Transcript, Episode 79: Josephine Baker, JoJo Siwa, and New Deal for Broadway

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

Courtney Escoyne:
And I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we will discuss dance star and activist Josephine Baker becoming the first Black woman to be buried in France’s Panthéon, the country’s tomb of heroes, which is a many-layered story, actually. We will get into the history-making New Deal for Broadway, which is an industry-wide agreement on comprehensive reform, recently released by the advocacy organization Black Theatre United. And we will talk about another history-making moment from a different corner of the dance universe, the first same-sex pairing on “Dancing with the Stars” with “Dance Moms” alum JoJo Siwa partnering with a female pro.

So, lots to talk about. But before we get into all of that, drum roll, please…

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m not going to provide one, because that would be bad audio! Just imagine it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right, hypothetical drum roll, please: We have a launch date for the long-awaited Dance Edit Extra! The first official episode of our new premium audio interview series will drop this Saturday, September 4th, on Apple Podcasts. Just a quick refresher: The Edit Extra is a subscription-based series that’s kind of a companion to this podcast. Every other Saturday, you’ll get in-depth interviews with the dance artists who are shaping the headlines that we talk about here. The first Edit Extra episode features the inimitable James Whiteside, and—unsurprisingly, if you know literally anything about James—it is a super good time.

You can find more information about The Dance Edit Extra thedanceedit.com/podcast. Or you can go right on ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts. Just search for The Dance Edit Extra. It should pop right up.

All right. Now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which actually covers two weeks this time—we’re playing a bit of catchup after our mailbag episode last week.

Courtney Escoyne:
“So You Think You Can Dance” alum Serge Onik passed away at age 33. The dancer, teacher, and choreographer competed on “So You Think” in 2014, and later assisted with choreography for “Dancing with the Stars,” worked with US figure skaters on their routines, and taught ballroom at Broadway Dance Center in New York City. He also appeared as a dancer in In the Heights, which released this summer. Just a really shocking, surprising bit of news.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, so shocking. He worked, as you were saying, in so many different corners of the dance world. I think all the headlines were saying, “‘So You Think You Can Dance’ star,” you know, but I mean—resident choreographer for the Knicks City Dancers, he worked with figure skaters as you were talking about, and he was just this beloved teacher. It’s profoundly tragic.

There are no good segues here. But at least this next headline is good news rather than sad news:

Aaliyah Ramirez, the 14-year-old dancer from Indiana who went missing in April, has been located safe in Florida. A huge swath of the dance community rallied around Aaliyah’s family when she was reported missing—there were teachers and fellow dancers who were vigilant about spreading the word across social media. And their campaign actually helped get Ramirez’s story featured on NBC’s “Dateline.” Thank goodness this is the way the story ended, with Aaliyah safe and sound. We still don’t really know what happened here, but Ramirez’s aunt and grandmother have been arrested in connection to her disappearance.

Courtney Escoyne:
And as we cautiously but optimistically approach the fall performance season, an increasing number of performance venues and dance presenters are requiring some combination of vaccination, testing, and masking for audience members. The League of Chicago Theatres, which is a coalition of more than 65 indoor venues, and a number of Seattle organizations, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, are requiring proof of vaccination for audience members, with proof of a negative COVID test being allowed in certain specific cases. Meanwhile, 14 theaters in the Boston area will accept either. All require masks and all are mirroring what we’ve already seen going on and going into effect in New York City and elsewhere. I feel like my inbox over the last couple of weeks has been full of similar announcements from companies all over the country.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, totally. The new normal. We actually did a poll in our newsletter and on our social channels a few weeks ago, asking if the Delta surge has made people more hesitant about attending in-person performances. And a clear majority of respondents said, Yep. Which is totally understandable—I feel the same way. So hopefully these types of requirements will at least offer a little bit of reassurance for those of us who are feeling anxious about going into theaters again.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Because I know I certainly don’t want to keep adding to the dance magazine timeline of canceled performances due to COVID.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Nooo!

