Transcript, Episode 53: Brexit Hurdles, Pandemic Silver Linings, and Brinda Guha

[Jump to Brinda Guha interview.]


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

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about how Brexit is further complicating life for UK dance organizations that are already struggling due to COVID. We’ll discuss a Dance Magazine piece talking about the ways the pandemic has changed the dance world for the better over the past few months. And we’ll continue in that reflective vein by discussing what we host have learned in our one full year—one year, oh my goodness—of making this podcast, because yes, this episode marks our official anniversary, which is bananas.

And then after all that, we’ll have our interview with Brinda Guha, who is a choreographer and teacher and curator and administrator. She sees this industry from so many different perspectives, and she went deep into how we can use this pandemic time to reevaluate our broken systems in the dance world, and meaningful steps that dance educators can take right now to decolonize their classrooms. There’s so much food for thought in her interview.

But first our usual housekeeping, and this week, that’s a reminder that we also have a Dance Edit newsletter. It is a daily digest—a highly digestible digest, a very easy read—and it’ll keep you up to speed on all the newsiest dance news. And if you’re already subscribed, please refer your dance friends, your dance friends of all kinds. There’ll be something for everybody in there. You can find out more about the newsletter and sign up for it at thedanceedit.com.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is super jam-packed this week. Lydia, go for it.

Lydia Murray:
New York City Ballet has announced that principal dancer Lauren Lovette is leaving the company. She will give her final performance with City Ballet on Saturday, October 9th, dancing Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19/The Dreamer and Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. She said she’s decided that leaving the company now will give her the time to fully explore new creative projects as both the choreographer and dancer and she’s really excited about the future. So best wishes to Lauren Lovette.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Selfishly sad that we won’t see her on stage anymore at City Ballet, but really excited to see what is next for her because she’s so talented.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, she’s absolutely brilliant. And then I think also we’re very curious to see what’s going to happen with City Ballet’s roster over the next year, because Maria Kowroski, Ask la Cour, and Gonzalo Garcia are also giving their final performances next season. So there’s about to be a bit of a shift I think.

Texas Ballet Theater has had to shut down its Fort Worth facility after a water pipe break during winter storm Uri caused what the company referred to as “catastrophic damage,” including the destruction of the sprung floors in every studio. Classes and rehearsals have moved to the company’s Dallas studios for the time being, and there is a relief fund on top of the already existing relief fund from the pandemic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We will link to that relief fund in the episode description, so you can give if you have the means.

Lydia Murray:
The London Contemporary Dance School is overhauling its curriculum and admissions process to make its training more inclusive and to better prepare students for the world post-COVID. West African, hip-hop, and South Asian dances will have more representation in the curriculum, and the admissions process will focus on students’ potential more so than current skills. The school is also developing a training program, according to science-based research and the concepts of elite sports training in order to better support physical and mental health.

Courtney Escoyne:
In an open letter published in German magazine tanz, 13 dancers at Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater in Schwerin Germany spoke about 12 of the company’s 14 dancers facing the loss of their jobs at the end of the current season—not due to the pandemic, but because of new leadership at the theater. According to the letter, shortly after being appointed at the end of the 2019/20 season, the theaters’ new intendant, which for those of you who are unaware is a position awarded by the government, fired the troops’ ballet director then hired a new ballet director who chose to hire back only one of the 14 dancers. The dancers say that the new director had seemingly already decided to end their contracts before seeing them dance, and are speaking out to draw attention to the precarity of dancers’ careers at German theaters in the current system. A very complicated story, dealing with the intersection of politics and artistic direction in theaters in Germany that has come up time and time again.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, a whole lot to unpack there. We will link directly to the protest letter, which German magazine tanz published on their website.

Lydia Murray:
Kaatsbaan Cultural Park’s outdoor spring festival is set to include premiers from American Ballet Theatre, performances by the Martha Graham Dance Company, and a Patti Smith tribute to Bob Dylan. The festival is happening during the last two weekends in May, and Smith will perform on the 22nd, two days before Dylan’s 80th birthday. This is huge.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s massive. Pretty cool to see Kaatsbaan getting coverage in places like Rolling Stone. I’m kind of loving it.

Courtney Escoyne:
And while Lincoln Center will not be giving indoor performances at any of its iconic stages this spring, the organization has announced that it will be hosting rehearsals, performances, workshops, graduations, and more at 10 outdoor spaces around its campus beginning April 7th. In addition, Lincoln Center will be partnering with the New York Blood Center and Food Bank for New York City to host blood drives and offer food distribution services alongside its artistic programming.

Lydia Murray:
And the outstanding choreographer and dancer Rena Butler has been named Gibney Company’s first-ever choreographic associate. The position is full-time and lasts for three years. So congratulations to Rena.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So well-deserved, congratulations.

Courtney Escoyne:
And really cool that they’re giving her space to pursue her choreographic career while also working with the company.

In slightly less cheery news: According to a report released last week by the New York Comptroller’s office, between December 2019 and December 2020, employment in New York City’s art entertainment and recreation sector dropped by 66%, which is they say the largest drop of all parts of the city’s economy. Not surprising, but still stark.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. One of those things that we already knew, and yet seeing the number on the page is still a hit.

Lydia Murray:
Indeed. In New York next month, wedding receptions will resume and guests will be allowed to dance, but only with members of their immediate household or family, confined to their own dancing areas or zones. The zones should be at least 36 square feet in size, and at least six feet apart from other tables and dance zones.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s going to be weird, but at least there’s going to be some kind of dancing at some kind of wedding somewhere in the United States.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, leaning into the positive!

