Examining the white spaces in Chicago dance | Dance | Chicago Reader

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Examining the white spaces in Chicago dance

A community townhall reaffirms the need for communication and representation.

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On January 7, one day after Georgia’s runoff election resulted in its first Black senator and a white supremacist insurrection disrupted the presidential confirmation at the U.S. Capitol, dancers, dancemakers, presenters, and arts organizations convened at "Dance in Chicago 2021: Collecting. Hibernating. Emerging.," a citywide virtual gathering and information session peer-produced by Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Chicago Dancers United, The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, High Concept Labs, Links Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Pivot Arts, and See Chicago Dance. Each organization presented resources to the community, including grants, residencies, rehearsal spaces, and relief funds (these and other opportunities can be found on an open, editable document). A keynote speech was given by Christy Bolingbroke, founding executive/artistic director for the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron, and a national perspective was offered by Kellee Edusei, newly appointed executive director of Dance/USA, advisory council member of Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA), former member of See Chicago Dance's board of directors, and recent selectee for artEquity's 2020 BIPOC Leadership Circle.

Presentations began with a land acknowledgment, pronouns, and audio descriptions by speakers for accessibility. Ginger Farley, executive director of Chicago Dancemakers Forum (self-described as "a 62-year-old white woman with, recently revealed, quite a lot of gray hair [in] a white kind of open space"), noted, "As I describe myself and as I consider our various organizations, I just want to name the fact that all of these organizations are largely led by white women . . . We've spoken about it with one another and noticed and it doesn't at all represent the entirety of our organizations or the leadership of our organizations or the staff. Nor does it represent the artists that we care about, the work that we want to support or the types of dance or kinds of dance that we are embracing. This is a time for much, much more looking about all of those issues, and I for one am open to increased dialogue around anti-racism practices in the field of dance and in the world. So I just want to acknowledge that our whiteness doesn't mean that we are blind. All of us are on our own trajectory towards learning and growing and supporting dance and its fullest expression throughout the whole of our community." 

Following a moment of silence for those impacted by climate crises, racism, and social injustice, Farley said, "Today we are gathering to . . . acknowledge that we've been both together and apart through so much in the last year and certainly since the last time that we gathered for a day-long retreat in March. So the days are lengthening, and there's a feeling that we are both still in a state of hibernation and enclosure and also that with the lengthening days there's possibility ahead. The disruption in our government right now is a little bit blocking my view of that, but still, it is the case."

In a prerecorded keynote, Bolingbroke ("I am a white woman with long reddish brown hair wearing a lavender cardigan and a faux fur neck wrap in cream, purple, and chartreuse yellow green") introduced a new three-year creative administration research think tank at the National Center for Choreography. "The organizing tenet is based on the idea that there's not one way of making dances, so there should be more than one way of doing dance administration," she said, "to look beyond so-called 'best practices' or 'one-size-fits-all' approaches and instead deepen the sense of an individual artistic ethos and develop a set of administrative practices that mirror that vision. The other operating tenet is to embrace curatorial interventions. By my definition, curatorial interventions are artist-centered solutions to administrative problems. I offer that update to share what we're thinking about and invite you to take any part of that thinking or framing and apply it to your own work." 

Bolingbroke acknowledged, "Mentors, predecessors, and other respected elders often tell me that our questions are not new. The challenges we name are chronic—the waning of arts journalism and dedicated dance presenters over decades, navigating the alternatives of being an incorporated 501(c)(3) organization, and the associated trappings of nonprofit management as it seemingly conflicts with the artistic process—we've long needed to seek and find new questions if we are ever to change the narrative for dance in this country."

Speaking from her position as Dance USA executive director, Edusei, who is Chicago-based (and "caramel skinned with dark brown crinkly hair and wearing a black turtle neck and silver earrings and I'm sitting in front of a leaf motif on Zoom"), said, "In response to yesterday's act of domestic terrorism on our democracy, Dance USA is doubling down and letting our people know that we will continue to work, as we always have, in a bipartisan manner to advance the interests of dance and the performing arts community. On behalf of the sector, [Dance USA director of government affairs] Tony Shivers and I will continue to ensure all members of Congress are aware of the importance of the arts and culture in our society and that adequate investment in our sector will be key for our country to heal and emerge." 

