chances of injury, particularly stress fractures,” says American Ballet Theatre physical therapist Peter Marshall.

One dancer fired for her curves says that while dieting, she lost focus, endurance and emotional stability. For many, slimming down means resorting to dangerous behaviors, including starvation, purging and addictions to appetite suppressants like tobacco or other substances. In 1997, Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, dealing with an eating disorder, died at age 22; in 2012, Italian dancer Mariafrancesca Garritano publicly accused La Scala and its academy of turning a blind eye to the culture of eating disorders causing infertility among her fellow dancers.

What’s Changed?
By some accounts, these efforts appear to be working. A 2014 study found that multifaceted wellness programs adopted by ballet companies in Britain and elsewhere actively support the physical and mental health of dancers.

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that not all companies follow the guidelines the same way. One dancer reports that her company’s on-site nutritionist counsels her how to get thin by giving her recipes for meals with less than 300 calories. Although we’re giving dancers tools for so-called safe weight-loss, the emphasis is still on conforming to an unnaturally skinny ideal.

Directors’ Values

Fortunately, artistic directors are declaring themselves more open to different body types. Current Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare, for example, says his company values individuality and stage presence over any set shape. “Being a dancer is not about denial but about strength and vigor,” he says.

National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain refutes the suggestion that her company is skinny-obsessed. “I do not hire overly thin dancers or those with eating disorders,” she says. “The dancers of the NBoC are highly trained elite athletes who would never be able to perform every night after training and rehearsing during the day if they weren’t the most powerful and fit that they could be. These dancers have plenty of rippling muscles, which they would not have if they were overly thin.”

Emily Molnar of Ballet BC also emphasizes her dancers’ strength. “Don’t get me wrong. Ballet is a visual art form, so we’re not talking about anything goes here,” she says. “But exciting to me is to witness a woman onstage, as opposed to a girl, who is comfortable in her own skin and who has a confident voice, displaying the virtuosity of her training and the full expression of her artistry.”

Ballet still has a long way to go, but it’s encouraging that so many in the field are calling for change. “Dance should celebrate our humanity,” says Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, “and not be an artificial ideal imposed upon us by individuals frightened by what constitutes the natural shapes of the feminine physique.”
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Jenifer Ringer with Jared Angle in The Nutcracker. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

How Do We Move Forward?

Former New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer wrote about her battle with eating disorders in her 2014 book, Dancing Through It. We asked her why ballet continues to insist on an unnatural aesthetic for women, and she shared her thoughts:

Unfortunately, our entire culture right now glorifies extreme thinness. As a mother, I dread the day when my children learn that people will judge them on their appearance. Art can be a critical commentary on culture, but it can also display a culture at its extreme, and I think in ballet we see the continuation of today’s radically low weight-standard of beauty for women. Look at any television pilot episode and if the series gets picked up, all of the actresses come back 10 pounds lighter. Look at almost every ad in magazines or on bus stops and you see impossible examples of skinniness as beauty.

Ballet is a visual, voiceless art form where the line of the body is crucial and under a great deal of constant scrutiny, not only from the audience and the artistic powers-that-be, but also from the dancers themselves. In order to change the unnatural thinness in ballet, the entire field would need to buy into the change. While I have heard many stories of directors demanding lower weights from their dancers, I have also heard countless dancers criticizing themselves and their colleagues for being “overweight.” Balletomanes in the audience can often, sadly, be just as damagingly critical. I used to have complete strangers approach me on the street to talk about my weight fluctuations, whether up or down, as if they thought what they said would not hurt me deeply. They saw me as an object, not a person.

There are dancers out there “breaking the mold,” but I can pretty much guarantee that they did not set out to challenge the ballet world on its weight standards; the daily struggle for these dancers to succeed and maintain positive self-confidence is a battle they probably would have preferred not to fight.

Yes, ballet is elite and often ethereal. Of course ballet dancers have to be fit, have to be lean and honed with the precision of training to be able execute athletically physical feats. The dancer’s body is her instrument and it needs to be kept in top condition not only for strength but also for appearance. And that appearance does require a certain thinness in the ballet world, a uniform of sorts. But thin for one body type is emaciated for another, and different body types should be equally appreciated as each dancer finds a level of fitness and leanness that is healthy for her. This can happen when dancers are seen as empowered individuals whose movement quality and artistry are given more value than their weight.

Ballet dancers are not collections of bones and muscles moving from one beautiful pose to the next. Dancers move because they need to, and they move to bring an audience out of themselves and to show people what music looks like. Ballet should display the best that any human body—no matter its type—can do: huge physical acts of strength and stamina linked together and combined with artistry to create a moment of art. This moment exists while that beautiful human body is dancing, then ends when both the music and the body are finally still.

And then the applause can begin. — Jenifer Ringer

Camille A. Brown’s Black Girl Spectrum Symposium: More then just a Hashtag

Like most good things the hashtag’s ubiquity has diluted its power. The first clue was when a it moved offline and into daily conversation where you cannot actually “click” on it and see who else is talking about said topic. As the power of the hashtag wizens so does urgency and poignancy of some of the subjects that follow the symbol. Many of us hashtaging popular subjects never use the mechanism to actually enter the larger conversation. Two of the most popular hashtags in the African American community are #blacklivesmatter and #blackgirlmagic. I often use the latter when highlighting something positive or incredible a black female has done or is doing. I’ll confess that I have never clicked into the larger conversation via the hashtag. I am guilty as I have charged, albeit I have witnessed black girl magic in real life, and in person have “clicked” into the larger conversation. That is what took place on June 4th at the National Black Theatre in Harlem New York, when choreographer/Activist Camille A. Brown held her first ever Black Girl Spectrum Symposium.