Courtney Escoyne:
Jason Sudeikis was the subject of much Twitter chatter during the Golden Globes, not because of his win, but because he accepted his award via Zoom while wearing a tie-dye hoodie. Come to find out, he wore the hoodie to show support for Forward_Space, a dance-based fitness center founded by choreographer Kristen Sudeikis. Yes, Jason’s sister.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that story. I just loved that it was a meme but then we found out it had a dance angle—how delightful is that? And Forward_Space is great.

Lydia Murray:
One of our sister publications, Dance Teacher magazine, has a beautiful new website. So go check that out at dance-teacher.com.

Courtney Escoyne:
Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros died of COVID-19 at age 63. He was the resident choreographer at Miami City Ballet for the company’s first 13 years, which was a piece of ballet history I personally was unaware of. And he also directed an eponymous company in Miami, and later the National Ballet of Peru.

Lydia Murray:
Tomorrow is the last day to apply for Cultural Solidarity Fund microgrants, which provide emergency relief to individual artists and cultural worker. And it’s the last day to register for the Dance/NYC virtual Symposium, which will take place from Wednesday, March 17th to Saturday, March 20th.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Two important deadlines. We will include links to both of those sites in the episode description.

All right. So in our first round table discussion today, we want to talk about the sort of one-two punch that has hit UK dance organizations over the past year. As a recent article in The Guardian laid out, not only do companies have to contend with COVID, they are now also grappling with Brexit-related complications. Because Brexit means new visa rules and taxes and transportation restrictions that make touring Europe pretty much unviable for most UK performing arts organizations. And there are also unresolved questions about co-producing work with other European venues, about bringing international artists into the UK. All of these issues could have potentially devastating financial consequences for these companies that are already stressed by the COVID shutdowns. And these problems aren’t limited to the professional dance world, either. Brexit is also affecting dance training in the UK. So, lots to unpack here.

Lydia Murray:
So as Colette Hansford pointed out—she’s the executive producer at Hofesh Shechter Company—Brexit is actually likely to have a stronger impact on UK dance and theater companies because it’s long-term and it affects the production and export of work. Whereas COVID is easier to work around and is expected to, you know, of course eventually subside. Even though the effects of both obviously combined pose a serious problem.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which does tell you something about what an absolute mess Brexit is, if you’re saying by comparison COVID’s easy to work around.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, kind of a disaster. To start, currently the EU’s 27 member states each have their own guidelines for visa and work permits. So that makes multi-country tours more expensive and complicated. For one, it increases the cost of transporting any physical components of a production, like musical instruments or a set. And this is compounded by regulations referred to as cabotage, which only permit UK trucks to make two trips after coming into the EU.

Also, the requirements for foreign nationals who work with arts companies in Britain are unclear. To illustrate how the situation is playing out, the National Theater recently halted its European touring, saying that it was currently not financially viable. And contemporary dance companies have typically toured Europe—often they have strong followings there, while the audience for contemporary dance in Britain is smaller. For Akram Khan’s company, for example, international revenue has accounted for 72% of its income over the last two decades.

And the complexity of the new rules for visas, taxes and transportation also means that companies now need to devote more resources to administration, just to successfully navigate them all.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The article notes that companies who can afford to are actually beefing up their admin staff, like adding full-time employees who just deal with visas and travel logistics and tax issues. But smaller organizations, of course, absolutely do not have the resources to do that.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. It’s hurting emerging companies and artists, including dance students. There’s a concern that dancers entering the professional world would face more difficulty getting contracts in EU-based companies. It’s going to be harder for employers to arrange the right visas. And it would be more expensive for UK-based companies to employ dancers from other countries, and Brexit’s visa changes might also discourage artists from abroad from coming to the UK, which could have a majorly detrimental impact on the British dance scene. It would create the loss of a lot of international talent along with the diverse artistic perspectives and approaches that they bring.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think it’s worth noting that the UK really does have something of an outsize impact on the contemporary dance scene. When you look at the actual size of the country. The UK has such a massive footprint in contemporary dance and a huge part of that does have to do with that free travel between Europe and the UK. So, you know, there’s the pro-Brexit mentality, maybe, that’s like; “Oh, well this is fine because it just means that British dancers are going to have more opportunity.” When the reality is there aren’t actually enough high-level British dancers coming up to fill all of the need that there is.

And also, you know, if it’s more difficult for British companies to tour abroad, that means that they can hire less dancers to come abroad with them. It means that they can hire less dancers from the continent, sure, but it also means that the dancers who are actually in the UK and UK citizens maybe aren’t going to get the same breadth of experience that they might have otherwise. It might also in turn lead to fewer dancers getting hired period, because of the increased costs due to taxes, due to visa regulations, and restrictions.

I mean, just the simple fact of…if you want to do a tour that lasts longer than X number of months, the fact that each person who is being taken on tour is going to have to go through this whole visa process, which has to be sponsored by the company and is extremely, extremely complex—the administrative overload is going to be so much. Like even pre-Brexit, if you as an American dancer wanted to try to go dance in the UK or in Europe, the fact that you would have to be applying for a visa and a visa would have to be sponsored, oftentimes has something to do with whether or not you’re able to get those gigs because companies can only afford to sponsor so many visas. So this is just a cascading string of effects.

I do think it’s worth noting that we’re not going to know the complete picture of what this means for dance in the UK and dance in Europe for at least another several years. Not least because COVID is ongoing. And also because the legislation is still being worked out. I mean, it was still being worked out when Brexit officially happened in December—which we kind of didn’t notice—but the complete disarray right now is very troubling and a somewhat alarming sign.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is crazy that Brexit happened in December and it barely even registered in US news coverage. There were just so many crises at once.

