Transcript, Episode 54: Protecting Performers, Making Space for Rest, and Kellee Edusei

[Jump to Kellee Edusei interview]

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

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Cadence Neenan:
And I’m Cadence Neenan.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about New York City’s Open Culture Program of outdoor performances, which was criticized by Actors’ Equity for both pay and safety issues. We’ll discuss the closure of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s performing company, and also the way the organization is re-imagining itself. We will get into dance artist and activist Sydnie Mosley’s essay about why the show doesn’t necessarily have to go on right now.

Then we’ll have our interview with Kellee Edusei, who is the new executive director of Dance/USA. Last week marked the one year anniversary of this podcast; this week is the one year anniversary, almost to the day, of COVID shutdowns. So we thought it would be a fitting time to have Kellee share her bigger-picture perspective on how the dance world has fared and what we’ve learned over the course of this strange pandemic year, and then also to talk about the invaluable work that Dance/USA has been doing to support dancers and dance organizations. They’ve been doing that work for decades, but especially during this crisis.

Kellee’s interview is actually the first in a series of conversations we’ll be having with leaders from different corners of the dance world to reflect on a year of pandemic living and dancing. So stay tuned for more in that vein over the coming weeks.

Before we dive in, please don’t forget to give us a follow on Twitter @dance_edit and Instagram @the.dance.edit, and also to sign up for our daily newsletter—the OG Dance Edit—which you can do at thedanceedit.com. Because if you like us talking, well, you’ll probably like us typing too, especially since we tend to be better typers than talkers; or to be kind, I’ll say we’re even better typers than talkers. I’m trying to be kinder to myself.

All right. Now, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, and Courtney is getting it started this week.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So 38 members of Milan’s La Scala ballet have tested positive for COVID-19, 35 of them dancers. The outbreak followed after a single dancer tested positive at the end of February, causing the immediate cancellation of a performance filming and subsequent classes and rehearsals. I think we’re all wishing them all a speedy recovery. I would also like to say, this is why frequent testing is important.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm, yes.

Cadence Neenan:
For sure. The Washington Football Team recently announced it would replace its cheerleading team with a co-ed dance team in its next season. The decision came less than one month after the Washington team reached a confidential settlement with ex-cheerleaders who unknowingly appeared in lewd videos secretly produced by team employees, taken from outtakes of swimsuit calendar shoots. While leadership of the Washington team say that the decision to reassess the program was unrelated to the investigation, many former cheerleaders saw it as a punitive move, and some outside the team even suggested that Washington team leadership may be trying to protect itself from potential gender discrimination suits in the future. Candess Correll, a 2020 team captain, said, “Taking opportunities away from women by adding men to this team is not a resolution.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
That story is many-layered, obviously. We’re going to link to a couple of articles in the episode description that break down more of the details.

Courtney Escoyne:
The Queen’s Gambit might be headed to the stage. Theatrical stage rights to the novel, which was adopted into a wildly popular Netflix limited series last year, have been acquired by production company Level Forward, which co-produced Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill, and the recent Oklahoma! revival. It’s early days yet; there’s not even a creative team. But here’s hoping it’s more compelling than Chess was in the eighties.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean…

Courtney Escoyne:
Low bar.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Low bar. But chess-based choreography? There’s potential there. I see it.

Cadence Neenan:
Even with COVID-distance spacing, I feel like we could be doing something there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Surprisingly COVID-friendly in a way, yes!

Cadence Neenan:
In a bizarre followup to the missing tutus at San Jose Dance Theatre, it seems as though ballet costume theft is becoming a bit of a trend. Last week, a dance academy in Tigard, Oregon was robbed of 40 to 50 costumes valued at around $10,000. The costumes were intended to be used for the West Side Dance and Gymnastics Academy’s upcoming performance of The Nutcracker, which was meant to be filmed this month. But in the truest spirit of the dance community, several other local studios have reached out to lend their own Nutcracker costumes and ensure that the show will be able to go on.

Courtney Escoyne:
How is this becoming a thing?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Who steals costumes during a pandemic? Who steals them period? I do not understand.