Brown herself is the epitome of “Black Girl Magic”, she’s built  a successful career as a performer and choreographer, and though the journey had found her voice (both as woman and artist) and is now creating a space for Black girls/women to connect with their own. She is dedicated to encouraging them to recognize the beauty and brilliance inherent and inherited in something as simple (yet complex) as the games they play, and dances they do. Brown is virtuosic performer, able to physically code switch from Modern, West African, contemporary ,and Social dance, but it is the latter that has become her focus. She can often be heard asking the rhetorical question “Why isn’t Social dance recognized and respected the way ballet, modern are? Why isn’t it taught in the same way with the history and the technique? Because it is technique” And she has a point. Elements of Social dance have a ways been present and celebrated (though not recognized as such) on Broadway stages. The acceptable translation of the term is “Theater Dance”

Over the last year she has artfully woven a tapestry from her expertise in the historic roots of Social Dance and the unrecognized beauty and joy of growing up a Black girl in America. These things intersected when she began work on BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (BL:LP) which was an investigation of her (and her dancer’s) youth, presented though the games, (social) dance and relationships Tracing the linage from the stomping rhythms of Juba (Giouba, Haiti: Djouba), to hambone hand games and hip hop, BG:LP reveals a truth seldom addressed, the humanity of Black girls. She is working on elevating these two things to their rightful place, one of sophistication, refinement, complexity, genius, and artistry. She has carefully wrapped these treasures up and re-gifted them to little black girls and grown black women around the country. Community is Brown’s legacy, and BL:LP allowed her to spin a web of connection through all the communities the company toured. The Black Girl Spectrum Symposium is the culminating result with local organizations. 60 young ladies ranging in age from 9-16 participated in a day dedicated to fortifying their development as creative citizens and leveraging the power of dance to transform, connect and activate community. Participants were selected from the organizations that Camille A. Brown & Dancers (CAB) has partnered with in New York City through BG:LP’s  Black Girl Spectrum Curriculum (complete list below). The theme of the even was (#) Social Dance for Social Change.

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Brown opened the symposium with a Dance “lesson” entitled Social Dance Through Time which tracked the origins of some common social dances. She guided them on journey from West African shores, Caribbean Isles, through Southern plantations, past reconstruction to present day illustrating exactly how through all our adversity, we have like Beyonce made Lemonade, and the whole world is drinking it. She shows these young ladies the mutable endurance that is their cultural inheritance. By teaching them the breadth and brilliance they unwittingly carry in their bodies when they do the running man, the butterfly or even twerk, they are empowered.

The Symposium’s adroit workshop leaders included Francine E Ott (Moving Towards Awareness) Paloma McGregor (The Political is the Personal) , and Audrey Hailes (This Power Right Here). Each woman’s offering included interactions amongst the participants effectively creating three small communities within the larger. The young ladies were not only asked to use their bodies but their voices as well. McGregor opened her session with the participants  seeking the origin of their partner’s name then sharing their findings, while teaching a portion of a her native New Orleans Second Line, Ott spoke of the importance of mental health, and believing in yourself enough to “Assist in your own rescue”, while Hailes asked the ladies to select defining words of strength and power then physicalize them.

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Ott Leads Workshop: Moving Towards Awareness

Not a moment was wasted, over lunch Brown sat with the ladies and shared her story of being a Black girl, dancer,  and choreographer, not just her struggles but also the revelations about herself that prompted her to create a space such as this. When the floor was opened one young lady eloquently asked how she could combat having her voice silenced at school; How do you “win” when someone makes you feel like your voice is not important? The elders in the room emotionally took her under wing, let her know that she was not “Crazy” to “imaging” this “feeling”… While muttering to themselves, that there is no real answer to that question, that they are all still working to figure it out themselves, they shared their tools with her and she was not alone.

The interactive Keynote was delivered by Maria Bauman, Dancing on the Razor’s Edge: Black Girl Prowess. In Bauman’s opening she took great care to identify the “Black Girl Technologies” that showed up in the room, amongst them she pointed out the “having of one another’s back”, and at the “I get you” reflected in a  sisterly“ Umm hmm”. She then illustrated the “Spectrum”  with a slideshow featuring the diversity that present within our community. Movement  was once again brought to the fore when she asked all to think of three words that came to mind when you think of Black Girls, they then made corresponding poses that they brought together on the stage of the black box theater. Since the sessions ran concurrently in closing the three groups showed the combinations from their respective sessions.

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Where I am no stranger to the community connection that is integral to Brown’s work ( for full disclosure I have both been moderator for her after show talkbacks for BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play and we are admittedly friends) and I am so stranger to outreach and workshops of this kind (as a teacher I have participated in many) the thing that was most unique and touching about the day’s events was witnessing both in cause and effect of these young black girls feeling safe enough to be children. Let me clarify: Brown often speaks about how too often Black girls are not seen or treated as children, but are hyper sexualized far too early which in turn makes it necessary to harden themselves from the male gaze, the projected stereotypes, the muting of their voices in schools, as well as the often harsh surrounding of their communities. This results in a loss of vulnerability, and freedom of imagination, and the inability to just play. It is the genesis of the coarseness often  associated with Black women. In the environment  of this symposium (safe, and allowing) these girls were invited, they were assisted in the removal of that heavy, cumbersome, ill-fitting armor encasing them. Their innocence, their tenderness, their baby soft skin was  allowed to breath and catch light. There was a lilting quality to their laughter, laughing with in support and joy, not at in ridicule for protection. Their voices lacked the edge that is associated with a neck roll and snap. They were not “sassy” but smart, silly and sensitive. They were are articulate in their expression and sensitive in the support of their fellow participants, they collaborated and created together. The workshops were held in “available spaces”, there were no doors or walls to separate them but somehow they did not encroach upon one another, as the girls were not “loud”. As an observer I floated freely through the sessions,  a witness. All the while I was trying to put my finger on this feeling I had that was at concomitantly familiar and vague… then it struck me. For the first time I was seeing little Black girls whose outsides match their insides, they wore their softness, and vulnerability like beautiful robes. They were the antithesis of their stereotype, they were simply little girls dancing, playing, sharing…

As a child I was fortunate enough to have a childhood, but as an adult I have watched the eradication of it sweeping through our country like a plague. American children Black, White, rich, and poor alike are being stripped of this magical time, forced to grow up too fast and face adult realities too soon.sometimes as product of socio-political prejudice and poverty, sometimes it’s the barrage of information and marketing directed towards them. Historically, Black children in America have had to be acutely aware of themselves and the effect of their Blackness on others, and adroit at navigating the hostile space that is their country. This doesn’t leave much time for play, naiveté or faux pas. Through everyday dance, Social dance, Brown has been able to not only give these young Black girls their space, safety and the luxury of play, but she has also given them a linage, and legacy that enables them to honor the Black Girl Magic within them. This is the meaning of #SOCIALDANCEFORSOCIALCHANGE.  And while we all click “Like”, “Share”, “repost” “Retweet” and adopt the hashtag, let’s not forget to “click” into the actual community and truly join the conversation, or better yet the action.

Local Participants:
2016 Black Girl Movement Conference
Bailey’s Cafe
Brooklyn Museum Project
Black Girl Project
Brooklyn community Arts & Media HS
Devore Dance Centre
Girls Talk/guys Talk
Gotham Professional Arts Cooperative
Little Maroons Childcare Education
Ronald Edmonds Learning Center
Sadie Nash Leadership Project
Sports & Arts in Schools Foundation
The Women’s Group at THE POINT CDC
YouthStand Coney Island Leadership Program
Young Adult Literacy Project@ WestFarms Library

 

The Illegal, Underground Ballerinas of Iran

Dancing is illegal in the Middle Eastern state, but that hasn’t stopped renegade ballet teachers and students from staging classes in secret.

