Transcript, Episode 89: Dance as a Workplace, Body Hair Battles, and Indigenous Enterprise

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

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And on the docket this week, we have a look at how to create healthy workplace environments in the dance world, which is a complicated issue that COVID has now added yet more wrinkles to. We will discuss dance’s issues with body hair, and why what seems like a relatively small thing is actually a very loaded thing. And we will talk about Indigenous Enterprise, which is reimagining what a native American dance troupe can be, and bringing that vision to New York City’s Joyce Theater this week.

Before we get to all of that, though, we wanted to flag the new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, which is dropping this Saturday, two days from now, on Apple Podcasts. We’re somehow at episode six already, believe it or not. This time around, we’ll hear from “So You Think You Can Dance” champion Gaby Diaz, who has been able to bridge that gap between the concert and commercial dance worlds. And she worked on two just massive upcoming musical films—on both tick, tick…BOOM! and West Side Story—and had completely different experiences on the two sets, which was just fascinating to hear about. So we hope you’ll tune in. You can subscribe to The Dance Edit Extra on Apple Podcasts, and you can learn a little bit more about the series at thedanceedit.com/podcast.

Alrighty, time to officially kick things off now with our usual dance headline rundown, which is starting with some very dark news this week.

Amy Brandt:
Very tragic news. A young dancer is among the victims in last week’s deadly mass casualty event at Travis Scott’s concert at the Astroworld Festival in Texas. 16-year-old Brianna Rodriguez, a junior at Heights High School in Houston, was part of her school’s dance team. Her family said on social media, “Dancing was her passion, and now she’s dancing her way to heaven’s pearly gates.” It’s just very, very sad.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s incredibly sad. And if you’ve been on social media or otherwise following this story, you probably heard that Scott himself has been facing a lot of criticism after the concert, which leads to our next news item. Because in the wake of all of that, Epic Games pulled Scott’s dance emote, his “Out West” dance emote, from its Fortnite daily item shop. And that was an emote that first appeared on Fortnite last summer and had been periodically available—about once a month, they would bring it back in their shop. On Sunday night, it was re-added to the shop, possibly to coincide with the concert, it’s unclear. But shortly after that, the entire item shop disappeared without explanation. And then the next night it re-appeared without that emote. Epic hasn’t commented on any of this yet, but…it’s a big mess.

Amy Brandt:
Scottish Ballet has announced that it is making adjustments to its annual Nutcracker to address racial stereotypes in the ballet’s second act. The decision comes after the company did an anti-racism and diversity review of its repertoire. The company will specifically be changing the Chinese and Arabian variations to remove elements of caricature in its costumes and choreography. And in another interesting twist, Drosselmeyer will also be played by either a man or a woman in alternating casts.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, shout out to Final Bow for Yellowface, which I feel like, we are just perpetually doing that. They’ve just been obviously a key force in this movement—Scottish Ballet signed their pledge, and this seems to be one of the results of that commitment. But, yeah, I’m also very into the idea of Drosselmeyer as a non-gender-specific character.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Progress.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here is some more happy news: Roxane Gay, the influential author and educator and also possibly the best person on Twitter, has been appointed president of the board of Performance Space New York. Gay has actually been a member of the board for a year and a half. And this all reflects the organization’s artist-centric approach. It stated that it has a goal of building a board made up of at least 50% artists, instead of your usual wealthy people who may or may not be involved with the arts. Really excited to see how Gay is going to help shape Performance Space.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. That’s exciting news.

Wicked is coming to the big screen, and casting for the musical’s two key characters have been announced. Cynthia Erivo will play Elphaba, while pop star Ariana Grande will play Glinda. Production of the film, directed by John Chu, starts next summer. So it’s going to be a while still, but still very exciting.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I love when people who really know their way around a Broadway musical get cast in these musical film projects. I always forget that Ariana Grande was in 13 on Broadway when she was 15, I think.

Amy Brandt:
Wow. I didn’t know that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. And then of course, Cynthia Erivo, I mean, is a Tony winner.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I was going to say Tony, nominated for an Oscar.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Will have an EGOT at some point.

Amy Brandt:
Did she get a Grammy as well? I feel like she has a bunch of them.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think so. Yeah, totally. And I also feel like John M. Chu is such a great director of dance for the camera that I’m hoping his take on Wicked will emphasize choreography, because I feel like there’s a lot of potential there, too.

All right. So for our first discussion segment today, we’ve got a piece that Dance Magazine just posted about what it takes to create a healthy working environment for dancers. This story is actually mostly a service piece; it’s discussing how choreographers with limited resources can set up environments where everyone feels safe and respected and supported. But it’s a crucially important topic, because even the largest and best-funded dance environments are often not treated or thought of the way more traditional workspaces are. So, how do we fix that? And then of course COVID is now also a factor in this equation. How can we create COVID protocols that all performers and crew are comfortable with? I mean, Amy, you were saying that you just nodded along emphatically with this whole piece.

