small strokes of listening – a few reflections from the Dance/USA Annual Conference

Last week I attended the Dance/USA annual conference, held this year in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and ODC.  I was able to attend thanks to the Institute for Leadership Training, a new initiative of Dance/USA which is a mentorship program for dance artists and administrators.  I posted some write-ups of take-aways from specific sessions for our friends at Sky/Nova, and those reflections (along with some juicy video interviews shot at the conference), can be found at the Sky/Nova app site.

On the Friday night of the conference, June 29, I went to the Joe Goode show at Z Space, When We Fall Apart.  In some text early in the work, Goode explains that he’s writing, but the letters are actually “small strokes of listening.”  There were a couple of incidents at the conference that highlighted the importance of listening, for me.  How can we dance and listen at the same time?  Are we really listening to each other?  Whose voices are being ignored and whose are being amplified?

The first incident came early in conference activities, on Thursday night at Keith Hennessy’s performance of Turbulence at CounterPULSE.  While the performance was going on, an audience member, Marcel Foster, was speaking with one of the performers, about her thoughts about the work and how much freedom she felt she had in the process of creation.  The performer, Julie Phelps, and Foster decided that Hennessy would be open to having their discussion extend into the general performance space.  They had a brief exchange with a microphone where the bottom line seemed to be that Phelps felt she had some degree of influence and autonomy in the creative process, but maybe not as much as she would have liked or expected.

Foster asked once, “did people in the audience hear that?”  From the back row I nodded vigorously and hooted, but couldn’t see anyone else responding.  Foster asked again, “did everyone hear that?”  Again I verbalized my witnessing/hearing, but again, couldn’t tell if anyone else had.  I’m not blaming anyone in the audience, there were a lot of elements competing for attention, but it did make me wonder: what are we missing?  How do we effectively call attention to the issues we think are important?  How do we have a meaningful conversation even when circumstances are difficult?

The second incident that highlighted the importance of listening came at the end of the official conference activities.  Entitled “20/20 Vision: A Community Forum,” and moderated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, 7 artists were selected to share their work in a slideshow presentation.  Following the presentation, the artists were brought back on stage and it seemed there was about 5-10 minutes to have a quick Q&A before the conference closed for the year.  Questions about diversity and race and Dance/USA’s role in the field were raised, with numerous voices frustrated that such a crucial discussion wasn’t given a real place at the table.

The atmosphere in the theater had been a little sleepy, with over-saturated conference attendees at the end of a long few days and dim lights, but now the air was crackling.  Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Dance/USA Executive Director Amy Fitterer both responded to the audience and tried to provide some closing thoughts, but to my surprise there was one final performance scheduled, by the traditional Tahitian dance company Te Mana O Te Ra.  They gave a spirited performance, but the unfortunate effect was the discussion had been silenced by a dance.  The irony was heightened even further as the house lights came on and the ushers begged us all to leave to the strains of the 80s hit “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.  At the moment, it seemed like a blithe anthem to dance, no troublesome issues there.  It was clear that everyone in the room wanted more space and time for the discussion, but the theater had another event booked in the space in a few minutes, and the conference itself had already gone into overtime.

And so I was left wondering again, how and when do we listen to each other as a dance field?  How can we create spaces that have room both for dancing and for discussing?  Bamuthi asked what questions we would be taking home with us, which ones we would be taking back into our communities and translating.  Here are some that I’m still sitting with, and riding the bus with, and taking with me as I fall asleep.

How can we be both lovely and real? (Thanks to Kevin Iega Jeff from Deeply Rooted Dance Theater for his comments that led to this question.)

What does our field look like 50 years from now and how are we building towards that picture?

What are the questions we’re not asking?

Borrowing a couple from our hallmark Dance Exchange Four Questions:

Who gets to dance?

Why does it matter?

Are we looking at the forest or the trees in our national conversations?  Are we looking at the world wide web or getting lost in the pixels?

Borrowing from Simon Sinek, everyone wants to feel like they belong.  How do we create this feeling of belonging for as many folks as possible? (in our audiences, in our performances, in our field)  And are we really seriously committed to doing so?

Are we serving cultural institutions or artists and art?

How can we train ourselves and each other to be more effective story-tellers, connectors, communicators?

How can we move forward and get smarter together?

What are the best forums for having the meaty discussions around charged topics like race or gender?

How can we best take advantage of this rare and precious time when there are many of us gathered in one physical spot?

How can we effectively highlight work in a format that is not a showcase?

What does it mean to be an explicitly national service organization in an increasingly globalized world?

What are our shared values?

What is making this community of movers move?

How do we ensure that important conversations don’t get marginalized?

I’m sending this post out into the world, intending it to be composed of “small strokes of listening,” and hoping that we can continue the dialogue, both in virtual and physical spaces.  During various conference presentations, consultant and writer Jennifer Edwards helped me think of virtual spaces as if they were studios, or dance-making spaces.  My hope for our field is that we can create virtual spaces for conversation that are as beautiful as what we hope to dance in, with enough room for everyone to move, and some curious onlookers as well.  And then I hope we can create spaces in our physical world for these discussions and questions as well.  Here at Dance Exchange, we have a studio that’s 45×47, and we’d be happy to host such a forum or in-person exploration.

About Ellen Chenoweth

Ellen Chenoweth has been with the Dance Exchange since 2009 and is currently Managing Director.