The first time I met Ada* was at a rooftop party in Amsterdam. We had gravitated towards the snacks table and, reluctant to give up a prime position that offered both uninterrupted access to the fries and a view of drunk tourists falling into the Prinsengracht canal, we began swapping stories. Ada, a web developer from Iran, told me about dodging Tehran’s morality police as a teenager, once dashing into a shop in the hope that they’d run past—only to realize that they had followed her in.

“They used to check our nail varnish to make sure it wasn’t too bright or enticing,” she laughed. “All the police had different ideas about what was going to turn men on too much and it was difficult to know how they’d react. But I knew they’d hate purple so I ran into the shop. The shop owner saw me and opened the backdoor and I ran out into the back alley while he told the police he hadn’t seen me.”

“It sounds like something out of the French resistance.”

“It was resistance! We would wear gloves to hide our hands and use tricks to get away with wearing as much makeup as possible. That’s what [the government] does to us. They make us feel like painting our nails was a really rebellious thing to do. They make you care about such little things, so you don’t have the energy to fight for the big things.”

Six months after our conversation, Ada emailed me from Tehran. She had just attended her first ballet class in years and was buzzing. She told me about covertly scanning the local newspapers for the “right kind of advert,” stalking online message boards, calling mysterious numbers, drafting in friends as character references and, finally, gaining entry to the secretive classes.

Dance is illegal in Iran. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the country poured funding into the arts, especially dance programs that combined elements of traditional dance with Western disciplines like ballet. After the Shah’s government was overthrown, dance was declared sinful. The Iranian National Ballet Company was disbanded in 1979, shortly after all its foreign dancers fled the country.

Their Iranian counterparts were left with three choices: Give up on their life’s work and find another way to pay their rent; leave Iran and revive the company somewhere else (Les Ballets Persans is currently operating out of Stockholm), or stay in Iran and—through a combination of subterfuge, bribery, and outright defiance—keep dancing.

A pile of dance shoes at a secret ballet class. Photo courtesy of Ada

Ada was 20 when she attended her first ballet class; she is now 28. “I’m not a risk taker and I never went to any of the illegal parties at college,” she says, “but dance classes seemed worth the risk.” It’s not just dance that is banned in Iran; any music that makes your body move spontaneously is considered sinful. “It’s OK as long as it doesn’t give you pleasure,” Ada explains. “As soon as dance or movement gives you pleasure, it’s a sin.”

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IABD’s First Ever Ballet Audition For Women of Color: A step in a New Direction

IADBPIC

First Ever Audition for Black Female Ballet dancers is a Historical Coda to the International Association of Blacks in Dance 28th Dance Conference

January, 24th 2016

On a crystal clear morning in the Daniels and Fisher clock tower in downtown Denver Colorado, two worlds that have long orbited one another collided. The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) extended an invitation to Artistic and Executive directors of major ballet companies to take part in a group audition for female ballet dancers of color to be held at their annual conference. 15 ballet organization were represented, they included: Peter Boal (Pacific Northwest Ballet), Ashely Wheater (Joffrey Ballet), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem)  Patrick Armand (San Francisco Ballet), Stanton Welch (Houston Ballet), and Dorothy Pugh (Memphis Ballet) [COMPLETE LIST BELOW] gathered not only for the audition, but to participate in a real conversation about why there remains a need for such an event in 2016.

A group ballet audition is the brainchild of the indefatigable Joan Myers Brown founder of both the Philadelphia Dance Company, and IABD. “I was told that they didn’t know where to find them, or how to find them [black dancers] so, we wanted to bring them here so that we could have the opportunity to show them black girls who could really do ballet.” The group audition was intended to create a space where artistic directors of companies and dance academies could collectively see dancers, a simple answer to a ubiquitous problem. The “group audition” has been a highly successful model for IABD for many years. “Dancers don’t have the money to run around auditioning for multiple companies and artistic directors don’t always have the time, this just made sense, we are all in the same place at the same time, why not have an audition? The main difference with our audition is that it is not only the directors that get to choose, but the dancers also gets to choose who they want to be with!” says Brown. She was determined to make this Ballet audition happen this year, for too long the octogenarian has witnessed what she refers to as “the lost opportunities” of countless Black ballet students.

Denise Saunders Thompson, IABD’s executive director brought Brown’s vision to fruition by gathering people and organizations to unite resources. She enrolled Executive Director of Dance/USA, Amy Fitterer, to help galvanize the Artistic Directors of ballet organizations and get them on board. She knew that if she could get a few large companies behind the idea, the rest would follow. During the follow-up debriefing  for the Dance /USA Town Hall Race and Dance: Real Talk panel with Fitterer,  Executive directors (San Francisco Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, New York City Ballet) and panelist Theresa Ruth Howard of the newly formed MoBBallet, Thompson floated the idea to see if they thought it would work, and all were on board. The caveat was that, IADB required participating organizations to come with something tangible to offer – “A contract to a first or second company, an apprenticeship, or training scholarship. You just can’t come into the room and observe. They [the Artistic Directors] answered the call, now let’s see what the commitment is going to be.You have to be ready to commit!” Thompson said emphatically.

There was a great deal riding on the success of this endeavor – if it went well it could be the start of a new approach to an old problem. Every scenario was taken into consideration: Who would the dancers be? Could dancers afford to make the trek? Would there be backlash if no offers were made? The planning team took these realities into consideration but would not let themselves not be stymied by them. The audition might not go perfectly but it would be action, a new approach, and we all would learn and grow from the experience. Due to generous donations The John Jones Memorial Fund, donated by Black Ballerina Ms. Delores Browne and the American Dance Institute (ADI) Future Artists Initiative, supporting diversity in Dance Education, IABD was able to sponsor a great number of the dancers.

Taking full advantage of having incredible amounts of power in one venue, IABD hosted a two hour “meet and greet” prior to the audition. This was an opportunity for everyone in that room to take a collective leap into the unknown with an authentic, honest talk about race and ballet. “The larger more vital aspect of this event is the fact this is the first time that the ballet world would enter the Black dance community and sit at a table to discuss us, with us. We have talked about diversity in our own spaces, but never have artistic directors, the “choice makers”, the people who actually are responsible for the aesthetic and for hiring, ever sat at a table with the Black dance community. Now we can build a relationship, a network, and a support system. I think it is really the only way that we are going to make some headway and enact change.” Says MoBBallet’s Theresa Ruth Howard.