Courtney Escoyne:
Still adding to it. It’s been a long time now…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, here is some news that, if you are like me and not a thousand percent up to speed on the musical theater scene, you might not have been aware of, but if you are a thousand percent up to speed, you kind of already knew is happening: There’s a Mystic Pizza musical, happening right now. It’s been in the works for a little bit. In fact, it debuted yesterday at Maine’s open-air Ogunquit Playhouse. The new show is set to a collection of songs from the eighties and nineties—it’s a jukebox musical. It features a cast of Broadway standouts, and it boasts all women in the lead creative positions, including choreographer Liz Ramos. Is it heading to Broadway? We don’t know yet, but it’s a good start.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. Keep an eye on it. And further musical news: NBC’s next live musical production has found its Annie: 12-year-old Selena Smith, who previously performed as young Nala in a national tour of The Lion King. She’ll join Harry Connick Jr. and Taraji P. Henson for the Sergio Trujillo-choreographed production of Annie Live!, which is set to air December 2nd.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yay! That’s awesome. Big congrats to her.

Here is some hopeful news out of Aspen: A new ballet company has kind of risen from the ashes of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which dissolved its performing arm earlier this year. Called DanceAspen, this new contemporary ballet troupe was founded by several former ASFB performers. And its first program, called “The Pieces Fall,” will premiere September 17th at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. It’ll feature works by Ben Needham-Wood, Danielle Rowe, and Penny Saunders. Definitely an encouraging development.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. And it’s great to see them using those connections of contemporary choreographers that they already have in place, and the existing infrastructure that’s been built in Aspen. So, sending them all the best.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, positive vibes. Jazz hands.

Courtney Escoyne:
Spirit fingers! [laughter]

The great artistic director shuffle of 2021 continues, with the news that Mark Brew will be stepping away from his position as artistic director of AXIS Dance Company. The integrated company’s last performances with Brew at the helm are slated to take place in October, and will also mark its first in-person performances since 2019. AXIS alum Nadia Adame will succeed Brew, who has held the position since 2017.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I mean, just so much leadership change in dance right now. It is sort of reassuring that they already have a successor in place, and she knows the company well, so there won’t be too much instability during the transition. And the fact that the new director is a woman is also exciting.

Courtney Escoyne:
Love to see it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Speaking of which, here is some news that broke just before we sat down to record: Francesca Harper has been appointed artistic director of Ailey II. Courtney is doing a chair dance right now.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m smiling so big. I can’t even tell you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Harper danced professionally with Ballett Frankfurt and on Broadway, and has taught and choreographed extensively. Her resumé includes works for both Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey II, as well as her own company, The Francesca Harper Project. She is not only a former Ailey School student, but also the daughter of the late Denise Jefferson, who led the Ailey School for decades. And her appointment comes after the firing of former Ailey II director Troy Powell last summer for alleged sexual misconduct. So this is the beginning of a new chapter for Ailey II. And Harper could not be more deserving of this position. It just fits.

Courtney Escoyne:
Those lucky dancers. As I said, I can’t stop smiling. Such great news. Just, congrats, Francesca!

And our last headline item today is an obituary for Jeffrey Steven Watson, the influential Baltimore-based ballet dancer and educator who died earlier this summer. Watson was a graduate of Point Park University who danced with the old Baltimore Ballet and on tour with Aretha Franklin before joining Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1986. Later in his career, he returned to Maryland where he danced with Maryland Ballet and taught for Baltimore City schools.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He was such a big part of the Baltimore dance scene for such a long time.

So in our first discussion segment today, we are going to talk about Josephine Baker, the hugely influential performer whose accomplishments even today remain widely underappreciated. Baker was born in America, but became a huge star in France’s music hall scene in the early 20th century. She was later a French Resistance agent and a civil rights activist. She died in 1975, but she’s in the news right now because it was just announced that her remains will be laid to rest in the vaunted Panthéon in Paris. Baker is the first Black woman, the first entertainer, only the fifth woman period, and one of very few foreign-born figures to receive that honor.

