“So when it came to styling my hair, I couldn’t rely on anyone to help advise me. There were so many little things like that.”
Throughout the concert-dance world, dancers of color have often shared that sense of isolation and difference. But in recent months, some significant appointments offer hope of change. In March, Fisher-Harrell began leading the company where she once felt so alone. As the new artistic director of Hubbard Street, a widely respected contemporary troupe founded by Broadway dancer Lou Conte, she is one of very few Black women heading traditionally White-led dance organizations.
Fisher-Harrell, who most recently had been teaching at Towson University and the Baltimore School for the Arts, made changes quickly at Hubbard Street. She hired four dancers of color, bringing the total at the 14-member company to six dancers.
Three more Black women have recently assumed dance leadership roles, in front-office moves that are rare in the dance world. Each has led a distinguished performance career in premiere companies on international stages followed by years as a dance educator.
Endalyn Taylor is the new dean of the dance school at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. A former leading ballerina of Dance Theatre of Harlem, an original cast member of “The Lion King” and “Aida” on Broadway, and a dance professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Taylor succeeds former American Ballet Theatre principal Susan Jaffe.
Dionne Figgins, also a onetime DTH ballerina and Broadway performer, is now artistic director of Ballet Tech, taking over from choreographer Eliot Feld, who in the 1970s founded the highly regarded tuition-free ballet program for New York City public schoolchildren. Both Figgins and Taylor began work Aug. 1.
And last month, Carolyn Adams, a celebrated principal dancer of the Paul Taylor Dance Company and a muse of the late choreographer, was appointed to the new position of director of education at the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation. She’ll oversee and expand the Taylor School.
“I hope the trend is that we’re moving beyond color,” says Taylor, “to noticing who would best contribute to these organizations, so that there is no child who couldn’t see themselves in these positions if they put their heart and their labor into it.”
To be sure, the recognition that these high-profile hires signal has been a long time coming.
In past years, racial equity stories in dance have focused on the hiring and casting of the dancers — those whom audiences see onstage. This has been particularly true in ballet, where Misty Copeland’s trailblazing climb to the top ballerina rank at ABT seized widespread attention.
Yet racial bias in dance management has gone relatively unnoticed.
Except by those who aspired to lead, and saw little chance of it.
“That avenue always seemed like it was shut,” says Fisher-Harrell, speaking on Zoom from Chicago. “If it was a primarily White-led dance company, even if it had a small amount of diversity in the company, in leadership that door was closed.”
If they were to advance, Black women had to start their own companies, such the Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, and Philadelphia’s Philadanco, founded by Joan Myers Brown. Or they stepped in to succeed the founders of established majority-Black companies. After Ailey’s death in 1989, Judith Jamison assumed leadership of the Ailey company (passing it to Robert Battle in 2011). Virginia Johnson heads DTH, following the late Arthur Mitchell’s departure in 2013.
Historically, chances of Black women making it to the top outside those avenues have been so slim — basically, nonexistent — that when Figgins applied to Ballet Tech, she felt sure she’d be denied, despite a résumé that includes traveling the world with DTH; Broadway, theater and television credits; and teaching experience ranging from Balanchine technique to jazz.
“I honestly didn’t think I was a contender,” Figgins says with a laugh. “The entire time I was like, ‘This is an exercise in futility. I don’t know if my Black tail is going to make it up there. I don’t know if they’re ready.’ ”
She wasn’t wrong to assume the worst. The barrier to career advancement in any nonprofit dance organization lies in the traditional way directors are hired. New leaders are generally found in-house, from prominent former students, company members or affiliated choreographers seen as embodying the group’s artistic identity and able to communicate that to board members — the first-order gatekeepers — and the public.
The chosen ones are overwhelmingly men. According to the national service organization Dance/USA, in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, female artistic directors headed only 29 percent of dance companies with budgets of $1 million or more. (Dance/USA doesn’t have data on the race or ethnicity of directors.)