Courtney Escoyne:
The New York Times ran a story under the headline, “What Is A Ballet Body?” in which critic Gia Kourlas interviewed dancers like Lauren Lovette, Kathryn Morgan, Erica Lall, and more as she examined what impacts the pandemic’s forced pause is having on dancers’ relationship to weight. It provoked a lot of discussion on social media. So, two things if you plan to read the story; one, please practice care as you approach it, as there’s stuff in here that is frankly horrifying and/or infuriating, if not downright triggering. And two, I would encourage you to read it with a critical lens. I’m really glad that Lauren, Katie and the rest got to share their stories more widely, but I would encourage everyone to look critically at how this reporting frames their experiences.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, we’re not going to get into the piece in this episode because we have several podcast episodes’ worth of things to say about it, I think. As Courtney mentioned, a lot of people in the dance world have been feeling a lot of feelings about it. But I do think that it is really valuable to hear these dancers talking about weight and body image on the record in a mainstream publication. Because even today, that takes real courage.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So we will include that link in the episode notes.

Cadence Neenan:
French ballet star Patrick Dupond recently died at age 61. Dupond had a storied career at the Paris Opéra Ballet, rising to the rank of étoile in 1980. After leaving the company in 1985, he founded his own group called Dupond and His Stars, which toured in both Japan and France. He later returned to the Paris Opéra as its dance director and made history as the youngest person ever named head of France’s premiere ballet company.

Courtney Escoyne:
Park Avenue Armory announced a live in-person performance season starting this month, kicking off March 24th with the premiere of Bill T. Jones’ Afterwardsness. The massive 55,000 foot drill hall will be operating at 10% capacity to allow masked audience members to be placed nine to 12 feet apart from each other, and audience members will be administered a rapid COVID-19 test upon entry at no additional cost. That’s only a couple of the safety precautions being taken. The Armory’s being really, really rigorous here, and they did successfully pilot their protocols back in October.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, Afterwardsness is the same production that they tested out in October with an audience of volunteer participants.

Cadence Neenan:
In other exciting live performance news, plays, concerts, and other performances may resume in New York starting in April. Of course, this requires sharply reduced capacity limits, 33% capacity with a limit of 100 people indoors or 200 people outdoors. However, these limits can be increased to 150 people indoors or 500 people outdoors if all attendees test negative before attending. And of course, all attendees must wear face masks and be socially distanced.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So that actually leads us right into our first roundtable segment, because we are now starting this strange in-between period of the pandemic where most people are not yet vaccinated, but live performances are beginning to resume. So we have to think very carefully about how we’re protecting not just audience members, but especially performers. Already, we’re seeing some problems on that front. This past week, Actors’ Equity sent out a pretty scathing warning to its members about New York City’s Open Culture program, which is a series of outdoor performances on the city’s streets. The union says the city’s plan does not ensure either fair wages or a safe workplace for performers involved in Open Culture projects.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. If you don’t know much about the Open Culture program, it’s a city sponsored program which permits outdoor cultural performances on designated city streets. Groups are able to perform in areas that were already opened to the community through the New York City Open Streets program. There’s a list of eligible open spaces online. It allows artists, cultural institutions, venues, and groups to stage ticketed events outdoors via an application process. Instead of going through the city’s usual application process, this program allows applicants to self-certify that they’re following COVID protocols and pay only $20 to apply.

Which all sounds great, until you really start to think about it, as Actors’ Equity did this week. They released a serious warning to their members, saying in a letter, “If you are approached to work on a New York City Open Culture project, please contact your business representative immediately before accepting.” Actors’ Equity points out that the city permit process, made simple for this program, does not require that producers pay a living wage. The permit process does not require producers provide proof of their workers’ compensation insurance. The permit does not require that workers be tested for COVID-19. The permit does not require that performances be socially distanced. The permit does not have a formal requirement for a COVID-19 safety officer. And the permit process does not have appropriate safeguards to keep crowds distance from the workers. So it seems as though in simplifying this permit process, the city is putting performers at risk.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think it’s very important to actually take a look at what this program was intended to do and what it was meant to do, because what this program is not is a commissioning program. It is not that. There is basically no funding for this program whatsoever. What it does, what it exists to do is to essentially, as Cadence said, it allows groups to apply for permits in a much easier, much more straightforward manner than typically applying for permits to perform outdoors would be. The fact that the people who are putting on these performances can collect donations or sell tickets for these events is actually due to advocacy to the New York City council on behalf of artists to allow them to do that, because normally, that would be its own set of red tape to get past.

