Moving Reflections

“Dance Is a Critical Source for Diversity in the Arts”: Sid Smith’s Moving Dialogs’ Reflections

Sid Smith, our Moving Blogs contributor for Monday May 6th’s discussion event at Hubbard Street Dance Center, shares his personal insights into “diversity”, ability and age; offering fodder prior to this third moving dialog – “To MOVE”:

 I must confess I find the very idea of a discussion about diversity in dance somewhat puzzling–but for a fairly reassuring reason.

Upon reflection, I realize I was first attracted to the art form some four decades ago in part because of its rich diversity even then–in look, theme and backstage personnel.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, when I discovered serious dance, diversity was already a huge factor in the arts, at least in terms of prominence. While by our standards today, the diversity of that time was still tentative, spare and barely scratching the surface, it received enormous emphasis in both the pop and serious cultures. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” made headlines, outside the usual movie pages. “In the Heat of the Night” and much less celebrated fare now, like “The Reivers,” dealt with race relations in American history in new and provocative ways–there was a sense of promise, of a new openness, a kind of afterglow of the civil rights legislation, that seemed to herald a new beginning, in music, TV and elsewhere. Stories and films about women and their struggles began to grace the horizon.

With that as a backdrop, dance, by the 1970s, seemed miles ahead of the other arts. Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey and George Mitchell were established giants. And women were pre-eminent, more so than in any other art form. Sure, actresses rivaled ballerinas for stardom, but backstage women had a much more meaty influence in dance than in any other art. Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham were icons, and so was Lucia Chase, at least until she was ignominiously fired from the great company she co-founded, only to be replaced by a man, superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov.  

Gays were also more openly welcome in dance than in any other art. No straight person then had a clue about Rock Hudson; that male dancers and Broadway chorus boys were gay was an open secret, even to heterosexual observers. True, the subject matter of gay life in dance lagged behind stage and film, but the art all but openly welcomed gay participation.

Dance, in other words, was at the forefront. Sure, there were–and are–trouble spots. A brief contretemps erupted in one unpleasant instance involving an interracial couple cast at one particular engagement of the Joffrey Ballet. There was Chase’s dismissal, and what forever since has seemed a kind of glass ceiling for women artistic directors in large classical ballet companies in the U.S.–men still run American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Houston Ballet and the Joffrey, despite the heavy presence of women as choreographers, teachers and, of course, ballerinas. To this day, there are far too few African-American ballerinas in major troupes.

But the hankering for diversity continued to energize the dance scene from the 1980s up to and including today, in both theme and constituency. Bill T. Jones, David Rousseve, Ralph Lemon, Rennie Harris, Savion Glover and many more continued a race and gender dialogue as dance moved into the realm of dance theater with freshness and vitality. When I sit down for a dance concert, and this is something true for many years now, it’s almost as if I feel the artists about to entertain me are miles ahead of other artists on this topic. That’s not to denigrate the work of film and theater in this regard, nor literature, either.

But, whether it’s the rigorous training, the subtlety of artistry or the sophistication of the participants, there’s a sense of openness and wide-eyed discovery almost part of the price of admission. We know from our politics racism and homophobia are more rampant these days than we thought just a few years ago. And yet, those ills are not only unwelcome at a dance concert, I’d suggest they’d be pretty hard to find, among performers and audiences alike.

Part of my sense of optimism springs from the work of another participant in this chapter of this series: Liz Lerman. Her contribution to our very thinking on diversity struck me when I first encountered it as a kind of exclamation point on the decades of breakthroughs that came before. The one area I assumed dance could never illuminate in terms of this issue was ageism, simply by the very nature of the art. Dance is defined as beautiful bodies trained beyond normal limitations to enact the nearly impossible. Sorry, no old folks allowed.

Well, we all know Lerman upended this notion, and since she began her work, others have stepped in so that now disabled individuals, for instance, have their own troupe. I don’t say all this to suggest we’re in some sort of utopia in the dance world and all our problems are solved.

But there is enormous achievement and pioneering revolution behind us–Robert Joffrey’s untypical body types for ballerinas, for instance, or Bill T. Jones’ casting of hefty Lawrence Goldhuber.

Of course, that only heralds newer and bigger challenges. Where the heck do we go now?

Sid SmithSid Smith, noted critic/writer and editor for SeeChicagoDance.com, has been writing dance, theater, and film reviews and features for the Chicago Tribune for the past 28 years. A native of Mobile, Alabama, he studied dance, theater, and criticism at Florida State University and the University of North Carolina before moving to Chicago in 1978 to work forthe City News Bureau. He joined the Tribune in 1980. In August 2012, the Ruth Page Foundation honored Smith with a Ruth Page Award for his three decades “as a champion of Chicago dance and dance coverage.”

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Moving Dialogs third discussion event of the spring will be held:

Monday, May 6, 2013: 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Hubbard Street Dance Center, 1147 West Jackson
RSVP HERE : Only 50 spots available! RSVP today!

Curated & moderated by Baraka de Soleil. Produced by Audience Architects

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2 thoughts on ““Dance Is a Critical Source for Diversity in the Arts”: Sid Smith’s Moving Dialogs’ Reflections

  1. Pingback: After To MOVE: Post Reflections by Sid Smith on May 6th’s Intimate Discussion at Hubbard Street Dance Center | Audience Architects

  2. Pingback: Glimpses From Spring, Moving Into Fall: Images from May’s “To MOVE” | Audience Architects

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