Transcript, Episode 104: Brown Girls Do Ballet, the Grant Grind, and the Dance Flow State

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we will discuss the transformative nonprofit Brown Girls Do Ballet and how it has provided communal support for a whole generation of dancers of color. We will get into a terrifyingly good essay by choreographer Miguel Gutierrez about the brokenness of the grant application process. And we will muse a little on the all-consuming nature of dance and how that can be both a positive and a negative force, as inspired by another brilliant essay.

That is going to be a lot to ponder, all of that. Let’s jump right into our dance headline rundown, which is actually on the shorter side this week.

Courtney Escoyne:
So, “So You think You Can Dance” is back?

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s happening.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s happening. The day after audition notices for Season 17 of the show began popping up last week, Nigel Lythgoe confirmed on Twitter that it would be back this summer after the competition was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, and summer 2021 went by without much of a peep. So, it rises?

Margaret Fuhrer:
I don’t know if any of us were anticipating that news, but you know what? I’m happy about it. I am so curious to see what the pool of dancers auditioning for the show is going to look like now. And also what a post-TikTok “So You Think You Can Dance” looks like. How is the show going to make a case for its continued relevance? It’s definitely going to be interesting to see.

Courtney Escoyne:
And just knocking on wood that everything goes safely and as planned, you know?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Hate that we’re still having to think about it, but we are.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Some more dance on TV news. We now have a release date, and a frankly fantastic trailer, for Lizzo’s dance reality show. It’s called “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.” It’s set to premiere on Amazon Prime on March 25th, and it will follow Lizzo’s search for artists to join the ranks of her Big Grrrls dancers. She’s going to be helped in that search not just by choreographer Tanisha Scott, which is great in itself, but also by original tour dancers Chawnta Marie Van, Shirlene Quigley, and Grace Holden—all three of whom were on the cover of Dance Spirit back in the spring of 2020, fun fact. And they’re all just great, so, really excited to see that one too.

Courtney Escoyne:
Love to see it. And the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that the planned touring engagement of the Mariinsky Ballet scheduled for the end of April has been canceled, citing multiple factors, but principally “the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic related conditions,” to quote the release. In a statement, both organizations said they were looking forward to working together again in future seasons. And the Kennedy Center indicated that it did not have plans to replace the dates of those engagements with another ballet company. So, still seeing the impacts and effects—I’m still updating that cancellation timeline. Someone let me stop soon, please.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Someone make that Listicle of Sads unnecessary, please.

Here begins what has become our regular game of, who’s coming and going in the ballet world now? And this week, we’re starting with Cynthia Harvey, who will depart her position as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the end of this school year. Harvey has led the school since 2016, and the search for her replacement is now underway.

Courtney Escoyne:
Going to be keeping an eye on that. So many leadership changes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So many.

Courtney Escoyne:
Meanwhile, ballet star Jeffrey Cirio is headed back stateside to rejoin Boston Ballet, first this spring as a guest artist for a mixed bill of William Forsythe and Jorma Elo works and for the company’s run of Swan Lake, and then as a principal dancer starting in the fall. Cirio of course started his career in Boston, where he was a principal from 2012 until he departed in 2015 to join first American Ballet Theatre and then English National Ballet, where he’s currently a lead principal. This is yet another of the roster shifts we’ve seen at ENB in the wake of Tamara Rojo’s impending departure for San Francisco Ballet. Curious to see how rosters continue to reshape themselves.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, a lot of shaking up happening.

Another dancer homecoming of a sorts is happening at American Ballet Theatre. Daniil Simkin, who was a principal with a company from 2012 to 2020, will return as a guest artist for parts of its 2022 season. Daniel Camargo, a former principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet and Dutch National Ballet—and also Felipe from Birds of Paradise, never forget—he will also appear as a guest artist with ABT for select performances.