What could have been an awkward or tense situation instead teemed with excitement and possibility. It was a room of people ready for change, looking for answers, guidance, and willing to band together to make it happen. “I know that this is a conversation that has been going on for decades, but there really does seem to be something different now… where maybe there really is an opportunity to make lasting change.”Dance USA’s Amy Fitterer remarked.

“We said to these artistic directors, it is more than a conversation, it is about action. This is a call to action. This is your opportunity to respond. And to really be apart of the real conversation of how you are going to diversify your organization, and… watching you do it.” Thompson explained.

The audition was held at IABD founding member, and the conference’s host, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance studios. The studio was packed – ballet representatives lined the mirrors, filling the barres were 87 hopeful dancers ranging in age from 15 to mid 20’s, representing every race and colors spanning the sepia spectrum. Robert Garland (of Dance Theater Harlem) prepared a variation, and the honorable Delores Brown, one of the America’s premier Black Ballerinas with the New York Negro Ballet (1957) began the barre. For the next three hours, the beauty, talent, and diversity of black female ballet dancers from around the globe was on display.

Quickly the fears about the level of the dancers were allayed, it proved to be like any other audition: strong, weak, and everything in-between. When the audition concluded, directors announced their picks, and dancers were welcome to approach whomever they were interested in for information and feedback. All representatives found candidates for summer intensive training and even company auditions (the final results are presently being tallied). The most important outcome was the enthusiastic desire and commitment to continuing the dialogue and building a network so that both communities can support one another going forward. As the room began to empty, the sight of Joan Myers Brown and Delores Brown standing together surveying what was taking place was monumental.

This is the only the start, there are plans to develop a caucus that would expand on these nascent efforts. Not even the snowstorm in the East could hinder this historical moment. It was a perfect coda to spectacular conference! After over 60 years Joan Myers Brown who long ago wanted to the the first Black ballerina was once again feeling the possibilities of the doors opening up was overwhelmed seeing manifestation of her most recent dream, “We did it, I am so grateful to you all, I really am” Myers Brown said with her hand to her heart, her eyes filled with emotion.

Adjudicators Present

Ballet Memphis
1. Dorothy Gunther Pugh, Founder & Artistic Director
2. Brian McSween, Ballet Master

Pennsylvania Ballet II
1. Francis Veyette, Director

Colorado Ballet
1. Gil Boggs, Artistic Director

Dance/USA
1. Amy Fitterer, Executive Director

Charlotte Ballet
1. Ayisha McMillan Cravotta, Academy Director
2. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, President & Artistic Director

Joffrey Ballet
1. Ashley Wheater, Artistic Director

Dance Theatre of Harlem
1. Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director

Houston Ballet
1. Stanton Welch, Artistic Director

Pacific Northwest Ballet
1. Peter Boal, Artistic Director

San Francisco Ballet
1. Patrick Armand, Artistic Director
2. Andrea (Andi) Yannone, Director of Education and Training

Kansas City Ballet
1. Devon Carney, Artistic Director

Washington Ballet
1. Erin Du, Co-Director of the Future Artist Initiative, American Dance Institute
(representative for Septime Webre)

Oregon Ballet Theatre
1. Kevin Irving, Artistic Director

School of Nashville Ballet
1. Hershel Horner, Full Time Faculty, Contemporary

Jacob’s Pillow
1. JR Glover, Director of Education

School of American Ballet (Observer only)
1. Leah Quintiliano, Diversity Program Manager

Camille A. Brown’s BLACK GIRL:LINGUISTIC PLAY presented at the Joyce Theater

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BLACK GIRL: LINGUISTIC PLAY
Directed and Choreographed by Camille A. Brown (In collaboration with the woman of CABD)
Music : Scott Paterson and Tracy Wormworth
Set Design: Elizabeth C. Nelson

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I must make the disclosure that I am a friend of Camille A. Brown, the highly decorated choreographer, (Bessie Award winner, two time Princess Grace Award Winner) hence reviewing her work could be seen as a conflict of interests. I have been remotely privy to her process, and had seen some brief clips of sections but all in all when I arrived at the Joyce Theatre September 22nd, 2015 I was relatively in the dark about what I was about to see.

Black Girl… the term itself is at once provocative, and evocative. It is weighted and complex, a term that can mean a myriad of things depending on the tone of its utterance. Said with raised eyebrows, pursed lips, pointer finger erect, and a swiveling serpent’s head brings to mind all that is equated with being “Ghetto” low class, ignorant and “Street”. This Black girl spits phrases like “Oh no you didn’t,” “Oh see, I will cut choo” box braids, baby mama’s, hands on hips…that sass, and verve, that fire, aggression and strength that enables her to “hold it down” is regarded as a negative. When said clear and strong with head held high, an unseen fist in the air, this Black girl (although she embodies the same adjectives as the first girl) her clarity of self, and ownership of her history, makes her more threatening. Where they both can “read” the former wields her tongue like a machete, the latter like a scalpel. Finally “Black girl” when whispered gently, with lips that slowly curl into a sly grin, and an almost imperceptible nod of the head, indicates that the speaker has just revealed one of world’s best kept secrets, “Black Girl Genius”. This is how post show talk back moderator Mark Anthony Neal so eloquently referred to the deliciously complex and ingenuitive matrix of what is “Black Girl” magic.

When the curtain rose, besides the varied leveled platforms, the first thing you notice is a huge chalkboard riddled with brightly colored childlike doodles. It appears as though someone has taken a slab of inner city concrete where children have mused away an afternoon, and turned it upright. In this simple gesture Brown and set designer Elizabeth C. Nelson have at elevated inner city play into art. Tracy Wormworth begins a slow and deliberate solo on a bass guitar, the feel and sound is reminiscent of a jazz club either before it opens, or before it closes, there is faint haze in the air (Scott Paterson’s score creates a haunting backdrop for the work). Brown in front of the chalkboard board begins a solo that could be considered her thesis statement of sorts, a physicalized foreshadowing of what is come. Clad in cut off denim shorts, a fuchsia top tied into a midriff, braids and lips matching her top, Brown put me in mind of a character out of an 80’s Spike Lee Joint as she referenced both physical behaviors and social dances from that time. It brought my teen and childhood years back to me in a rush. Clearly other members of the audience (undoubtably Black) are having the same experience as there were sniggers, and “Humphs” and a smatterings of “ok nows” as we recognize the Whop, the Dougie, a pose or gesture. We “get” what is happening up there, because we recognize ourselves. There was a particularly brilliant section when Brown in profile performs various forms of “Black girl” walks from B girl, a sassy church step touch, heel toe, stomping to tipping.