So the fact that that is even being allowed is great. But again, what this is not is a commissioning program. This is essentially designed for groups to be able to cut through red tape so that those smaller groups can be out there doing performances. But I think they’re absolutely right in pointing out that this does raise a lot of safety issues. It does leave a lot of stuff in the hands of the people producing the performances and the hands of performers themselves, who oftentimes don’t have that power, and a little bit to audiences, for them to be respectful and to be paying attention to regulations. So essentially, in super streamlining this process to get rid of some bureaucratic red tape, kind of the buck is being passed a little bit to the artists who are strapped and trying to just make this work happen potentially safely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. There is no money. That’s the root of the problem with this program. There is no money to support it.

It feels like the problem with a lot of the government arts support programs that we’ve seen so far is that they’re thinking about things mostly from an audience perspective, rather than an artist perspective: this idea of big public performances that can uplift a whole community. Which is valid; big public performances can absolutely do that. But…

Courtney Escoyne:
And I think what you’re referencing here, Margaret, is a separate program, which is Andrew Cuomo’s state NY PopsUp performance series, which just kicked off and which essentially, has a lot of really big headliners doing pop-up performances, as well as pilot testing safety features for places like Park Avenue Armory and Broadway theaters to reopen at reduced capacity.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. And it’s interesting to note that Equity actually approves of the NY PopsUp series, the state’s program, because it does have some better pay and safety programs in place.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, because that is a case where it is actual specific performances that are being put on the docket by New York state and by the people doing this program, which again, is not what Open Culture is.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But I think the link in terms of what the fundamental problem with both of those programs, the reasons that artists are upset about both of those programs is because the people doing the performing are not getting the lion’s share of the resources devoted to these programs.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think, and also for PopsUp, there is kind of a sense, even though there’s not a full list of who’s participating, what has been released are people who financially are probably fairly okay.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right, people who don’t need the money.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s people who are going to get audiences excited to hear about them, but the equitable distribution of those same commissioning funds…mm? Hmm?

Cadence Neenan:
I think what I find just frustrating about this whole situation with the Open Culture program is that again, it is leadership in the city and the government expecting other people to, in my mind, do their job. I don’t think that performers or leadership at dance companies are experts on how to best set things up during a pandemic. I don’t think that that is their responsibility. I think putting that onus on performers, on leadership at dance organizations, on creative artists seems irresponsible and a little frustrating.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Do better by your artists, government-sponsored art programs. Do better by the artists themselves.

Courtney Escoyne:
We are starting to see some recognition of artists as workers. Can we…more, please?

Margaret Fuhrer:
More; more and better. Yes.

So in our next segment, we’re going to talk about a piece of news that really hit the dance world hard this past week. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet announced that it would be closing its widely-respected performing company. In many ways, it was just a heartbreaking announcement. The company was home to so many gifted dancers. It’s been a fixture on the concert dance circuit for 25 years. But this is where things get interesting. Though the company has faced significant pandemic-related losses, this actually is not a bankruptcy story. Instead, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has decided to put its remaining resources toward, first of all, the company schools, which are not closing, and then toward a new fund that’s intended to help support the broader dance community. So it’s this interesting re-imagining of the organization, and it’s the type of thing that I think we’ll probably be seeing more of as more dance companies have to make hard choices.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think something that absolutely fascinates me as a news editor was getting the press release about this. I would like to read what the first sentence of the press release is: “Today, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet announced the launch of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Fund for Innovation in Dance, a new component of the nonprofit organization that will share knowledge, forge connections, and provide resources and support to artists and organizations within the field of dance.” It is not until the third paragraph of this release that the news that Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the company, the professional performing arm of the organization, would cease to exist. The dancers have been furloughed since September. They were officially let go about a week before this announcement was made. So it’s a really interesting way of positioning this decision that’s been made.

In this release, the directors are very straightforward about saying this isn’t something that we decided on a whim. This is something that we’ve put a lot of thought and care and attention into, making this choice. It was ultimately a financial choice, but this financial choice is one that’s going to allow all of their educational initiatives to continue and hopefully, they think, evolve the nonprofit into something that will kind of help change the game for other mid-sized touring companies in the US—which, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was one of the most recognizable of its kind.

Cadence Neenan:
I do feel as though that press release reflects the decision-making process itself, that the decision was made that instead of attempting to stay in business while they were unable to perform and risk depleting the organization’s endowment, the organization decided that it was time to sort of call it and decide where they could best put their financial resources. It really does seem like it was this well thought out, very intentional decision on their part.