So in our first longer discussion segment today, we want to talk about an excellent article that just ran in Pointe magazine about Brown Girls Do Ballet, the organization that started as an Instagram account and has over the past almost 10 years grown into a nonprofit that celebrates diversity in the ballet world. If you are a ballet person and/or if you’ve been anywhere near Instagram within the last decade or so, odds are you have seen some of the work they’re doing, which includes scholarship and mentorship programs. As the article points out, representation is of course always crucial, but organizations like Brown Girls Do Ballet play an especially important role because they offer communal support for dancers of color as well.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think what’s brilliant about it is I actually didn’t fully realize before this article just how much this organization has done be beyond the photo series and exhibitions that have come out of that. They have a pointe shoe program for dancers in need. They have a supply closet for dancers who are displaced by natural disasters, scholarship programs, an ambassador and mentorship program, a small studio grant program. And they’re also, I believe next month, launching an after-school program in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to provide ballet classes at a local rec center that’s being taught and offered by the organization’s ambassadors. So they do so very, very much, even beyond the already key work of increasing representation and connecting dancers of color while they are training so they have those connections going into what they hope will be careers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, I think the ambassador program is particularly important. The idea of connecting younger dancers of color with more established ones, because it weaves this really strong network of artists who might be having similar experiences and can support each other, and that it’s not just about making these young artists of color feel seen, but it’s also about helping them feel supported in a 360-degree way, both financially via scholarships and grants, and then emotionally via mentors and peers. And that’s so critical to their longer term success in a ballet industry that is slowly starting to change, but is still a very difficult place for BIPOC dancers to navigate.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, not only doing it with the dancers who are meeting each other potentially at these photo shoots, but also connecting dancers across the country who maybe wouldn’t run into each other in person necessarily but now can speak to someone who is maybe going through similar things that they’re going through, celebrating each other’s successes and offering that crucial support.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, and because Brown Girls Do Ballet started this work back in 2012, we’re now seeing its effects on a really large scale, with dancers who were students back when it began now mentoring he next wave of students of color. There’s real generational impact happening already. And because it’s grown in a really significant way just over the past two years, following the shift in ballet world conversations about race that happened in the early height of the pandemic, and then also thanks to some resources they received from Meta’s Black Creator Program, which has allowed them to give even more scholarships and micro grants—it’s already created significant change, and it’s poised to do exponentially more now going forward.

Courtney Escoyne:
We love to see it. TL;DR, we love to see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah, please do read the Pointe story by Shaté L. Hayes, which we have linked for you in the show notes, of course.

Next up today, we have an essay that ran in the publication In Dance recently. Well, it actually ran about a month ago, but it’s one of those pieces that is forever relevant and only more so since the pandemic. The title is “The Grant You Wish You Could Write.” It’s by choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, whom regular listeners know we admire very much. And it is a mordent and incredibly perceptive takedown of the grant application process in the dance world. This is another one of those pieces that we’re calling out mostly to get you to go read it. We want you to read all of Gutierrez’s own words; I’m sure we’re going to be quoting them extensively here. But we also wanted to talk about how the essay just perfectly encapsulates some of the ways the arts funding system in the US dance scene is broken, and then the desperation that many artists feel when faced with this neverending grant treadmill as they try to find financial support for their art.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, this piece just gets at so much: how dance makers spend unpaid hours putting together grant applications to maybe be able to afford to pay their dancers and make their work, hours that could have gone to survival gigs or rest, or actually making that work. How the same artists are all competing for the same scraps of funding, which creates barriers to actually having the sort of communal support for each other that dance can and should generate. How these applications ask artists to perform in a very particular way to very particular standards and how they often reward explicitly community- or issue-driven projects in a way that seems to ignore the intrinsic value of art and art making. And how participating in this rat race is unfortunately seemingly the only choice for anyone who wants to make dance, full stop, and to complain about it is pointless because this was a field you chose. There’s so much here and I cannot say it better than Miguel did.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s the tone of this piece in part that makes it so devastating because it’s completely unvarnished, and the feelings and thoughts that he has are complicated. None of it is black and white. He expresses some existential angst about this idea that, yes, he was told point blank by one particularly cold foundation director, he chose this life for himself and that might mean just dealing with the difficulties of things like grant applications. But at the same time, as he says, he has to make art to be. He’s tried doing what feels like everything else, but he does not know how to survive outside of being an artist. It’s not some like la-di-da career choice he made haphazardly, which is the way so much of the US funding system seems to think about artists. His direct quote is, “Making art is basically my ongoing anti-suicide prevention program.” So the stakes of this hypothetical grant application are literally his life.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think it also gets at, it is human nature to seek meaning and to seek art. And I think that it is really telling that I feel like the majority of people I encounter, if they are given a place where they are able to have their basic needs met and have rest and be secure and taken care of, turning to art is a very natural thing. And I think the idea that we have somehow ended up in a place where to choose to make art and to try to make that your life is seen as less than, or automatically accepting, well that just means you’re accepting that you don’t necessarily need funds to live. The whole structure is very antithetical, I think, to the human experience. And also it’s very antithetical to living and to life, and especially someone who identifies as an artist, it’s in a way saying that makes you subhuman or you are somehow less deserving.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, yeah. Just the way that some of us have convinced ourselves that art is frivolous or extraneous or a luxury, when that is not what art is and that’s not what art has ever been.

