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What is Professional Dance? DANCE/USA, philly dance
Photo: Marcel Williams Foster

What is Professional Dance? DANCE/USA, philly dance

By Ellen Gerdes

DANCE/USA, with a mission to be a                               DANCE/USA and I were born in the same
“national voice for professional dance,” held            year. I started attending dance classes at 
its annual conference in Philadelphia for the            age four. When I graduated from college, I
first time this June. The greatest potential                 hadn’t the foggiest idea what it meant to be
for any conference is that like-minded                        a professional dancer. But even so, I was
members of a community can share research            certain I wasn’t good enough. I had this
and conversation. Breakout sessions                            image of sculpted bodies in national touring
focused on arts administration and                               companies.
advocacy, including discussions on the                                                                               
relationship between executive directors and           As I prepare for a move from Philly to LA, I
artistic directors, what presenters are looking           find myself reflecting on all that five years
for, fundraising, collective business models,              in the Philly dance scene has taught me.
and racial diversity in the arts.                                        Dance as a profession is multiple jobs
                                                                                                 sustained by commitment, self-reflection,
In the opening plenary, MacArthur Fellow                   risk-taking, multi-tasking, and yes,
Aaron Dworkin spoke from his perspective                 funding...but most importantly, the support
as Founder/President of the Sphinx Organization,    of a community. It is color-coded
which provides access to classical music                     schedules, doodle polls, and collaborative
education in Detroit and Flint, Michigan,                      discovery. And as Greg Holt said to me
and runs two free summer performance                      recently, “It isn’t about talent; it’s about
academies for youth. He sees a direct                          disposition.”
impact of his work in increased numbers of
classical musicians of color in the nation’s                  It is in Philly where I have been able to do
orchestras. This talk occurred during the                     all of my work through dance. On any given
same week that the Philadelphia school                      day, I do some of the following: teach dance
district laid off 66 itinerant instrumental                     to children or college students, go to
music teachers who teach at 190 schools. In              rehearsal, take class, perform, write about
light of Dworkin’s talk, this news is heart-                   dance, grade papers about dance, read
breaking; like many others, I began learning               critical writings on dance, and see shows.
music in the instrumental and choir                               I often change clothes in public bathrooms
ensembles of public schools. The impact of                and make lesson plans on trolley rides.
these programs is not simply numerical.                      THIS is my profession. And so many of you
                                                                                                  reading here do the same. Add in
Philadelphia’s turn hosting the DANCE/USA                choreographing, marketing, administrating,
conference showcased local                                            body-working, video-editing, producing,
companies/artists to over 500 dance                            and web-designing.  And bartending! 
professionals. The performance committee                THIS is being a professional dancer.
(Lora Allen, Terry Fox, Rachael Glashan,                                                                               
Lela Aisha Jones, Olive Prince, Deneane                       One drawback of all my multiple roles (I
Richburg, Dara Schmoyer, and Judy                                don’t have the space here to address the
Williams), acknowledged the challenge of                   tragic lack of health insurance and living
their task and highlighted their vision to                      wages for dancers) is that it can feel lonely.
choose “companies who have been making                One exciting benefit of the conference for
dance in, and bringing national attention to,               me was the chance to eat lunch with dance
Philadelphia as a dance hub for a substantial              friends whose schedules never align with
number of years.” The committee also                          mine. We need this time. Dustin Hurt and
notably created several lottery slots for                       Anna Drozdowski of thirdbird agree: “We
emerging artists.                                                                  don't see each other enough, with our big
                                                                                                  country and our small field (with our even
The Philadelphia dance community is                           tinier segment nestled within that).” So 
actually a collection of dance communities.                they hosted a table talk. Anna declared it  
I enjoyed the multi-authored programs and                a "no bitching allowed” session, and so 
viewing new bodies on stage—seeing past                 we talked...for 2 hours...about marketing,
my own immediate dance circle. Some                         programming, audience development,
highlights: Elba Hevia y Vaca and KC                              potential reach of art, fundraising, and
Chun Manning explored the use of the body               community. Take a look at curator Michele
as archive via flamenco and post-modern                    Steinwald's vision for  presenting:
dance. The Lady Hoofers proved with                            empathy, community, and dialogue.  
textured polyrhythms and precise                                                                                       
synchronization that they are a new, driving               Joan Myers Brown, Brenda Dixon
force. Pew fellow Raphael Xavier and Jery                   Gottschild, Lela Aisha Jones, and Deneane 
Valme investigated breaking improvisation,                Richberg also hosted a much-needed 
which made me eager to see more of                            discussion. Myers Brown, awardee
Xavier’s research. The men of Voloshky                        at this year’s conference, spoke of the
Ukrainian Dance Ensemble bounded while                  barriers to ballet that she faced as a black
the women stepped in symmetrical formations.         woman. In 1988, she founded the
                                                                                                   International Association of Blacks in
Although the two conference performances                Dance because black dance companies’ 
privileged proscenium stage works, the                        needs were not being met by dance