Lydia Murray:
So much going on.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. So in our next segment, we’re going to take a deep breath and pull the conversation back in a slightly more optimistic direction. Dance Magazine recently published a piece by Kathleen McGuire, who is the founder of the dancer mental health organization Minding The Gap, and her article discusses some of COVID’s dance-world silver linings. Because as we approached this one year mark of shutdowns, it’s really easy to let ourselves get mired in all the ways this time has been difficult and tragic for dance and dancers. And that is, of course, a normal and completely valid response to a crisis, especially one of this magnitude. But it is also valuable to think about how the pandemic has changed us for the better too. Because we are going to be different on the other side of this, and not just in negative ways, but also in some positive ways.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, so Kathleen laid out kind of seven key silver linings that we can take forward out of this time, alongside advice for how we can keep it going once we’re back to quote-unquote normal. So those included: We’ve all gotten really good at problem-solving, creatively. It’s given space to talk about difficult issues, in particular dance’s continual issues with racial inequity. We’ve all become very independent. We’ve had a chance to breathe and take time away from the studio, which at the same time has allowed us to expand our concepts of who we are outside of being a dancer, choreographer, a person who does nothing but dance. It’s given us learning opportunities, and it’s also clarified, what do we actually want out of our dance careers and out of our lives, maybe outside of dance?

Essentially the point is we’ve had a moment—I say a moment, it’s been a year—but we’ve been able to pause. And that has given us a lot of opportunities to really take a step back and evaluate and think, and we’ve done a lot of that here on this podcast. And I think hopefully the dance world collectively and dancers as individuals have been doing the same thing, so that when we come back on the other side of this, we’re not just trying to get back to business as usual.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Unsurprisingly, the story hit on a lot of themes that we have been coming back to over and over again on the podcast. The idea of having time to breathe, getting off the “always be creating” treadmill that a lot of dance artists find themselves on, getting time to actually heal injuries, take care of physical bodies as well as mental health. That one I think is especially important.

There’s also—when we’re talking about embracing dancer independence, the story talks about the fact that we had to find creative solutions to pandemic restrictions, and that pushed many dancers to discover an entrepreneurial side. And my immediate reaction to that was very cynical, because my like gimlet-eyed view is, yeah, they had to hustle because they had to eat. Like, that’s a bigger problem. We need to fix that. But it is also true that yes, those leadership skills are going to serve artists well in a post-COVID world.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. I’ve always loved the idea of dancers embracing that entrepreneurial spirit that we already have and channeling it in new ways. And so that’s something that I think we’ve seen during the pandemic and that’s been really great to witness.

And yeah, as Margaret said, having time to breathe is important. Having time to heal and take care of ourselves because we’re usually so busy and we’re usually so focused on, you know, getting the next thing and doing the next project and you know, so forth. And we’re not always necessarily taking the time we need to just heal.

Courtney Escoyne:
Alos the idea of, we as dancers, kind of as a whole, have a tendency to over-identify with our work. And so I think taking this moment to figure out who you are outside of the studio—much as you might like miss being in the studio and want to be back in the studio, and maybe this is clarifying how important that is to you—but also taking the time to figure out, like, what do you value? What makes you happy outside of dance? Because as is pointed out in the story, you were a whole human being before you started dancing, you’re going to be a whole human being after you stop dancing someday. And that’s okay. And that’s valid. And I—I hesitate to add the caveat of, “It’s only going to enrich your artistry as you go back in!” because I do get that, like I personally kind of needed to have that caveat to actually commit the time to doing that when I was coming up. But I think it’s also just important in its own right. Like you are important and valid and wonderful and whole, even when you are not actively dancing.

Lydia Murray:
For me, honestly, in the past when I was younger and dancing, I would hear that and it sounded kind of like a cliché, or like it was sort of something people said to, you know, appease people who couldn’t dance because they had an injury or something like that. And then I realized, no, that that really is important. You know, it really is important to nurture yourself as an entire person.

Dance doesn’t have to be your life. And there’s so much more to you than dance. And I feel like in a way, even though it’s obviously awful that this is happening, it’s almost sort of comforting, I think, to know that we’re kind of all in this together. Whereas if you’re injured or something like that, you can kind of be a little bit more prone to feelings of isolation.

The idea of problem solving becoming second nature—I do think this has made many of us more resilient, but I think it’s important to be gentle with ourselves. If we do have moments of feeling tired, of having to be resilient during either any future challenges or this one as it continues—I feel like if those moments come, accept them so you can ultimately keep moving. Because if you have low points, it might be tempting to kind of add to that challenge by beating yourself up about having those feelings in the first place—or at least, you know, that’s something that I have struggled with. And I think it’s important to let yourself feel them, acknowledge them, know that they’re valid and you can still continue. But I’m not a mental health professional! So that’s just my two cents.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s okay not to be okay. A lot of us have been not okay over the last year. It’s not just you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The piece concludes with this great quote from Jennifer Milner, who’s a teacher and coach, and I wanted to read it. She’s talking about dance as, like, a grand old house that’s been through a big storm. And she says: “Do we want to get out the old blueprints and rebuild it exactly the way it was? Are we trying to restore a historic landmark that is revered and admired, but isn’t really lived in? Or are we going to take the time to ask what we can improve?” And I think that that applies to dance as a whole, and also to dance artists as individuals. We’re thinking about our approach to our own practice, as well as the field’s approach at large.