So it sounds like a righted wrong that Baker would at last be recognized in this way, a sort of poignant, pointed gesture. But the story is a bit more complicated than that. And we also just wanted to take this chance to talk more about Baker’s life and dancing, because again, they don’t often get the spotlight they deserve.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So Baker was born in the United States in 1906, got into performing as a fairly young teenager, actually, and was in the vaudeville circuit. At age 19 she moved to Paris and ended up becoming a star of the scene there. She danced for the Folies Bergère, very famously. She renounced her United States citizenship in 1937 and became a French citizen. But as Margaret mentioned, later in life she was a huge proponent of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. And she was very open about the fact that a huge part of the reason why she relocated and why she remained in France was she felt much more welcomed there as a Black performer and much less discriminated against as a Black woman in France as compared to the United States. And she said as much in interviews that she did pretty much right up until the end of her life in 1975.

Now, there is a lot of—the thing she tends to be remembered for is the banana dance that she did. And there has been some criticism over the years of, well, she was just playing into stereotypes of Black performers that were very common in vaudeville at the time, she was just playing into that, which some people looked down on. Others make the argument that she did it in a very knowing way, in a way that was kind of pointing out like, “Hey, this is the stereotype. I’m going to play into it. But you know that I know that this isn’t what it should be.” It’s a very complicated history and story surrounding her.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And also a complicated story in terms of this more recent news about her burial at the Panthéon—which, pardon my horrendous French accent throughout this episode, by the way. [laughter]

So, why did it take so long for Baker to earn this kind of recognition? And why did it take a campaign led by a white man? Because it was the writer Laurent Kupferman who led the campaign to make it happen. Those are some questions people have been asking, and they tie into a larger conversation about what types of people and what types of work are seen as “valuable” by the white European establishment. And that, of course, is analogous to a conversation that’s also happening in the United States.

So in both of those environments, there’s been a long-standing bias against the performing arts, and especially against performers of color, in which their work hasn’t been seen as serious. It hasn’t been seen as deserving of a high level of respect, despite its often enormous cultural impact.

And it gets even more complicated, too. After the news about Baker broke, some journalists were saying that one of the reasons that she made the cut, so to speak, at the Panthéon is because she was not French-born. So she isn’t perceived as a threat to white French standards of beauty and performance—she sort of existed outside of them. And that’s perhaps the reason why even people like Marine Le Pen, the extreme far-right politician, were on board with this idea. So while this Pantheon burial is historic, it might not represent a great step forward in racial equity for French people of color.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well, and I think there’s also a question of—there’s what, 80 people buried at the Panthéon? So this is huge news. But I think there is this question of, okay, this is a way of propping up this sort of egalitarian ideal that France and particularly Paris likes to hold up of, “Well, color doesn’t matter,” which in a lot of ways is actually a very old-fashioned view to us in the United States. So kind of the idea of, well, by making this move, it’s propping up this ideal that doesn’t actually play out in modern French society, particularly for artists…I mean, we’ve talked a lot about what’s been going on at the Paris Opéra Ballet over the last couple of years, for example.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, Josephine Baker deserves all the flowers. So neither of us mean to take away from that in any regard. But I guess the hope is that her Panthéon burial sparks further moments of reflection, and a re-evaluation of the way our cultural history is told, and who’s placed at the center of it, and how we assign value to artists and their contributions. And not just in Europe, but of course here too.

Which is actually not a bad segue into our second segment, which is about another major piece of news concerning the recognition and inclusion of Black performers. That is the recently announced New Deal for Broadway. So, after a five month summit with a whole bunch of major Broadway leaders—I mean, theater owners, producers, unions, creatives, everybody on all sides—the advocacy organization Black Theatre United released this New Deal agreement last week. And it outlines extensive, wide-ranging reforms, some of which can be implemented before Broadway even reopens in a couple of weeks, and some that will be rolled out over the next few years.

The changes address issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, access, and belonging. And they’re mostly focused on Black theater professionals, although the idea is that over time, the commitments outlined in the New Deal will lead to greater equity and inclusion for everyone in theater. So let’s talk about some of the most noteworthy reforms here.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So this is a lengthy document that was put out. It’s about 18 pages, but it is freely available on the internet. And we super encourage everyone to go check that out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s in the show notes.