Women are already disadvantaged. Women of color even more so. Assuming power in traditionally White-led companies is immensely difficult for women of color, being few in number and easily overlooked in a field that’s not immune to rigid mindsets and biases.
“It’s where your pipelines are,” Figgins says. “The company looks back and thinks, ‘Who are these company members who could move the company forward?’ ”
“That’s the tricky part,” says Theresa Ruth Howard, a former DTH dancer who founded MoBBallet.org to collect the memoirs of Blacks in ballet. Howard has written extensively on the lack of minority representation in dance, and she consulted with Ballet Tech on its search for a new artistic director. “If we follow the old model in leadership, we’re going to get the same thing.”
The more visible problem of diversity among a troupe’s dancers hinges on this thornier one of leadership. It stands to reason that audiences will see more dancers of color onstage if there are people of color making decisions at the top.
Yet in this nascent move to hand women of color the reins, there’s more at stake than the stage picture.
“That’s lower hanging fruit, versus the organizational culture,” says Howard. “You can have lots of dancers of color and the vibe in the studio feels really good. But, for example, how are their images being used in marketing? Does that feel okay or tokenizing?”
The possibility of rectifying these outcomes is why these appointments are cause for celebration. There’s so much promise here — beginning with a new understanding of contemporary dance and ballet. These women have opportunities to rethink aspects that are restrictive, outdated, even less than humane.
The art form rides on a great deal of entrenched tradition, some of which is incomparably beautiful and uplifting, but some that can be damaging to body and soul. Diversity presents more choices, in who gets to dance, who gets to make the dances and in how dance is taught. Especially ballet, where narrowly defined ideals and acceptance of pain and body-shaming have long been the norm.
Figgins says she aims to implement “a way of caring for people.”
“There’s the dancer’s body, but also the child that’s attached to that,” she says, speaking on Zoom from her office at Ballet Tech, where the wall behind her is covered with photos of dancers. “We need to support the entire child, not just the tendus and pliés and the body and the feet. . . . Dancers have all these neuroses because of the traumatic things that have happened in their training.”
She’s been thinking deeply about this because of her own “tough love” ballet training from Doris Jones, the famously strict matriarch of the Jones-Haywood Dance School in Washington — and because she is now overseeing the training of children at a transformative time, as many enter their teens.
If her humanity and dance experience were key to her hiring, so was her ability to relate to different urban communities. In 2012 Figgins helped found Broadway Serves, a nonprofit connecting theater professionals with community service opportunities. “I’m able to speak these different languages,” she says, “in a way that maybe my White counterparts might not be able to.”
Then there is the legacy of past pioneers such as Arthur Mitchell, who shaped both Figgins and Taylor. Mitchell founded DTH in 1969 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as a space for Black excellence and artistry. His work was always about representing offstage as well as on, says Alicia Graf Mack, who danced with both DTH and the Ailey company, and in 2018 became director of dance at the Juilliard School.
“We are all the byproducts of Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell and Judith Jamison,” Mack said by phone recently. “It wasn’t only about dance, but about breaking barriers and exposing audiences to the possibilities of what can be.”
Mack says she expects that message of possibility will have an even wider influence with the advancement of her Ailey and DTH colleagues.
“I hope it’s not just out of reaction to what has happened in this country and how we’ve listened to each other,” she says. “My hope is that these incredibly deserving leaders will help to create a new ecosystem of equity, diversity and inclusion for more generations.”
That’s the test: lasting change. Will the institutions these women lead commit to it long-term? Will others do the same?
“Are organizations going to give them the tools and support, organizationally and financially, for them to be successful?” Howard asks. “There’s an assumption that if we have a Black so-and-so, we’re making progress. But if they have to constantly fight and plead their case for every little thing, that’s not progress.”
Figgins is optimistic.
“I’ve seen trends come and go,” she says. “But I feel that once we’re in those spaces, it’s going to be very hard to evict us. These are powerful women.”