The start of a New Year lets us all feel like we have a fresh start. We make New Year resolutions of things we will change or try to accomplish in the year. The flip side of this is to think about what to leave in 2020. What no longer serves our industry?
Over recent years it’s become clearer and clearer that most things exist on a spectrum. Our need to box each other into gender-centric norms only limits the possibilities of our art. It’s important that we move forward with training that seeks to neutralize gender bias. Explain the history of “Men’s Class” while understanding it is an obsolete label and offer the class to all students. Allow all students to partner with one another without feeling that you need to choreograph differently for a “boy-girl” duet than you do for a “boy-boy” duet. This type of inclusive mindset needs more attention from the biggest companies in the world all the way to small hometown studios. Doing so can change and save lives. Dance studios are meant to be places of inclusion and safety.
Suffering for our Art (especially financially)
Say it with us, MENTAL HEALTH IS IMPORTANT. We have long been fed the narrative of the best art coming from pain, and sometimes it can feel like we seek out the pain in order to make the art. This is a cycle of harm that we must learn to break to find a stronger, more functional industry in 2021. It is perfectly fine to be happy and make great art.
In this same vein, we do not need to contribute to our suffering by accepting low wages. Assert the value of your lifetime of training and dedication. In our “Dance by the Numbers” article we laid out the disparity between average years of training and pay between dancers and other careers. Similarly, it is our DUTY to leave the perpetuation of this cycle in 2020. Fees for the privilege of auditioning is just that, privilege. Leave inaccessible dance careers in 2020. Oh, and PAY YOUR FRIENDS, YOU GUYS. LANDLORDS DON’T TAKE HUGS.
Well hey, while we’re on the subject of dismantling hierarchies, here’s another concept to drop like a hot potato. This is obviously a far-reaching problem that harms every facet of our industry. Start with dance history: who do you think of as the “pillars” of Jazz dance? Are they a bunch of white men? Dig deeper. Have you categorized non-European dance forms as “world dance”? Is any dance form from Earth not a “world dance”? Dig deeper. This is a disservice to your own understanding of the industry in which you work and belittles the contributions of people of color.
And in the studio, are there people of color in there? Are you tokenizing the people of color who are there? Does your dance studio have a dress code that is harder for people of color to adhere to than to white people? How about cultural appropriation? Are you paying homage and teaching history? Are you doing your due diligence to not be another colonizer of our art form? Respond to missteps in fixing these issues in the same way you would want a student to respond to a correction: by saying “thank you.”
The Current Dance Competition/Convention System
To be clear, learning from as many teachers as possible is a powerful tool for dance artists of any age. Yet we had multiple contributors bring up the fact that the dance convention model has remained largely unchanged since the 90’s (except for the price). We believe that in the new year it’s time for us to decide what we want from competitions and conventions and see if they are meeting the mark in the best way possible. In a room of 400 kids, how could the greatest teacher in the world possibly teach to the best of their best ability? Could conventions segregate students by what they need to work on instead of age? Imagine a teacher being able to have all their students who need to work on timing have a weekend of classes in different styles all focused around this skill. Imagine dance conventions and competitions not being afraid to bring on newer, diverse talent on a regular basis and regardless of their number of Instagram followers. These are just some of the things we could have in the new year if we allow ourselves to keep a looser grip on what we already have.
Hierarchy of Dance Styles and Training
It’s time to leave this archaic and white-centric view in 2020 (probably should have left it in 1420 but here we are). Ballet has value, especially if a student wants to be, say, a ballet dancer. But to say that every dancer needs ballet training is a complete whitewashing and prioritizing of one style over the other. This manifests itself in obvious ways, like requiring all college hopefuls to take a ballet class first. It also manifests in less overt ways. When judging dance competitions the word “technique” appears a lot, and usually with the “understanding” that “technique” means ballet technique. We as educators need to be more forceful in our assertion in the classroom and beyond that every style of dance has a technique and some of that technique may be counter to what another style considers correct. This does not make one better or more “correct” than the other. It just makes them different. Unpack how you categorize different styles of dance. Play with laying them side-by-side and not one on top of the other in 2021.
Inspiration without Credit
I remember taking a visual art class from a sculptor who told us he had had this idea for a sculpture for a long time and then went to see a show of his friend’s work and saw the exact same project. How would you respond? His response was relief. The art is out there now, he doesn’t need to make it. Different than how you would have responded?
Paying homage to an inspiration is how the dance world turns. But homage and replication are two very different beasts. When this homage is paid, say the name of the artist you are acknowledging. The elephant in the room is what opens up the works for comparison. See the work of others, be inspired by it, name your inspirations, and build on it.
Perfectionism in the Studio
This ties very closely to social media’s weight on our industry. By promoting and encouraging professional-level class videos, we create an environment that feels like the classroom is no longer a place to fail. Failure is our greatest teacher and if we don’t make students feel safe to be less than perfect then we are stunting the growth of our next generation of dancers.
Our community as a whole has made large strides in a fight to be ever-more inclusive over the past year. But inclusivity is impossible if your organization or school is not accessible for people of mixed abilities. We encourage everyone to leave overt and subtle ableism in 2020. Contributor Maggie Sposato wrote a great article outlining steps studios can take to make their spaces more inclusive and we encourage everyone take a look so they can leave ableism in the past.
The Weight of Social Media
Look, it’s pretty clear that social media is here to stay. It’s simply not a badge of honor to not participate in it anymore. I’m sure there were dancers who refused to switch from candles to incandescent bulbs as well… we just don’t know who they are. But we do not need to let social media rule our industry. Let’s leave the classes that only exist for the video in 2020. Dance classes used to be a private space for growth and community. Now we see video after video of the majority of students sitting behind a small group of dancers (often the teacher and their friends) doing the choreography. We cannot let this warp the younger generations’ idea of what a dance class should be. Similarly, we cannot base hiring decisions off of social media following alone (you can buy followers anyway!?). Someone can, of course, have a large online following AND be qualified and talented. But these are not always corresponding factors. There are even dance auditions that only allow dancers with a certain number of Instagram followers to audition. We are the artists—let our art lead our industry, not our online personas.
Gone are the days of regurgitation. The best dancers have been and always will be the smartest dancers. We need to teach and rehearse choreography with an understanding that live performance is beautiful because it has the possibility of going wrong. We need to teach dancers to be alive within their movement and dance with an alive understanding of the purpose and historical significance of their work.