It is at that moment that I realized that regardless of my relationship to Camille, I understand that this story she is telling, is my story, our story and I must write about it. It is something of a secret to those outside of our culture, and the white people in the audience, though they may like it, and some critics might even hail it, they will almost certainly not fully understand the depth and complexity of what they are witnessing, the history, the legacy, genius. It’s like that old At&T commercial you have to “Know the Code” and without it you can only appreciate the work from a superficial perspective which, can be a completely fulfilling experience, but not its totality. It is like listing to a song in another language, you can appreciate it for its beauty, but that is very different from understanding not just the translation but the cultural sentiment of the lyrics. This is not a judgement, it’s a truth. A great deal of culturally specific work is mis, or under-understood. That is in and of itself is not the problem, the problem is when critics cannot admit their ignorance to a genre or topic, thus reduce it down to something far more simplistic than what it truly is. This happens a lot with artist of colors and critique, there is a diminishment of their work, with an underlying feeling of resentment because the writer (in their ignorance) was made to feel callow and outside the work. So instead of simply admitting that is beyond their personal scope, they reduce it.

The second movement is a duet between Brown and Catherine Foster. Foster and Brown have been friends and colleagues for many years and it shows in this virtuosically rhythmical duet that has its roots street games and at times hinges on their ability to almost become one person. The duet really takes off when the two do that familiar rock back and forth as if preparing to jump into the Double Dutch ropes, from there it does not stop. In the intricate weaving of Double Dutch “footies” steps, drill team stomping, rhythms akin to hambone, tap and African dance even a dope reggae beat, Brown draws a map of the history young Black girls on urban streets are engaged in as they play everyday. The welling up of nostalgia and pride was overtaken by that by sorrow as I watched, for it was the first time that I could see the beauty of my culture honored and respected, to see the artistry, the elegance, ingenuity… the “genius” in Black girl…Linguistic Play.

The middle of the duet brought with it a bit of comedy as the two girls (through a murmured soundtrack) hear another group of girls talking about them. The familiar “She thinks she cute, she ain’t all that…” when Brown motions to take her big gold earring off (Black Girl code for preparing to fight) audience members in the “know” erupt. BLACK GIRL strikes a perfect balance of showing the brilliance, the beauty and the feistiness of Black Women without the stereotypical booty shaking and twerking. There is a tenderness and a strength that is seldom presented. Camille A. Brown does for Black women in dance, what Shonda Rimes has done for Black actresses, she as made them human with all the messy, divine complexity inherent in that condition.

The third movement was a tender coming of age story with a sentimental arch beautifully danced —nay acted by Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser. The two begin carrying on the street play theme until puberty hits and Fraser discovers boys, and the power of her feminine form has over them. The two compete for male attention trying to out flirt one another unto battery, all against the chalkboard. They literally smudge out their innocence. It is a story many women (of all races) are familiar with, after the heartbreaking battle they find themselves estranged, Fraser feeling guilty for instigating, Capote distraught. Eventually they find their way back to one another. Sisterhood is the anchor for this work something you see precious little of when it comes to Black Women especially on reality television. With popularity of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love and Hip Hop, and Basketball Wives, one would think that all Black women do is fuss, fight, and pull weaves while wearing ill-fitting, too-tight clothing. Here, Brown presents something more akin to the everyday reality.

It was around this time that I started to think about what’s happening in the media today, the cultural appropriation of the Black Girl image that is on trend. Where we have grown accustom to white women stealing our hair styles (whether getting their hair braided on a beach in the Caribbean) or using bronzers and spray tans recreate our color, but it is the ubiquity of the appropriation of our bodies that is most disturbing of late. White girls rocking alien looking butt implants, and over injected lips that, on their lighter bodies enjoy a sublimation from “Ghetto” Booty and “Nigger” lips to something sexy and attractive (Kylie Jenner). It is an insult. Vogue’s Patricia Garcia citing literally fake-ass Iggy Azelea and Kim Kardashian for making Big Butts fashionable, Please. This is the feeling that came over me in the theater. I was upset that my cultural birthrights are being syphoned off co-opted. Then former NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal came to mind. This woman who “Identifies Black” hence felt she was well within her right to present herself as such, NEVER HAD THE EXPERIENCES THAT I WAS WATCHING ON THE STAGE. She didn’t play these street games, get chased out of white neighborhoods when it was getting dark because you were on “their” block, she never sat between her mother’s legs and got her scalp greased and hair combed at night before she went to bed with her head wrapped a scarf. She was NEVER a BLACK GIRL. She “became” a “Black” woman when she was in her 20’s. It is a fact that you feel but feelings aren’t facts you can “feel” like you are Black, the fact is you are not… But I digress (into my feelings).

Yusha -Marie Sorzano
Yusha -Marie Sorzano

Yusha-Marie Sorzano performs an exquisitely nuanced solo, she is searching, troubled, perhaps a bit lost, she is joined by Mora-Amina- Parker who appears to be a mother/sister figure. One of the most poignant moments of the duet is when Parker, with Sorzano seated between her legs combs her hair and soothes her soul concomitantly. This gesture is one familiar to all Black women (Dolezal excluded), it is ritualistic, sacred, a rite of passage, for you will go from getting your hair done, to doing someone’s hair. Whether it is your Mother, sister, aunty, cousin, girlfriend or even the girl down the block you paid to do your braids, this act is so heavily layered with meaning. In this act of grooming there is nurturing, caring, bonding, sharing, tenderness, sternness, joy, pleasure, pain. There is such intense intimacy in those moments of getting your hair combed that the sense memory evoked from watching the gesture performed is almost palpable for Black women. Where this duet seemed less defined then the previous two, in the Talk Back when Brown explains the final gesture (Soranzo rests her head on Parker’s feet) by explaining that it illustrated her own in longing to simply…rest. Black women seldom get to …rest. In hindsight (and with a bit more information) it is clearer. Speaking of more information, Brown did not miss a beat, almost in anticipation of the “lack of understanding” she adroitly added a reference and resource guide in the program, undoubtedly to help laypeople and writers decode the work. Likewise the Talk Back is built into the running time of the piece, which aids those who are culturally illiterate in gaining a greater understanding and hopefully an appreciation for the work over all. In addition audience members get share their experiences which Brown, who no doubt takes in and uses to further refine and tweak the work.

BLACK GIRL” LINGUISTIC PLAY is a timely piece, it is a necessary piece, it is a work that truly pays homage to the Black Girl experience, as Brown said in the talk back when asked about the platforms of her set, “I just wanted to elevate us as high as we could be” and she did. She gave a very different view of the perception of who and what Black girls are, as did the square mirrors hanging at various angles from the ceiling did. BLACK GIRL: LINGUISTIC PLAY is nothing at all what you might expect just hearing the title, but everything you need to know about Black Girls.

