Transcript, Episode 49: Abuse in the Classroom, Gymnastics Choreography, and Tiffany Rea-Fisher

[Jump to Tiffany Rea-Fisher interview.]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hey everyone. Before we begin the episode, just a warning that we’ll be discussing some sensitive and upsetting topics today, including the sexual abuse of young dance students, so please proceed with caution, and do what you need to do to take care of yourselves.

[pause]

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

Lydia Murray:
I am Lydia Murray.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we’ll talk about why sexual abuse continues to be such a problem in dance education, as discussed in two important Dance Magazine stories. We’ll talk about how two recent controversies, one involving The Bachelor, and one centered on Chloe Bailey of ChloexHalle, reveal our obsession with policing Black women’s bodies—especially if they’re dancing. We’ll talk about Bijoya Das, who’s the dancer and former gymnast behind UCLA’s viral gymnastics floor routines. Then we’ll have our interview with Tiffany Rea-Fisher, who is the artistic director of Elisa Monte Dance, and who’s a leader in pretty much every way one can be a leader in the dance world. It was such a great interview. Tiffany talked a lot about the importance of dancer voices—first of all, about training dancers to speak up rather than training them to be silent, but also about how their voices can and should play important roles in everything from the development of choreography to the development of art support policy. So excited for you all to hear that.

We have a lot of ground to cover in this episode, but before we get into all of it, just a quick prompt to please give this podcast a rating, and if you have time, a review on your listening platform of choice, because of course that feedback is valuable to us, but it also helps other dance-minded people discover this great little community that we’ve built. Also a reminder that transcriptions of all episodes are now available on our website, thedanceedit.com, and they’re linked in each episode description, too.

Okay. Let’s do our weekly dance headline rundown, because it was quite a busy dance news cycle.

Lydia Murray:
A new study by TRG Arts has revealed that most North American performing arts organizations are now planning to return to in-person performances this fall, but only 42% of us companies expect to perform in primary venues before July 2021, while 55% of Canadian organizations surveyed are planning to return to in-person performances in their primary venues earlier than July.

Cadence Neenan:
The curtain is ever so slowly rising on the Tony Awards. Organizers of the event announced that voters for the awards will finally be able to make their selections beginning March 1st—though the actual date for the awards themselves is still to be determined. It was announced that the ceremony will be held in coordination with the reopening of Broadway. Since Broadway is formally closed at least through May, many predict that the Tonys won’t take the stage until the fall. But I’m just going to be here, dreaming of the day we get to live in a world where Aaron Tveit has a Tony.

Margaret Fuhrer:
May it come sooner rather than later.

Lydia Murray:
The Uruguayan ballerina Maria Riccetto, who’s a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre, is the new artistic director of Uruguay’s Ballet Nacional del Sodre.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s such exciting news, congrats to her.

Cadence Neenan:
Australian Dance Theatre artistic director Garry Stewart is stepping down from his role at the end of 2021, following 22 years at the company’s helm. To celebrate his immense impact on Australian dance, ADT will be presenting its biggest program in 25 years, book-ended by two world premieres.

Lydia Murray:
Two big news items from the worlds of Broadway and film. Jon M. Chu will direct the feature-film adaptation of the Broadway musical Wicked. He previously directed the hit film adaptation of the book Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the forthcoming film version of In The Heights. The Broadway hit musical Come From Away is set to be filmed with a September 2021 release date, and the Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley will be at the helm of the project.

Cadence Neenan:
Choreographer Emma Portner and actor Elliot Page have decided to divorce. The pair announced the decision in a statement on Tuesday saying that they continue to have the utmost respect for each other and will continue to remain close friends.

Lydia Murray:
The star “Dance Moms” alum and YouTuber Jojo Siwa came out last month and has become a role model to young LGBTQ+ fans.

Cadence Neenan:
I was delighted to see this all unfold.

Lydia Murray:
Yes!

Cadence Neenan:
The LSU Tiger Girls, the official dance team of Louisiana State University, will not be competing in the national championships for the first time in 22 years. While the university released an official statement saying that the decision was due to COVID constraints, former and current members of the team have come forward saying that the university’s decision was neither budgetary nor COVID related, but because the university decided to prioritize allocating resources to other athletic teams. Notably, the dance team is the only team at LSU that has been told they can’t compete this season. If you’re interested in supporting the Tiger Girls, they’ve started a petition on change.org, which we’ll link below.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, that is a complicated story. We’ll link the petition, and we’ll also link another news story about it, just to give you a little more context.

Lydia Murray:
Happy Black History Month. Various dance companies and organizations are beginning their celebrations. We’ll be highlighting these throughout the month, but for one, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, founded by Dance Magazine writer and contributing editor Theresa Ruth Howard, is honoring it with an immersive interactive exhibit titled “The Constellation Project: Mapping the Dark Stars of Ballet,” which we talked about in an earlier episode. But also on February 20th, from 12 to 2:00 PM, the organization is hosting “Check In and Check Up,” which is a free virtual town hall gathering for members of MoBBallet and the wider community.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Mark your calendar for that.

So, we are entering now a dark stretch of episode, touching on some deep-seated problems in the dance community. The first is the prevalence of sexual abuse in dance and particularly in dance education. In its February issue, Dance Magazine ran two complimentary articles about the problem. The first, by dancer and MOVE|NYC| founder Chanel DaSilva, is part personal testimony and part call to action. She talks about her own experience being abused by a dance teacher, and about how and why dense institutions fail to protect their students. Then the second article features insights from a range of dance experts on what we can do, steps we can actually take, to keep students safe.

Lydia Murray:
So, one thing she said in this piece was, “Even though it never felt right, I kept thinking if I said no, would my teacher not like me anymore? Would all of my opportunities for performances be taken away from me? Will anybody believe me if I speak out?” Which of course are common thought patterns in these situations and abusers take advantage of this.