Amy Brandt:
I did. I did. I freelanced for 10 years. So I worked with a lot of different choreographers. I’ve worked with a lot of early-career directors and choreographers. And some of the things that they pointed out in the article, just—that dance is work. Because often when you’re first starting out, you’re hiring your friends, and that can kind of create a casual atmosphere. But I think it is important to keep that sense of professionalism when you are hiring dancers, having a contract or at least a letter of agreement that spells out your rehearsal schedule, your performances and locations, the pay rates and schedules. Even if it is just to say, “I will not be providing health insurance,” so that the artist knows what they’re getting into, because of course resources are always an issue when you are any kind of dance company.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s just an establishment of expectations and ground rules.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And I thought it was great that this article pointed out the Dance Artists’ National Collective, or DANC, that they have a template that you can work off of if this is something you’re new to. But it is really important, because I was always trying to navigate, okay, what check is coming in when? And how many hours of work does this… If you’re getting a fee, what does that mean in terms of the amount of time I’m putting in? What is my hourly rate, basically, based on this fee, and does it make sense?

But also just understanding what the protocol is. If there is an injury, if the show is canceled, especially in times of COVID, do you get compensated or not? Sometimes it can be very loosey goosey. I’ve just seen and experienced some things. Do you have enough financial backing to put on the show that you want to produce? Is it too ambitious for what you have in your financial coffers right now? If so, then don’t risk getting in some sort of crisis where you can’t pay your dancers.

And I really appreciated the whole section on consent, especially with nudity and dance. I’ve seen and experienced that being treated very casually. I think that is something that needs to be communicated very clearly at the beginning. And if the choreographer’s vision changes and they want to instill that, if they want to have nudity or very intimate choreography or whatnot in their piece, you still need to have a conversation with your artist. You shouldn’t just expect them to be like, “Okay. I’ll do whatever you want.” I think it still needs to be a conversation. They need to feel comfortable saying, “No, I can’t do that.” They shouldn’t feel pressured to do something they’re not comfortable doing.

So actually I really appreciated this article because I just related to it in a lot of ways based on my own experiences as a dancer in the freelance circuit.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And then now we have all these new COVID issues to think about. There was a New York Times story last week about how Radio City performers were concerned about the COVID rules for the Christmas Spectacular, which it sounds like requires everyone to be vaccinated, but then doesn’t also require testing, which is what all the Broadway shows and some other big performing arts groups are doing. New York City Ballet is doing that. And, yeah, in those kinds of situations where the scale is larger, where you’re dealing with hundreds of performers and thousands of audience members, those stakes are really high. So making sure that everybody, first of all, understands what your rules are, and second of all, is on board with them, they feel safe, is a critical part of the process.

I don’t know. I feel like this is one of our recurring themes: Open communication is always the key.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I know. I have to say I was kind of surprised. I mean, I understand that there’s so many employees involved in this show. But I was sort of surprised that they would kind of risk a potential breakout.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Well, yeah. When you think about the potential financial repercussions of that, having to close down the show. Who knows? There’s so many moving parts. But in the show notes, we’ve linked both the Dance Magazine piece, as Amy mentioned it has a ton of helpful advice on the subject, and then also the New York Times piece about what’s going on at Radio City, so you can check those out.

Okay. Our next discussion segment today is about body hair. And it is taking all of my willpower right now not to do some kind of ridiculous hair pun right here, so, you’re welcome, I’m not doing it. The Guardian published a story last week about dance’s problem with body hair. Because the assumption right now, if you’re a dancer in the vast majority of professional dance settings, is that your body will basically be hairless. Often that goes for both women and men.

And it seems like a relatively minor thing. It’s just hair. But this story has kind of exploded in the dance world this week, because actually there are pretty direct connections between dance’s issue with hair and its issues with sexism and racism and the wider policing of bodies.

Amy Brandt:
Personally, I kind of related a lot to the ballet dancers—obviously since I’m a former ballet dancer—in the story, because a lot of them were like, “It’s never even occurred to me to not shave my armpits before a performance.” I don’t see that being normalized in ballet anytime soon personally.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, yeah, ballet is probably the most conservative setting in that sense. But even there, maybe we’re not going to see armpit hair and pubic hair on ballet stages anytime soon—but how about the hair on dancers’ heads? Because this story also addresses that too.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. On that, there has been some—I have to say New York City Ballet’s season recently, this was kind of something that came up with a lot of audience members, was that Tyler Angle shaved his head. And he went very out proudly bald on stage, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him do that. And I think a lot of people were surprised at first, but it made you question, well, if his hairline is receding, why shouldn’t he be able to shave his head as opposed to gluing on a wig every night, you know?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Why is that the only, quote, unquote “solution” to that quote unquote “problem”? Well, and it also made us think about, why do we expect male ballet dancers to have luscious heads of hair? What is it about this presentation of male virility, full head of hair—why does that matter? It shouldn’t matter in the end.