Courtney Escoyne:
That said, my heart does break a little bit. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was the first professional dance company I ever saw in-person. They toured for my hometown when I was in middle school and that was life-changing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
My heart breaks for the dancers. It’s interesting because making a preemptive move to close down a performing arm, that’s something I personally, at least, didn’t anticipate happening as a first step in response to pandemic losses. I think there’s kind of this older-school way of thinking about a dance organization as, you protect that performing company, the high-profile face of the institution, at all costs. Even if it is a loss leader, you protect it. But maybe this Aspen Santa Fe Ballet model is something that we’ll see more frequently going forward, or maybe there’ll be modified versions of it, like having the performing company go dormant for a while so you can shift those resources then to the affiliated schools, something like what Dance Theatre of Harlem did for almost a decade. Then they did successfully relaunch their performing arm. But that felt like a tragedy, too. Where are these dancers, where are these incredibly talented dancers going to go? Just…fewer jobs for dancers.

Courtney Escoyne:
Which, Aspen Santa Fe, I don’t think they’ve entirely shut the door on the possibility of that touring company coming back. There was no like, “And this will never be a thing again.” I think the door’s still open there a few years down the line when maybe things have stabilized a little bit.

Cadence Neenan:
Yeah. The exact quote the executive director said, “And when it’s possible, we will be bringing great dance back to Colorado and New Mexico.” So I feel like that door is open there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, or at least as the presenter, they can continue to do that, because that was part of their programming too.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s like the same as when Cedar Lake folded, and you’re just like, and there’s a bunch of incredible dancers who are now looking for work. Okay.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s just a gut punch, and we knew they were coming, but it hurts. It hurts.

So in our last roundtable segment, we want to talk about a big, deep breath of an essay that artist and activist and writer Sydnie Mosley recently wrote for Dance Magazine. The title is, “I Have No Desire to Produce a Performance, Live or Livestreamed, Until the Pandemic Is Over. I’ll Wait,” which, a moment of appreciation for that title.

The essay gets into the fallacy of the dance world’s “show must go on” mentality, which we’ve talked about a lot on this podcast. Because, as Mosley says, the show doesn’t actually have to go on right now. We’re living through a massive crisis. We’re practicing an art form that, for many of us, depends on sharing physical space in a way that is not currently safe. So dancers cannot and should not be expected to figure out a way to keep creating just for the sake of creating. It’s one of those essays that we all nodded along to so enthusiastically that we ended up with neck cramps.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Well, and I think something to emphasize here is that I think it’s easy to hear the nut graf version of this and be like, “Oh, well, she’s saying we shouldn’t be doing all this pivoting to digital performance,” and that’s not actually Sydnie’s point. The point is essentially to challenge us and to ask yourself, am I doing this because it is an authentic reflection and evolution of my practice? Or am I doing this because I feel like I have to do this because everyone else is doing it? An actual sentence in the story is, “Please, do what works for you.”

I could just quote this entire essay. It’s so good. Everyone, please go read it. But she, at one point, referenced, as we’re going into year two of this pandemic—which was a really tough clause to read—but she proposed some questions that we should be asking ourselves. And it’s things like, “Am I creating digital work because it’s truly in service of my mission and values? Or just because that’s what everyone else is doing right now? And how am I creating space to honor grief for the projects that were lost or canceled or are now shape-shifting?” There’s more questions in that line that are talking not only about artistic health, but personal health and emotional health and mental health and really holding space for doing what you as an artist need, and as a human need, right now.

Cadence Neenan:
For me, I think the question that was the most poignant was literally just, “What if we rested?” I think I took a deep, deep breath when I read that question, because it is not one that I’m posed very often. Sydnie isn’t saying that we shouldn’t be dancing, we shouldn’t be earning money, because obviously for most of us, both of those things are imperative. She’s just inviting all of us to let go of the pressure to produce something just for the sake of it. She says that, “We don’t need to be producing to keep up with the Joneses or maintain relevance. We should be dancing because and if we need to dance.”

Courtney Escoyne:
I also think it’s interesting that she talks about still being in process with her own company. But anytime someone asks, “Well, what are you rehearsing for?” Her rebuttal is, “Well, we value the process. Rehearsal is a ritual. This is a space that we hold for each other,” and I think that’s just magnificent.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Mm-hmm. Also, I have a company of dancers that wants to do work and that needs to get paid. Therefore, I am holding rehearsal. Yeah.

I love that she mentioned that great meme that Mrs. Smith, the musician Mrs. Smith, made. It’s been going all around Instagram: “A pandemic is not a residency.” This idea that—have a lot of artists had more free time than usual? Yes. Does that mean their life has been conducive to creativity? No.