We heard from several experts, including Peter Flew, who is the director of the School of Education at University of Roehampton in London. One recommendation he gave was to make basic safety precautions standard. Schools should do background checks on instructors, protect students’ data. Teachers should be communicating with parents of minors, not directly with the children, which is something that happened in DaSilva’s case. Schools should communicate their safeguarding policy to the public, make it available on the website and in written materials, and empower young dancers to feel safe in speaking out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, in any teacher-student situation, the power dynamics are skewed, but I feel like that’s especially true in dance. Because dance students are, first of all, taught to be silent and obedient in a way that makes it difficult for them to speak up when they encounter abuse. But dance instruction also, of course, often involves a lot of touch. It’s all about the body, which can blur boundaries in a way that can be confusing to students and allow teachers to take advantage of situations. Also, dance schools often exalt teachers in ways that other environments don’t. They’re not just your instructor. It’s your mentor. It’s an artist, a gatekeeper, this person who can connect you to the professional dance world that you so desperately want to join. Those are some of the reasons why this problem is so entrenched in the dance world, why it’s so persistent.

Cadence Neenan:
Something else DaSilva wrote about that I thought was something I think a lot of dancers could relate to is how in her own experience, a lot of times the relationships between dance teachers, dance leadership, and their students can often be thought of as familial rather than an exclusively educational relationship. I think that is something that often in the dance world, we consider it to be a real positive: “Oh, this studio is a family. We’re not just a studio.” But I mean, it does make a situation in which it’s really easy for the lines to get blurred, like you were saying, Margaret, where you don’t know what is appropriate. Is it appropriate for a teacher to drive a student home alone? Is it appropriate for a teacher to be texting directly with the student? Lydia, that’s something that you spoke about that Peter Flew mentioned, that in no case should a teacher be texting directly with a student, they should be going through their parents and making those delineations of relationships much more clear.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, so that second feature, as Lydia started to get into, talked about a bunch of actual steps that we can take. Some of them seem very common-sense. It’s almost shocking that some of these practices have not already been implemented at most dance schools, like, as Lydia said, background checks for teachers. Data protection. Some of the other sources in the story talked about training administrative staff and teachers to recognize signs of abuse, and then giving students multiple safe ways to report it. There was even a suggestion of having someone on staff who’s a trained advocate that students can go to for help when they need it. Then, just bigger-picture thoughts about normalizing conversations about abuse in dance, to help remove the stigma and also to encourage accountability, so that adults who see or suspect abuse report it rather than enabling it either consciously or unconsciously. Then also Sydney Skybetter talked about rethinking the use of touch in the classroom with an emphasis on consent, and there’s a great Dance Teacher story about that that we can link to, too.

So, lots to think about. Lots of progress to be made. Here’s hoping that that article sparks some real change. And thank you to Chanel for sharing that story. That took a lot of courage.

In our next segment, staying on the theme of “this hurts, but we need to talk about it”: We want to get into two pop culture stories from the past week that reveal the ways Black women’s bodies and actions are heavily policed. The first story concerns the harassment that Chloe Bailey, who’s one half of the duo ChloexHalle, has been receiving after posting dance videos on social media. She did the popular TikTok #BussItChallenge and #SilhouetteChallenge, both of which are by their very nature sexy—that’s kind of the point. Immediately, commenters started villainizing her for embracing her sexuality. Why are we still punishing Black women for using their bodies to express themselves?

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah, I mean, it’s a great question. Just to sort of recap, if you don’t spend all of your time on the internet, like I do: Chloe and Halle Bailey, iconic sister duo, have spent most of their musical careers packaged as a duo, but recently they have started to forge their own paths, at least on social media, by creating individual Instagram accounts.

As Margaret mentioned, Chloe posted both her versions of the #BussItChallenge and the #SilhouetteChallenge as well as a video of herself, saging her room in her underwear. I mean, who hasn’t done it? She almost immediately got a lot of intense criticism in the comments, saying she was oversexualizing herself, saying she looks desperate or thirsty, and it was just incredibly upsetting. She is 22, very much in control of her body, very much allowed to post whatever she wants on the internet. And while Chloe shouldn’t have to explain why she’s choosing to dance and dress and act however she chooses, she did by going Live on Instagram. It was a really emotional post. She was in tears for a portion of the Live. One of the most amazing things she said was, “I think it’s so important and so special when a Black woman can be strong and stand in her power in every single way.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I feel like in the entertainment industry, there’s this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t trap set specifically for Black female entertainers. Because audiences often demand that Black female artists present themselves in a sexual way. That sells. Black women are often hyper-sexualized even as children. I mean, that is a trope that, as we’ve talked about before in the podcast, goes back to slavery. But then our culture also shames Black women for exploring their own sexuality.

That’s especially true when dance is involved. Like the Chloe Bailey videos that attracted the most attention were dance videos, and they attracted that attention because they were unapologetically about her body. That’s what dance is. It is about your body. She should be allowed to embrace that part of her personhood without being held to this impossible entertainment industry double standard.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. I saw a lot of commenters saying Chloe is only one year younger than Kylie Jenner, and nobody seems to respond to the way that Kylie posts, if it is either in revealing clothing or doing dances that might be deemed sexual. It really does seem to be something that they’re placing on Chloe in particular as a Black woman.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. While women generally face that difficult double standard in terms of sexualization, white women can get away with making the most of it, with capitalizing on their sexuality, and not being condemned for exploring that side of themselves.

Lydia Murray:
Black women have to walk this cat’s cradle of tightropes. It’s like you have to be seemingly everything simultaneously, even if many of those things contradict each other. Women of course in general have to deal with the virgin/whore dichotomy, but that seems especially pronounced for Black women. You don’t really get the luxury of being multidimensional often. You’re pushed into one box or another.

