No More Universal Suckage: The Case for Dance/USA

Skybetter keynoting at the Houston Arts Partners Conference.

As a manager of a various artistic and entrepreneurial ventures, I’m periodically invited by universities to discuss the “real world” with soon-to-be graduates. I routinely find that the ritual of the senior seminar provides a safe, structured context to convince students that their poor life choices (such as pursuing a degree in the arts) are not in fact terminal. Such conversations are divided into three sequential parts. First, we articulate the litany of things that suck about the students’ chosen field. Then, deploying various historical and critical lenses, we discuss how it is that things came to suck, and why they suck as hard as they do. Finally — and this is the crucial part — we create a work plan that stipulates specifically what the students are going to do together in order to intervene in said suckage. Implied is the hypothesis that bitching doesn’t make the world better, but fostering consensus around things that suck permits us to collectively imagine otherwise, and thus bring about positive change.

Skybetter keynoting at the Houston Arts Partners Conference.
Photo Credit: Houston Arts Partners Conference

Professionally, my background is in the field of concert dance, and I was trained to become a choreographer. Implicit to my education in ballet technique and history was a simultaneous (if unspoken) conditioning to not question authority, and to never complain. I was taught that inquiring how it was that so many prominent dance historical figures were sexual predators was rude, just as I was taught that if I practiced my pirouettes I’d find a job as a dancer that came with health insurance. (In dance, mythology and technical training are one and the same.) Being taught not to question the status quo has long seemed disingenuous, given how we mythologize the “radicals” of dance history, and especially insomuch as there is an embarrassment of riches of things that just really suck about American dance. With our broadly despicable labor practices, systemic race, class and ability issues, titanic and perpetual gender inequities, rampant undercapitalization and frequently parasitic management culture, a lack of things to complain about has never been something one could complain about.

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The dance field thus offers innumerable opportunities for complaining, and is proportionally rich in arenas in need of interventative change. Where does one start? At any stage in one’s career, how can a citizen of the world learn about the true complexity of the dance ecology, in all its regional and political variance, and then access the professionalizing resources, human capital and community interest to act on it? Where is the dance community’s ongoing, open senior seminar, where one can create consensus around endemic issues in the dance world that suck really hard, and then work collectively to make things suck less? What is the first step to making the dance world you wish already existed?

Simple. You join Dance/USA.

Dance/USA is the national service organization for dance. It advocates for dance groups at the legislative level, and partners with regional and national affiliate organizations (like Dance/NYC and Opera America) to create a national agenda for the American performing arts sector. Dance/USA’s flagship program is an annual conference, starting today in Minneapolis, which convenes hundreds of nerds, dancers, consultants, recluses, historians, choreographers, drinking groups and managers every year to talk shop. There’s the usual conference-y stuff, like grandstanding speeches and $7 lattes, but the real imperative is also the most obvious. This is the only time every year where the entire national dance community can commiserate, palaver and affect change.

Now lest you be concerned that this blog post is an advertisement for Dance/USA, let me put your fears to rest. It totally is.

I am a proud member and fiduciary of the organization, a member of its Executive and Trustees Committees, and Founding Chairman of its Technology Committee. This is my eighth year as a board member, and I owe it — and the people who constellate around it — nearly every professional opportunity I’ve been bestowed. Dance/USA is how I came of age in the dance world, and as someone who wants to make that world suck less, the organization’s convenings are as crucial and they are irreplaceable. Simply put, Dance/USA brings people together like nothing else can. I am an ardent fan and every year gladly renew my membership and tithe to the cause. And I want you to join me.

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It’s not a perfect organization, of course. I frequently wish it was louder and much faster, and that it had the technological capacity to muscularly take on the innumerable slings and arrows that perpetually buffet our field. (Free People-gate haranguing from the outside, Sugarplum-gate from enemies within.) Yet it is my belief that the organization has grown exponentially more effective over the last decade, and I serve on the Technology Committee specifically to help Dance/USA (and by extension, the dance world) become more effective at such a deployment of technology. While not poetry, it is the truth: anything that eventually attains greatness must first be made to suck less.

As a field, we are insufferably and unproductively polite. We bury each other under habitual platitudes and gurl-your-show-was-fierce-s, and then wonder why the choreography isn’t better, and why we have to physically drag people to our shows, and why our dance groups implode one by one by one by one. There are not many safe spaces where we can even potentially be honest with each other, candid with one another, toast to each others’ successes and failures, and actually, just maybe, stand a chance to learn. For me, Dance/USA conferences are just that safe space. In my decade of work in the field, I’ve never found anything else like it.

If you’re passionate about dance, love the form and the field, and want to usher into existence a better, more equitable dance future, you should totally join Dance/USA. If you can hold at bay the jaded, lazy snark of our time, and want to work like hell with your colleagues to affect change, than you should join Dance/USA. If you can’t make it to Minneapolis for this year’s conference, follow the hashtag, #DUSAConf, throw down on the Facebook and the Twitter, and make yourself heard. Let’s not be content to be weak and disorganized but instead strive to become vibrant, more effective advocates. Dance/USA is like any political movement: a feat of ineffectual virtuosity when it’s just some of us, but most effective when it’s all of us.