Courtney Escoyne:
No!

Margaret Fuhrer:
For most of us, the opposite is true. This is a moment of trauma we should be allowed to, as Cadence brought up, we should be allowed to rest, or invest in other sides of ourselves, or find other paid work to do to make up for our lost income from all these canceled in-person projects.

Dance Teacher actually published an essay by choreographer Al Blackstone that is thematically connected to Sydnie’s essay. It was an expansion of an Instagram post that Al put out a few weeks back that went viral, where he spotlighted dancers who are exhausted or put off by virtual dance class, who are waiting for in-person classes to resume. He wanted to let all those people know that they’re still valued and loved and missed, that there is a hole in the dance community where they used to be that is felt deeply. They haven’t just disappeared. The sense that there’s no shame in not being an online class person, just as there is no shame in not being interested in making digital dance; so much of what we value about dance is dependent on in-person alchemy that’s worth waiting for.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m resisting the urge to start crooning, “The Room Where It Happens,” like it’s 2016. I need to be stopped.

Cadence Neenan:
Simpler times.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Never stop. Never stop. Anyway, as we said, it’s almost silly for us to be paraphrasing Sydnie’s writing. Please just go read it yourself. We’ll link to it in the show notes. And actually, we’re going to have Sydnie on the podcast in a few weeks to talk more about all of these ideas.

Courtney Escoyne:
So excited for that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So stay tuned. Yes. All right. Speaking of interviews with brilliant people, we’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’ll have our interview with Kellee Edusei. Stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH KELLEE EDUSEI

Margaret Fuhrer:
Welcome back, dance friends. I’m here now with Kellee Edusei, who is the new executive director of Dance/USA, which has been an invaluable resource for the dance community for a long time, but especially during the challenges of the past year. And we have a lot to talk about today. But Kellee—hi, first of all!

Kellee Edusei:
Hello!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Before we get into the list of questions, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and about your relationship with dance?

Kellee Edusei:
Sure. First, I just want to say thank you so much for having me in this podcast episode. I really appreciate it. I started off dancing as a young girl, as I think most arts administrators or dancers would say, and I danced all through my childhood and I actually went to college and received a degree in dance as well as Black studies. So I had a dual degree.

And then when I graduated, I knew that I wanted to be on the supporting end of the industry. I did not want to be on the stage, but behind the scenes rather. And so I found Dance/USA, and I’ve been with the organization—this is actually my 13th year with Dance/USA. I’ve been in my role as executive director for about just a couple of months now.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you talk a little bit about, first of all, what the organization’s mission is, and then about what your job is as executive director?

Kellee Edusei:
Sure, of course. So first I want to start off by sharing Dance/USA’s vision. Dance/USA’s vision is propelled by our belief that dance can inspire a more just and humane world. Dance/USA amplifies the power of dance to inform and inspire a nation where creativity and the field thrive. And so our mission is to champion an inclusive and equitable dance field by leading, convening, advocating and supporting individuals and organizations. We do that through our four core programs, which is engagement, advocacy, research and preservation.

So with engagement, we are activating our member networks through meaningful programming, convenings and educational opportunities. And then when it comes to our advocacy, we are advocating for increased visibility of an engagement in the dance community, with our government officials and policies, to positively impact the field on a national, regional and local level. And then with our research, we are providing rigorous, relevant and accessible research to the dance field. And our preservation is really focused on providing resources and programs to advance the archiving and preservation of America’s dance legacy.

So I just want to also add that it’s really important for our member community and the field to understand that we also conduct all of our work through a set of core values, which are creativity, connectivity, equity, and integrity, with a strong keen focus on equity and justice, that’s really central to our work.

So when it comes to my job as executive director of Dance/USA, it’s to be laser-focused on these priorities and our mission and our vision and balancing being responsive to the needs of the field while also encouraging, and perhaps maybe at times urging, the field to open itself up to new ideas and concepts. I kind of look at my role within the dance ecosystem and with Dance/USA as being a place where we are helping to support the way for the field to thrive.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And to say that you stepped into this role at a difficult time is maybe the understatement of the year. We’re at almost exactly the one year anniversary of COVID shutdowns, which is this strange milestone. How have you seen the dance community first of all rise to the pandemic’s challenges, and then, what problems within dance has COVID laid bare?