Some of the people who were attacking her seemed to have actually been other Black women or just other Black people. The reason that sometimes happens is just internalized misogynoir and internalized racism. I don’t want to sound like I’m sniping at the wrong parties here. This ultimately stems from patriarchy and white supremacy, but that is another issue. It’s difficult to address. It’s difficult to talk about.

Cadence Neenan:
We need to support Chloe and Halle as a team. We need to support them as individuals. They are just so freaking talented. This made me so mad.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Over in another corner of the pop culture universe, there’s a similar issue happening.

Cadence Neenan:
This season, “Bachelor” contestant Victoria Larson has been no stranger to controversy or drama, seemingly taking on a new target each week that the show continues. Notably, most of the women that she’s chosen to align herself against are women of color. This week, it was revealed that she had called fellow contestant Ryan Claytor a “ho,” because Claytor is a professional dancer.

I don’t even know where to start. Larson’s microaggressions have not been subtle at all this season, but for me, this one took the cake because quite literally a Black woman told Larson that she was a dancer, and Larson’s immediate response was to slut-shame her and then laugh about it to her face.

Claytor literally broke down in tears while talking with Matt James, the current bachelor, about what had happened with Larson. It was just deeply painful to watch Larson, who tried to claim that the situation had been taken out of context, but as Matt James said, in what context is calling another woman a ho acceptable?

Margaret Fuhrer:
So many things to be angry about in the story. The way that this story has been covered—and I myself am guilty of this in The Dance Edit newsletter—emphasizing that Claytor is the “right kind” of professional dancer. Like, she trained at Ailey, she was featured on a glossy cable show. Why do we have to even do that? What if she were an exotic dancer? That still wouldn’t make her promiscuous. This conflating of dancing with sexuality because both involve the body is automatically problematic. And that goes back to the 19th century days when ballet dancers were sexually exploited and expected to prostitute themselves because they danced. I have to admit it shocked me to hear that people still talk about dancers this way.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. The fact that women using their bodies in seemingly any context still gets sexualized to this extent is extremely troubling and backward.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay. Let’s talk about happier things now in our final roundtable segment. So, last week you probably saw and squee-ed over UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis’s latest viral floor routine, which featured songs by Kendrick Lamar and Missy Elliott, and it was basically as much a dance party as it was a gymnastic showcase. It was fantastic. It was fun. This week, The New York Times published an interview with the choreographer of that routine, Bijoya Das, who is a dancer and a former gymnast, and who’s been working with UCLA’s team since 2019. We’ve talked a lot on the podcast about what role dance plays in sports, like figure skating and gymnastics, which clearly have dance elements, but often deprioritize them in the pursuit of more extreme athletic accomplishment. Das had really insightful things to say about that complicated relationship between dance and gymnastics.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. We’ve talked a lot on this podcast about how dance interlaces with other art forms, athletic forms, and Das even mentioned that that was something that she really appreciates, how she loves seeing her choreography paired with something else. Like in this case, gymnastics. She has an extensive commercial dance background. She’s performed with Beyoncé, Pink, Usher, Avril Levine, and others, and her choreography was also featured on the second season of “Glow.”

She’s gotten involved at the collegiate level with gymnastics because dance is an important component of collegiate gymnastics. It’s what ties the routine together. It’s what gives it personality and allows the gymnast to show who they are through their routines. But it is an element that is highly subjective, so deductions are rarely taken, but it’s still really important, especially at UCLA where the gymnastics team has a strong dance tradition. The former head coach actually came to the team as a dancer and choreographer rather than a gymnast. Dennis’s routine, in particular, went viral I think because it incorporated elements of dance that is familiar to a lot of people. Das included TikTok moves in Dennis’s routine, both the Nae Nae and the Woah, and also incorporated stepping. So, I think it was just really amazing to see commercial dance, hip hop, getting interwoven into this gymnastics routine and getting to see Dennis really show her personality. She was smiling. She was all over the floor. It was incredible.

Margaret Fuhrer:
When we say incorporated moves that are familiar, what we’re really talking about is moves that have roots in Black social dance, which I think is also important to call out. Das was talking about this interesting difference between collegiate and international gymnastics. Her interviewer—Gia Kourlas, who was interviewing her, I guess presumed that the rules were different, that collegiate gymnastics had less rigid rules that allowed for more dancing. But that’s not actually the case.

Part of it, of course, is that, yes, international gymnast are expected to do more and harder tricks. They just have less time for dance. Okay. But she said it’s also a culture thing. Performing your routine as if you were on a stage isn’t really part of international gymnastics culture right now. If you do incorporate dance, it’s usually ballet-based dance.

But could we change that? Can we change that? I mean, clearly this is only making gymnastics feel more relevant, feel more compelling. Also, Nia Dennis hasn’t ruled out in Olympics run, so that would be fun.

Cadence Neenan:
I mean, all I saw on the Twitter, comments of this video, were, why don’t the Olympics look like this? Why don’t international gymnastics competitions look like this? We need to see more of floor routines like this.

Lydia Murray:
It reminds me of the conversation we had a few weeks ago about Elladj Baldé in figure skating. It’s like, white supremacy has so deeply infiltrated sports, even in ways that kind of seemed subtle. We’re so used to seeing ballet-based movement in gymnastics, so that when you see social dance or something that feels a little bit more modern, more multicultural, it just stands out so much, and it’s so refreshing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
More of that, please. Also, side note: Das is unpaid. She’s a volunteer coach, which is bonkers. Apparently that’s because NCAA rules say only three paid coaches can be on a team’s staff. Why does dance always come last? We’ve got to fix that.

Cadence Neenan:
Agree. Hard agree.

