Shake It Up

In recognition of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we’re featuring an article from Dance Gazette in which Isaac Ouro-Gnao asks – as calls for racial equity in dance teaching grow, what does tangible action look like, and how do we bring about change?

Illustration by Ana Latese for Dance Gazette.

In June (2021), the TIRED Movement (Trying to Improve Racial Equality in Dance) and training organisations including the Royal Academy of Dance came together to share racial equity practices. The usual buzzwords came up in the ‘Talking Dance: Improving Racial Equity’ symposium – diversity, inclusion, representation – yet the specificity of racial equity in dance teaching and how it affects young dancers sparked an interesting thread.

Karina H Maynard, a consultant, educator and panellist in the symposium, runs Continuing Professional Development programmes to improve racial representation in dance education, and works with young people to strengthen their self-esteem. ‘I developed an approach of supporting young people [by] giving them spaces to explore identity, race, culture, [and] having conversations that are not normally had,’ she says. ‘[To] give them the opportunity to think about themselves as individuals and practice listening, so they get used to centring other people. I’m preparing an institution for an empowered, proud, young person.’

Are institutions ready for empowered young dancers of colour?

Dance organisations still maintain a rigid teacher-student hierarchy, which, through many told experiences, stifles speaking out about racial or cultural needs. Speaking out isn’t easy when the environment is ill-equipped to deal with it.

For Seeta Patel, an award-winning Bharatanatyam and contemporary choreographer, meeting these needs can only begin when ‘the notion of change, of shaking things up, of being radical and trying to prioritise things differently isn’t seen as negative, disruptive or aggressive.’ These are labels easily placed on outspoken dancers of colour, who in turn are shunned, gaslighted and ignored for speaking out. The responsibility to create safer spaces lies at the top […] and this change needs to be led by those who are supportive of the process.

‘Part of your job, as someone who is trying to bring in more diversity, is to bring in the [people of colour] that scare you,’ Patel adds. ‘Bring in the ones that make you think “I am anxious about what this might be.”, ‘That’s the only way you’re really going to change.’

Racial Equity – a Safeguarding Issue?

Racial equity in dance teaching should be treated as a safeguarding issue in Shannelle ‘Tali’ Fergus’ opinion. ‘I don’t know how often the people that are engaging teachers are in the room to see them teach,’ says the choreographer and agent for hip hop company ZooNation. ‘You’ve got to be in the space to see how they are with your students. Like an interview process for a job.’

Fergus imagines a more robust screening process, focused on determining the potential for power abuse, racial discrimination, favouritism, and bullying. ‘It absolutely should be on the list of things to look at,’ she continues. These initiatives may seem like box-ticking, she adds, but ‘as long as a young person has a teacher, mentor or someone with more experience to talk to, for them to feel validated in their feelings, that is still productive.’

Thomas ‘Talawa’ Prestø, Artistic Director of Norwegian Tabanka Dance Ensemble, thinks we have to stop with ‘the right thing to do’ argument. ‘We keep wanting [organisations] to emotionally get it,’ he says. ‘It’s not about that. Real accountability is a need to be so professional that it doesn’t depend on whether an individual person truly understands what has happened or not.’

Real Accountability

In Norway, schools have yearly competence seminars on queer and gay perspectives, and government staff in management positions must attend courses on sexuality and orientation. ‘But they can go their entire career without having to attend a single seminar about competence when it comes to racism, ethnicity and discrimination,’ Prestø adds.

In 1999, a report produced by the UK government in response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence defined a racist incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ Simply abiding by this when speaking out, challenging racism, or dealing with racial based concerns will go a long way to reduce gaslighting, dismissal, and further discrimination and instead increase professionalism, retention, and tangible actions.

‘Once you have those things in place, you suddenly have power of definition,’ Prestø concludes. ‘This is what it means to be a Black person, this is what I need your space to have in place.’

The full-length version of this article was feature in Dance Gazette issue 3 – Oct 2021.