The Shame of Dance in America

I will start off by admitting that I am a very white dancer. My dance aesthetic grew out of white, lower middle-class, mid-Michigan, 1980’s rural-Suburbia. I mastered the Roger Rabbit, Running Man, and MC Hammer but my Hip-Hop was oblivious appropriation at best. My tap dancing had a very high center of gravity, far closer to Riverdance than to the legends “Buster,” “Stumpy,” or “Brownie.” There were sequins, red lipstick, wigs or curlers, and ankle weights the day before to help me dance and flip with more lift. [That was my dad’s idea. He is a sports guy.]


Acro-jazz was my favorite. It was a sugar rush. It was drill team. It was “Solid Gold.” It was small-town American Broadway and Tremaine, not the jazz dance heritage of soul and funk.

Dance was a blessing in my childhood, but so very very white.


Being there daily for the 11 years of my childhood, the dance studio was my second home. Our dance studio had fewer than three students of color. When we went to the competitions each weekend, we would encounter dozens and dozens of other dance studios. Again, they were on average 98% white. Hundreds of children happily dancing without their African-American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Arab, or Native American Indian peers. In addition, we were all mostly Christian with a minority of Jewish competitors. I do not recall ever meeting a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist dancer in those 11 years. In that decade, I met three dancers with disabilities.

The one thing about growing up in this world is that it exposed me to a societal group I had never met before: people with money. While my dad was the custodian at the school, my friend’s parents had jobs that meant they could have a pool inside their house. Through the decade we grew up as friends, I learned to get past any stereotype I had about families with money. Even my friends who lived on farms had a decent life economically.


My parents worked multiple jobs day and evening to keep me dancing. The tuition and competition fees were sometimes paid before the mortgage and utilities. I don’t think they knew I knew that.


My dance education story may be familiar. It was not offered in my school, at all. Even if it were, the best training at that time was in the dance studio and competition sector. In this world, we had no exposure to Modern, African, Ethno-folkloric traditions, choreography, or dance history. If we had, I doubt we would have seen the value in any of it. To be honest, I remember laughing at such dancers during a school assembly. Our criteria for good dancing mirrored the judges on the competition circuit, the same suburban competition circuit that would decades later produce “Dance Moms” and Maddie in the glorious Sia videos.

When it came time to go off to college and select a major/minor, there was no question if I would continue dancing. The question was how big of loans are we willing to take on as a family. Now in my life, I have friends of my age who I realize had a completely different dance education experience in the same America. They grew up dancing with people who looked and believed like them.


In 2005, Jonathan Kozol wrote The Shame of the Nation, exposing the disgusting fact that America’s public schools were being re-segregated. I think this issue goes beyond the school systems. Stop and think about all the places our nation’s children are exposed to dance, get to dance, learn to appreciate dance, or are trained to dance:

  • K-12 Public Schools
  • K-12 Private Catholic/Jewish Schools and Liturgical dance programs
  • Dance Studios who participate in competitions
  • Dance Studios who do not participate in competitions
  • Community-Based Arts Organizations
  • Community projects and productions
  • Park District programs
  • Outreach programs offered by Professional Companies and Venues
  • Pre-Professional Training Institutes and Camps

Now go through that list again and think about the degree to which the children in these different settings are divided racially, ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically. Some are much more segregated than others. You may disagree, but this is how I would rate the levels of segregation:

    1. Dance Studios who participate in competitions
    2. Pre-Professional Training Institutes and Camps
    3. K-12 Private Catholic/Jewish Schools and Liturgical dance programs
    4. Dance Studios who do not participate in competitions
    5. Community-Based Arts Organizations (some are intentionally segregated in order to support specific communities)
    6. K-12 Public Schools (including arts integration, dance education, and after school)
    7. Outreach programs offered by Professional Companies and Venues (some actually leverage segregation to reach target communities)
    8. Social Practice Dance and Dance Therapy (including hospitals, shelters, et cetera)
    9. Park District and Community Center programs

Now think about the costs to the families and participants. This could include tuition, fees, transportation, time, gifts for teachers, private lessons, socializing with peers, materials and costumes. Though it is dependent on a number of factors, in general the list stays close to the same:

  1. Dance Studios who participate in competitions
  2. Pre-Professional Training Institutes and Camps (scholarships sometimes available)
  3. K-12 Private Catholic/Jewish Schools and Liturgical dance programs
  4. Dance Studios who do not participate in competitions
  5. Park District and Community Center programs
  6. Community-Based Arts Organizations
  7. K-12 Public Schools
  8. Outreach programs offered by Professional Companies and Venues
  9. Social Practice Dance and Dance Therapy

Lastly, think about ranking the list in terms of quality.

That is where the discussion starts to feel gross. Is a Khattak class less quality than a contemporary class at a competition studio? Is it better to develop technique and virtuosity, or creativity and knowledge of the art form? Do we in Dance consider some outcomes over others? Physical skill development is commonly prioritized over emotional development, which is considered more important than knowledge of the art form, which is needed more than social skills. Often we cater to what the parents want, without educating the parents on what is possible and the choices they have. Who gets access to a future in dance as students, parents, performers, choreographers, scholars, educators, teaching artists, social practice artists, administrators or audience?

And that is where I will challenge the dance community. At the end of this month, we will celebrate International Dance Day 2015. Let’s use this as a launch to work together in bold ways toward…

  • Desegregation of Our Studios
  • Diversification of Styles (think of agricultural crops as a metaphor)
  • Distribution of Access and Opportunities (scholarships, shared transportation, audition and program notices, gifting shoes and dance wear, tickets to performances)
  • Development of Appreciation for All that Dance Can Do
  • Dancing with People We Have Never Danced with Before


Please. Let’s do it for the next generations in dance. What little role could you play?


1 Comment

  1. I want to make it clear that my dance education was an awesome blessing and I am ever grateful to my parents for doing whatever they had to do to keep up with the costs. I just wish that it weren’t so segregated (as the schools and towns in mid-Michigan are themselves increasingly segregated). More and more dance studios are growing in diversity, offering scholarships, non-traditional classes and performance opportunities, culturally and racially aware costuming, that is true. There are some great examples. But I am calling for more and more of it! No excuses of it being based solely on where you live. For example, the dance studio I grew up in is not too far from some areas of real need. There is poverty and violence, shelters and homes with kids who really need dance, maybe even more than I did. There are also Muslim and Hindu families just down the road. Time to reach out and find ways to open the doors to them. In doing so, maybe the choreography will have a little less racial and ethnic appropriation.

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