Courtney Escoyne:
But getting into a bit of a broader review here: A lot of organizations and folks have signed this, including the owners and operators of all 41 Broadway theaters, the Broadway League, Actors’ Equity. So while these pledges aren’t legally enforceable, the idea is that by signing to this, they’re going to try to hold each other accountable for these new measures. And we are looking at reforms and pledges that impact productions basically from beginning to end, from the makeup of creative teams, to the use of sensitivity readers for new scripts, to the language used to describe vocal requirements and casting calls, to having conversations early in casting about actor’s comfort levels with alterations to their natural hair textures. We are looking at a commitment to never having an all-white creative team on a production, full stop, and to having racial sensitivity coaches for shows that deal with issues that have racial sensitivities. Also, three of Broadway’s big commercial landlords have committed to renaming their theaters after Black artists. It is symbolic, but that symbol matters, because Broadway in and of itself in a lot of ways is just a big symbol, as well as big business. There’s other things, like no more unpaid internships, which we don’t even need to get into the reasons why that’s super gatekeeper-y. I mean, there’s so much in here.

Something that’s worth noting: There are a number of different unions that are not currently signed onto this, notably including the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Laura Penn, the director of that, said that they were committed to the principles, but they opted not to sign because they felt that its scope was beyond the purview of what they do. I think there’s a hope that more unions and more producers and more creatives are going to sign on to this as time passes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Over time. Yeah. So, that whole list of reforms it all sounds hopeful and positive and necessary, so necessary. But—I’m such a Debbie Downer today—I do think it’s worth wondering aloud about how these reforms are going to play out in the current, incredibly unstable Broadway environment.

For example, there is an unprecedented number of plays out right now by Black writers, which is fantastic and very much in line with the New Deal’s goals. But are they essentially “guinea pig” shows, ways for producers to test the waters as they try figure out whether people will feel safe returning to theaters and try to figure out how to bring in different types of audiences? And if they end up failing because of the pandemic, will that then make it harder for people of color to maintain these footholds that they’ve secured?

Courtney Escoyne:
So, to get into nerd world a little bit for a second.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Please do.

Courtney Escoyne:
That’s the same question that me and friends of mine are asking right now. As you’re hearing this, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is coming out, this weekend, the first Asian-led Marvel movie. It’s huge. It’s such a big deal. But it’s also coming at a time when a lot of people are really nervous about going to movie theaters. So if this film doesn’t perform to typical Marvel standards at the box office, is it going to be written off as a failed experiment in producing an Asian-led film, rather than a casualty of the pandemic? And so, yeah, I think that is a completely valid concern, that while COVID-19 has created space and the conditions for us to stop and reevaluate theater, we are also still living with COVID very much present in our lives. And so is there going to be time allowed for this kind of work to actually really take root?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, totally. To bring things back around to the positive: I do think it’s fantastic that Black Theatre United is getting everyone to agree to these reforms now in a public way, because often diversity initiatives are some of the first things to go when finances get tight. That’s true well beyond Broadway, of course. But this is a way to sort of ensure that positive change is a priority, no matter what this next year or so looks like financially.

Courtney Escoyne:
And also just seeing that, at first, I was like, “Oh, okay, they’re going to be saying they’re hiring DEI officers, and it’s just theoretical.” And then once I actually read, I was like, “Oh, this is concrete. These are actual actionable steps. This isn’t just theoretical.” And also people are actually signing on to it. It’s huge.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It feels very real. Yeah. And an excellent model that hopefully other parts of the performing arts world can tap into as well.

All right. So finally today, we want to talk about some news that I think a lot of us have been expecting for a bit now, although that doesn’t make it less exciting: “Dancing with the Stars” is going to feature its first same-sex partnership this season. “Dance Moms” alum and social media star and hair bow queen JoJo Siwa, who revealed earlier this year that she is pansexual and dating a woman, will be paired with a female pro on the show.

