Denver’s black population may be small (it makes up five percent of the total Metro-area population according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation), but it has strong cultural and artistic roots. There’s historic Five Points, once deemed the “Harlem of the West.” The buildings of Welton Street probably still have jazz scales reverberating in their brick and mortar. Anyone who’s been around Denver long enough can remember the now shuttered but critically-acclaimed Shadow Theatre. Organizations like the Black Americans West Museum & Heritage Center and Blair Caldwell African American Research Library preserve the rich and unique history of Blacks in the region. Art groups like The Spirituals Project, Colorado Black Arts Festival, Five Points Jazz Festival and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD) continue to showcase contemporary Black artists and art forms. CPRD, who celebrates forty-five years of performance and education, will, for the second time in seven years, host The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) Conference and Festival, “Black Dance Rising,” January 20-24, 2016.
This year marks the twenty-eighth anniversary of the conference and festival and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the organization. Founded by Philadanco! Artistic Director Joan Meyers Brown, IABD preserves and promotes dance by people of African ancestry or origin. Each year, the conference serves as a networking forum, professional development platform and artistic showcase that attracts practicing dancers, choreographers, and directors as well as historians and scholars. As volunteer Executive Director and Chairperson Denise Saunders Thompson says, “It’s like a big family reunion.” The intergenerational audience—from emerging dancers on the cusp of a professional career to seasoned executive directors—is the most meaningful aspect of the conference and what sets it apart, according to Saunders Thompson. “Everyone has a role,” Saunders Thompson says in understanding the legacy of and sustaining the future for Blacks in dance. With dancers having the highest rate of diversity among all artists according to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) (forty-one percent are non-white), the conference itself plays an integral role in encouraging the artistic and economic success of Blacks not only in dance but in the arts in general.
New to the conference this year and what Saunders Thompson is most excited about are the professional classical ballet auditions for strictly women of color. “Unfortunately, we hear the same sad story all over the world,” says Saunders Thompson, “typically the young women is the only one of color in the entire audition, she’s in the back of the room, and is the first cut.” Despite the “Misty Copeland Effect” and a host of new programs aimed to increase diversity, classical ballet still struggles to reconcile traditional aesthetics (that many see as a commitment to whiteness) with biases about Black dancers. For example, Saunders Thompson says, Black dancers must work harder to be seen as lyrical and not simply athletic. In an effort to level the playing field, IABD will create a safe environment for the dancers that maintains the highest artistic standards for the professional companies scouting the talent. Delores Browne will administer the first half of the ballet audition with Robert Garland taking on the second half of repertory. Fifteen companies such as Colorado Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Washington Ballet have signed up to recruit potential company and school positions. A separate audition for modern and contemporary companies will occur with Atlanta Dance Connection, CPRD, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Philadanco! among the companies present. While modern dance has been historically move inclusive, economic realities make participation in dance challenging for dancers of color. Through fundraising efforts, IABD is able to offer travel and lodging stipends to some dancers to attend the audition.
In addition to the auditions, the conference will offer lectures, demonstrations, panels and workshops and will cover a variety of topics: “To Degree or Not to Degree,” which will examine college vs. company life; “Dancer Wellness,” which will address health and provide injury prevention advice; “Man to Man,” a men’s-only panel discussion aimed at the specific issues—roles, responsibilities, trials, tribulations—Black men face in dance; and “Redefining the Narrative of the Starving Artist,” which will provide dancers with financial planning and management advice, especially important considering that dancers and choreographers often make an annual median wage of $27,000 according to the NEA. Doug Sonntag Director of Dance for the NEA Arts will also lead a grant workshop on the nuts and bolts of applying to the NEA.
On Saturday night, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women, will give the keynote speech and also receive an award for her leadership, dedication and artistic excellence. While Zollar has won numerous awards such as the Doris Duke Performing Arts Award and Meadows Prize, given to pioneering artists, she says IABD’s award was a complete surprise but is honored to give the keynote. Her speech will focus on innovation in dance, a topic she knows first-hand from Urban Bush Women’s distinctive programs that combine art with civic engagement. BOLD (Builders, Organizers and Leaders through Dance), for example, trains facilitators to bring a local community’s history forward through performance. Additionally, Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute is a ten-day intensive that connects dance professionals with community-based artists and activists to leverage art as a vehicle for civic engagement. The 2016 Summer Leadership Institute will explore racism and its effect in and on the arts. Zollar and Urban Bush Women have also just launched a new, venue-less Choreographic Center aimed to change field for women choreographers of color through residencies, workshops and writing.
Conference attendees and the general public will be able to see dance in action through several performances. Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion will make its Colorado premiere at the Newman Center on January 20, 2016. The conference also boasts 3 great nights of performances, Emerging through Established Artists and Dance Companies. The Emerging Artists Performance, highlighting youth dance companies from all over the country, takes place on Thursday, January 21 at the Historic Paramount Theatre. Friday, January 22nd, the IABD Members’ Performance will take place on at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House and the Founders Performance will occur on Saturday, January 23rd, also at the Ellie. Tickets and more information are available through CPRD .
Outside the conference, IABD works to build cultural equity, inclusion and diversity for communities of color year round, issues that remain critical for metro-Denver arts and cultural groups, large and small alike as evidenced by the ongoing battle over the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District reauthorization distributions that Laura Bond beautifully examined in her “Building Equity in the Arts” article for Confluence Denver. While, Zollar admits, funders have commissioned study after study on the disparities in the arts tied to race, the wealth gap persists. “We need a bigger national effort,” she says. Saunders Thompson agrees saying, “This is a critical time for our nation. We have a broader picture of systemic racism, thanks in part to social media.” She urges Black artists to seize the reigns of change and resolve to move from conversation to action. After all, she says, “Art reaches the deepest part of being human.” Zollar says it’s not just a matter of valuing Black artists but all artists. “We need to make sure American society understands the value of the arts and artists. If it wasn’t essential, we wouldn’t keep doing it.” She says that dance, especially has the power to viscerally connect with people. “Our bodies carry the truth, and dance embodies our experiences. It’s the poetry, the story, that’s in the body.”
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.