Lydia Murray:
Yes, indeed.

Cadence Neenan:
Let’s start valuing our choreographers monetarily, please.

Lydia Murray:
It is time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Yes, please. All right. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Tiffany Rae-Fisher. So stay tuned.

[pause]

TIFFANY REA-FISHER INTERVIEW

Margaret Fuhrer:
Today we are privileged to be joined by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Tiffany is a writer, a choreographer, a teacher and the artistic director of Elisa Monte Dance in New York City. She is a prolific artist and a deeply knowledgeable leader and advocate for dance and the arts. Welcome, Tiffany—thank you so much for joining us.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Thank you. It’s an absolute honor and pleasure to be here. I’m really excited.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re so thrilled to have you. We obviously have a lot to talk about in terms of the work that you’ve been doing recently. But before we get into that, would you mind telling our listeners a little more about yourself and your relationship with dance?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Sure. I so appreciate your introduction, that feels right. I think the only other thing that I would add to that would probably be organizer, and that has that has taken the shape of organizing demonstrations. But also I think of, with all of the things, including, like, curation of Bryant Park, it’s about organizing. And so I feel as a choreographer, I was well set up for this particular time in history, just because of all the skill sets that come to bear, being a choreographer and artistic director. I think that’s the only thing that I would add. But outside of that, I just, I really love the field of dance. I think that’s something that really changes my approach to movement, because it’s not just about this piece, this dancer, this project. It’s like, how is this going to affect, or, what is this doing to the bigger ecosystem? And what is my impact in that? So every decision, whether it’s casting or what project to take on next, always has to go through this kind of matrix of my mind of, what, overall, are we doing to the field? And so yeah, I think that’s just something that might differentiate my work from others, is that little nugget.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I love the idea of organizing as the throughline from your artistic practice to your advocacy work and everything else. Let’s get right into one of the reasons we wanted to have you on right now, which is that you and Justin Krebs of The Tank recently wrote an op-ed for Gotham Gazette, responding to the New York State arts revival plans that Governor Cuomo described in his State of the State address. First of all, how did you and Justin end up conceiving this piece together?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Well it was very quick, one. And Justin and I go way back, we’ve known each other like 15 years or something. So I think one of the things that Justin I do a lot is that we just document our thoughts on things. We both feel very strongly about the arts and politics being very closely tied. So that’s a bond that we’ve always had. But Justin called me, I think it was like the day before it was due, or something. He was like, “Hey, I have this thought, did you watch this? Would you co-author this with me?” And it’s like, yeah. Since… I mean, before this time, but definitely since March, I have had so many ideas and thoughts and things about this period, and how policy could actually help artists. And New York is so special in the sense of, the pure saturation of arts that we have here, we’re one of the few places that could go big—like, we could really go big. I think that was just a little bit of the disappointment that Justin and I are feeling. We’re like, it just feels small. It feels small compared to the “new energy” thing—that portion of the State of the State was so epic. And it’s like, well, we need to be epic too, as part of the fabric that makes up the cultural identity of this city. Like, this is where you should go big. Because we’re one of the few that can, and I think that where New York leads, other major metropolitan hubs will follow. So this is not the time to go small. This is not the time to be conservative. This is the time to go for broke, because what do we have to lose? You know what I mean?

So I think it was that sentiment that just allowed us to just go crazy. And I think we went back and forth, maybe twice, and that was it. It was a very quick process. But I think part of that, I would imagine this was my first piece co-authoring anything, I can imagine that process could be quite painful. And I think it’s, similarly to any type of collaboration, your collaborators need to be key. So if you have that running well then it’s like most likely everything else will fall into place.

And I think also, knowing that it was an op-ed, these are “I” statements. So you have some more freedom to be like, “This is what we think. You can agree with that, you can disagree with that.” And I think both Justin and I are really okay with the idea of agreeing to disagree. But we also felt compelled to respond directly as artists to this plan that talks about us, but we didn’t see ourselves represented in this plan. So understanding that that’s not what Cuomo does—it’s like, from people that do this, here are some things for you to take, or leave, for your advisors to take into consideration, for other artists to take into consideration. And hopefully, it will engage others to just think about it. Because I think part of, maybe where some of the breakdown happens is that there’s just complacency. And I don’t know that it’s an artist thing. I just think in general, it’s like, well, I’ll wait for them to tell me what I can, what I can’t, what’s going on. And it’s like, no, why don’t you give some suggestions? Why don’t you start something? No one’s coming to save us. I find that really exciting and liberating, and I’m sure lots of people find that super scary. Because it’s like, we are all we have. So let’s go. I think that’s great. But I understand the other side of it, that it’s like, that’s not necessarily the narrative that’s been passed down. It’s like, we’ll wait, we’re very polite dancers. And we’ll wait until we get our entrée into whatever we’re supposed to go to.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, especially in dance.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yeah, yeah. And it starts with how we’re trained. So there’s a little bit of untraining that has to come in for us to, I think, bring our full selves to bear in these situations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, it seems like over the past—during the pandemic, unlearning has been as important as learning, for a lot of us.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Totally, yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I really appreciated the empathy in this piece. As you were saying, this idea that, hey, we get it, you’re policymakers with a ton on your plates, and this is sort of your opening offer—but at the same time, we have valuable voices, and you should listen to them. I also love the idea of approaching arts policy with the same creativity and ambition that artists bring to their artistic work, as you touched on before.

So, we’ll link to the full article in our episode description. And listeners, please read it if you haven’t already. But can you lay out—there are five principles that you suggest lawmakers consider when formulating art support policy. Can you talk about those?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
One of the things that we talk about is just space. Space is a huge issue in New York City. But I think lots of times, people—there’s this mystery around the arts, like where does it happen? I don’t know, I just showed up to a performance and that must be where it happened. It’s like, no. There’s all of these spaces that art happens in before it might even get out to the public. And so having that consideration—especially where people are saying there’s an exodus of people from the city right now. So, what are those vacant spaces then, how are they contributing to what the city will be? And so just to have that as a consideration.

