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The Role of Race in Dance

Check out our podcast episode on this hot topic. Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts & Spotify!

2020 has marked a turning point as we continue to grapple with levels of inequity, and the dance world is no exception. This week, Courtney and Lesley were joined by IDA judges and teachers Michelle Tolson and Max Vasapoli for a critical conversation on the role of race in the dance world.

One major topic of conversation was the importance of representation in the dance studio and what that actually looks like. Both Max and Michelle recalled a lack of students and faculty of color in their early training, and Max explained how difficult it can be for young dancers to grow up without a single teacher who looks like them. In some cases, it drives the dancers to work harder and often propels them into teaching so that they can fill that void in the future. Michelle noted that she didn’t experience any teachers of color until attending the Jazz Dance World Congress; for Max, his first teacher of color appeared in college and hugely influenced his career. He noted,

“Being a younger person and going through what we’ve all talked about, feeling lonely, not really having many people to look up to that looked like us, I think that once I took some autonomy over my own dance education, I was really drawn to redirecting and really focusing on creators, educators, performers of color and I think this defined the type of work I wanted to create and the type of opportunities I went after.”

So what does inclusivity in the dance studio look like? Max provided an overview and reminded listeners that these practices are not only for educators of color or white educators, but for everyone--everyone has to be actively anti-racist:

  • Make it known that the studio is a safe space.

  • Study Black and Brown Dance history as a teacher and share that knowledge with students.

  • Seek out teachers of color for ALL styles, not just hip hop and tap! Find Black and Brown teachers to fill ballet and modern classes, too!

  • Foster the impulse to create based on current events, but be sensitive--consider doing a choreography or acting unit instead of exploiting the dancers’ trauma for the competitive stage.

  • Costuming: check out the International Association of Blacks in Dance for a comprehensive list of brands who offer dance and activewear in multiple shades.

  • If you have a question surrounding identity-based choice-making, ASK and LISTEN! This invites students into the collaborative process.

Beyond these practices, the question arose around what studios can do to increase diversity and representation without falling into the trap of tokenism. Michelle first suggested bringing dancers to conventions to experience teachers of different races and ethnicities. Max reminded teachers to check their social circles--you might not have a diverse group of people you know locally, but now that everything is virtual, you probably have connections for your students nationally and globally. He also suggested that studios create tangible goals for diversity that make the initiatives part of the mission. If it feels like part of the community, it won’t feel like tokenism.

Michelle also emphasized the importance of crediting where movements come from while teaching. She cited questions she poses to students and colleagues around the differences between Broadway tap and rhythm tap, as well as significant figures in the tap canon and community. As Max noted the need for teachers to do their own research, Michelle echoed these sentiments, explaining that if teachers don’t know the history, it’s impossible to pass the information to students and then the cycle of not knowing continues.

At the end of the day, it starts with education and listening. Ask questions and do your research, whether you’re a teacher, studio owner, dance parent, or competition owner. Now is the time to make crucial changes and work toward a more equitable and inclusive dance field!

Photo: Diva Dance Competition // Daedalus Media Group

Thanks to our guests, Michelle Tolson and Max Vasapoli, for joining us on the podcast this week! You can follow them at @mx_vsp and @michelletolson.


Maddie Kurtz is an IDA staff writer/admin, choreographer, judge, and dance educator. Check out her other articles on the IDA Blog, visit her website, and follow her @maddiekurtz92.

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