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah. So I would say that what I have observed in terms of the field rising to the occasion with the realities of COVID is pivoting to the online space. I think a lot of folks will talk about switching their seasons or their performances, their festivals to an online platform, figuring that out, making it meaningful, adapting really quickly to what that looks like. And re-imagining what performances look like, what festivals look like in an online manner. And I would also add administrative teams, we are creatures that love to be together, right? And really having to adapt—okay, how do we now work when we’re not physically present with one another? So that’s one area.

Another I would say is I’ve seen the field sort of recenter, refocus its attention and its care around artists. Many organizations that had the capacity to do so, they started funds to support their dancers and artists connected to their organizations. There are lots of local dance service organizations that took a concerted effort to create community-wide funds for the artists in their communities. There were funders that stepped up to do that for the dance field.

And then I would also say—and this is just another example of the centering of artists and thinking about how we are supporting the creatives in our field—within the Dance/USA member community, we had two of our peer groups come together and create an equitable contracting document. And the two groups are members from our Dance/USA agents, managers, producers, promoters peer group, and with our presenters peer group. So multi-disciplinary and dance-specific presenters. And it’s really incredible. This document will be live on the Dance/USA website soon. And I really I’m just so impressed by the work that they have done to help the field reimagine how we might create a more equitable contracts, when working with artists.

I’ve seen, in our member community, a deeper commitment of collegiality among our members with one another. Since March of last year, we have been having all 18 of our member networks connecting on a really regular basis, some connecting weekly, biweekly, monthly, and I just have been so astounded by the support, the ideating, the problem solving that they have done with one another in this time that’s really kind of taken us all aback.

And then advocacy—as I mentioned earlier, advocacy is one of Dance/USA’s core services since its founding in 1982. So for over 30 some years, it’s been at the heart of what we were founded to do. And Dance/USA represents its membership in the field, in front of Congress, federal agencies, and the White House. We do all of our advocacy work in a bipartisan manner, in a coalition with other nonprofit performing arts organizations. And to be quite honest, COVID has allowed us really to more deeply engage our members in the field. In our advocacy work, we’ve witnessed over 7,000—and that number continues to tick up—letters that have gone to congressional leaders around the country, where the dance field is saying, “We need support on these federal packages.” So it’s been really wonderful to see the field really step up, lean into our federal advocacy work and insert their voice more strongly and pointedly into what’s happening on Capitol Hill.

I’ve also witnessed some really courageous choices during this time. I think COVID provided some an opportunity to kind of slow down a little bit and recenter their values, and focus on what’s really important to them and make different choices about their operations and their artistic output. And I think it’s very courageous to in this moment to make a pivot, whether it is to increase in some areas or maybe decrease in other areas, let some parts of the organization go dormant for some time, until they’re able to reemerge. I know that it may be hard, but I think it’s been a really courageous choice from some that I’ve witnessed.

You asked the question as well about what has been laid bare during this time. I would say that first, I think many industries were taken aback during this time and I think COVID exposed a lot of fractures and a lot of systems that we’re operating in, not simply the dance ecosystem. And that being said, I think some of the things that elevated as the field having risen to the challenge, I would also say they rose to the challenge in those ways, because what was revealed were things that needed to be addressed and leaned into more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So Dance/USA did a big COVID impact survey last spring. And you’re about to launch a second one now. What were the biggest takeaways from the first survey?

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah, so we conducted our impact survey last March and then we are planning to launch another one this March. So literally a year later. For your listeners, I also I’m happy to provide a link later on for the show notes for folks to be able to access the survey.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, we’ll do that!

Kellee Edusei:
Great. We deeply desire to have a strong understanding by way of data as to how COVID has truly impacted the dance ecosystem. And the survey captured individual and organizational responses. Round two, we’ll do that as well.

Some of the big takeaways from the first one were around expected total loss revenue by the end of June, 2020. Of those that responded to the survey, and this is from an organizational standpoint, of those that responded to the survey, about 40% reported a combined total loss of taking revenues of about $75,000 in terms of projected percentage loss of budget revenue. When it came to earned income, the median percent loss is about 24%. And when it came to contributed income, it was about a 10%.

And then the other major takeaway, which I think really will come as no surprise to you or your listeners: 41% of individuals were confident that they could still be able to work, but 59% indicated that they could not find another way of working to gain income. Those numbers really resonate with me because I think that they reflect the reality of the impact of COVID when it first happened. And I think it’s continually being reflected as to the response of local funds for artists, of national funders, leaning a bit to help support them and create new programs for artists to receive funds. And it’s definitely demonstrated an impact on the individual artists, dancers, and choreographers. So I’m curious to know a year later, how these numbers might change, but those are some pretty big takeaways from the first survey, which perhaps don’t come as any surprise.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And I don’t want to ask you to be a fortune teller, but what changes have you seen since the first survey that might impact the second survey?