So, we’re going to move on to our last round table segment, which is on a related theme. Because not only are we coming up on the one year COVID-versary, but we’re also marking, this episode, one year, one full year of making this podcast. And we’re going to welcome Cadence for the segment, because we want the whole team here. So, hi Cadence!

Cadence Neenan:
Hi everyone.

Margaret Fuhrer:
No planets are in retrograde. How are we feeling?

Cadence Neenan
We’re feeling great. The month of March is full of abundance and nothing is getting in our way. You heard it here first. [laughs]

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is all going in the podcast. So, it is pretty wild to think that we started this adventure full year ago, back in that glass-walled audio producer’s nightmare of a WeWork conference room. It is even wilder to think that we had no idea, at that point, what the wider world was about to go through. So we wanted to just take a minute to reflect on what we’ve learned over 12 months of dance podcast-making—11 months and two weeks of which have been remote dance podcast making. How did our expectations of what we thought we’d be covering, and how we thought we’d be covering it, compare to the reality, everyone?

Lydia Murray:
It’s so hard to even remember what I thought we’d be covering anymore, because you know, I’m just so used to what we ended up focusing on.

Courtney Escoyne:
I can remember like having the sense of like, are we going to have enough to actually fill up an episode? Like I think at the time we thought it was going to be like a 15 to 20 minute podcast. And we were like, man, if you cut out all the like random asides and stuff, like, are we going to have enough to fill a full episode? And then…

Lydia Murray:
And then the universe said: You going to learn today!

Courtney Escoyne:
2020 said, “Hold my beer!”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, and it wasn’t even just a content—I mean it was definitely a content question, but it wasn’t even just a content question. It was also a tone thing. Because I think we started out thinking: it’s going to be light. It’s going to be snappy. It’s going to be newsy, very bing bang boom.

Courtney Escoyne:
We’re going to have a horoscope corner.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, I still think there is a time and place for that. We’re going to do it at some point, Cadence!

But the news we were covering, I mean, it was so heavy that quickly, it became apparent that that kind of tone would have been irresponsible. And I actually like cringe a little bit listening to myself and some of our early episodes, as I personally, at least, was still trying to figure out the right tone, trying to figure out that balance.

I think part of that was also—and I don’t want to speak for you guys, but for me, at least, I’m very much a writer first. So figuring out how to talk about dance on the record, like the immediacy of this format, I’m still figuring that out.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, like I know like if I were to like sit down and do like a stream of consciousness, like typing out my thoughts versus just like speaking a stream of consciousness, somehow the typed version would still make more sense. That is how my brain works.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. But I am endlessly grateful that, first of all, doing the podcast every week pushed me to think deeply about some really difficult and really complicated topics. It forced me to engage even when I was feeling completely overwhelmed or exhausted. And I think we’ve all said things like this at various points, but I’m a better journalist and a better person because of that.

Cadence Neenan:
I think somehow this recording this podcast and being on this podcast, while often anxiety-inducing, has helped me to learn to think more critically. I think I am someone who perhaps had gotten in the habit of reading the headline and kind of grazing over news stories, reading them very quickly. But knowing that I was going to appear on the podcast and that I had to discuss these things more in depth, I’ve read much more carefully. And these are important issues. Like reading about the kind of legislation that would help the dance world to come back after the pandemic is the kind of very, you know, granular article that I probably wouldn’t have read so carefully before. And it’s the kind of article that I’m really glad that I did, because I understand it differently now. And this podcast forced me to do that.

Lydia Murray:
When I started, I was just, just straight up new, for one thing. So I didn’t really know you guys. It’s been fun just getting to know and work with you all, all this time. And I’ve kind of focused more on dance administration and also just marketing and that kind of thing, and kind of transitioning more toward the journalism side—this was really helpful for that. I’ve, you know, done so much research. It’s just been a great learning opportunity.

Cadence Neenan:
I think it was interesting, Margaret mentioned this earlier, just how neatly the start of our podcast lined up with the beginning of the pandemic. And I feel like we have experienced this pandemic in the dance world live on this podcast. You could probably go back and find an early episode where we’re like, “Oh, this will all be over in a month.” And then just watching how we’ve, we’ve learned that together on here, I think is really amazing to me.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, I just want to say thank you to first of all, the three people in this Skype call right now that we’re recording. But also thank you to everybody who’s listening—or reading the transcript! Because now we have transcripts available—but thank you to our audience for your support of the work that we’re doing. And especially for your own contributions to this ongoing conversation, in the comments, via Twitter, in our DMS. I’ve learned a ton from all of you this past year. It’s been hard, but wonderful.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also I think, as I said many times in the early days of the pandemic: Time is fake. It’s been a year? What?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Time is very fake. But we are officially out of time—of real time—on this podcast. So we’re going to take a break. And when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Brinda Guha. Stay tuned.

[pause]


INTERVIEW WITH BRINDA GUHA

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. Our guest on the podcast today is Brinda Guha. Hi, welcome!

Brinda Guha:
Hi, how are you?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Good, good. Brinda is an artist, a choreographer, a teacher, a curator and an arts administrator. She’s involved in all these different corners of the dance world. But can I ask you to introduce yourself to our listeners?

Brinda Guha:
Sure. Thank you so much, Margaret. So my name is Brinda Ananya Guha. I identify as a non-disabled, caste-privileged, cis-gendered and queer South Asian woman. I’m trained in Indian classical Kathak dance, but I have extensive experience as well in Manipuri, East Indian classical dance, and flamenco, Spanish classical dance.