Nowness.com presents:​Portrait of a Dancer: Lauren Cuthbertson

Truly beautiful and inspiring…

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Lauren Cuthbertson is a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet of London.

The T.Ruth of the Matter

The irony of life never ceases to amaze. Daily we are in are hot pursuit of the perfection, we take class adding, subtracting and re-draping warm-ups, retouching our hair, and touch and pat ourselves during combinations to make sure everything is just so. Even on our best days in the thin leotard, when the body feels good, and we are on our leg there is something that just isn’t right. No matter what we can always find something about ourselves to hate. Let’s face it the ritualistic practice self-debasement is almost a prerequisite for being a dancer. Around the same time we learn to Tombé pas de Bourré, we learn to think “Gee I suck today”. To tell the truth there is a whole body of things to loathe in all its parts, there are technical shortcomings, the things that never seem to get better even after years of effort, not to mention the things we can’t do anything about (bowed legs are bowed legs get over it and wing your foot) However the package of self deprecation would not be complete without the futile wanting to be the very thing we are not.
We could go our whole lives thinking little of ourselves but the Universe has an equalizer, nothing snaps us into the state of appreciation like being broken down. When you’re sitting on the PT’s table getting an assessment of what has you on ice and Advil, when the doctor is assuring you that it’s just a few weeks before you can start to take class, when you’re rehabbing with electric stem, reformers, exercise bikes and therabands your thoughts go back to the good old bad days when you weren’t hobbled and ginched. It’s hard to believe that just three weeks ago you dreaded facing yourself in dance clothes, now you miss the sight of your jiggly ass, and thought it wasn’t perfect you could arabesque without that shooting pain in your back, though your foot didn’t point like a cashew you could land from jumps without thought, and even though you were never a multiple turner you could do a clean two and finish without that twinge in your knee. You watch class or rehearsal and dance the steps in your mind, remembering when you could work that out. Isn’t it ironic that when you can’t dance the teacher gives all the things you used to do well? It’s as if the Universe means to anchor the lesson “You never miss a good thing until it’s gone.”
After the swelling goes down, the brace comes off, when you get the okay to jump and you make it through you first pain free week of dance, just when your starting to feel secure on your feet again, you’re feeling strong enough to try dancing without the worry of re-injury, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and spy that thick thigh in the crooked arabesque with the biscuit foot at the end. It’s then that you realize that you’re back!

The Wisdom of King

I have for a long time loved Alonzo Kings’ movement.

About eight years ago I was working on a project in San Francisco we rehearsed in the San Francisco Dance Center that houses Lines Ballet company. As we were working with a couple of his dancers, one of whom was a green and adorable Brett Conway, I got to inquiring about what it was like to work with King. With no exaggeration every dancer in his company I encountered told me that it was the greatest opportunity they had experienced, it was hard and demanding but they all seemed challenged, fulfilled and creatively happy. Now I know about the PR spiel that dancers are taught to spout when asked an honest (but loaded) and possibly political question. I have a BS detector and I have to say these dancers seemed to be telling the truth- they also said it would be nice to have more money- and (at the time) more work, but they were happy.

I had not yet met Mr. King.

That happened a year or so later when I was Venice performing and the Dance Biennale working with Karole Armitage, LINES was also there to perform. I went to their performance was blown away. After the show I finally met King, we were instantly taken with one another and he invited me to the post show dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant he asked me to sit beside him “We are not finished” he stated. We laughed and talked into the wee hours. Such that my fellow dancers left me at the restaurant basking in the glow of the King and when I looked up it was 2 am and I was unclear as to where I was or how to get back to my apartment. All I knew was to follow the signs that said Ospetale. Alonzo (as I felt at this point comfortable enough to call him) offered to see me home safely.

We ended up wandering the alley like streets of Venice on a treasure hunt for signs that read “Hospital” laughing at ourselves all the way. I am convinced that we would still be lost had it not been for a drunken Italian man who insisted upon helping us. The New Yorker in me did not trust him and the whole time I had to keep his hands at bay- this amused the King a great deal. Subsequent to that evening I have had the opportunity to deepen my relationship with him through the discussion of art and choreography. At one point I told him I wanted to come and live with him to get inside his head his reply “Come on”. When he created the BFA Program with Dominican University I did not hesitate to recommend it to my graduating students, mainly because I trusted the intention and the philosophy that infuses his being, and is passed on to his dancers, hence his teachers and his programs.

Here is a video which illustrates what I fell in love with that night in Venice. I wish the dance world had more Alonzo Kings, then we as dancers would be healthier artists emotionally and spiritually inside and out.

LINES Ballet from LINES Ballet on Vimeo.

My Body My Image Workshop Excerpts

My body My Image is a workshop that through honest dialogue seeks to bring to light what most often looms above and festers below regarding this issue. The point of the workshop is to start an open dialogue and have the students express their feelings and concerns regarding how they view and experience their bodies and offer some support and techniques to help guide them through these difficult realities. Formatted in a 1 1/2 hour discussion topics would include:

• The Awful Truth: Generally there are “ideal” body types in the dance world. The origins of which date back for centuries, but through time have evolved as the form, bodies and aesthetics evolve. Example: Ballet dancers have not always been pin thin Balanchine began to alter the aesthetic. However petite women have been preferred due to the fact that it facilitates traditional work i.e. partnering

•Puberty and Genes: Puberty is the scariest time in a (female dancer’s) development, who knows what the outcome will be. Teachers and program directors often have difficulty ushering young girls through this time either they make negative remarks about their budding hips and weight fluctuations or render them invisible. The workshop helps dancers navigate this sensitive time with more clarity and understanding.

• Blessings as Curses and Vice Versa: Things like hooked feet and flexibility are lovely to look at and are things that “make a dancer beautiful” but they require a great deal of strength to master. They can also make a dancer prone to injury. Conversely muscularity and strength allow for execution but the presence of it can be aesthetically of putting; likewise tall can be beautiful but hard to partner, short etc.

• A Good Body is one that DOES: Good feet, bad feet, tight, snatched, powerful…Just because there is a preferred aesthetic does not mean that if you do not fit into it you can’t work. The world of dance has broadened and choreographers and directors are embracing diversity and beginning to see beauty in all types.