More shades of gray in this essay: Miguel acknowledges that the people reading these applications are often people just like him, overworked, overwhelmed artists taking on one more job in an effort to make an extra $500. They’re just trying to do their best. It’s not really fair to direct this rage about the vagaries of the funding system at them. And yet that rage is so wholly justified that you can’t argue against it. It is righteous anger.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Because it’s just crumbs are what artists are afforded. And as is also pointed out, oftentimes what is funding these grants are individuals and corporations and companies who, as an ethically minded artist, you might have some qualms about accepting funding from. But this is a philanthropic effort and you’re going to take it because the math at the end of the day is, “Well, this will maybe allow me to eat.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s a beautifully messy essay, because, as he says, art is messy, and trying to get artists to quote-unquote, “tidy up” their art so it makes sense on the grant application is not only an unpaid labor, it’s also an especially exhausting effort because it can feel antithetical to the art maker’s entire way of thinking and being.

Courtney Escoyne:
Art is messy, so are literally all humans. Humans are messy. Art is messy, because humans are messy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. Please go read the essay. It’s like a shot of adrenaline. We of course have it in the show notes.

For our last discussion segment today, we’re heading in a more philosophical direction. Literary Hub recently published a piece by dancer and writer Olivia Campbell about the dance fugue state, the way that the all-consuming nature of dance can lead to this singular kind of self-absorption. This essay goes in many different directions, but one of its central ideas is that while that absolute dedication can sometimes be a good and generative thing, it can also be a corrupting influence. And it looks at how the power that dance has over our bodies and our minds has been portrayed in history and also in culture, especially in more recent pop culture.

It’s not a news story at all. It really shouldn’t be on this podcast. [laughter] But we want to talk about it because it’s full of ideas that are of perennial concern to dancers.

Courtney Escoyne:
Margaret, did you think I wasn’t going to be like, “Yes, let’s discuss the philosophical one”?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well I knew you were on board! I’m just explaining to listeners who might be confused. [laughter]

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, and the thing that kept coming to mind for me reading this was something that I and some of the other pre-professional dancers that I grew up dancing with used to say, which was, dance isn’t a hobby, dance isn’t a profession, dance is a lifestyle choice. The ways in which it is very much—to pursue it at the levels which we are frequently talking about on this podcast requires a level of dedication and a level of almost borderline obsessiveness, so much so that particularly when you’re younger and trying to pursue it, the idea of balance, the idea of having outside interests can often feel like a show of, “Well, you’re not that serious about this thing.” Which is very, I think, limiting and ignoring the multifacetedness of people—and especially artists, hello, if we’re calling it back.