Kellee Edusei:
That’s a really good question. I think that the biggest thing probably is related to openings, right? So as states have started to reopen, I’m noticing our member community also starting to reopen and discuss reopening. So I think that that might be the biggest. And when I say the biggest, I’m thinking of the schools—maybe not in-person performances, but the online content that has been generated and the conversations around monetizing that content. It could also be some in-person very small performances that have been able to happen with a strict protocol. So yeah, I’m curious to know that the ideas that were implemented, that pivot that I was talking about earlier, if the pivots that were made have sort of helped the bottom line over time.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, jumping into a giant topic: The killing of George Floyd last spring, and the protests that followed, it seemed to—belatedly, finally—shake a lot of dance organizations awake. How have you seen racism shape the dance industry, and what steps need to be taken to move the industry toward equity?

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah. Thank you for that question. How much time do we have? [laughs]

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know, I know, it’s huge.

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah. It’s a really meaty topic and question. And honestly, one that I believe cannot be responded to in a vacuum. I think, as it relates to the dance field, when we think about racism, we really do have to understand it as a structure that our entire country and our lives are built on. Racism has been institutionalized in this country, and the world. Racism is not invisible, it is real. And it’s a structure, a lens that we are living in our lives daily, making choices daily. It impacts our work and our relationships. None of us living today created the structure, but every single day, we are paying into it at some point and in one form or another. I think we all need to understand that in order to combat it, in order to undo racism, in order to address racist practices, shift our ideologies, address white supremacy culture, and how those characteristics show up in the nonprofit sector. Understanding white privilege does exist, that it is real, and that our society constantly centers whiteness.

To counter all that, I think that we need to understand a few things. That these structures, they harm everyone, no matter what one’s assigned race maybe. We need to educate ourselves on our country’s history and really face the realities of our country’s history. Seeking anti-racist training and having a greater awareness of different ways of being that are anti-racist. Being aware and understanding our implicit and explicit biases. We need to be incredibly intentional about how we live, what choices we make, our relationships, how we show up in our workplace and ask ourselves why.

When George Floyd was murdered—and I will also offer Breonna Taylor and Amman Aubrey, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, the list goes on—but in particular, when Mr. Floyd was murdered, we at Dance/USA, our team, we asked ourselves, like, “How are we showing up to work? How are we supporting one another? How is this a supportive place for us to all be with one another?” We have work to do, we are here to support the dance ecosystem. We are committed to doing our work and supporting this field, but are we seeing one another and really kind of leaning into to the weight of that collectively. And so I also think that we need to kind of also understand the notion of how power may play out in our lives and in our work and in the dance field.

I think being better allies might also be a path forward, committing to action and not lip service. We have to be careful and mindful that transformative equity work is not a box that you’re checking off, it’s continual. So it’s almost like taking off a cloak and choosing actively to put on a new one.

I also just want to take a moment to kind of go back to Dance/USA’s core values. We strive to remove the boundaries erected by a legacy of racism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, gender bias, and xenophobia. And we work to dismantle institutional and systemic oppression that attack the dance field’s progress, impeding the creation of work and negatively impacting dance audiences and communities. So while we talk about racism, I also want to elevate those other “isms” and not forget them, because they do permeate our field and they show up in our society every day.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That actually leads into my next, unfortunately also huge, question, which is: What are the other bigger-picture issues that you think the dance world needs to address right now? What’s top of mind for you?

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah. I’m not quite sure how to address this now, but one thing that is very much on my mind is mental health, mental health of dancers and mental health of administrators. And when I say dancers, I am talking about company dancers, independent artists, dance makers, choreographers, but I’m also thinking about the students. When we think about the future of the art form, there is some need and some care that needs to be centered around students and what the future will look like. As we start to emerge from our homes, and we start to be around people again, in large crowds, we’ve got to be cognizant as to how we are showing up for one another, how we’re taking care of one another. My hope is that we’ll lean into this notion of empathy with greater intent, and lead always with understanding for others, really seeing one another as human.

The other is our relationship to the environment. Again, huge topic, still trying to wrap my head around that. But I think we need to be very cognizant of the art form’s relation—the art form and I suppose our lives, the way that we are living and working—to the environment around us.

