If you grew up in Oklahoma, you didn’t have to be entrenched in the dance world to recognize the name Maria Tallchief. She was America’s first prima ballerina and one of the illustrious five Native American ballerinas, born or raised in Oklahoma. Her impact is visible today in the success of ballet companies and programs across the state. Her ability to achieve fame worthy of a college football star (that means a lot here) opened doors for dancers to chase their own tall (pun intended) dreams. Dreams in a state without opportunity has created survival mechanisms like collaboration and community. There is a sense of belonging and support given to and by all within the community.
Oklahoma City alone is home to nearly one hundred dance studios, not counting the hundreds in every suburb within a 15-mile radius. Programs like Range of Motion, Everything Goes, Movement Innovations, and Top Hat Talent are designed to take dancers from pre-dance through high school. Studios like Applause, Kim Massay, Dance Unlimited, Block 16, and Studio J compete at local, regional and national levels. And lately, programs like RACE Dance Collective, Teaze-OKC, and Elevate-a Dance Space have made strides to include adult populations. Dance teachers in Oklahoma have helped build talent and shape it with a professional disposition and love of community.
Oklahoma’s low cost of living allows for extracurricular activities for most families, and dance has been growing in the public and private school sector for the last ten years, allowing for even greater accessibility. These programs are thriving. Erika Vasques, a certified teacher of dance at Classen SAS in Oklahoma City, says she works hard every day to share her knowledge of traditional dance (ballet, jazz and modern) and world dance forms (Mexican Folkloric and Flamenco). She is aware of the need for dance in public schools and realizes that it could go away at any point. “Dance is for everyone,” says Vasques. “Dancers, teachers, studios, and companies are all very welcoming, supportive, and appreciative of the participation of the artform from members of the community.”
Tasha Hinex, a native of Shawnee and coach of Oklahoma City University’s Pom squad, believes that talent is equitable here, but states, “Often times in studios and college programs, if a genre doesn’t fall under Eurocentric forms like ballet or modern, it is automatically categorized as recreational.” The University of Central Oklahoma Dance Department has added tap, hip hop, and aerial to its program and regularly brings in guest artists to challenge the notion of complacency that haunts smaller cities. Graduates of UCO, University of Oklahoma, and OCU dance programs have gone on to succeed on the world stage but have to fight for relevance locally. Despite this, audiences are slowly learning to embrace local talent and recognize their credibility.
Oklahoma City Ballet is one company that recruits many dancers from around the world. Jonathan Batista, originally from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, shares, “I love the support system within the dance community in OKC that allows for exploration and connection to other dancers and artists.” However, like Vasques and Hinex, he feels there is more work to be done in bringing inclusion and opportunities for different cultures, people, and ideas that vary from the norm.
Chris (Twix) Shepard, Director of Community Engagement for RACE Dance Collective, and local street dancers like Alfonso Pule’ and Kam Jhonte’, have been working to bring the knowledge of hip hop—its history, culture, and styles—to the general public. Biases that exist about hip hop and street dance can prevent the growth of these programs in ways that make a lasting impact on the community. Fiscal support is reserved for daytime education and most dancers must work “day” jobs in order to survive. Recently, programs designed specifically for street dance culture, like Alfonso’s Groovemeant Community and Nicole Poole’s “You Are Here,” have shown that it is possible to share resources and move in the direction of inclusion.
Through collaborations with Oklahoma Contemporary, Metro Library Systems, Factory Obscura and others, smaller dance companies like Perpetual Motion and RACE have managed to break into mainstream and pull from private, city, and state funding, but it’s just the tip of the panhandle (second-to-last pun). Foundations in Oklahoma lack diverse points of view partly due to 74% of its population being white (US Census Bureau, 2019). These viewpoints often benefit more established companies, leaving emerging talent to fend for themselves or move elsewhere.
One of the biggest opportunities for growth is in the film industry. Two major film studios, Green Pastures and Prairie Surf, have broken ground and begun production in the city this year. Finding Carlos, a dance film produced by RACE Dance Collective and McDaniel Productions (one of 32 filmed in Oklahoma in 2020) employed over 70 dancers and 15 choreographers during the pandemic. Local dancers and choreographers have enthusiastically placed themselves in front of the film boom so that they are ready when it comes sweeping down the plain (last pun).
My perception of Oklahoma has changed in the last two years. As a dancer, I feel the pulse of a thriving artistic land of possibilities and am proud of the community we have built together. I used to view dance separate from who I am as a Korean American immigrant, but in the wake of injustices against people of color, I don’t anymore. I love this place, but I hope that as OKC grows in population, we also build more sensitivity towards people of different genders, races, religions, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, sexual orientations, identities, education,and disabilities. I wonder if Maria Tallchief knew the impact she had on us and hope that someday, we will prove that her ability to use dance to break through stereotypes was not in vain.