• Making the best of what you have: There is no such thing as a perfect body. Everyone has a struggle, sometimes it is not as obvious but it is there. Working with what you have, working within your body and capabilities to be the best possible you you can be is the key

• Learning to Love your Body: see Dance Magazine Article

Dance/USA Conference MIAMI

On June 18th, 2015, I was very honored to be a speaker at the Dance/USA conference in Miami Florida at the Adrianne Arsht Center as a part of Race and Dance Townhall: REAL TALK Part 1. I was invited by Michelle Ramos Burkhart who was curating several sessions for the conference as a part of Dance/USA’s attempt to address the topic of race and diversity. She had read my article ‘The Misty-rious Case of the Ballerinas of Color: Where have they gone?’ and was interested in having me speak about it. I have to admit, although I was honored that the piece was gaining traction, I was apprehensive about the idea of attending, let alone being on a panel discussing the issue, at a ”conference”. Let me explain. I am a cynic, and in my experience, that cynicism I speak of is well placed, as almost every “talk”, “town meeting”, or “panel discussion” I have attended has always left me feeling like I had just witnessed a circle jerk (it is a crude reference, but it’s on point). If you have ever attended one, then you know exactly what I mean. Let me introduce the cast of characters:

The Moderator – who moderates either too little or way too much.

The Academics – who are talking to themselves, they come off as superciliously wanting to alienate those not of their intellectual ilk or of the “Academy”. Where they bring great points, their presentation seldom moves the conversation forward as much as around in circles (that generally revolve around them).

The Historians – who are not so much enamored with themselves (as are the Academics) but with their information, they often have trouble effectively tying that information into the conversation.

The Droner – someone either on the panel or in the audience who goes on and on. You pray that the moderator will cut them off, but they never do, and people start to get uncomfortable, shift in their seats, kick the person next to them, smirk, or sigh under their breath.

*This is only my exaggerated perception of these events, this is how they come off to me I told I am a cynic..

Another issue I have with these scenarios is that they are seldom honest, organic conversations, but more D@$k swinging contests where nothing revelatory happens, just a regurgitation of the obvious. In the end, I felt like I was at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice awards…slimmed.

I did not want to be an active part of that motley crew.

Another reason I was a bit apprehensive about participating was because of my reputation for being brutally honest, albeit with a great deal of wit and humor (a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but even still). I have the ability to lance the chest and spear the heart with my honest observations. It took a great deal of thought to find the right tone for my article, ‘The Misty-rious Case of the Ballerinas of Color: Where have they gone?”. Finding the best way to express sentiments about the Misty Copeland narrative that were rumbling in the community for a *long time and not have it read like an attack was an exercise, both as a person and a writer. When I clicked “Publish”, I thought that I would have to enroll in the witness protection program. To have received no backlash from it  has left me slightly incredulous. Where I have confidence that I can be that judicious and diplomatic in the privacy of my writing space in a live conversation? I’m not so sure. When impassioned, there is no telling what might be propelled off of my tongue. I was not certain that I had reached that level of buddhistic mastery in this area, so the idea of participating on this panel gave me pause.

Denise Saunders Thompson (Chairperson/Executive Director of International Association of Blacks in Dance) and I became acquainted through an anointed faux pas. She arranged an “invitation conference” call with Burkhart so the three of us could flesh out what these sessions would really address. I voiced my concerns, the largest being that every time you have a gathering to talk about race, diversity, or lack of fair representation, the people who are in control of, and who perpetuate the issues are NEVER present. They never have to be accountable, or bear responsibility for their actions or non actions. We, the congregation end up singing an old hymn to the same choir…and we all know the words. This scenario is as classic as ballet itself, as traditional as the corps de ballet being various shades of pink: I have always found their unwillingness to engage the subject with the “subjects” dismissive, reductive, and a clear indication that they just don’t give a damn. I operate under a simple premise that has been illustrated through time: people show up for what matters in their lives – people make time for what matters to them, and they don’t when it doesn’t. #hesjustnotthatintoyou. What usually results in these gathering is a room full of people who are afraid to call out those in power and tell it like it is (in public). It’s like a verbal version of that game “Mad Libs” where the lengthened pause means “insert proper noun here”.

 

My other issue (as I write, I see that I have a lifetime subscription) was that often you can gauge just how useless a session is going to be by the racial composition of the room. Generally, there is a room full of brown people with sprinkles of well-intentioned white people who are either brave enough to be present, or who think that their ability to be in a room full of soon-to-be-heated Black people talking about very charged and painful things “says” something about who they are, how “liberal” or “down with the cause” they may be (raise fist here). And where this might be, most of the time it’s all for naught because everyone in attendance already agrees. There *is no real “debate”, just head nodding and an occasional “amen”. The wrap up generally consists of the questions, “So what do we do now? Where do we go from here?”, and since the people who have the power to make the changes are nowhere to be found, the  answers are the same: nothing and nowhere! Once again, the proverbial tree of issues has fallen in the forest, and the only people to hear it are those who chopped it down. I knew that this was an important invitation, and it would put my work on the “national” stage, but I was not so sure that I wanted to play to that particular house.

After hearing my concerns, I was told that last year the composition of attendees was quite diverse, and that a great effort would be made to have some of the people with the power in the room. Once I was on board, there were several conference calls with Amy Fitterer (Executive Director of Dance/USA), Burkhart, Thompson and my fellow panelists, Kaisha Johnson (Women of Color in the Arts WOCA) and Tanya Wideman David (Assistant Professor at University of South Carolina and Co-Artistic Director of Wideman/Davis Dance, also former DTHer). We worked to clarify what we wanted these sessions to address and important points. The second session, which was to address the funding of diversity initiatives, presented some problems. I was clear that I wanted to talk about the efficacy and sustainability of programs like ABT’s Project Plié and the New York City Ballet diversity initiative that the organization is actively seeking Black representatives for. (To do what exactly? To date, no one, not even the people who have been contacted, and who have agreed to participate, seem to know…you see, this was my point). There was talk about a number of diversity/funding issues surrounding choreographers and companies of color. In the end, after coming back from the Grantmakers in the Arts conference Fitterer found a different direction for the second half to follow. Therefore, I will only talk about the first session that I personally actively participated in.

I was nervous going in. It was my first foray into these waters and it was primed for missteps. However, I have to say that having some friendly faces there was a comfort. I was thrilled and surprised to see that Tina Williams, former Ailey dancer is now the Director of Facility Rentals at the Arsht center. Seeing her face made me feel bit at home upon entering the Arsht center in the morning. As I made my way to our conference room, I was soothed to see Lane Harwell from Dance/NYC (who I know from another life) and Jenny Stahl (Editor in Chief of Dance magazine who I met when she had just graduated from NYU and started working at DanceMedia) were attending. Then there was also Anjali Austin (a former DTHer and Associate Professor of Dance School of Dance Florida State University), Michelle Ramos Berkhart’s daughter, Ellenore Scott (a former Ailey student of mine turned company director, ELSCO) and of course Denise Saunders Thompson. Their presence helped me navigate these uncharted waters as they sat in the audience. If it makes any sense at all, where I did not feel ready, I did feel prepared because there were elements of my past, present, and no doubt my future, in those seats.