Then, again, the idea that creativity isn’t free. Like even giving our op-ed away—if we were consultants, that would have been real paid money. You know what I’m saying? So those things, in that sense—because Justin and I decided to do this, we’re happy to do this. But that can’t be the way that politicians think about, again, something that is so crucial to this city. So like in 2018, I think it was the Arts Action Fund, said that $114 billion were contributed from the arts to New York State. So you can’t treat us like a side hustle or a hobby. We’re here in a real, real way. And so as you think about compensation, as you think about our contribution, the flip side of that, of what it takes and what we’re owed for that contribution has to be part of that conversation as well.

And that comes back to policy, that comes back to health care, to leave, to all of those things. Not only just what we get paid salary, but all of those other just human aspects that are made by policy. That’s what that is. And then just reminding our politicians that everyone benefits from live theater. It’s been proven across the board and it’s like, I am tired of proving it. It’s like, we understand this, so back it.

And then again, the idea of this arts ecosystem—it can’t just be the top-tops, it can’t just be the big guys, it has to be everyone. Because there is this aspirational, inspirational arc as well in the city, of like being a student, to being… There’s this big arc that happens. And so there needs to be support and funding along the way. And not everybody wants to be a prima ballerina, not everyone wants to be—like some people want to be individual artists, some people want to work on community-based activities, and those are all valid things that needs support. Because if not in this city, where? Who else is doing this? So again, this is a place for us to be groundbreaking. And as we’re having this four-part State of the State, we just felt it was a missed opportunity to go big, to go really big.

Which leads us to the last point, which was the plan was just too small. It was talking about 1,000 artists. I could pull together 1,000 artists myself if I felt like it. Do you know what I mean? Like, no. And so what we were proposing, it’s like, why 1,000? Why not 50,000? And even at 50,000, it would still be… you would still have a huge, ton of people that aren’t involved in that. And that’s not the idea. We don’t want a ton of people left out. But again, we’re one of the few cities that can say that. That even with 50,000 artists contributing to whatever this thing is, that there’s still people that that doesn’t touch. Because that’s how vast and expansive this arts network and ecosystem and economic driver, all the things that we are, are. So that’s huge.

I think, for us, we just wanted the plan to be considered from all of those areas. And it felt a little bit more like quick-fix star power, which is definitely part of the thing. We have star power, we need to use all of the tools in our arsenal. We can’t leave anything on the table here. We’ve got to throw everything at it. But I think that I’ve seen with what Cuomo has been able to do with COVID-19, that he can go a layer deeper. So this was a call to just ask, can you go a layer deeper here? Because we’ve seen that you’re capable of doing it?

So I think that just laying that out in the most respectful terms possible was the goal of this, because we’re not trying to fight. But we are trying to be clear with where there are missed opportunities. And also Justin and I are very solution-based. So like: Here are some things. Here are some things off the top of our head, if you’re interested.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I also admire that you just came out and said that, it’s not your job as artists to come up with solutions to these big economic and structural problems. But then also, yeah, you have expertise that legislators should be considering when formulating policy. How do you think artists and policymakers could work together more effectively?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
I don’t even think that we’re not working together effectively. I just don’t think we’re working together, period. And that’s one of the first things I did with COVID—I did an Instagram challenge called a “movement through movement.” And just put out two dancers to just make a 16-count phrase about some political something that they were interested in, wanted to learn more about, were frustrated about, were thrilled with. I said, I will take these videos and I will get it into the hands of lawmakers or candidates who are running, so that you can have a conversation and just sit down.

And I think that’s what’s missing. I don’t know that we’re fully aware of each other. I think on the dance side, I don’t think artists are fully aware of how much policy affects your everyday life. It’s not some other thing that comes up every four years and we’re in crisis. I’m really glad that everyone’s paying attention right now, but it shouldn’t have to take the almost full destruction of democracy for you to pay attention. It shouldn’t have to take that. It shouldn’t have to take a global pandemic, for you to care and understand that you are intrinsically linked to these people that are making rules about and for you. That you have to rise up and say something about these rules, or else, they’re just going to keep going forward. And it’s not necessarily anti-you. But if you don’t insert yourself into that conversation, the conversation will be had without you.

And I think also, there’s something demi god-like about, especially, New York politicians. They’re people. At the end of the day, they’re people and they’re people that are representing you. So I think that idea, too, they’re not better than, they’re not more deserving of, their time is no more important than yours. They’re here because you put them there. And they are and should be responsible to you. So every time you don’t write that up, and you don’t sign that petition, you don’t do the thing, you’re silencing yourself. And we’ll be silenced enough on the outside. We don’t need to internalize that.

So I think that’s where it is. I wish that it was ineffective, because that would mean that we’re having actual conversation, and that there’s some things falling through the cracks. I think that that’s something that I aspire to have, is just that there is this acknowledgment between the two and an understanding of how the two can work together. Because they’re not separate thoughts. It’s one thought. And I think, especially with COVID, that was very, for me, when it came to… my phone would be ringing and like, what are you working on? How are you responding? And for me, I didn’t make a COVID piece, I organized demonstrations in Harlem and at City Hall. And it had the same creative energy and buzz around it. I think it goes back to what we were saying, like: organizing. That’s what I’m passionate about. So I didn’t want to say anything abstract, I wanted to be very clear about what I was saying. And I didn’t want to make a story ballet. So in dance, in the genres I work in, are ballet and modern. So modern is more abstract, and I didn’t want an abstraction. I didn’t want an abstraction about what I was talking about. And I didn’t want to make a ballet. That was it. But it’s still organizing bodies in space, there’s still movement, there’s still all of this around it. And it didn’t feel outside of my practice, at all. So I think that was interesting to feel that, because even though I know it’s unified in here, like in my being, it was wonderful to feel that it felt unified and satisfying outside of that.

