Is the Dance World Keeping Its 2020 Promises of Change?

Updated: Jun 22

Created by Azaria Rianne Hogans (kNOwBOX dance Manager of Resources and Archives)

June 15, 2021, Springfield, Missouri, USA


2016 photo of author at the Atlanta National Center for Civil and Human Rights


Around this time last year, many of us were heartbroken, exhausted, and yet hopeful with the onset of the 2020 protest. On May 25th, and in the following days and weeks, we all watched the death of George Floyd on our phones and TV’s. Our hearts were already sore from learning just a few weeks earlier of the death of Ahmaud Arbery and not to mention decades of other stories publicized and not. The 2020 events shook this nation at its core as the injustices against Black people were on the front page for all to see. Between the two pandemics of COVID-19 and injustices against Black people, 2020 had become a year of reckoning.


Here we are a year later –a year after we have vowed to do better, a year after organizations swore in solidarity with Black lives, a year after many pledged in allyship– it is time to reflect on whether or not we are keeping our word and continuing the work. Many organizations, including dance companies, put out statements of support, and those who were truly committed, sought to take action by changing policies, shifting in leadership, gracefully retiring, and vowing to not exclude and rather make room for their members of color and marginalized groups.


As a podcast co-host for kNOwBOX dance’s Dance Behind the Screen (DBS) podcast, I was able to find myself in deep conversations about equity in dance and the world at large during, prior, and post 2020. Listed below are eight things that we should check in on as well as call to actions to hold ourselves and the dance world accountable in order to keep us pushing forward.


Photo from Episode 81 Forging Your Own Space

From left to right: co-host Azaria Hogans, Guest Jade Charon


1. Listen to Black people

When I say listen to Black people, I mean to trust our experiences, listen to what we need, and trust our leadership, research, and community work. DBS guest Paloma McGregor reminds us, in Episode 51 Centering Black Voices, to “follow the lead of Black people and people of color...[and] use your privilege to shine light on the work that has already been done by people of color.” Continue to use your voice to promote equality. It is also important to realize that this statement “listen to Black People” needs to be stated explicitly. DBS guest Tim Wise, in Episode 52 Social Injustice, Black Lives Matter & Dance, reminds us to: “Listen to those voices we were trained not to listen to. Whether those are scholars, whether those are artists... we’ve been trained in the culture to not really value the voices of black and brown people...” Our subconscious bias and prejudice has to be challenged and this is why we have to state out loud to “listen to Black people.”


2. Create Safe Spaces for Everyone

It is important to protect and hear all people whether they are Black, Indigenous, women, the AAPI community, differently abled people, the LGBTQIA+ community, etc. The goal is to make dance spaces safe for everyone. When we ensure justice and safety for the most marginalized, inherently we ensure justice and safety for everyone. DBS guest Joy-Marie Thompson, in Episode 82 A Safe Space Isn’t Automatic, reminds us that safe spaces are not automatic, and just by calling something a safe space doesn’t mean that it is. She explains that safe space will require you to build trust and build actual relationships with the people you are working with.


3. Body Shaming is Not Okay, and We Will Not Tolerate it Anymore

Body shaming is an integral area of reflection in regard to what we are doing in our dance communities. We are still dealing with the shaming of bodies about skin color, (such as in Lopes Gomes experience in Berlin), body shape and size (such as in the distasteful article “What is Ballet Body”), and Trans rights and LGBTGIA rights in dance. Be sure to check out Episode 80 “A Response to ‘Ballet Body” with Margaret Mullin for more conversations about dissecting the article “What is Ballet Body” by Gia Kourlas. Body shaming is slippery and comes in both covert and overt expression. It has often been the guise of keeping people of color, non-binary, and disabled people off the stage.


4. Acknowledge, Respect, and Qualify Different Ways of Knowing and Being

One area that may be holding us back from moving forward is understanding that there is more than one way to do something, to live, to know, and to love. By understanding there isn’t just one way to go about life, we will find less elitism and discrimination. The hierarchy of dance genres comes from the belief that “my way is better and more valid than your way.” This can also be the disconnect when understanding people from different cultures. We will do better with “diversity and inclusion” when we aren’t expecting assimilation. DBS guest Theresa Ruth Howard, in Episode 29 Navigating the World in a Black Body, reminds us: “inclusion isn’t just about being in the room, inclusion is a feeling.”


5. Talk to Your Community

It has become extremely easy to become polarized and find our “camps”. It is still important to have conversations with people in your family, organization, campus, or workplace that may think differently than you. It may be especially important for you to talk with a counselor or hire a diversity strategist like Theresa Ruth Howard to come and speak with your organization. Try to avoid using catch phrases to explain yourself but rather make sure that your conversation actually discusses what popular sayings mean. We live in the world of social media where the Twitter style 280 character responses run supreme, but let’s stop trying to be just “catchy”. In the words of Brenda Dixon Gottschild “You can’t do it alone and you can’t do it all” (Episode 27 Having a Supportive Network of Allies).


6. Move Past Your Discomfort

In the 2019 interview with Theresa Ruth Howard, she talks about the popular disconnect when it comes to racial conversations being: “the white people come into the room automatically defensive, afraid of being called racist, and the black people are full of their frustration, oftentimes anger... oftentimes the Black people are in the heart space and the white people are in the headspace and those things don’t align” (Episode 29 Navigating the World in a Black Body,). She later explains it helps to understand with the heart rather than seeking “the numbers” and minimizing people’s experiences. Tim Wise explains a similar notion by stating: “Be humble enough to acknowledge all of the things you don’t know rather than getting stuck in that place of shame around that...You’re supposed to not see it [institutional racism], that’s the genius of this system, it doesn’t ask of you any knowledge, in fact, we come by this helplessness and obliviousness very honestly” (Episode 52 Social Injustice, Black Lives Matter & Dance,). Don’t be ashamed or angry because you don’t understand, instead seek to find out why your counterpart feels the way they do and try to move forward from that place of understanding.

7. Revisit Your Governing Documents

Continue working on your governance documents. Don’t let them get so tied into the bureaucratic red tape that they become stuck and left to wither. Once the updated documents are in place, make sure to eliminate pointless hurdles that may keep your plans from coming to fruition.