I am the managing, I guess, director you can say—we’re rethinking all of our titles these days, but artistic director, managing director of Kalamandir Dance Company, which was founded by my mother, guru Malabika Guha, who is also my teacher, back in 2010, and now is under my direction for the last 10 years. We are working on a style of dance called Kalamandir, a style of contemporary Indian dance. And I consider contemporary Indian dance a very large umbrella, a legacy umbrella of ideologies under this umbrella. And Kalamandir’s trying to find their place in that.

I am also an events producer. I’m the curator of Wise Fruit NYC, which is a seasonal live arts showcase dedicated to the feminine divine and honors women-led organizations. And what else do I do? Let’s see. I am an active performing artist with percussive trio, Soles of Duende. I share this stage with amazing artists Amanda Castro, a tap artist, and Arielle Rosales, a flamenco artist, and I do Kathak. And we converse and create and engage with each other through rhythm, through our feet, which has been really, really great. And we’re the Gibney artists in residence of 2020, now pushed to 2021.

And otherwise, I choreograph a lot. I perform a lot. I teach a lot. I run Kalamandir school now, which was my mother’s school, established in 1986. Lastly, I’m an arts administrator with Dance/NYC and I coordinate their annual symposium.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Coming up soon.

Brinda Guha:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Margaret Fuhrer:
I wanted to start by—because I admire so much that you’re working at this intersection of art and activism, that you’ve made that a central part of the work that you’re doing. Can you talk about why you think those two things are fundamentally interconnected, and how your work as an activist informs your work as an artist and vice versa?

Brinda Guha:
Yeah. I’ve had to bring language to this recently, because I didn’t have any before. I think what this year is teaching me, what the people of this year are teaching me, is that I’m not an activist. I’m not an activist. There are activists who are doing frontline work and it’s really important for us to make that distinction, because those are the people that are fighting for the liberation for us to express ourselves.

And our function in this activism that we all take up space in is, our function as artists is to elevate the consciousness of the people, is to keep people open, keep people motivated, keep people inspired, empathetic. And I think in that sense, we’re activists, as artists, as performing artists, we’re activists because we are changing the hearts and minds of folks, hopefully for the better, and getting people to consider other perspectives. I think that is the function of the work that we do when we’re a performing artist or when we’re in a position to facilitate other minds. In terms of being an activist, I would say more so I’m an organizer than an activist. Because I really honor the activists that are on the streets and putting their bodies on the line and in the courtrooms, and in the board meetings, actually fighting for people’s humanity. And so it’s important to make that distinction first.

In terms of activism and art—I mean, art is about people, so activism has to be a part of this. Activism, working towards a more just world, has to be part of our discussion in art making, because art making reflects the times—as Nina Simone once beautifully said; paraphrasing there. But I think that it’s really, really important that for artists, we understand that we have the agency to express ourselves. And how we’re feeling and how we’re doing depends on the time that we’re living in and what’s happening around us.

So I think the two are intrinsically connected and I think that art is intrinsically political, because it’s about people. And so whether you are creating a piece about frontline workers, or you’re creating a piece about a flower that’s blossoming and changing and growing and making something more beautiful, you are still contributing movement to the humanity and to the imagination of people. And so I just think art is inherently political and therefore activism plays in a perfect role.

Now access to art, access to art making is more of a logistical issue, right? Who has access to creating space for expression? Who’s allowed to express? These are things that are very, very political. These are things that require the coordination and the collaboration with activists, and organizers, and conscience raisers, and painters and dancers, and educators, philosophers—this requires us to work together and to figure out how do we make tangible change so that people have access to the same things or the things that they need to liberate themselves.

And so, yeah, that’s where I am with art and activism. I see it less of a, “Every day, we have to get up and do something.” I see it less of that, and I don’t think anyone gets a trophy for participating in basic civic engagement. I think it’s really, really important. To be alive means to take up space. And to take up space means to contribute to the space that you’re taking up.

And so for me, that’s not really the spirit of activism in our work. I think the spirit of activism in our work is conjuring energy and galvanizing people and getting people in the same room to see, look at what would happen if all of us did this, if all of us got behind this thing! And what creative powers can we get people to show more empathy and compassion, to be willing to make these changes for us and for everyone else? I think that’s where our power is. I think that’s where our activism lies.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you for clarifying those terms too, because I think there has been a lot of fuzziness around that type of language. I’m guilty of it too, obviously. And specificity of language—over this past year, I feel like that’s been an especially important part of taking steps forward, is finding the correct language for what we’re trying to say.

Brinda Guha:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So you were also recently a cover model for Dancegeist, which, congratulations.

Brinda Guha:
Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And you wrote a piece for them in which you talked about—I’m going to quote you—you said a “multitude of pandemics” have created, for non-marginalized people, an “all-year pass to the ongoing dilemma and experience of marginalized folks everywhere.” And then you issued a call to action to the dance community. And we’re going to link to that piece in the episode description, so everyone can go and read it for themselves. Please do. But would you like to talk a little about what inspired you to write it, first of all, and then what it is that you’re asking dance artists to do specifically?

Brinda Guha:
Thank you for bringing that up. My call to action was stemming from and powered by the lack of stimulation for change that I think artists need, and that I think artists are currently living through and given the opportunity to explore. And because we are recovering and because we are mourning the loss of what we once knew, such as work, and such as opportunities, and such as marketing, and such as “the hustle,” they say—since we’re mourning the loss of that agenda for ourselves, we’re forced to face ourselves, right?