Burkhart opened and asked me to give a brief synopsis of the article, why I wrote it, and the response to it. However, before I got into that, I had to ask the audience a very important question and offer the participants in the room the opportunity for us to enter into an agreement together. I told the audience that I believed that the United States is in this racial maelstrom today because we as a society are unwilling to have an honest conversation about race. A conversation that is messy, and scary and full of anger, resentment, blame, frustration, rage, ugly truths, and guilt which are the by-products of a culture created and rooted in systematic racism. I told the White people in the room, “I know that your first response when you hear certain things is to deflect, or become defensive, but I ask that, on this day will you/ we commit to working to stay open, to listening and letting it land. Hear it, don’t push it away, or make rationalizations. Take it as a truth that you never knew, could not know existed because you are White. Take what is being said as authentic feelings based in a reality that you cannot, will not  “understand”. Where it will feel personal, try not to take it personally. And as Black people, it feels personal and we are going to try to move past that feeling to get to the greater possibility. I ask that we collectively try to have this courageous conversation, and authentically look at the reality as difficult as it might be, and if we could not, then we should all just go to the pool now and have a cocktail”. We all agreed…

What transpired in the next 90 mins was interesting. Quite honestly, I can’t comment on whether or not people in the audience had the feeling that I get when in their position, but I will say this, it seemed as if something had opened up when we finished. We started with my article, and Tanya Wideman Davis brought in the reality of the trope of the ballerina, the aesthetic, and the mythology of her (pure, chaste, ideal beauty) and the idea that Black women, and our bodies historically (and presently) have never been allowed to be perceived that way – the black female body has always been portrayed as “deviant” and “sexualized”. I brought up how stressful it is to be Black in America, living knowing that you are enemy #1 and constantly having to *prove that you are not the “stereotype” of your race. I added the fact that as a little brown girl (or boy) stepping into the extremely white world of ballet, you not only bear the responsibility of becoming proficient in the technique, but you must do so while carrying the weight of your race on your back. Little white girls don’t have to struggle under that burden. I added, we [Black people] know that we are not supposed to be there because we do not see ourselves there — not as teachers, administrators, not even as receptionists. We talked about the “D word”, diversity…I charged them, “If you want to know how you are doing in terms of diversity, just look at your life, look at your friends, your office, your school, programs, organizations and companies…Diversity is not hard”. I said, “You don’t have to have a lot of money, or an initiative to create diversity…all you have to do is open the door and welcome people in”. Several audience members added their thoughts, including a woman who is the sole African American booking agent in the state (yes, the state) of Florida, who finds herself being what I call the “Negroscope” for companies, presenters, and theaters alike when they are trying to “diversify”. Another women (white) spoke about not realizing the realities of the stress of being black, and how she longed to ask questions but friends always tell her “You can’t ask that!”. I (along with others in the room) poo pooed that notion. I encouraged her that any question asked authentically and with good intentions is usually fine. Denise Saunders Thompson, broke it down to money and vision–when she said that it really boils down to “ Look who gets, the funding…the way the Artistic directors of companies see things, because it’s their vision that we are seeing – until that changes, none of this will change.”

Toni Pierce (former Ailey dancer and Co-Founder and Artistic Director of TU Dance) mentioned the number of Black ballet dancers in Modern companies and the idea that there were some who never wanted to be ballet dancer, which spoke to the elitism of the world of Ballet as better.. Davis also talked about the validation that Black ballet dancers seek from White companies…it got deep, it was a rich and vibrant discussion from where I sat, but hell, I was already over stimulated…

 

As we wrapped up the session, I announced the launch of museumofblacksinballet.org, a digital archive of Black Ballet dancers I am creating, and I took the opportunity to do our first “flash MoBB” where I asked everyone to connect to the site at once. The Museum of Blacks in Ballet project is in direct response to what I wrote about in my article. One reason the erasure of a legacy of black ballerinas can occur is because of the inefficient and inaccessible archiving and documentation of that history (we’ll deal with the idea that the contributions of Black people to history across the board is often diminished or overlooked later). I, along with my partner Phil Chan, have decided to try our best to contribute to the solution. Please check it out, we are still in the building stages, but take moment to scroll the Roll Call, in itself is a moving tribute. There will be more to come as we build out the site, so please keep checking in and if you are so moved, become a member and donate!!!

For me, those were the highlights, and I have to say that the room was charged and full of optimism…not to sound crass, but it always is, it’s like post coital endorphins are released…I was very pleased to know that the following people were all in attendance:

Glenn McCoy, Executive Director, San Francisco Ballet

Ellen Walker, Executive Director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Kathy Brown, Executive Director, New York City Ballet

Doug Singleton, Executive Director, Charlotte Ballet

C.C. Conner, Managing Director Emeritus, Houston Ballet

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. McCoy, Ms. Walker, and I believe Mr. Conner. We all agreed that we should continue the conversation and that Ballet companies can benefit greatly by engaging in a dialogue with the Black dance community. I look forward to the possibilities.

I have to say that over all I had a surprisingly wonderful experience; I reconnected with some people who I have not seen in years (decades) and I had a great communion with Kaisha and the WOCA women who are powerful, inspiring and hella entertaining…sisters in all forms of the word…

It has been a few weeks since the conference, and I have checked in with a few fellow speakers and attendees and we all have the same question: “Do you think anything is going to happen? Do you think anything is going to change?”. I can say that only time will tell, but I will also say that I will be holding folks accountable. We have reached critical mass, and as a people, we are sick of being a faddish initiative, or a charity case. If you say you want diversity, then you have to work for it. It’s not going to happen “organically”; the world we live in is socially “organic” and you see how that’s working for us. So if you want it (and all the funding money that comes with it) then roll up your sleeves, pull your waders on, and let’s get to work. This, [racism, lack of diversity] in this country is not Black people problem (we did not create it, we do not sustain it, though we live under it)  this is a White people problem and only White folks can solve it*. Talk is cheap, let’s get to action, movement, and since as dancers that’s what we do, it shouldn’t take long for us to get the combo…so 5,6,7,8, ready on the 1.

* I’m not saying that Black people don’t have to contribute to the solution but the larger work, or inclusion, sharing or resources, equality of opportunity are for White people to do their work within themselves to solve, then we can really get somewhere….