This might seem kind of nebulous, but being prepared. How are organizations preparing for the unexpected? Again, COVID, I think knocked us all on our sides. So not saying that we should be spinning our wheels and thinking of the next pandemic, but how are we being prepared for the unexpected? Are we taking a moment to sort of pause and slow down and reflect and think more long-term? Like three to five years out, where it’s not tied to a strategic plan, but being really thoughtful about how the organization may be moving forward and the choices that we’re making around those plans.

And then I really love this other idea, which is what’s coming up for me as well: this notion of us asking “what if” questions, and really saying, “What if we tried this?” And, “What if this is not possible?” “What if we partnered with X community, what would that look like? How would that feel?” “What if we stopped doing X, Y, Z?” And then I offer that just as planting a seed, because I wonder what we would have tried before COVID may have happened, that would have maybe made this moment in our collective history perhaps a bit easier to move through.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you for focusing the two enormous questions that I just asked you—I appreciate that. I’ll ask a slightly more narrow question now. You are planning the Dance/USA annual conference, which is coming up soon, its second virtual conference. Can you talk a little bit about the goals for this year’s conference and the various topics that it’s going to address?

Kellee Edusei:
Absolutely.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Not that narrow, I guess.

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah. Well, yes. Sort of aligned with some of the things that I have already shared, our goals for Dance/USA convenings always, no matter if they are happening in-person or in the virtual space, is to bring the dance community together, giving folks an opportunity to connect or reconnect, to get re-energized, to ideate with one another, to ask provoking questions of themselves, of their colleagues, to problem solve, to have some fun—like, let’s bring the joy into our work.

I think it’s no surprise, some of the major things that are starting to emerge: COVID effects on the field and the future of the field, no surprise there; emergency preparedness, also probably no surprise there; climate change and sustainability; conversations around equity; marketing and fundraising; and wellness, with a specific focus on how to support mental health in the field. I’m really excited for this year’s conference and I’m sad that we’re not going to be in-person, but I’m really thrilled that we’re going to be able to continuing to create a space for the field to come together for these really important conversations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Zooming way out again. What makes you hopeful about the future of dance right now? You’ve kind of touched on this a little bit already.

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah, I am really hopeful because I believe that there are infinite possibilities for the future. We’ve got an opportunity to make different choices. And I think that those choices can go in many different directions, and there are so many different pathways forward, and I’m excited by that.

I also think that what also gives me hope is that there are individuals in our field that are truly wanting to see different choices being made, that are really centering racial equity, not just in their own personal lives, but in the community, and supporting those who have been marginalized. I am inspired by the activists in our field who eloquently are arousing the field to wake up a bit more to the inequities in our field and encouraging more people to say, no, never again or no, not anymore to racism and institutionalized systems of oppression.

I’m also inspired by how I have witnessed our member community and the performing arts sector just come together in one of the darkest, confusing, complex times in modern history. So how people are really showing up for one another, it’s inspiring. It keeps me getting up every day and being here, present with our members and with the field and really thinking of how can we continue to shift ourselves forward.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s a strange period where we’ve never been more isolated, but it also feels like we’ve never been more connected.

Kellee Edusei:
Yes, absolutely. That is so, so true, so true. And supportive. I can’t tell you how many conversations start off with, “How are you doing?” And not that sense of, “How are you doing and let’s move on very quickly” or—

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. And the answer is, “Fine.”

Kellee Edusei:
Yeah, it’s like, really, how are you doing? And you spend 10, 15 minutes on talking about how you’re really doing, so.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Kellee, thank you so much for sharing your perspective, sharing your insight. It’s really valuable for our listeners. We really appreciate it.

Kellee Edusei:
Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll include links to the COVID impact survey, and to the Dance/USA website to make sure that our listeners can access all of those things. Are there any social handles or any other places that people should go to find out more about Dance/USA and the projects you’re working on?

Kellee Edusei:
Yes. And we can provide those also in the show notes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay, great. We’ll do that. Make it easy. Thank you so much again, Kellee.

Kellee Edusei:
Thank you, Margaret.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Kellee. As promised, we have included the link to the new Dance/USA survey, which you should go take right now, in the episode description, which also links to all of the organization’s various social accounts. For easy reference, the Instagram and Twitter handles are both @danceusaorg. Kellee also asked that we link to an important resource that lays out the characteristics of white supremacy culture as they show up in our organizations. You can find that link in the episode notes as well.

Okay. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Cadence Neenan:
Bye, everyone.