Transcript, Episode 117: Dancing Through Pregnancy and Cultivating Open Communication

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

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in this episode we will start out with our usual dance headline rundown—which, as we’re recording just after the school shooting in Texas, unbelievably includes news about another gun tragedy in the ballet world. Then, we will discuss the challenges and joys of dancing and performing during pregnancy, as inspired by Kenita R. Miller’s recent performances in the revival of for colored girls… on Broadway. And finally, we’ll talk about how truly open communication can be cultivated inside dance organizations, and how an effective communication strategy can help root out racial bias.

Before we get into all of that, a shout out for our upcoming episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our exclusive audio interview series, which is coming out this Saturday on Apple Podcasts. This time we’ve got the delightful Caili Quan, who talks about discovering her voice as a choreographer since leaving BalletX in 2020, her upcoming stint as artist in residence at the Vail International Dance Festival, and how her Chamorro Filipino identity ends up shaping pretty much all of her work. It’s a really great conversation, so I hope you can give it a listen. Again, it’ll be out this Saturday, May 28th, on Apple Podcasts. You can search for The Dance Edit Extra there.

All right, now it’s time for our dance headline rundown, starting with the terrible news out of Arizona.

Amy Brandt:
25 year old Colleen Hoopes, a dancer with Ballet Arizona, was shot and killed by her husband in the early morning hours of May 20th. According to local news reports, he claims she startled him in the middle of the night. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Her husband, Christopher Hoopes, was arrested and charged with second degree murder and unlawful discharge of a weapon. Colleen was from Rochester, New York, where she trained at the Draper Center for Dance Education and danced for Rochester City Ballet before joining Ballet Arizona in 2017. The company released a statement saying, “We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of company dancer Colleen Hoopes. Colleen was an integral part of the Ballet Arizona family, and will be missed deeply. She was passionate and dedicated to her art form and a bright light to us all. Our hearts go out to her loved ones.” Her parents hope to start a scholarship in her name, according to local news reports. So, it’s just such terrible news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s so tragic. It seems like we’re also not quite clear yet on what exactly happened. We have a news story linked for you in the show notes with more details.

Major news from TikTok this week: the app has announced that it’s introducing its first ever creator crediting tools, which will allow users to easily tag and credit the creators who may have inspired their videos using a new button in the video category. Some users had started doing this in a more sort of homespun way, for dance videos in particular, adding that DC or dance credit tag when dancing others’ choreography. But now it’s much easier to credit people in a way that might especially help the BIPOC community, members of which often do not get credit for starting popular trends on the app. And TikTok says it will also be adding more prompts to credit throughout the posting process soon.

Amy Brandt:
On Friday, the Broadway League said that theatergoers will be required to continue wearing masks until the end of June. The news comes as New York City is experiencing an influx of COVID cases. That said, Broadway is seemingly going strong. The president of the Broadway League told the New York Daily News that a quarter million people have been attending shows weekly this spring. So, keep those masks on, I guess.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And if Patti LuPone has to yell at people to get them to keep their masks on in the theater, so be it. Bless her. [laughter]

More Broadway news: This week, members of multiple Broadway productions were released from nondisclosure agreements that had previously prohibited them from speaking about workplace misconduct related to producer Scott Rudin. The release was secured by Actors’ Equity. It, of course, comes after Rudin has faced numerous allegations of misconduct and abuse. And there’s actually some related news here that has even wider-reaching implications. The Broadway League has also agreed to stop using nondisclosure language in contracts, outside of protecting intellectual property or financial information. That means that Broadway workers will have greater freedom to speak out about workplace harassment and discrimination. Big step forward.

Amy Brandt:
Finally, gosh.

Investigative journalists from Important Stories and the German publication, Der Spiegel have reported that Igor Zelensky, the former director of Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, has allegedly been in a serious romantic relationship with Vladimir Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, and that they allegedly share a child together. Zelensky, who is married to former dancer Yana Serebryakova, recently stepped down from his position in Munich, citing private family circumstances that required his full attention. Very interesting news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, when this news first broke, it was like, “Is this the plot to a spy novel?” It felt so surreal. I remember when Zelensky first left that position at the Bavarian State Ballet, there was some speculation about whether it had to do with his connections to Russia. And it seems like that is in fact the case, but this is not the kind of connection I think most of us were imagining. We’ve got links to more articles about that in the show notes.

