EDITORIAL: My Dream – The Philadelphia Black History Month Dance Festival

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by Roger Lee for The Dance Journal
Photo credit: Bill Hebert

As Black History Month 2013 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting. Each year I make it a point to write an article inspired by Black History Month. In the past I have written about the desegregation of dance and the pioneers who made it possible, building African American audiences for concert dance, and the civil rights movement’s relationship to dance. This time around I am inspired to write about the lack of black history month dance programming in Philadelphia…and a potential solution to the problem.

The Problem

I cannot help but notice that each February major television networks and record labels join forces to pay tribute to Black History Month. You can turn to practically any station and see several musical tributes and award shows dedicated to celebrating black history in America. The History Channel is loaded with documentaries on the great leaders, untold stories, and selfless heroes that make up the pages of black history. There are even commercials that shed light on black history facts and pioneers. Simply put, the entertainment industry as a whole has a strong hold on black history month.

Now zoom in on Philadelphia’s growing arts and cultural sector. Sure, we have a lot less money than the entertainment industry. However, what we lack in money we have proven to make up for in passion, creativity, and resourcefulness.

Now zoom in even further and you will find that Philadelphia’s dance community is bold, unique, and artistically gifted. Our city’s dance practitioners put their hearts and souls into bringing their creative projects to life. We do this by networking, planning, and fundraising, conducting academic and studio research, running collaborative rehearsals, and producing intimate performances for the community. I had the honor of writing about Philadelphia dance happenings last April on a national level for the 300,000 plus readers of Dance Magazine. Simply put, the Philadelphia dance community is literally a movement force to be reckoned with. Yet, we as a dance community do very little to celebrate black history each February.

With such creativity, resourcefulness, and vision, the Philadelphia dance community possesses all of the necessary tools to be leaders in local black history programming. However, it is the libraries, television networks, and museums that seem to honor black history month the most. Even visual art organizations tend to join forces with local schools and put on community arts programs for black history month and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Theater organizations manage to put on plays that deal with the African-American experience during February. Our dance community seems to be in last place when it comes to black history month programming. This is a sad reality. Sure, there may be one or two companies or artists that put on a concert. But the Philadelphia dance community as a whole? We do not celebrate black history month through dance. We may even take the time to celebrate Valentine’s Day through dance, but rarely black history. I cannot help but wonder why.

A Potential Solution

Now that I have identified the lack of Philadelphia dance programming for black history month, I would like to propose a potential solution. I envision our local dance community combining our vision, creativity, and resources in an effort to celebrate black history month. I also envision this collaboration resulting in the annual Philadelphia Black History Month Dance Festival.

This festival is a dream of mine where for two weeks in February local dance companies, educators, and scholars lead movement workshops, performances, and open forum discussions for the community. I envision dance leaders of all races participating in the festival and bringing their unique gifts to the table. I think that this would be a great challenge for dance companies, particularly for those that are not culturally specific, to see how they can take the theme of black history month and turn it into dance. This could entail developing new choreography, leading a group discussion, or teaching African, hip-hop, or jazz dance workshops. The sky is the limit.

I would love nothing more than to take this dream idea and turn it into reality in time for black history month 2014. However, I would need the interest and commitment of the Philadelphia dance community that has proven to be creative, resourceful, and vision led. Why not take our assets, combine them, and give honor to black history month? If television networks, libraries, museums, schools, visual art, music, and other groups can come together and produce inspiring work for this special month, why can’t the Philadelphia dance community? I am convinced that we can and that we should.

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