Monday, May 2, 2011

Who is representing who? (a MUST READ for dancers in NYC)

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a Dance/NYC Junior Committee town hall. Dance/NYC whose tagline is "Everything dance in New York" has this sub-committee who defines its mission as:
a New York-based community of contemporaries working as dance artists, educators and administrators. We serve as a liaison for our demographic (ages 19-30) in the wider dance community, provide a forum for dialogue among a diversity of perspectives in our field, foster professional development in our constituency, and generate ideas that will serve our common goals and those of Dance/NYC.

In effect, this is an organizational body that exists to represent me: a 25 year old dance professional working in New York City as a performer, creator, teacher, administrator, and writer. They exist to help meet the professional needs of those like me, and I was glad to be able to participate in the town hall event through discussion, asking questions and collectively brainstorming solutions.

While the mission of the organization (and by extension the mission of this event) clearly states an aim to "provide a forum for dialogue among a diversity of perspectives in our field," what my critical eye couldn't help noticing was that the room wasn't so diverse in artistic aesthetic. True, I did not go around and interview each individual about the styles of dance they engage with, but judging from the work of people I did know in the room I felt most folks were probably most engaged with a downtown aesthetic (myself included). I wondered aloud to a friend afterward, "Is this a true cross-section of those working in dance ages 19-30?"

The aesthetic of those in the room matters. The New York City Ballet and Broadway dancer's concerns are different than the dancer piecing together work amongst four different small emerging companies. And what about dancers in films, tv commercials, tv shows, and back up dancers for music artists?

The Junior Committee outlined its goals for the town hall: "Specifically geared towards choreographers and dancers, this Town Hall will function as a series of discussions to address issues surrounding the development of a sustainable lifestyle as a dance artist in our current climate." Yet, issues of a sustainable lifestyle for me managing a start up, project to project based dance company, while simultaneously wearing five other professional dance hats are different than my friends who hop from one Broadway show to the next. I commend the moderator for encouraging town hall participants to truly speak to individual experiences; to speak about what they themselves need and want as an artist. The more unique perspectives each person contributes the easier it is to create a broad picture of the dance landscape with more details of diverse experiences.

I'm thinking about this so critically because I'm waist deep in reading bell hooks' feminist theory. In her work Margin to Center she defines feminism as the struggle to end sexist oppression. She argues strongly that this struggle can only really occur as a mass grass roots movement including individuals across race and class lines. She highlights that the intersectionality of various backgrounds and positions in society give different and necessary perspectives to feminist struggle, but upon the outset of critical feminist theory it was the "plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women" that became "synonymous with a condition affecting all American women" (1-2).

That's the feeling I got the evening of the town hall. That a select few perspectives were representing the condition of all New York City dancers. Now who knows if this is actually true, but I don't think my assumptions are unfounded. Dance/NYC has an enormous reach. It is the first website resource that me and my dance acquaintances check for auditions, choreography opportunities, jobs and internships, regardless of genre. Yet I felt that the issues tackled, mainly how to garner resources (money and otherwise) to support dance creation and performance, (and to live!) were from the particular perspective of the dancer working multiple jobs, and of those jobs - the dancing ones - they sparsely get paid for.

We needed more diverse voices in that room not only to contribute to an ongoing and necessary conversation, but because dancers need to band together and start a revolution. Seriously. bell hooks has got me feeling straight radical. She writes, "Feminism must become a mass-based political movement if it is to have a revolutionary, transformative impact on society." I would apply this thinking to the New York dance landscape. Just as bell hooks calls for feminist discourse to be common place, and accessible for there to be an impact; the conversation about a sustainable lifestyle in dance and practical advice for fiscal success needs to be common-place among all dancers.

Over the past year, I have basically put myself through business school as it relates to dance attending every free "business for the artist" workshop around. I have been brainstorming as hard and as much as I can about a sustainable business model because the current business models for dancers don't work for me. That is, dance is my profession, and other than teaching and my minimal tax refund at the top of each year, I am not compensated appropriately for my professional work. (And by appropriately, I mean enough money from dance work alone to eat and pay my bills.)

The Junior Committee is taking steps to examine this. They are launching the Dance Workforce Census: a "census of workers in dance, ages 21 to 35, to aggregate data on compensation—in dollars or other benefits—for work and contributions to the dance field. The primary goal of this survey research is to quantify the role this demographic plays in the New York dance economy—and the wider economy—by making transparent the wide variety of ways in which its individuals earn a living." When I heard about this, do you know what my first thoughts were?

Hallelujah! Praise God!

Although there did not seem to be diverse representation in that town hall meeting, I believe this Dance/NYC Junior Committee initiative is the first step toward our dance economic revolution.We absolutely cannot change the plight of dancer as "starving artist" if we do not have accurate representation, facts and figures of the myriad of dancer experiences.

So here is my call to action: Dancers, please use your voice. Be counted. Let's take our collective fiscal future into our own hands.


Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that Dance/USA and Dance/NYC very specifically serve non profit dance. Therefore, their programming reflects a lack of "Broadway" dancers as you suggest they should have.

Sydnie said...

After briefly revisitng the website for DanceNYC and DanceUSA I don't see any language that suggests that the organization serves the non profit dance sector only/specifically.

The mission statement:

"The mission of Dance/NYC is to strengthen the professional dance field in New York City—serving as the voice, guide, and infrastructure architect for all local dance artists, audiences, and managers within the creative economy."

This statement clearly addresses ALL dance persons within NYC's creative economy.

Even if the organization only services non-profit dance (which it could, my research isn't thorough) my argument still stands. Dancers across genres (and perhaps across service organizations?) need to have these conversations to address the needs of the dance field as a whole.

Adrienne Westwood said...

Hi Sydnie -

THANK YOU for this. And thank you for attending the Town Hall Meeting. As a Dance/NYC JComm Member and one of the co-planners of the event, I agree with your post -- we would have loved to have a greater variety of voices in the room, too. (And on a personal note, I love the analogy to hook's writing.)

THE CENSUS IS NOW LIVE! Thank you for your help in spreading the word, and hopefully reaching a truly diverse population from all areas of the NYC dance community ages 21-35.

More Junior Committee and Census info is here:

Dance NYC/Junior Committee Member

Julia said...

To continue this dialogue-- Dance/NYC has scheduled a series of community conversations in June to better understand field-wide needs.

Tuesday, June 7 - FOR MANAGERS
Thursday, June 16 - OPEN TO ALL
Thursday, June 23 - OPEN TO ALL

Can you attend? More info at

Hope to see you there, Sydnie!


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