A big promotion happened at New York City Ballet this week. Chun Wai Chan, who recently joined the company as a soloist after dancing with Houston Ballet, has been made a principal dancer. He’s the company’s first Chinese principal and only the fourth Asian dancer to ever hold that rank at City Ballet. And it could not be more deserved. He has been dancing so beautifully.

Amy Brandt:
Yes! I’ve been rooting for him all season. I just love watching him dance.

The Royal Ballet has two new principal dancers as well. Artistic director Kevin O’Hare announced that he has promoted William Bracewell and Reece Clarke to the company’s top rank, to take effect at the start of the 2022-23 season. So congratulations to both of them.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. And congratulations are also in order for Ariana DeBose. Actually, that’s a phrase we’ve been saying a lot recently: “Congrats are in order for triple threat Ariana Debose.” She’s been named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People of 2022. And the list also includes a few other folks with dance and theater connections, including Channing Tatum, Michael R. Jackson and Zendaya.

Amy Brandt:
Philadanco has just received a three and a half year grant from the Mellon Foundation worth $850,000. The grant will go towards new programming, staff expansion, cataloging and preservation of archives, and an upgrade to its Philadelphia headquarters and residential apartments. What a great vote of confidence by the Mellon Foundation to Philadanco. This is really great news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and a blessedly positive note on which to end our official headline rundown. But before we move on to discussion segments, I also wanted to direct you to the Dance Media Events Calendar, which has listings for all kinds of newsworthy performances and events, including a lot of stuff we don’t have time to get to on the podcast. So to make sure you’re not missing out on any upcoming shows or auditions, or to add your own events to the calendar, please head to dancemediacalendar.com.

All right. So in our first discussion segment today, we’d like to talk about a recent Dance Magazine article profiling Kenita R. Miller, the extraordinary performer who just finished a run as the Lady in Red in the revival of for colored girls… on Broadway. And the reason she just finished the run is because she’s about to reach her due date. She had been performing in the show—which features director Camille A. Brown’s athletic, rigorous choreography—while pregnant. Miller’s work in for colored girls… was fantastic. She earned a Tony nomination for it. But it was also an anomaly in theater, and in dance as well, where pregnant bodies are often not seen, let alone celebrated, onstage. So hopefully it’s indicative of greater openness on the part of directors and choreographers to working with and finding inspiration in pregnant artists.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. The article says that this is Kenita’s first pregnancy, something she had hoped for for many years and had all but given up on conceiving a child. So when she found out she was pregnant during a workshop of this show, that’s where her participation could have ended. But choreographer Camille A. Brown was open to working with her and taking things one step at a time and seeing what was possible. And it’s really amazing to see how she was allowed to continue performing and bring something really special, I think, to the role.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing too, the fact that she was visibly pregnant on stage added so many layers of meaning to the story that her character in particular was telling. It really elevated the stakes in some ways. Because the Lady in Red delivers a poem about a woman watching her children being killed by an ex-lover, and a pregnant woman giving that speech, that is incredibly powerful. And then at the end of the monologue, all of the women in the cast do a laying on of hands on Miller to empower her. That reads really differently, too, with a pregnant body.

I think all of that is just evidence of the rich creative possibilities that are inherent in pregnancy, in this time of transformation. And I don’t mean to say that pregnant bodies exist to be used for their creative potential, of course not. But if a pregnant performer is open to the idea of making art that incorporates her changing body, there’s so much to be explored.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And I think a lot of dancers are pretty nervous when approaching leadership to tell them that they’re pregnant. I know a lot of my friends have gotten pretty nervous about having that conversation. There’s a fear you’ll be shelved or that you’re letting the company down because you’re not available or you won’t be available or that you’ll be more focused on your family and not on your career and whatnot. And honestly, I say that for dancers, but I think it’s true for a lot of professions. So it’s really nice to see this story. And it says a lot about Camille A. Brown, honestly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It does! Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
I have a friend of mine who was pregnant and a choreographer was working with the company and had worked with her previously, and she had really inspired him. And he created this very special solo for her. She was very pregnant, I think beyond six months or so, and just this moment in the middle of the ballet where she came out and it was a very special one-of-a-kind experience—I think very rewarding for the audience to watch as well. Certainly rewarding for her as an artist.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I think that kind of story, it’s pushing back against that old fashioned idea that women should basically disappear once they become visibly pregnant, should remove themselves from public life and be lying in bed and especially not be exerting themselves physically. And it’s ironic—well, ironic is the wrong word, but it’s strange too that that rule has been especially stringently enforced for performers, and among performers, especially dancers. If there’s any kind of visible bump, usually people are saying you shouldn’t be onstage. But it’s also especially ridiculous for dancers when your body is your life, being told to essentially forget about that part of yourself or give it over entirely to this biological process. That seems bananas.