We get to be together doing what we love. And how many ways can we do that? Let’s challenge ourselves to find that joy, to spread it and to take that outside of the four walls that we have, or in the virtual space that we have. How can we spread that? And that feels like a big part of my job too, as a leader. Like leader fill in the blank, however you want to, but that also feels like part of the job, is if we can unify around joy, because we have to get out of the grief cycle. We have to get out of the grief cycle. So if we can unify around joy, imagine the possibility. And that, I feel, is a huge part of what it is to be an artist. Is to dream, is to imagine something outside of what you see. A reality that is outside of your current reality. And to put your imprint on that, to put your fingerprints all over that. And then to move forward from there. And it’s like, hopefully, you’ll surprise yourself.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And then that idea that that something greater that you’re giving to goes beyond the dance studio as well—if you’re a dancer, it’s not just within dance, it’s everything you do. Actually—I mean, I don’t want to put too much of this on dancers, because when we’re talking about artist and legislator communication, a lot of it should fall on legislators as well—but it does feel like there are two things in the dance world that make this hard. And one is the way that dance education works, which is teaching dancers that their voices aren’t worth hearing.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Oh, God. Yeah, yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And also that insidious idea of art for art’s sake, like we do what we do and we do it in a bubble. That’s just not true.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
It’s just not true. You’re so right. It’s just lies. Just absolute lies. I mean, one of the things—and it goes back to the training. Three years ago, I actually took over a ballet school in Lake Placid, New York that I run remotely. And I’ve been up in Lake Placid quite a bit, because I didn’t feel like running a school remotely during COVID was the move. So I’ve been up there, and because it was a ballet school, I was like, this is perfect. This is perfect to just pull that out and be like, no, I’m going to need you to speak to me in like a human person. I’m going to need you to articulate your thoughts in a real way. I’m going to need you to have opinions and I’m going to encourage you to have that. And I’m not going to accept you being in the space and not…we’re not going to do that. And I’m going to do it with as much love and care as possible. But at the end of the day, this is going down. This is happening.

And what I tell too, not only my students there, but a lot of my college students, I’m like, you’re in rarefied air in a rarefied space where people are asking for your opinion. Trust and believe, especially if you’re a woman in this field, there are going to be few moments when they’re going to be like, “And what do you think? And now everyone be quiet and listen.” No! Like, no, that’s not a thing. So when you have those opportunities, don’t stare at me as if you don’t have a thought in your head. Take it. And I think that you know this, because I talk about this a lot: Train your voice like you train every other muscle in your body. It has to be razor sharp, because when the time is ready, you’ve got to say the thing. Because again, Justin and I wrote that article the night before it was published. So I had to have something to say or the opportunity would have been missed. That’s it.

So you can’t wait for permission to be a full human being. You can’t wait for someone to ask you how you’re feeling about COVID as it reflects your art. You have to say, “This is what’s going on.” And do something. Be ready to back up those words with action in some way.

Even in my own company, I’ll come and I’ll be like, “Good morning.” And there’ll be mutterings. And I don’t want to be like, “I said, good morning.” That’s not what I’m trying to… But I was talking to one of my younger dancers, and it’s like, oh, I’ve just been watching you for a long time. And I’m still just a little like, I can’t believe I’m in the room. So I don’t want to be disrespectful. And I’m like, but I’m talking to you. So there needs to be that. I’m saying, good morning. And I would love for you to look up and look me in the face and say, good morning. But like, that’s where we are. And it makes me sad that again, there’s going to be so many things that will silence us for us. The fact that we’re internalizing it, and doing it to ourselves is just heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to me, because we have so much to offer.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to like stitch that on a pillow. Every time you think your silence is respectful, remember that it can actually be a form of disrespect to the person asking for input.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yeah, yeah!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Don’t silence yourself! I want to talk about another facet of your leadership, because you have been a leader for years in conversations about how to make the dance community and the larger arts community more inclusive and equitable. A couple of months ago, you wrote a piece for Western Arts Alliance about changes you’ve made to help move Elisa Monte Dance toward that goal. And again, we’ll link to the article so listeners can read it in full. But would you talk about what those changes are? And why and how you decided to implement them?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yeah, I think one pillar of how I look at leadership is just, what part do I play? There are a lot of systematic things that exist, right, that I have nothing to do with, but my internalization, my agreeing or disagreeing with those things, that is on me. So I think that one of it, it starts there. So the very first kind of concept in that piece talks about “calling in Black.” And it starts talking about the murder of Trayvon Martin and having my one Black employee at the time, who was male, not feeling safe coming in to work. And it really just got me thinking that I was like, wow, I’m in a definitely trauma-altered place working on this grant right now. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t even think about coming into work that day, even though my heart was broken, my head was nowhere near where it needed to be. And when I was speaking to him and telling him like, “Of course you can stay home.” He’s like, “I just don’t want to let you down.” I was like, there was that idea, that was like, oh, man. I don’t know, we’ve got to do something.

And so I was just talking to him about how I was feeling and we came up with this concept of just calling in Black. And what I can say is that it can be open to any traumatic event for anything. Like we can have the whole company, like when our capital was under siege, our whole company can call in for that. So it started because this was a Black issue. But I want to be clear that it extends to any type of local or national trauma. And to acknowledge, you might need work to get through it, to distract yourself. You might need a day off. You might need to go see a grief counselor. There’s lots of ways to being—but I think what I wanted to do was just acknowledge in the workplace that this thing happened, and give space for my dancers, my staff, my faculty to be able to decide how they want to move forward. Without it being dictated to them, that we’re going to move forward this way. Like no, there’s no “we” in this. I think when there are those tragedies, that’s the time to go real individual. Not assume that oh, it was a Black thing. So all of the Black people are going to do this, all of my Asian people are… like no, no, no. Different people are going to need different things.

