Race, Disability & Trans Equity in Dance Presenting

The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP), a U.S. based national service, advocacy and membership organization for professionals in the performing arts industry, holds a national conference every January in New York City.  It is attended broadly by both national and international artists, managers, booking agents, producers and presenters and is comprised of hundreds of showcases, networking events and professional development sessions.

The themes discussed at the professional development events are as varied as the kinds of arts performed at the showcases and arise from proposals submitted by APAP members willing to lead presentations and discussions on topics that they consider of special relevance.  

One such event that seemed particularly timely, not only because it’s something so many in the arts have spent so long working towards, but also because of the climate of homophobia and xenophobia in the United States being perpetuated by the Trump Administration, was a session entitled Joining Forces: A National Conversation about Race, Disability, and Trans Equity in Dance Presenting.

Artists and arts administrators, nearly all identifying as people of color, disabled and/or trans, comprised the panel of five, who would end up discussing their own professional experiences, challenges and potential solutions to a small but open audience, which included venue programmers, festival directors, artists and arts funders.

Alice Sheppard, President of Disability Dance Works and founder and artistic lead of Kinetic Light

Panellist Alice Sheppard, President of Disability Dance Works and founder and artistic lead of Kinetic Light, kicked off the discussion by addressing a holistic approach to promoting accessibility and equity in arts presenting.  

“The work that I put on stage isn’t meant to be consumed passively. It’s not like you buy a ticket and leave at the end of the show. It’s about the experience from the moment that you hear about the show to buying a ticket to getting to the venue to coming through the door to finding the bathroom to getting seated in the space, to feeling the show and to leaving and engaging with the audience and the artist afterwards as all being part of my artistry,” explains Sheppard, a wheelchair-bound dance artist, who understands firsthand the mobility and inclusion issues faced by disable artists and theatregoers alike.  

For Sheppard, artistic creation and artistic process become one and the same when promoting inclusion and accessibility.  “Access that you may think of as ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance, actually drives my creative process. You’ve got a series of things going on that change how the work is felt and perceived,” she says, driving home the point that the perception of inclusion not only hinges on the work performed by the artist, but the larger context and experience within which the work is presented.

Panelist Mark Travis Rivera, Artistic Director of the marked dance project, which he founded at the age of 17, making him the youngest person to artistically direct and found a physically integrated dance company in the United States, extrapolates further on the idea of holism to address the issue of pigeonholing artists by a single characteristic.  Rivera proudly identifies as “Latino, gay, disabled and femme,” but sees none of these adjectives on their own as being sufficient to describe a “full human being.”

Rivera believes that artists are often pressured to give priority to specific parts of their identity.  “If you’re black or brown, your major concern has to be around racial justice. If you’re disabled, then your issues have to be disability justice.  If you’re trans than your performances have to be about trans and identity issues. Why haven’t we joined forces and said we are all of those things at once?  Hear me, see me. Comes to support my dance work. Come support my storytelling.”

Mark Travis Rivera, Artistic Director of the Marked Dance Project

Rivera, who celebrates the 10-year anniversary of his company in 2019, concedes that marginalized dance artists can only begin to present their multifaceted stories by being resilient and generating opportunities where they haven’t existed before. “But the burden of creating opportunities should not be on those who are oppressed.  It should be on those who have the privilege and access and the ability and the funds to produce the work. I always challenge people to think how they can use their privilege to enhance and propel moving forward,” concludes Rivera.

Panelist Deja Smith, a strikingly beautiful African American trans woman who describes herself as an “artivist” and the co-owner of DD-PRO, an image consulting business specializing in hair and makeup, and working predominantly on projects with an LGBT focus, addresses a burden that she and other trans members of the dance community have had to bear.  Smith, a former dancer, found herself “without a career” once she transitioned. It then became her “burden to look for opportunities in a landscape where no opportunities exist.”

Deja Smith, co-owner of DD-PRO

Smith learned the hard way, not only how binary the dance world is, but also how devoid of equity.  “It takes money to train, it takes money to produce art. If you are spending the majority of your income on making sure that you are personally balanced, the artform has to go on the back burner.  I think that it is time for that perspective to change organizationally. It’s time for us to look at the performing arts in a new way, because now we understand how to classify all of the different types of people that there are in this world, and the arts should be reflective of all of us.”

For Smith, generating a community of allies is key to providing marginalized artists with a voice and a platform. “If there are no people around you to say that what you are is not only good, but what you are is normal, yours is just as much a part of the human experience as the rest of us, you will never believe it.”       

Robin Anderson, the Executive Director of AXIS Dance Company, which is committed to the “performance of contemporary dance that is developed through the collaboration of dancers with and without physical disabilities,” is the only panelist who is not a person of color, disabled or trans, but she boldly declares herself an ally.

Anderson admits that she struggles with her role in the movement for the inclusion of underrepresented groups, a not uncommon scenario, as this can often be perceived as coopting a social struggle that is not one’s own. Anderson’s contributions, however, are not in doubt, especially as she describes her work with Choreo-lab, a workshop for disabled choreographers funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Robin Anderson, Executive Director of AXIS Dance Company

Non-marginalized allies have become incredibly important in the battle to speak truth to power, getting messages heard and projects funded, and no one on the panel seemed to think otherwise.  Sean Dorsey, Artistic Director of Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions and a trans man, reassures Anderson of her deserved place on the panel, but quickly transitions back to the issue at hand.

“Because I didn’t see anybody like me in dance, part of my journey as an activist and artist was figuring how I could co-create the community I craved by joining forces with other folks. From the beginning this meant putting on the Fresh Meat Festival for trans and queer performance in San Francisco 17 years ago.  I thought it would be this one-off thing, because nobody was putting trans people on stages. Funders would not touch us. The media wouldn’t touch us, so we got a bunch of folks together and put on a festival at ODC Theater, and it was packed to the rafters, and we decided to become a year-round organization.”

Sean Dorsey, Artistic Director of Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions

After nearly two decades of work, Dorsey’s Fresh Meat Productions has finally received first-time funding from the Mellon Foundation.  Aside from its work with trans inclusion in the dance world, the organization also prioritizes people of color, showing yet again the intersectionality of the growing movement for inclusion in the dance world.

All of the panelists are agreed on the need to present voices that largely go unheard in our society because of the opportunities for social change that an arts platform provides, but no one addressed the impact on the artform itself.  

Art can only evolve when new stories and new perspectives are brought to the table. The simple act of including trans or disabled bodies in movement on a stage or a black ballerina in the role of a character we’d arbitrarily always considered white, creates an entirely new experience for the audience because it shifts our collective perspective.  The same story can be told differently a million times when we are willing to address it from a new point of view.

Panels like these, which for many conventional presenters and funders can be uncomfortable to participate in, even passively, are tremendously necessary because only when we can speak openly and without judgement about these issues, can we begin to truly reflect on how each of us can contribute to arts diversity.