Reflections and Takeaways from PADEO’s Session on Equitable Processes for Dance Auditions and Admissions

by Isabella Mojares for The Dance Journal

As a part of the Pennsylvania Dance Education Organization’s (PADEO) commitment to advocating for a more inclusive culture of dance across the state, their Social Justice Committee has been hosting a series of professional development webinars as a resource to educators and movers. Open and free to the public, PADEO’s webinars are targeted towards individuals and organizations ready to begin the work towards creating more equitable and accessible dance experiences. 

The second webinar in the series, entitled Looking at Equitable Processes for Dance Auditions and Admissions, took place on March 10th. Moderated by Antoinette Coward-Gilmore, chairperson of the Social Justice Committee, the event’s main presenters were Dr. Nyama McCarthy-Brown and Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin. Dr. McCarthy-Brown is currently an assistant professor of Dance Pedagogy of Community Engagement at The Ohio State University. Dr. Amin is a dance scholar, educator, and consultant, whose research focuses on 20th-century American concert dance, African diaspora dance performance and aesthetics, and pedagogical issues in dance studies. 

Emphasized throughout the talk was the idea that we are, in fact, the field — when it comes to dismantling traditions and practices established years ago. It is not enough to say that we must stick to how “the field” has always done things. As movers, educators, performers, choreographers, and mentors, we must adapt our practices to fit the needs of the present day, including those our elders excluded. In line with that thinking, Dr. Amin and Dr. McCarthy-Brown both emphasized that we are creative problem solvers as dancers. It should be our guide to recreating and reshaping practices for newer generations of movers. 

Auditions, admissions, and casting are all major parts of the gatekeeping process in the dance field. In naming these structures as barriers, we can also begin to think about these processes as an opportunity to think about what an audition’s contents are saying to the auditionees. The two panelists discussed the notion that auditions are not just about what the company, school, or program is “looking for or what they want.” It is a good indicator about how they attract the community around them, who they are attracting, and what kind of environment they are fostering. 

A question that stood out was, “how are we reinscribing hierarchies via our casting and audition processes?” Dance education, exposure, and performance are all privileges. The extent to which an individual has access to all of these things is dependent on a myriad of factors, all influenced by existing hierarchies of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Auditions, more often than not, are straightforward, cut-and-dry processes. Let’s say that one company is asking individuals to complete a series of Horton Fortifications as one portion of their audition; some of you reading this article might already be turned off and confused as to what Fortifications are. By centering on this specific technique, there is an automatic advantage being granted to dancers who have had the ability to study Horton technique compared to those unfamiliar with modern dance or whose movement background is perhaps rooted in more social dance. One suggestion that came out of the webinar was the idea of focusing not on specific techniques during audition processes but rather offering exercises that look at an individual’s kinesthetic and somatic awareness and musicality. If you are looking to examine someone’s rhythmic base, perhaps instead of giving them a set combination, offer an improvisation to a specific piece of music. 

Dr. McCarthy-Brown and Dr. Amin stressed that equity would not come from solely revamping our admissions or casting processes. If we are striving for true change, we have to look at every aspect of our programs: What does our curriculum look like? Who are we sending promotional materials to? What do the dancing bodies ALREADY on campus look like? Are there movement clubs that exist already? What is the relationship of the dance department to the rest of the university community? What is the relationship of the company to the community it performs in? How can we decenter our own desires in favor of creating a more equitable dance practice? These are just some of the questions raised throughout the webinar; questions that need to be seriously considered and actions formed.  

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