So for context, this comes after “Strictly Come Dancing,” which is the BBC cousin of “Dancing with the Stars,” paired boxer Nicola Adams with Katya Jones last year. “Strictly” is also going to have an all-male couple in its new season. And actually a same-sex couple won the Danish version of the show back in 2019. So yes, “Dancing with the Stars” is a little bit late here. But still, this is big, interesting news for multiple reasons.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I mean, the thing that struck me about this really is that “Dancing with the Stars” is so, for lack of a better term, it’s so accessible. It’s right there. You can just turn on the TV and it’s there. And I think it draws viewers from a lot of different places, because they draw their stars from so many different arenas. And JoJo has a really strong following and also a really young following. And the thing that I keep thinking about is that, when you’re growing up, right, you see movies and television shows and there’s the scenes of school dances or weddings. And people are dancing and it’s romantic or it’s dramatic or whatever it needs to be. But you think about it, right? You say, “Oh, I want to get dressed up and go dancing with someone I really like.” And you don’t have to go that far back for there to never be any same-sex representation in that. Or if there is, it’s, oh, they’re dancing outside the gym in the parking lot. And it’s very cute, but it’s also extremely sad because it’s that way because homophobia exists.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Because they can’t be inside. Yeah, exactly.

Courtney Escoyne:
So I just, like, the thought of kids either seeking out “Dancing with the Stars” or just happening to turn it on, and seeing JoJo Siwa with whoever her female pro is, and that being presented as a normal thing that is equally deserving of being celebrated and seen, not something that you need to be awkward about—it’s just queerness as fact. And not just for queer kids, but also for kids who aren’t in the LGBTQ community, just seeing this presented as a normal thing. That is game-changing. This is why representation matters, because it shifts culture and it shifts the environments that kids are going to be growing up in, so that hopefully they feel safe enough to be able to come out, and they feel safe enough to be supportive allies if they are straight.

This just…it means so much. And I didn’t have “JoJo Siwa becomes a pansexual icon” on my 2021 Bingo card, but you know what, I’m here for it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Let’s do it. Bingo! Yeah, when I heard this news, that made me a little bit teary, too, the thought of these six to 10 year old Siwanators—because that’s absolutely what they’re called—

Courtney Escoyne:
What?!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes. Yeah. But all of them coming to “Dancing with the Stars” for the first time and just seeing the same-sex pairing as a normal part of the show’s fabric, that’s just part of what “Dancing with the Stars” is to them—that is such a beautiful thing to think about, as you much more articulately explained.

I mean, zooming out a little bit here. This is very much in line with what’s happening in the larger ballroom community. There’ve been a lot of debates about rethinking the ways gender is built into technique and built into the rules of competition. I think it’s worth noting that last summer, the National Dance Council of America, which is the official governing council of traditional ballroom dance in the United States, they redefined a ballroom couple, not as a man and a woman, but as a leader and a follower, regardless of the sex or gender of the dancer. So this is not a blip or a publicity stunt. This is a sea change that’s happening all across the ballroom community.

There’s also another conversation happening here about JoJo’s prior dance experience and whether or not that gives her an unfair advantage, which I personally find intensely annoying. I don’t know about you, Courtney.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know about it, cause it’s also a thing, right? Whenever it’s a figure skater or a gymnast those same conversations crop up there as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally. I mean, I don’t know. For starters, she does not have any ballroom training, which is kind of a big part of the equation there. But as you said, she’s far from the first “Dancing with the Stars” contestant to have a dance or dance adjacent background. And if you look at how those contestants have fared in the past, they didn’t all kill it. Heather Morris, who has a much more extensive dance resumé than Jojo does, she only made it a few weeks on the show.

So anyway, okay. Enough with that mini rant. I think JoJo actually only found out who her partner was on Tuesday of this week, and we, audience members, are not going to find out until the show’s premiere on September 20th. But I have to say I’m personally more than a little biased in favor of Dance Magazine‘s current cover star, Britt Stewart.

Courtney Escoyne:
I had the same thought! I want it to be Britt so badly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, what we’re really saying here is, make sure you tune in on the 20th to see her ballroom debut. It’s such a big deal. It’s so great. And it’s so overdue.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes!

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. That’s it from us this week. Thanks everyone for joining us. 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.