And so I think what calling in Black did for me, was just an acknowledgement of an action of some type of grief-related, trauma-related something. Being able to bring that into the workspace without it being called unprofessional, do you know what I mean? Without stigma attached to it. It’s like no: Black men are getting murdered in the street, I’m going to take a moment, the end. And I’m not going to do so with your permission, and I’m not going to do so apologetically. I’m going to do so, because it’s the right thing to do.

And I think that was the other part of that: As an organization, have a stance about these things. You, by your actions, have to… And I don’t mean a statement, when I say stance. Because there was a lot of statements and there’s not been a lot of change, based off of those statements. I mean a stance, like your day-to-day, how you move through the world and the choices that you’re making back up, whatever that feeling was, or whatever that new initiative is, or whatever that new policy is, within your company.

I think other things like around that article, was this concept that I’m still really struggling with is, this idea of the model minority. And one person having to embody a whole people. It’s hard when you’ve been asked to represent your peoples, with every action that you take, with every word that you say. And so I wanted to make sure that I was like, am I responding differently? Again, what is my part to play? And when I think of like, your 20s, and just the mistakes that you have to make in your 20s. That’s the time you’re just trying stuff, and you’re going big and grabbing this. And sometimes it’s working and like—you could not pay me enough to go back to my 20s! But I’m so glad that I went through them, because it gave me resilience. But I don’t know that Black and brown dancers get to have their 20s. I don’t know that they get to have like those stupid 20 mistakes and get to be forgiven, in that same way. It stays with them, and then they’re hard to work with, or they’re not responsible.

So that was something too, that I really wanted to investigate. It’s like, are we just putting more pressure on these communities? Because there’s already this stigma around it, and, and, and. I feel like there’s another article fully just within that idea, because it’s something I’m still really grappling with, and trying to unearth my own 20s. And how I felt that was perceived with different directors, as well as, as a director, looking within that and making space—not to not take your job seriously, but understanding where you are in your life. Having some compassion, I think, is what ultimately is missing within that conversation, is like compassion and empathy.

And then the last thing I will say is that I always am, within this article, and within my company, talking about the difference between equity and equality. Different people need different things. And you shouldn’t be afraid to be, if you can, to give those things freely. And I don’t believe in a blanket policy of, again, “we are all.” It’s like, what does this person need, what does this person need? And being able to see all of the individuals that make up your organization will ultimately make a much stronger organization, if you allow yourself to do that. And feel okay about doing that. Because I think that’s where guilt can pop in. It’s like, well, I didn’t do this for that one. But did that one need it? Did they need it? So it’s just asking to go a layer deeper, instead of like, I’m going to do this. It’s like, well, that might be great. But is it? And just allowing yourself to go that one layer deeper and say like, is that what’s needed? Or is that what’s easiest for me?

So, yeah, I had a great time writing that article. And I feel like each one of those kind of sections could be its own thing, because it’s quite multifaceted. But that was the challenge was to kind of grab big ideas and be able to also give bullet points for leaders in the field. Like, here, just grab these two things. You don’t have to go through the same thing. You’ve highlighted it nicely. It’s just like, just grab that, grab that, so you can just wrap your head around those smaller concepts and see what blooms for your individual org.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here it is organized for you.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yes, yes! I’m telling you, that’s the thing across the board.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I do want to make sure that we talk about some of the dance work that you’ve been doing recently, because you have a lot of projects going on. So you have a new dance film that’s set on the farm of abolitionist leader John Brown, up in Lake Placid, which sounds fascinating. What inspired that project? How did it come to be?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Oh, geez, that’s the story. So we were actually in Lake Placid finishing up our summer intensive. And I had tacked on an extra week because we were—there’s these collegiate Olympic games that happen and tour the world every two years. And there’s a cultural exchange that happens between the host country and the country that’s coming up. So Lake Placid was set to host in 2022. I was supposed to create the culture exchange between Switzerland and the US. That’s when I was going to have the dancers dancing down Main Street, and on top of the ski jump, and then on the ice skating rink, and doing all the things to welcome people to the US. And I was like, this is a great opportunity to do this, because this was at the beginning of COVID and people were not loving the US. So I was like, let’s turn it around. We need some good PR here, so let’s get that going.

So while we were there, obviously, I thought what was going to happen was that maybe everyone else would be invited to the games and our part would just have to be virtual, because our numbers were so out of control. But what ended up happening is the whole project just, it imploded in a spectacular fashion. It was like, oh, okay. So then the producer of Lake Placid Center for the Arts, who was also a producing partner of this event, he came and he’s like, “I have good news and I have bad news.” And basically told me, everything is not happening. I have dancers that are coming up, half are already there, others are literally like in the van coming up right now. I have crews coming up to shoot. And he asked me the simplest question: “Is there an opportunity here?” And I said, “Yes.” And I said, “Full disclosure, I don’t know what it is yet. But I know that there is one.” And I was like, I’m going to walk away and think now, but I’m going to do something. I’m going to come back with whatever this opportunity could be.

