Interview: Two takes on the Dance/USA Annual Conference

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

From Left: Matthew Bade, Beth Whelan, Paul King, and Walter Jaffe

Last month White Bird was lucky enough to send our two Co-Founders, Paul King and Walter Jaffe, as well as two of our administrative staff, Beth Whelan and Matthew Bade to the Dance/USA Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. I got to sit down with Beth and Matthew about their experiences and takeaways from the conference. They had some slightly different experiences as Beth is our Director of Communications and Matthew is our Director of Revenue, Artistic and Community Partnerships so they attended different functions within the conference.

Dance/USA’s website obviously touches on what the conference is about but talking to Beth and Matthew allowed me to learn more about the conference and its structure beyond what their online resources told me. I asked them a few questions about the conference as well as their perceptions of it and they had some good insight into how the four day event went.

For a little background Dance/USA is a national service organization for all dance related companies, organizations, producers, presenters, writers, and artists. They hold an annual conference with attendees including everyone mentioned above. White Bird specifically wanted to go for the presenters and marketing council. The council sessions are closed door so attendees are specialized in that specific area, but there are breakout sessions for everyone to attend that focus more on niche fields and topics.

What did you participate in while there besides the council meetings?

Matthew Bade: Equity training was a big part of the conference because there has been some problems in the past for Dance/USA surrounding inclusivity and equity. They have taken great strides to correct this and have made it a huge part of the conference which I really appreciate.

Beth Whelan: Like Matthew said, I did a lot of the equity training. It has been a big focus for Dance/USA in the past few years and it shows. They have come a long way and are covering these important conversations more and more.

What is something of value you took away from your time there?

MB: It was comforting to see everyone is facing the same problems as we are. There was a sense of comradery in sharing our common issues. The work that is really draining for us are things everyone is dealing with.

BW: I got a lot from a breakout session about dismantling privilege. It started with an impactful example using contact improvisation. The speaker started by improvising with someone they never had before. The contact was very surface level and didn’t have much depth to it. Then the speaker did it again with their longtime contact improvisation partner and was able to speak to us while doing intricate moves with their partner. The point of this exercise was to show that in order to have an effective conversation about privilege both parties need to have knowledge on the issue. This really resonated with me as did the overall theme of ‘educate yourself’. In organizations, there needs to first be an awareness of where the organization is at in terms of diversity and combating privilege and move forward from there. It is no longer meaningful and effective when an organization tries to skip a step in their journey to better inclusivity.

How important is it to have events like this?

MB: It’s important to reconnect, because we are so far away from a lot of the dance world. Our work isn’t simple so conferences like this allow us to learn a lot of things that we can bring back and utilize. It is easy to lose inspiration when you sit at a desk and spend your time advocating for other people, so it is a good catalyst for inspiration.

BW: It is really helpful to hear good tactics and ideas from outside our own office. It allows us to mimic or twist what we learn to fit our format. It gives us more creative flow and acts as a kind of reset button for our practices.

How much of the Cleveland/Ohio dance scene was represented?

BW: A lot! Last year the conference was in LA so it was easy to compare the two and see how centered the conferences are on their regional area. The entire performance aspect of the weekend was showcasing Cleveland/Ohio performers.

What did you enjoy most?

BW: My favorite experience there was the talk by keynote speaker Prumsodun Ok (you can watch his speech here). He said ‘How often do our ideas leave the safety of their walls?’ which resonated with me. I started to think of this in context of artists vs. organizations. Artists can easily share their creative ideas and new thoughts, but how can an organization be as courageous as artists? Artists are encouraged to do this but presenters are seen as the backbone that must be stabilized. Presenters are expected to be innovative but without taking too big of a risk. I’m left thinking about how an arts organizations can act as creatively as an artist and challenging myself as an arts marketer to apply this freedom in innovation while doing my job.

MB: I also really enjoyed hearing from Prumsodun Ok. What stood out the most from his speech was that change isn’t happening fast enough. As a gay Cambodian artist, he isn’t finding the support he needs from within the United States. We clearly need to make changes to rectify this, but it isn’t happening, or at least not at the speed it should be. He was very kindly, yet sternly, telling us we need to get it together.

BW: He also discussed the fact that we need to support immigrant artists and that they don’t just have to create about their culture. They can make art about anything, not just their diversity. We don’t need to categorize artists by their cultural heritage, but rather by their creative output.

MB: Yeah, minorities don’t always have to carry a flag of their identity. Unfortunately, immigrant artists often don’t get funding for other works which is where the conversation of supporting them really comes in. They should feel as cherished when creating abstract art that has nothing to do with their identity, as they do when they make work about their heritage. It also made me wonder, why do white people get to own contemporary dance? Traditional dance doesn’t need to be excluded from contemporary dance. People create subcategories by labeling performances as ‘African contemporary dance’ but you never hear ‘European contemporary dance’.

BW: People just need to watch their language as it can easily put others in boxes.

*You can read more about Prumsodun Ok and his work here on Dance Magazine’s website*

Prumsudon Ok, Keynote Speech

What, if any, improvements would you want to see happen at the conference?

BW: I think it needs to be more accessible to everyone because the conference is really expensive. They either need to make it more affordable or give out more scholarships, although it would be preferably both.

MB: I hope to see more diversity in the presenter’s council. The closed door sessions are understandably higher ‘ranked’ people, but unfortunately, as there aren’t as many people of color in those positions, they aren’t represented in these sessions. They need to make a point of bringing diversity into the council meetings and into the conversation. And I agree with what Beth said about the price of the conference. It might seem silly to point out but even the partner hotel is one of the most expensive in town. Obviously, you can stay wherever you want, and I understand they want to represent the city and themselves well, but there are definitely ways to make the conference more welcoming to organizations with smaller budgets.

BW: And they are having conversations about the necessity of having diverse people in a room, so they need to take strides to make that true in their council meetings. I also think the diversity sessions need to be mandatory because the people that needed to be in attendance weren't there. They also need to make the sessions longer so there is time to talk about implementation of the ideas and values put forward.

MB: The organization is changing a lot with new and influential voices coming in. I think this is causing some friction that didn’t go unnoticed. There are definitely different ideals about where the conference is going to go from here so it’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Have any great connections with other dance professionals?

MB: I think we all made quite a few connections over this trip. One that stood out for me was meeting up with an old colleague in Columbus. I danced with Russell Lepley in Germany and he’s now a Co-Founder of Flux + Flow in Ohio. Flux + Flow is a thriving school, company, and community, so it was great to reconnect with him and see how successful his organization is doing.

For dance professionals is it something to consider doing and worth it to go?

BW: Administratively yes I think so, but not as an artist. There is so much expected of creative people that the administrative side has to take some pressure off people with creative flow. I think this conference has the potential to do just that.

MB: I would suggest artists go to booking conferences instead. However, if the conference is being held in or near your city then you can volunteer in exchange for access to the break out sessions which I think makes it worth it financially. Overall though this specific conference is targeted towards the administrative side and I would say it is very much worth it for anyone in that realm to go.

It will be exciting to see how the Dance/USA Conference progresses in the future and if any of the changes Matthew and Beth hope to see are made. They really enjoyed their experience in Ohio and look forward to going in upcoming years.

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