Assessment of American concert dance world: Needs Improvement

I have seen the dance world from multiple perspectives. I have studied dance most of my life and performed, choreographed, and taught dance. I have learned about dance (with a degree to show for it) and read, thought, and written about dance. I have worked in administrative roles for dance education, presenting, and service organizations. I have engaged with Dance/NYC, Dance/USA, the Congress on Research in Dance, the Arts and Business Council, and the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. I live in New York City where I see dance performances and hobnob with a variety of dance professionals on a regular basis.

And my consensus from observing the dance world from these diverse vantage points is: 1) I love it; I believe in it; I’m not done with it, and 2) It needs a lot of work if it wants to grow and sustain.

I have compiled here a list of problems or areas that I think need improvement in the large context of concert dance in the U.S. I have been thinking about these things for a while, but when I went to actually write down a list, I was surprised that I came up with so many – 20 in total. Because of this, I decided to divide them into categories, so that the full list wouldn’t be as overwhelming. Thus, here is my current list of areas of need for American concert dance

Coming together

  • There is not enough connection and caring among the different sectors of the dance world. I often refer to the 4 A’s and an E: Artists, Administrators, Advocates, Academics, and Educators. I feel that there need to be communication bridges between each of these groups as well as mutual respect and concern for the health of each sector.
  • Specifically, academic researchers and writers tend to be very exclusive. I spoke about this in my review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference last November. I particularly wish that academics were more inclusive of the rest of the field in their studies and also shared their findings with a broader audience, sparking positive change by sharing the knowledge with those it actually affects.
  • Once connecting bridges are established between the different sectors, there needs to be more discourse among people in dance. We need to come together to talk about issues and discuss solutions.
  • I feel dance writers could play a critical role in helping this discourse to happen – using media platforms to bring up topics and engage conversation (not just providing dance criticism). In order to do this, though, we need more opportunities, support, and compensation for dance writers.
  • To fully bring everyone to the table and working together to promote change, we may need to improve our current service organizations and possibly create new ones. For example, I think the Dance Critics Association and Dance/USA could benefit from clarified missions and rejuvenated energy. And with so many separate organizations for each professional group (though each useful), is there need for a national umbrella organization for all things dance, to at least bring representatives from each community together for cross-conversation?

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New York City is not the center of the (dance) world

Dance Magazine does a wonderful job of highlighting dance that is going on all around the country. In January, it published a feature article on Atlanta, Georgia and its growing dance scene. I remember being so shocked and excited to hear how much dance was happening in Atlanta, how it was developing into such a strong dance presence in our country. Who knew Atlanta would be the next “it” place to dance in the U.S.?

Personally, I have chosen the oft-traveled road by rooting myself and my dance pursuits in the longstanding cultural behemoth that is New York City. And admittedly, I sometimes get swept up in the city-centric egos of fellow New Yorkers. So when I come across an article like the one in Dance Magazine, it serves as a great reminder that NYC is in fact not the center of the world and certainly not the center of the dance world.

When I attended the Dance/USA conference a month ago, one of the best break-out sessions that I went to was entitled “Thriving Outside of America’s Cultural Hotspots.” (I spoke briefly on it in my post of conference highlights.) The session turned out to be a great look into dance communities not considered to be in typical dance “hotspots” of the U.S. The four panelists were Ruby Lockhart with Garth Fagan Dance in Rochester, John Malashock with Malashock Dance in San Diego, John Michael Schert with Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, and James Sewell with James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis. Through the moderated discussion, the panelists explained the benefits and challenges that each company faces in their particular cities, as well as the specific strategies used to build their audiences. While they certainly discussed plenty of difficulties in finding support for their companies, I was quite surprised by how many unique advantages also came from setting camp in a less-established artistic community. At one point, John Michael Schert explained that their dances were treated like local celebrities, getting recognized at the grocery store, and that if you got in a cab and said you wanted to go to the Trey McIntyre Project, the cabbie would know exactly where to take you. How great that ballet dancers are celebrities! All of their shared experiences made it seem not only feasible but even preferable to develop communities outside of the main cities of dance.

The part I found most interesting in the panel discussion was when they addressed the question of where the responsibility lies to develop new dance communities across the country. Each panelist actually had a different answer to contribute. John Malashock said we can’t rely on the government, that perhaps local communities need to be more supportive of artists. Ruby Lockhart agreed but added that it’s the responsibility of the dance company itself to make an impact as a business. James Sewell focused on choreographers, noting that they should be open to sharing dances with everyone, and specifically should work to create dances that can be performed on any stage in any theater. John Michael Schert opined that dancers themselves need to shift the perception from the ground up, embracing the fact that great dance can come from anywhere. He also added that technology needs to be used more to further share dance with the world.

Decentralizing dance from a few main cities is so important for dance today. As the moderator Lois Welk quipped, we have practically “ghetto-ized fine art.” If we truly believe in dance, then we should want as many people as possible to be able to see it and enjoy it. Ideally, dance as an art form should be shared with everyone in the country, and the dance community in the U.S. should work together to continue to develop into new cities. The question is how – how do such changes occur? And I would suggest that those involved in dance start with themselves, asking individually what they can do to promote dance across the country. As for me, the first step is remembering that New York City, my city, is not actually the center of the world.