And so I like to ask the question, not, “What should we do?” But, “What are we returning to?” When we come back from this pandemic, where are we going? What’s next? Are we struggling this hard to get through this deadly time to go back to the same stuff? And so if one pandemic can wipe out a year of our livelihood, then what is it about the infrastructure of our livelihood that needs to change? And it’s about that sustainability.

And so my call to action was to get my fellow artists and peers, and students, and teachers and collaborators, to really consider decolonizing their own practices and changing their own expectations of the work that they’re doing and the work that they want to return to, and changing the premise completely before reentering this world that is now fundamentally different. It’s fundamentally different because now we have that knowledge that a pandemic can wipe us out. That we’re the first to go and we’re the last to come back. And the way people coped during this pandemic was to watch artists, was to experience artists. And yet we’re in a line of work that doesn’t have the right infrastructure yet.

So there’s so much work that we could be doing. And the article was meant to really talk about what those action items should be. And then as I was writing, I realized, I’m pissed. I’m pissed at us for not seeing big-picture, because we’re capable of so much. No other profession requires that dancers show up completely ready for their job. Any other job I’ve ever had, I could be a little sleepy when I walked in the door, let’s put it that way. I can’t be sleepy in dance. I can’t even dance if I’m sleepy.

There’s so much we’re capable of and yet we’re all striving to go back to the same old, where we are accepting jobs way under what we should be paid. Where we are too scared to speak up in an abusive situation. Where we are being asked to do things that are way outside of the job description and not having the language for boundaries. Where we are asking our dancers to do things constantly for free, but also, if we are going to pay them or whatever the situation is, are we even prepared to walk into the space, to lead this space?

None of these questions are answered and yet, we’re dying for this pandemic to be over, so we can get back to work. And these are the very questions, fundamental questions, that if we don’t collaborate with activists and organizers and policy makers, that the next time something comes around, we’re still going to have a health insurance issue. We’re still going to have an economy issue. We are still going to have a job issue.

And so, the writing prompt was really about shaking us and getting us to be like, We have so much work we can be doing right now. And it doesn’t mean work as in hustle. It means work as in that heart work and that mind work about, how are we returning? What have we learned? What can we change right now? We can’t change it all, but what’s this list look like? And not wasting our time, because we’re not going to get this time back. But then also trying to consider the reader’s feelings and the reader’s emotions and understanding that people are mourning and it’s natural to want to go back to feeling useful.

And so challenging, challenging the readers was my purpose. I wanted to challenge us to reconsider the premise of what we’re returning to as an industry, because I think that change starts inside. And I think that inside change will lead to structural and policy change and the way we run our dance studios, and the way we run our dance conventions, and the way we show up to residencies and to universities and to the state.

And so it was a check-in, but I wanted it to definitely ruffle some feathers, to see if people could ask themselves questions, honest questions, as dancers, as teachers, as choreographers: “Am I doing enough of this stuff, and can I move forward?”

Margaret Fuhrer:
This is so much of what we’ve talked about on the podcast, too. There’s been a lot of mourning, which is totally fine and normal, but this idea of, “Oh, the pandemic has broken everything”—so much if it was broken beforehand. So as you were saying, this idea of re-imagining—actually, the next few questions are things that you said in our pre-interview correspondence that you wanted to get into, and a lot of it is about doing that re-imagining during this time.

So let’s start with the first one you brought up, which is anti-racism in classrooms. What are some of the most persistent and insidious racist practices that you see in dance classrooms? And how can we work to eliminate them?

Brinda Guha:
“Insidious” is a good word. In my line of work, I actually only have really one perspective of this. So I want to just put that disclaimer out that I don’t think that this is everybody’s experience, but I do think I speak for a lot of folks who are functioning in a very Eurocentric dance model economy, and a white space—for us, people of color who kind of bring in “world dance” into the space. We have to navigate some of these things. There may be some overlap with other folks, in that regard.

But I would say some of the more insidious practices in the classrooms are really this notion of diversity being a one-time experience. I think that’s kind of the most painful for me now. I’m excited about the paycheck, don’t get me wrong. But when I put that aside, I’m not really excited about the experience because what somebody else is considering a dollop of information, I’m considering it as my identity and my life’s work.

So when someone calls me in—and I will speak on behalf of myself, but I hope that other people relate to this, and I think other people will—that when we’re hired to provide a “cultural experience” for a dance studio or convention, what you’re really asking us to do is condense hundreds and thousands of years of information into a marketable 75 minute class. And so when that happens, we are missing the nuance and the details that actually make the dance what it is. Because otherwise, it’s just a bunch of steps. And it’s actually really, really hard to consider the cultural experience that one wants to have. It’s hard to consider that when I don’t have time to actually talk about the history that brought us there, that brought us to this point of wanting to grasp what a mudra is, what tatkar or footwork is. Why do Kathak dancers turn, constantly spin? There’s a full history behind spinning in Kathak. How do I tell that to a random suburban dance studio who just wants me there for 75 minutes, to say that their children are having a cultural experience at their dance studio? That’s really, really hard for me to reckon with.

And so that’s one insidious example of I would consider structural and institutional racism. It’s really bringing in something under the guise of diversity and inclusion, but really not matching the experience that’s being had with the actual conditions that are just for the artist. Whether that be low pay, or whether that be the inability to craft the class the way that I would want to, or request the time that I would want to have with the students.