But I think there’s also an interesting dichotomy that’s at play here that the writer talks about, which is the absolute self absorption of being in the studio, working on your technique, going after an elusive idea of perfection, an ideal of what the form should be, versus when you get into what I think pop culture would recognize as a flow state when you just are in the thing, when it’s transcendent, when it feels like flight. Which I think is what we all are pursuing as dancers, maybe more than the perfection, I would hope maybe more than the perfection, because we’re never going to get the perfection, but you can get to a flow state. And the apparent inherent dichotomy there, and what is the difference? Where is the line? And I find that really fascinating to think about in terms of mindset.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I actually found myself wanting to answer back at certain points in the essay when it became a little ballet centric, because I think a lot of the stereotypes we have about the self-absorbed dancer do come out of the ballet world. She has this quote: “Since the dancer’s body is at once brush, paint, canvas and artist, self involvement is practically a prerequisite. To be obsessed with dance is to be obsessed with yourself.” That’s true if the dance you’re practicing is focused on the individual and especially if it’s focused, as you said, on the perfection of an individual’s technique. Both of those things are very true of ballet. But what about dances that prioritize the group, as many non-Western dance forms do? Or social dances that are all about the exchange of energy between two partners? You can absolutely experience that sublime dance flow state in those kinds of scenarios, without it all being tied up in your own singular body, which is a very different kind of way to get that sort of high. And I think we don’t see quite as much of a fascination with that kind of dance in pop culture because it’s much less likely to lead to self destruction. It runs counter to that “mad artist” trope in which a person is consumed by the pursuit of perfection.

Courtney Escoyne:
Right. And we love the mad artist trope, and we also love the sole genius trope, which ignores so much of the input that actually creates work that is memorable and work that is great and work that matters to people. Even something that has just one person’s name on it is always going to have much, much, much, much more than that one person in it, whether the authorship is acknowledged or not.

And I think also there’s something… One of the paradoxes that I’ve always loved about dance training and thinking about ballet in particular or any of those techniques that are individual-based in particular is yes, I am showing up the studio and focusing on, “I’m going to do this a little bit better than I did it yesterday.” Or whatever that specific individual thing is. But, at least in the before times, I’m showing up in a studio doing that with other people, and that act of taking class together, of practicing it together, is still a communal act. And that dichotomy is something that’s always fascinated me, and I think is a lot of what I love about it. I think it would be utterly miserable if it was just you by yourself just trying to do the same thing over and over again and ignoring the fact that there’s anyone else in the room.

Margaret Fuhrer:
As we discovered during the pandemic. Yeah, even within the context of the individual pursuit of some kind of perfection, there’s still that sense of community there, yeah.

I was also intrigued by the essay’s discussion of the parallels between the dance flow state and the flow state you experience as a writer, for obvious reasons. She says, and I agree, that while getting lost in writing feels absorbing, getting lost in dance feels spiritual. It’s just different. There’s a difference of degree. She posits that that’s because, first of all, in writing the production and consumption of art are separated by time. Whereas in dance they happen simultaneously, which has a unique electricity. And then also dance is a full body art form. Every one of your senses is so completely engaged in a way that they just aren’t in writing, which also makes perfect sense to me. To use a different art form as an analogy here, my dad is a musician, and we have arguments sometimes because he will say, “There’s nothing more sublime than playing music.” And I’ll argue, “No, there’s nothing more sublime than what dance lets you do, which is to be the music.” Your entire self is the music.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well and I think there’s also—societally, we very, very, very much prize and prioritize the written word. If something is worthwhile, it can be put into words. If something matters, it can be put into writing. And we are dance writers. We spend a lot of time doing something akin to that. However, I don’t think any of us ever lose sight of the fact that there are ways of knowing that are inherently unable to be exactly captured in words. And that is something that dance has in spades. There are ways of knowing when you dance that I can’t put it in words and I don’t think it should be put into words. There’s things about it that we simply know and we intuit, and it’s other ways of knowing that are equally valid and equally relevant and equally important.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Sometimes words are too specific. Anyway, yes, another essay that you should seek out on your own. And we have made it easy for you to find in the show notes.

All right, that’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.