Amy Brandt:
And there were also… I’d seen several a male dancers had grown their hair out or grown facial hair. There wasn’t a total consistent look on stage. So it was just sort of an… It just made me curious as to the conversations that were being had within the company about that.

Similarly, in Chaconne, the first movement of Chaconne, the women all wear their hair very long. And India Bradley and Savannah Durham, two Black women in the company, wore their hair natural. And that was another thing I was wondering about. In previous years, would they have felt the need to get extensions or to straighten their hair or to alter their hair in any other way? That was very encouraging to see on stage, I think.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, there is some of that in Michaela DePrince’s cover story in Pointe now too, talking about how she’s at Boston Ballet now, she’s wearing her hair in braids, and that’s totally okay. Whereas in previous times that was not an acceptable—quote unquote, heavy quotation marks!—”acceptable” hairstyle.

Amy Brandt:
I myself wore hair extensions in Chaconne when I performed. And I wasn’t told to. It’s just I put it upon myself because my hair was shorter and I thought, “Oh, well, I’m not going to look right.” So I went to some wig store and bought all these clip in hair extensions and wore them on stage and was just praying one of them wouldn’t fall out.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Please don’t fall out! [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And then you have to do this quick costume change and put your hair up in a bun. It was a mess.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It’s funny too how many of these expectations are internalized, and become pressures that dancers then put upon themselves.

I mean I think, and the story acknowledges this, that first of all, when we’re talking about the homogeneity of bodies on stage, body hair is not the biggest issue here. But I think the issue is that body hair should be a personal choice. It shouldn’t be a top-down edict, “you must” anything. And that’s what ties into the idea that in a lot of the concert in dance world, especially the ballet-oriented part of that world, you’re taught that you don’t really have agency over your own body. You’re told how you should look and what you should do and where, down to the most minute detail, including your body hair.

I think also a lot of society’s like, “ww, gross” feelings about body hair are gendered. Very few people care about men’s armpit hair, but the idea of a ballerina specifically with armpit hair—the fact that all of us are like, “Well, that could never happen.” We’ve got to start at least sort of beginning to break down that idea.

So, yeah, it’s actually a really complicated thing to unpack. And Lyndsey Winship’s story in The Guardian does a good job looking at various angles of it. So we’ve linked that in the show notes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Finally today, we would like to talk about Indigenous Enterprise, which is the Native American dance troupe that’s performing in New York City this week. And before we do, just full disclosure, neither Amy or I are Native American dance experts. While we are both planning to see the company perform this week, we have not yet seen them live. But we did see them on “World of Dance” last year, when they became the first Native American group to appear on the show. And then we also did see their music video Stand N Rock from a few years ago, which they made with Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas, to support the halting of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Last week, the New York Times published a story talking with these young members of the group about how Indigenous Enterprise is both educating audiences about Native traditions, and then also incorporating some of the hip hop influences that they grew up with into those Native traditions.

Amy Brandt:
I’m really excited to see this group at The Joyce. I’m hoping to see it this weekend. And I found the article really interesting. It really kind of gave you a nice broad overview of how the company developed, first of all, and how most of the dancers started. Most of these traditions, they learned as children at powwows. And I love how they talk about… One of the women in the company actually traveled to these pow wows every weekend, and competing and developing quite a reputation for herself.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. What I liked about this piece is that it highlighted the fact that they’re creating art that feels truest to who they are as people, all of their various facets as people. So, they grew up, as you said, attending pow wows, studying traditional Native dances. They also grew up going to Coachella and listening to hip-hop music. And you see all of those influences in their performances, connecting to all those different aspects of their own identities.

It seems like that kind of approach is just what comes out of these dancers naturally. But it ends up being an especially powerful kind of Native American representation, and an especially powerful way to educate people who maybe don’t know much about Native American dance, but they know hip hop, and that’s a point of connection for them. They’re presenting these dance forms not just as forms rooted in history, but as forms connected to and relevant in the immediate present.

Not that there’s anything wrong with historically-oriented dance performance, I should clarify—that’s not what I mean. But I liked Taboo’s quote about that in the story, saying they “are erasing misconceptions of what a Native person is today. But it’s not talking down to you or at you. No, it’s like, ‘Why don’t you rock with us and let’s learn together?'” I thought that sort of summed it up nicely.

Mostly we’re excited to see them in person at the Joyce this week. And in the meantime, please do go take a look at the New York Times piece. There was also a Dance Magazine piece about their run on “World of Dance” that we’ve linked in the show notes as well. We hope you can check it out.

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

Amy Brandt:
See you later, everybody.