Looking back on 2020, she said, "Dance USA aggressively worked with our Congress and with our partners across the nonprofit and arts sectors to pass the $2.3 trillion appropriations pandemic relief package that does include a second round of the paycheck protection program and the Save Our Stages Act program, and we will continue to work with our partners to ensure that the PPP and Save Our Stages help as many dance companies, individual dance artists, and dance professionals as possible in 2021." Following a catalogue of forums, fellowships, and other opportunities the organization offers, Edusei noted, "I want to uplift that a lot of our member groups are ideating on the future of the art form: what does it look like, how does it feel? Where is it present? . . . Christy [Bolingbroke] offered an opportunity for us to think of what we want to let go of and what we want to start doing. And I would say that these conversations centered because of COVID, but also in response to the senseless murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. These topics clearly resonate and connect back into the intention of today's conversation on collecting, hibernating, and emerging."

Following breakout sessions and a performance by musician Alireza Ebrahimi, Columbia College adjunct faculty Jyl Fehrenkamp ("My pronouns are she/her/hers. I'm wearing a white T-shirt and a shiny blue jacket. I have dirty blond colored hair and a dirty blond attitude") led the "hibernation station," a session of movement, breathing, hydration, and rest. "Do you want to lay down? Oh yeah, do it. Are you thirsty? Please, take a moment to obtain a refreshing beverage because hydration is so important. And I want each and every one of you to be as comfortable as possible. You deserve to be extra, extra soft, like a pair of silky smooth tearaway track pants. Now I'd like to extend an intimate invitation to each and every one of you to join me in a breath because that breath is the fuel that keeps the hibernation station afloat."

Lizzie Leopold, Dance Studies Association executive director and lecturer in theater and performance studies at the University of Chicago ("I sit here in my best cozy blue sweatshirt. I'm a light-skinned white woman with brown curly hair in a very plain office as far from my very loud children as I could get"), presented an open invitation to contribute to "a series of white papers towards rebuilding and restructuring our dance worlds, not just from the COVID-19 pandemic, but from the white supremacist culture that creates crises around all of us in our current dance work. There's financial, logistical, and ideological changes that we can imagine and demand and this is a way that we can do this together." To begin, Leopold offered a series of guiding questions: "Who are we? Are we multiple wes? Are we independent artists, dance companies, performance venues? Who will this white paper ethically represent? Who is the intended audience? What are the needs and necessities and necessary changes? And lastly what's the data we need to support it?" 

The ensuing discussion included private comments in the chat suggestive of unresolved divisions ("I would feel better about this visioning if the group wasn't so totally white," wrote one anonymous commenter. "I am white, and circles I dance in are white, so I can’t help," wrote another). 

Hip-hop dancemaker Cat Mahari raised another series of questions in response. "I think anti-racism work is completely legitimate for white people . . . I understand anti-racism work goes hand in hand with understanding capitalism, but I also understand that you can live in a world that is anti-racist but still definitely be anti-Black. How do you envision this white paper and all the information coming to you? How are you going to systemize it so it can be put to effective use? How are you defining the actual quantitative effectiveness?"

Added Mike Anestor, choreographer and freelance consultant, "An active discussion needs to center dismantling anti-Black racism which can and does exist in POC, LGBTQIA, and progressive communities. Intersectionality is theoretically correct, but has to have systemic practical applications. When Black people show up in intersectional spaces, they are expected to engage in labor for the greater good of the whole but are left behind when resources are allocated. And hence the term BIPOC emerged to acknowledge that Black and Indigenous experiences/voices require urgent prioritization."

Links Hall partnerships coordinator and townhall cohost Aaliyah Christina, recalling an application to the Links CoMISSION residency that "specified that they'd like to include more BIPOC folks in their work but they weren't coming to auditions," noted, "Sometimes auditioning can be toxic because you're not going in with a full view of what people are as a dancer, performer, artist. I think the responsibility for white artists or white makers, if you want to include nonwhite or Black people in your work, if you want to collaborate, [is to] seek them out. Make sure that you are doing the work to actually form those relationships and also taking responsibility for not doing it and not even thinking about doing it and not acknowledging that Black artists exist because a lot of our more resourceful institutions for dance are on the north side or downtown. Instead of making them do the work to find your audition or find your call, reach out, you know what I'm saying?"  v

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