Teaching Tips

6 Ways to Bring Racial Equity Into the Dance Studio

A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.


Racial equity work is ongoing.

King began his presentation with a powerful disclaimer: "I'm not a magical negro. I don't have all the answers. I'm not going to have the answers to end racism in a two-hour webinar." Workshops like Dancewave's are important first steps, but they aren't a one-off solution.

It includes examining your own biases and blind spots.

King pointed out that, as teachers, we are the gatekeepers of knowledge and should examine the ways in which we've been complicit with systemic racism. It can be as simple as taking notice of who you're inclined to call on in class or as complicated as uprooting deep-seated organizational structures that promote inequity.

King urged educators to take a close look at who their organization has centered and who it has othered. Even something like language can be a barrier: He used the word "elite" as an example of a word that could be potentially exclusionary.

It requires continuous self-education.

Dance educators should also invest in their own personal anti-racism education. "Pursue learning opportunities. Seek new ideas that check your biases. Get out of an echo chamber," said King.

In addition to attending events like Dancewave's webinar, familiarize yourself with books such as How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, or Nyama McCarthy-Brown's Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World. King also recommended the following Instagram accounts: @sonyareneetaylor, @rachel.cargle, @browngirlcurator, @atabey.rev, @therealrynnstar, @thenapministry and @theconsciouskid.

It can be collaborative.

Having the opportunity to divide up in breakout rooms and connect with other workshop participants demonstrated that sometimes getting out of your echo chamber can mean simply talking to your fellow colleagues or even your students.

King suggested getting students involved in equity work by giving them a project that addresses a class, student or school need. If you choose to delve into sensitive territory with students, make sure there are support mechanisms in place for them.

It can be an embodied experience.

Dancewave's workshop included movement activities, which provided an additional layer of fun and embodied understanding. To warm up, we had to respond to an action command, such as "jump," with its opposite action, such as "crouch." This exercise in challenging assumptions was surprisingly difficult, and would be great for K–12 students.

Later, we reconnected with our breakout groups to create short movement phrases based on implicit bias. The activity provided a visual component to a heady concept and inspired both an individual deep dive into our personal biases and a collaboration to create our final dance.

It should be specific to your students.

King encouraged educators to take a step back, look at how your students learn, and analyze whether what you're bringing is actually relevant to them. For example, if the majority of your students' only dance experience is with cultural social dances, consider inviting them to teach those dances to one another in groups rather than jumping right into pliés and tendus. King also encouraged giving students ownership of the class by inviting dialogue and investigation.

"Consider your curriculum, the artists you bring into the spaces and the leadership opportunities you bring to your students," he said. "Are you bringing in people who look like the students you're teaching or share their background? Be intentional about that."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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