opening reception Wednesday night featured            organizations. An open conversation
improvised site-specific work at the new                      focused on the still-segregated ballet 
Barnes Foundation Museum. Ann Marie-                       world and “big name” companies; in a
Mulgrew’s Dances for Imaginary Places                        circle, participants stood up to voice
(The Umbrella Dance) and Merian Soto’s                      questions of access, tokenism, marketing,
Branch Dance Practice from SoMoS                                and training. It was just a beginning—a
beautifully engaged with the evening light,                 group admitting that we are not living in a
outdoor sculpture, grass, trees, and water.                   post-racial society. Choreographer Merian
Unfortunately, performances by Kun-Yang                   Soto said she was troubled that the social
Lin/Dancers and Tori Lawrence + Co. were                   change narrated by the opening plenary
lost in the crowded reception of those                          seemed like a new idea. Soto: “Discussions
networking inside.                                                               on racism and imagining our future feel
                                                                                                  urgent; we must deepen these. Let’s
Like any conference, registration costs can                  brainstorm TOGETHER.”
be prohibitive. Several local independent
artists attended thanks to scholarships                          At the conference, I wished for movement
generously offered by DANCE/USA, but a                      breakout sessions where we could learn
common criticism I heard is that the                               about one another as movers. I think of my
conference neglected the needs of such                       own enriching experiences teaching, 
artists. (DANCE/USA’s national roster is                         learning in class or in a community,
made of 501c3 companies with expense                      rehearsing—dance experiences that
budgets greater than $100,000.) Self-                           are collective, social, and embodied. Many
producing artists, smaller companies, and                    of my moving moments in dance have
individual artists/administrators/presenters                happened in Philly classrooms, where I  
pushed their way into conversations. One                    have seen huge shifts of energy and smart
artist wrote: “I felt alienated, marginalized                   choreography. In my experience, K-12
and craving acknowledgment of the very                      dance education is not just about building
real, challenging and prevalent situation I                     future audiences (please!), but rather an
find myself in as an individual artist forging                 acknowledgment of children's strength,
my own path.”                                                                        creativity and cultural knowledge. Fired
                                                                                                    up by the keynote speaker,  Lois
Philadelphia asked DANCE/USA to broaden                   Welk is excited for a conversation on
its view of professional dance. The listing                     free dance education in Philly’s schools.
of Dance Around Town events, unsponsored
by the conference and happening                                   Philly is a city where dancers can
concurrently, integrated some self-producing             collaborate and challenge one another; yet
artists. Illstyle and Peace Productions used                  we are not immune to race/class/aesthetic
Dance/UP’s portable floor for a hip-hop                        hierarchies. What existing divisions can we
performance/demonstration at City Hall.                      critique? What are the connections we can
Thirdbird’s triple bill Show or Tell                                    find? The conference made me think a lot
represented an “experimental” aesthetic not               about supposed classical/postmodern
seen elsewhere. Forestillinger performed                     divisions. I admired Gabrielle Revlock’s
by Club Fisk (Denmark) made me laugh so                    dancing in Meg Foley’s piece Utah...
hard I cried! Site-specific work (which                            thinking, “Look at all the ‘classical’ training
seems to me a hallmark of Philadelphia                         her body has to have for it to be placed
dance) was represented by Alie Vidich’s                        and tossed about so matter-of-factly.”
Invisible River. (See Whitney Weinstein’s
response here). PA Ballet, although a large-                 So what are the dialogues you are excited
profile company, was also listed in the                          about? As for me, I’ve had the chance to
Dance Around Town options. It was                                cover three conferences (Congress on
exhilarating to see the sheer number of                        Research in Dance, Society for Dance
bodies on-stage in William Forsythe’s                            History Scholars, and DANCE/USA) in
Artifact Suite. (See Kirsten Kaschock’s                            Philly, and I would love to see more 
response here). Finally, because the                               overlap between these sub-sets of the 
performance committee was constrained to                dance field.  I know many Philly dancers 
venues that could seat large audience                           whose work reaches to all three spaces.
numbers, the Performance Garage donated
space for a late night show by self-                                 Thank you, Philly dance, for teaching me
producing artists working in African                               how to define success for myself, for re-
diasporic, post-modern, ballet, and aerial                     defining what it means to be virtuosic, 
idioms. Whenever there is a selection process,           and for daring to start so many
something is left out. As Lois Welk said                         conversations...
before one concert, “Philadelphia is a robust              
and diverse dance city. This is only the tip
of the iceburg.”

As someone who is about to leave Philadelphia, I found the week of dance a wonderful send-off in its breadth of performances: Philadelphia dance is multiple genres; Philadelphia dance is highly-funded, long-standing institutions; Philadelphia dance is recent college graduates testing out their choreographic chops; Philadelphia dance is grassroots curation and collective art-making. Philadelphia dance is potential dialogue, proposed and percolating, if not yet fully realized.

Editor's Note: While this article appears to be correctly formatted in our uploading system, readers have reported formatting issues. We apologize for any glitches you may have encountered.

Editor's Note:  A correction has been made to the original to reflect that scholarships to the conference were funded by DANCE/USA, the national organization, and administered by a local committee.

By Ellen Gerdes
July 11, 2013

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