It does seem like we’re making progress on that front, slowly, to the point where now—like I keep thinking that video of Ashley Bouder doing fouettés at eight or nine months pregnant, and most people were cheering her during that. But there were still some folks commenting that, “Oh, she’s endangering her baby,” or otherwise reacting in a negative way to a pregnant body in a dance environment.

Amy Brandt:
You know, I think there are safety concerns that people have and that’s normal as well. And not every woman will be comfortable with dancing to a certain extent in their pregnancy and all of that. But like this story says, Kenita was in very close contact with her doctors and listening to them and to her own body throughout this whole journey.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And ended up saying that in fact dancing made her feel so much better physically during her pregnancy. It helped her listen to her body in a different kind of way, which I think echoes things we’ve heard from other dancer moms as well.

Anyway, congratulations to Kenita Miller on her beautiful work in this show and also on becoming a mother. We have the link to the Dance Magazine profile in the show notes.

Last up this week, we actually have another Dance Magazine story we’d like to get into. This one is about open-door communication policies inside dance companies, which have become a new sort of gold standard. Saying that your company has an open-door policy signals a desire to foster trust among all the different members of your organization, and a certain willingness to confront institutional problems and particularly racial bias. But actually constructing a communication policy that lives up to those ideals is complicated. And this Dance Magazine piece talks to several dance-world experts about why it’s so challenging, and how to overcome those challenges, with I think one of the biggest takeaways being, dance companies need outside help here.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Particularly on the issue of rooting out racial bias. I think someone’s quoted as saying, “Being a good person is not enough.” It’s important to have a diversity equity and inclusion specialist take a look at things from the outside, especially for some of these larger companies that were founded on the white paradigm. It’s so institutionalized, it’s so ingrained that it helps to have someone from the outside help them work through this and develop new communication methods. Not only that, but audits as well, regular audits.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Since we’re emphasizing the importance of expert help, I just wanted to shout out the three fantastic experts featured in this story itself. You’ve got Theresa Ruth Howard. You’ve got Erica Lynette Edwards from Cultivating Better Tomorrows. There’s Tamia Santana from Ballet Hispánico. That is such an all star group!

I thought it was especially interesting when Edwards was talking about how it’s important to develop a shared language for your organization so that everybody’s using the same terms and everyone knows what those terms mean. She gives the example of when we talk about “diversity in dance”—what does that mean? Is it coded language for race? It usually is, but diversity can include many identities beyond race or ethnicity or gender. So let’s specify what we actually mean when we’re talking about diversity.

And there was also the idea that a good communication strategy is usually designed with the input of everybody at the organization, so that everyone can work together to hold each other accountable, as Howard says. Because when the whole community helps develop policies together, that flattens hierarchies, so nobody’s afraid to make their voice heard, whether they’re an apprentice or an executive director. And then on sort of the flip side of that, it’s also important to have a way to anonymously report incidents of racial bias or microaggression or other forms of inappropriate conduct, so that anyone can have the freedom to voice their concerns openly without having to fear repercussions.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. That is really important. She does stress the importance of having a variety of voices across the organization and in different positions, being able to have a voice at the table and communicate freely. And if sometimes that’s easier to do anonymously…it’s certainly not the way, certainly in my experience, the communication ladder was structured. It was very much top down. But it’s important to have more voices at the table feeling comfortable. Because you can say you have an open door policy, but if you are not comfortable approaching your boss, or whoever, in your organization with an issue, there’s something that’s not tracking in that open door policy.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Yeah. And fixing that—going back to the idea of being a good person with good intentions versus being a person who’s actually helping to make meaningful change in a company’s culture, a lot of that has to do with how we communicate and how we are allowed to communicate.

Amy Brandt:
And how we respond. You can say we’re open door, and then if you come bring a complaint and if you’re met with instant defensiveness, the door shuts real fast.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It shuts immediately, yup.

It’s a great story with advice that, as Amy said, is relevant to pretty much any workplace, not just dance workplaces. So, we have the link for you in the show notes; I hope you can check it out.

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.

Amy Brandt:
Bye everyone.