I’m one of those dance teachers that asks, “All right, is this once or can I come a few times?” Because it doesn’t make sense for me to work with your people once. I understand a few times means more money, but how do we work together here so this is not just a dollop of information? And there’s a lot of labor that goes in for me to condense that information for a full experience for children in one class. Because my name is on the product, my name is on the marketing. If it’s a piece I’m setting, my name is on the piece, right? So I have to do my due diligence to make sure that my work stands for itself, but then how do I do it under these conditions?

And the fact that there’s literally no conversation around that, because there’s so many other people that are dying for that job or dying for another paycheck, that I’m easily replaceable on top of all of that—these are some of the ways in which the desire for diversity and inclusion is actually really harmful to the people that can help you be more diverse and inclusive. That’s one thing.

Obviously appropriation in the classroom, in dance—the appropriation aspect of it is kind of the most obvious, again, from my experience as a “world dance” instructor. And I put that in quotes, because for me, in my experience, I’m not a world dancer, right? But on the backdrop of white dance and Eurocentric dance forms, I’m considered world dance. People of color who bring in their cultural background in their art are considered world dance. And so that in itself already sets us up in a weird way.

But going with that lingo, “world dance” teacher, I go into spaces and I see the appropriation as literally, probably the first thing that I see. Whether it be something as simple as in contemporary class people trying to put in hip hop, or in hip hop class, people trying to put in martial arts—because the theme is something to do with kung fu or tai chi, or whether that be a Bollywood number that it has no idea how it got there. It’s just like these moments of total random inspiration, right? It’s totally random. And it’s there because it’s that wow factor. Again, it adds to the marketability. And cultural appropriation is defined as appropriating one’s culture for their own benefit. So if you’re marketing yourself and you’re getting these resources and these dividends that are produced because of your work and those things come back to just you and not the communities that gave you that knowledge, then that’s appropriation. It’s really hard as a dance teacher to just stay positive in those moments.

I tend to be the voice that comes into the room and says, “I think we should change these things because I think we don’t know enough about this stuff.” And I think I understand the moment we’re trying to have, but at whose expense?

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, the next topic that you mentioned is actually related in many ways. You wanted to talk about decolonizing syllabi. So what can teachers do, what can institutions do, to make sure they’re presenting a non-Eurocentric view of dance to their students?

Brinda Guha:
Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s actually a lot of immediate things we can do. And then there’s also steps that will take some time, I think, to implement, to get people on board.

Some of the immediate things are devoting five to 10 minutes of class at the top of class, or during warmup, or finding a way to weave it into the conversations that are being had, about dance history, and specifically about the history of what you’re going to be doing today. That is something that is really missing and I think dance educators can fix that right now. They can fix that right now, tomorrow, by coming in prepared to talk about the why behind the what.

I think our dedication to perfectionism can go. I don’t think that that’s natural. I think that’s one way of decolonizing the space. Looking into the mirror at ourselves or facing this leader in the room feels unnatural and feels very much towards this supremacist structural way of “leader and those who follow,” without any interaction or understanding of the communal aspect of the space. Which is what the experience of a pay-for-your-dance-class is supposed to be. So teaching in circles, teaching by looking at each other, instead of always facing the front. Teaching with traveling steps, understanding how to use space. That’s one way of really decolonizing the classroom and making sure that everything is not this individualistic way of expressing yourself. It’s not about you and how you do the combo. It’s about how you would move with the movers around you.

Definitely get rid of old, tired gender norms of boys and girls, and finding this binary that’s super harmful to our trans and non-binary communities. Just eliminating that way of categorizing people and eliminating identifiers that are established by the person who has the power in the room, and allowing the agency for the people participating in the room to identify themselves. That really brings this autonomy to the work and then it brings autonomy to the learning. And then there’s this actual co-existence that happens in decolonized societies all over the world.

Now, do I think discipline is super great? It’s a great tool for our students to be in uniform, to be disciplined. That kind of stuff is awesome. But then finding out that within that, there are levels of humanity that must be addressed. So if you have uniforms, then how do I make sure that this theme of a uniform works for everybody that’s in this classroom? It doesn’t need to be the exact uniform. Maybe it’s a theme, because everyone’s body’s different. Everyone’s skin tone is different. Everyone’s hair is different. We can change our expectations. Maybe the rule is hair out of your face, not hair in a certain type of bun. Maybe the rule is flesh-colored whatever, and here are the resources so you can find what you need to get what you need. Maybe these are the things that we can be saying, as opposed to saying, “This is how it goes. And if you don’t do it, then there will be punitive measures.” I think that that is a very colonized mindset, that, “If you don’t do what I say, you will be punished.” As opposed to, “I’m giving you the resources that you need to complete the job in a way that will best serve you based on my experience, and I’m here to guide you. So how do we reach success together? And what resources do you need and what can I use my power for, to provide for you?” So yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And those are such simple changes. You say something like “decolonizing syllabi” and I think to some people that sounds scary or really drastic, but it’s really not. So much of it is so straightforward. I mean, not all of it, but so much of it.

I don’t mean to rush us through all these big topics, but I want to make sure we get to everything you wanted to touch on. You brought up the hyper-sexualization of children in dance when we were emailing. It feels like it shouldn’t be hard to get everyone to agree that sexualizing children is a bad idea. So why is this still happening so frequently in the dance world?

Brinda Guha:
Money. It’s money, it’s capital gain. So when you have this high-powered machine that’s blowing you in the direction of get the most amount of eyes on your kid as possible, your guard goes down. And I think that dance makers, especially convention owners and studio owners, unfortunately are the perpetrators of these practices, because they’re also manipulating the parents, in a way. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my share of parents that I’ve had disagreements with about certain things, but it really is the driving force behind this are the people that are staging the kids.

