Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild has lived on both sides of the stage as a professional dancer and a dance critic. When dance historian, author, scholar, and professor are added to her experiences in the dance industry, it is reasonable to say that she has seen her fair share of every angle of many performances. She is a regular audience member in both Philadelphia and New York theaters, and an observer of the communities that produce them. “I see dance as a measure of society, a barometer of culture,” she says. “We reflect our world.” When I ask about the state of Philadelphia’s cultural measurements she answers quite assuredly. “It has a very, very long way to go.”
Dr. Dixon-Gottschild recalls a performance of Boyzie Cekwana’s work, which she describes as a very forward looking and experimental blend of neo-postmodern and African vocabulary. In the reflective essay she wrote for the New York Live Arts blog, she said, “This one makes us look, see, and maybe accept a wider lens on beauty, moving us farther away from our preconceived notions of who should dance, on a public stage, and why. And that’s what I want from my dance world: stretch me, reshape me, open me to embrace what I’d never imagine.”
The spectators offstage were also a part of her theatrical experience, and she speaks of them just as fondly. “It was so refreshing to see the audience at the performance,” she reminisces. “It was such a New York, diverse audience.” However, her tone drops significantly when her thoughts return to her hometown. “With most concerts that you go to, certain kinds of dancers make up the audience of certain kinds of dance. You have a very plainly, genre specific, cultural spread that seems very limited.”
The question asked by these conversations is what we, as members of the Philadelphia dance industry, can do to eliminate these limitations. For Dr. Dixon-Gottschild, the solution depends on who the “we” is. For funding agencies, she suggests the need for some kind of cultural initiative. They need to ask themselves how they can encourage the diversity they want to see. “But,” she is careful to add, “what we don’t want to happen are gestures for diversity that are only about getting funding.” In such an instance, companies begin to see dancers of color as tax breaks, grant options, or funding opportunities. Such a mindset points to the days when people of African origin were treated as commodities, which is the very mindset that we not only need to avoid, but one that we are attempting to overcome. Companies and funding agencies also need to be careful about measuring diversity numerically. “You can’t call tokenism integration,” she stresses. One or two dancers or audience members do not mean that the chains of systematic racism have been cut. One thing she stresses, whether one is a dancer, choreographer, or dance loving audience member, is self-evaluation and examine our own motives and actions.
Dr. Dixon-Gottschild believes that breaking the barriers of systemic racism begins by understanding them. She says that every artist could benefit from racial equity training, and there are several paths to follow. Racial equity training utilizes racial, gender, and social justice principles as a means to overcome racist ideologies and encourage social transformation. Many dance professionals have benefited from equity workshops offered by organizations such as: The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, TMJ Abundance Consulting, and The Crossroads Anti-Racism Training Institute. Beneficiaries of these programs include Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Urban Bush Women, Philadelphia’s own Merian Soto of Merian Soto Performance Practice, and even some college and university programs.
Implementing diversity and integration is far too great a task to be carried by one person. It requires the work of a collective. Therefore, for the effort to be successful the individual dancer has to connect with other dancers and artists. Dr. Dixon-Gottschild lists several events and organizations that embody this idea: The Association of Performing Arts Presenters, The Gathering, headed by Camille Brown, and Dancing While Black, to name a few. “We need to empower ourselves to come together,” she advises.
However, within the group, dancers must maintain not only artistic focus and determination, but also personal and proactive responsibility. In a relay race, a strong beginning means nothing if the baton is on the ground. She encourages artists to continue the work that past generations have begun. Speaking from her own experience in which programs her programs that focus on the African contribution to American and world dance have declined as soon as she left, she says “Young people need to keep the torch going.”
Creative problems require creative solutions so the problem of how to integrate dancing bodies may, in fact, be with dancing bodies. “The body doesn’t lie, and the body talks to other bodies in a language that we can understand and share, and it communicates with other bodies across racial barriers. With that knowledge dance can be forward thinking.” Keeping this at the front of our creative minds, perhaps the key to our ideal and integrated dance community is like Michelangelo’s angel, trapped in a stony mess of corrupt politics, engrained mindsets, and divided systems. We have to chip away at those obstructing pieces gently, persistently, and tirelessly. Often that means reshaping bits of ourselves. It has been and will continue to be difficult work, but underneath lies all the transcendent power and beauty that dance can be, should be, and maybe someday, will be.