So I was looking around, looking around. Because I was like, you know what? Well, what he said, he’s like, “You’ve been such a part of the Adirondacks, I would love to have something Adirondack-y in your rep.” And I was like, “I had not considered that.” But Elisa Monte Dance and the Lake Placid Center for the Arts have over a 30-year relationship. It’s been going on for forever. So I was like, okay. So I started looking into the history of this place. And I wasn’t finding things that were hitting. I wasn’t finding things that were hitting. And then actually Jon Donk, who also works at the center said, “Have you heard about John Brown?” And I was like, “No, what does that have to do with anything?” And he’s like, “His farm, his everything is here.” I was like, “Where here?” I was like, “Jon, I have been coming to Lake Placid almost for two decades. Are you telling me that this space has been here? How do I not know about this?” I was like, “This is so upsetting, but I don’t have time.” Whatever.

So I spoke to my husband who was up with me and is a former dancer with the company. So he went out and just started scouting locations for us. It was like, all right, we’re going to make a dance film about John Brown, somehow. And I got connected with this nonprofit called John Brown Lives, who I’ve now since then, I’ve done other projects with them. And I was like, okay, I like the idea of like the past and present, and it felt relevant, particularly right now. I was like, I liked the idea of a descendant of John Brown coming to this land and the land kind of, them being, feeling a buzz or something that comes alive for them. And so I took that. We had literally one week to film everything, to put together some type of narrative, to pull together costumes. And it came together. So the piece is called Geography of Grace, and we’re working on a tour of it in movie theaters in the Adirondack area and the area that was set aside for free Blacks in that area of New York State, to have it tour through there.

So it was like a lovely blessing in disguise. I had never done or been interested in a dance film before. So that felt really good. I think for a place that has served as my cultural and creative home for so long, it feels good to give back in this way, too. Because I really love Lake Placid. And I’ve had over 16 residences there, and now run the school there. We feel very much a part of that community. So it felt good to be able to let them know that everything they need to survive this time in history, is in the soil. It’s all there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It feels almost like that was written in the stars. I feel like I was never into astrology. But now since the pandemic, suddenly I’m like, what were the planets doing then? You know?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
I love it. Oh, that’s great.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So you also have a project called H.E.R, which stands for Human Equality Required. Is that right?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Commissioned by Harlem stage as part of their celebration of the Harlem Renaissance Centennial. And the summary says that it’s a tribute to the work and lives of three Black queer playwrights. Can you just talk a little about this commission and why you wanted to honor these artists in particular?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Sure. So it’s Alice Dunbar Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké and Mary Powell Burrill. I always say that wrong: Mary Powell Burrill. This is, again, one of those things, it’s like—it’s good to just speak your truth. The director of this program at the Harlem Stage had come to another piece that I had done a collaboration with Classical Theatre of Harlem. And I was talking to her afterwards. She was asking me what I was doing, what was coming up next. And I had said, “I have all of these things.” And I was like, “But I have this thing that I can’t get out from underneath my skin.” And I told her that I had met Deanna Bowers, who is a PhD candidate who was working—their thesis was around this Black queer aesthetic from 1915 through the 1920s. I would just call her all the time and was like, “Tell me more about these women, tell me more.” I just couldn’t get it out of my system. So as I was going through these notes, and the impact that these women had, it’s like, they’re relatively unknown, but yet their legacies are celebrated in ways that are no longer tied to them. And there’s a book of the Harlem Renaissance, and they’re literally footnotes in all of these men’s stories. And going back with this idea of uncovering hidden figures: To be able, for these three women—all of them wrote under their own names at that time, as Black women. And as queer Black women, some that were more out than others, some that were in a relationship with both women and men. But I was like, how bold and revolutionary. And I thought, as we were coming up in the centennial for the Harlem Renaissance, why not focus on something that is not so known?

So I was talking to Monique about that. She had brought me in to talk more about and to let me know that I was being commissioned for this idea, even before it was an idea. And so I thought it was lost, because 2020 was the centennial, so I understood this if all of the commissions under 2020, if they didn’t happen within that year, weren’t going to happen. But she fought and she fought and she was like, “I’m going to make this happen for you.” So now I will be moving into my next dance film. And we’ve decided to take it, instead of Harlem Stage, to use Harlem as stage, and take it out to the streets and actually let Harlem be the background. Because they were actually here. So if we’re going to go into film, let’s hit some locations. Why keep it in the proscenium, if that’s not where we are.

I’m really excited about that. I’m excited to do a period piece, I’m excited to honor and pay homage to these women that have given us so much, whether we know it or not. And I’m really excited as a Harlemite for it to be at Harlem Stage, because this will be my first time being presented at Harlem Stage as well. And that’s been a Harlem bucket list item for me, is just as a Harlemite, you want to. And to be able to be one of the artists that is able to commemorate the Harlem Renaissance while being in Harlem, it’s kind of a big deal. It’s the biggest thing that’s happened in the arts in 100 years. So there’s that. And not just Black arts, in the arts, I would argue.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Period.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Period, because it influenced everything. So to be able to asked to say anything about it is really, truly incredible.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much, Tiffany. I really appreciate you sharing. I mean, you’ve obviously put a lot of time and labor into putting words around these ideas and these thoughts that you’ve had, and I appreciate you sharing that with us.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yeah, thank you for asking me. I really do appreciate that. Being able to share your platform is huge, because I don’t have this platform. So I really appreciate being asked.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So before we say goodbye, where can listeners find out more about your upcoming projects, your film projects and the other work that you’re doing with Elisa Monte Dance? Where can we stalk you?

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
Yeah, so the website is elisamontedance.org. On Instagram, same thing, @elisamontedance. I’m @treafisher. I think Instagram is the easiest way to catch up, but we’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Great. We’ll include links to all of those in our episode description.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you, Tiffany. Have a great one.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher:
You too.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again, Tiffany. She’s one of my favorite interview guests to date. It’s such a good conversation. Please do make sure that you’re following her and Elisa Monte Dance on social for updates on the two film projects that she mentioned.

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

Lydia Murray:
Bye, everyone.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, y’all.