TDE Hits the Streets to the Dance/NYC’s 2016 Symposium - Part II
In 2015, I took my first dive into Dance/NYC’s annual symposium. While the day did not offer the dialogue I was seeking, I left feeling hopeful for the intersecting communities of dance in New York City. This year proved to be a bit different; it was categorized by a level of exhaustion I didn’t even know I could reach. As my sister-friend Sydnie L. Mosley recently wrote, “I am now way below zero on the burn out scale.”
I arrived shortly after Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation finished his opening remarks, which I excitedly retweeted from the luxury of the above ground J train. I entered the Gibney space charged by glimpses of Walker’s reflections and the list of diverse presenters and panelists – a collection of an even wider range of voices than those who led me to the event the year before – and then I remembered how tired I was. Thankfully coffee and water were readily available. The refreshments were surrounded by information tables from numerous New York organizations that support artists such as: Spaceworks, Cumbe Center for African and Diaspora Dance, and BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange. Even while snacking you could engage with dance in NYC!
I continued following conversations and quotes on Twitter. I couldn’t bring myself to enter a crowded room quite yet. I needed a moment to let the subway ride fade away and the caffeine kick in. I hugged friends. I planned my day (or so I thought). And finally, at 11:00am I was ready to get my symposium on with a panel discussion titled, “Philanthropy Approaches to Advancing Racial Equity.” In front of me sat many of the diverse voices I was excited to hear from Sage Crump, of National Performance Network/Visual Arts Network, Maurine Knighton, of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Judilee Reed, of the Surdna Foundation, and Holly Sidford, the moderator and author of a report that I now quote in almost every funding conversation I have with artists, “FUSING ARTS, CULTURE AND SOCIAL CHANGE High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy.”
The conversation felt like church at some moments with challenging words from the panelists and mmm-hhm’s throughout the audience. Knighton centered the discussion around equity and not diversity. “We should be funding the movements that attack the architecture of structural racism," remarked Hoon Yee Lee Krakauer of the Queens Council on the Arts. Reed reminded us that, “Looking at [dance] work in Memphis is going to be a lot different than looking at [dance] work in Manhattan.” As each woman, many of whom were women of color, recounted their strategies for advancing racial equity, I could not help but be reminded of a phrase that has recently become my own mantra: “This is what happens when liberated women of color lead.” Or, as the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974, wrote decades ago, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
This deep desire for Black women’s freedom is in fact what had me so exhausted, even after such a rich conversation. While it was great to hear from these leaders in philanthropy, they were clear in acknowledging that they are deliberately working differently from many foundation leaders. While I was glad to hear of them pushing other organizations to shift their thinking, I also heard that there is much more work to be done. And so again, instead of rushing into another session, I sat down for lunch with friends to recharge my phone and myself. These Voices in Race and Dance (the theme under which the philanthropy panel fell) only reminded me that dance artists in racialized bodies (read: people of color) are still struggling for resources.
After lunch, I continued on the Voices in Race and Dance track to “National Voices: Embodying Equity and Inclusion at Dance/USA.” This panel featured a selection of Dance/USA staff and trustees of color, moderated by Executive Director Amy Fitterer. Seated in a sort of fishbowl with the audience surrounding them, the panelists shared glimpses of their work with Dance/USA and opened themselves up for a conversation on how the organization might continue its work towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. As each of them spoke, the energy in the room seemed to heighten. Marya Wethers, an independent arts manager, opened the floodgates acknowledging that, “I’m angry at Dance/USA…and I want to know why I should trust you.”
Soon complex histories of exclusion were being shared around the room and that exhaustion that I had been feeling all day bubbled into the voices of nearly every person of color in the audience who spoke. We are tired of being asked to be in “diversity panels.” We are tired of being “invited” into spaces that have excluded us for so long. We are tired of still having to prove our value and the value of our creative work, which does not always fit dominant aesthetic (preferences). I felt my hand go up. I had no idea exactly what I would say, but I knew I had to speak truth to power. I knew I had to make it clear that even the youngest of us are bone-breakingly exhausted by being made to feel invisible and incompetent because of our race, gender, sexual preference, age, physical ability, and every other oppressive force we experience.
I cannot tell you what I said. I remember shaking slightly as my emotions swelled, hoping that everyone heard me through my tears. I remember spending the next three hours in hugs and conversations and check-ins and receiving business cards. I remember building strategies towards intergenerational dialogue with Denise Saunders Thompson, executive director of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, but there was no resolution, no happy ending. I cherish every person I know and didn’t know who came to me and simply said, “I heard you…I saw you…I felt you.” Even in our exhaustion, there is community among these dancing bodies.
As the day came to a close, Brother(hood) Dance! shared an excerpt of their work Black Jones, which “dreams of a safe space for Black men.” I had no idea until their introduction that this work began its development at an artistic sharing PURPOSE Productions hosted at the beginning of 2015. Hearing them share that was a moment of affirmation, a recognition that this work that exhausts me is indeed necessary. The duo then guided everyone in a Caribbean Carnival-style line dance through the Gibney space as we sang for “freedom,” “power” and so much more.
We may be tired, but we still sing. We still dance. We still hug each other. Dance/NYC’s 2016 Symposium reminded me of this, of the community we sustain even in the spaces that, at times, exclude us. And I look forward to the day when I am no longer exhausted, when I can stand up, speak up, and rejoice in the equity within on our field. I may be an ancestor when this day comes, but I know it will.