It’s not only hyper-sexualization of children, it’s unsafe practices to have kids performing in adult venues late at night, around drunk people. And people love that. Every single person is trying to open a kids’ company. Why is that? Because we know that when you charge $200 a kid, that you’re going to bank that quarter. And it’s going to give you a lot of clout because you got a bunch of talented kids to listen to you.

So as a teacher, as a dance teacher of children, I can honestly say that the gift of teaching children is profound. And I’m sure that these choreographers feel it. I’m sure that they feel a gift when they see these talented children doing what they need to do. But the minute they make those decisions to get them into an unsafe space, then we have to push back on their priorities. And then we have to push back on what it is that they’re actually after. Because at the end of the day, if our kids are not safe, then we have no business making money off them. Dancing to moves that they have no idea, and they won’t know for the next 25 years, what that means.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. They don’t know what they’re selling. Yeah.

Brinda Guha:
Yeah. They have no idea what they’re selling and it’s unsafe because there’s a lot of predators out there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re jumping from huge topic to huge topic. Whiplash, sorry! But politically speaking, it’s a turbulent—that’s a terrible euphemism: It’s a wild time, politically speaking. Does the political climate here in the United States, how is it affecting your artistic practice?

Brinda Guha:
Oh, that’s loaded. Well, I’ll tell you something. I am so unmotivated to choreograph. I am so, so, so stressed out by the state of our country and the state of our standing in the world and our safety, because it’s our worst nightmare, as women and people of color, and gay people of color, to see what’s going on in the world right now. It’s our worst nightmare, and it happened at the Capitol building, on display.

There’s that voice in our head that’s just like, “Where’s the lesson in all of this? Let’s turn it into a good, positive thing. Let’s flip it on its head. Let’s go. That shows our worth—our ability to flip it on its head shows our worth.” And so that’s really dehumanizing for people who are suffering from this news, and we’re all suffering from this news.

In my article, I spoke about a multitude of pandemics. I’d be remiss not to mention, of course, the deep, deep, deep racial reckoning that’s happening in our nation this year. The people of color’s kind of complicity in upholding those structures, because people of color have a really easy time grouping themselves in with Black folks when it’s convenient, and backing out when it’s no longer convenient. And so understanding my complicity in that, understanding my family and my friends’ complicity in that, trying to find ways that we can amplify the voices and the liberation of Black people, has been a cornerstone of my unlearning process that I’m engaging in now. Understanding that just because I have melanin in my skin does not mean that I haven’t been complicit in the upholding of white supremacy in this country, because the immigrant story is very, very, very different than Black folks’ story here.

There’s so much to organize in my mind. And so really that has stopped my artistic practice in a creative way. That’s personal for me. I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone else. I’m still simmering on this year. And I’m not that moved to create new things more than I am moved to redefine things I’ve already made. I mean, really just going backward and starting from scratch has been more so my jam this year than creating quarantine masterpieces. I do have a couple of quarantine projects that I’d made, don’t get me wrong! I have two, that one with my company and one for election day that I made. But yeah, the world and the news right now has really impacted us on fundamental levels. We’re still in it, so we’ll see, we’ll see.

My ultimate goal is to define the industry that we want to return to. If we can design that as a community, it’s unstoppable, because dancers never stop. Dancers can’t stop because we need to viscerally feel the world. And so if that’s the case, then there’s no reason why we can’t organize and envision a world of liberation. But it’s going to require dismantling a bunch of other stuff that lives within us. And so I think that’s the period that we’re in.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And that first step in designing it, which is defining it.

Brinda Guha:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I want to thank you so much for sharing your insight and perspective, because you’ve put in so much work, all of this thought in developing language around all these ideas. I really appreciate you sharing that with us, sharing that with our listeners. And with me, too! I’ve learned so much just from listening to you right now in this hour.

Brinda Guha:
Thank you so much for having me. And really, I look forward to The Dance Edit in my inbox, and I look forward to all the work that you all do. So thank you so much.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, thanks. That’s nice to hear. Before we go, can you just let people know where they can follow you to keep up to date on everything that’s going on?

Brinda Guha:
Oh my goodness. What do you want to know?

Margaret Fuhrer:
All the goods!

Brinda Guha:
All the goods? Okay. So I’m going to go for it. Ready? My individual work is @brindaguha. My company work can be found @kalamandirdance. The trio that I spoke of, our lovely percussive trio with Amanda Castro, Arielle Rosales and myself is @solesofduende. Wise Fruit NYC is my organization for the feminine divine. You can follow us @wisefruitnyc.

And lastly, I work for Dance/NYC, which is a service organization for dancers based in the values of justice, equity, and inclusion. And we are producing our first ever all-virtual symposium, that’s based in justice, education and transformation. It’s coming up March 17th to the 20th, and you can follow our work @dance.nyc.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. A friend of the pod, Dance/NYC. We’ll include all those links in our episode description too, so you can find them there as well.

Brinda Guha:
Awesome.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much again, this was fantastic.

Brinda Guha:
Thank you so much, Margaret, and have an awesome day.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Brinda. One more reminder to sign up for the Dance/NYC Symposium, which she’s coordinating, because it’s actually going to go deeper into—she went very deep, but it’s going to go even deeper into so many of the topics she discussed during her interview. And you know, the upside of a virtual symposium is you don’t have to be in New York city to attend. So please visit dance.nyc to register before tomorrow’s deadline.

All right, thanks everyone for joining us for this podcast birthday episode. We will 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.

Lydia Murray:
Bye everyone.