Dance Diversity Needs a Breakthrough: Now Where to Begin?

A dance scholar, concert artist, choreographer, producer, African American artist, and Interim Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at SUNY State College at Buffalo. Carlos Jones has  contributed and mentored in programs held at UCLA, Chapman University, UCI, and Loyola Marymount University as well as EDGE Performing Arts Center, Peridance, and his own professional arts center, Academy 331. He is known and respected throughout dance academia to further the importance and far-reaching aspects of diversity in education for people of color and our newer generation. Being a graduate of UC Irvine and a higher education recipient some ten to fifteen years ago, he is one of a few men of color to have received a higher arts education degree at that time. This is no easy task, as African American expression is missing in the long-standing dance curriculum. So, how can education and dance diversity be relevant to the African American experience today?

Carlos’s talents are varied and include a lifetime of achievements seen in publications, articles, and scholastic programs development. Of interest, is his contribution to Lindsay Guardino’s book, Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press). His chapter, Jazz Dance and Racism, offers a deeper understanding of jazz dance development and disinherited roots. Carlos admits to his own experiences, “…in my master classes on jazz, I talk about my colonized body. Me, standing up in front of them and, yes, I recognize that,” being an African American artist and teaching a European inundated dance syllabus. “But the issue is not whether I think it’s right or wrong, but that I recognize it, name it, and work to identify where I’m using aspects of the codified system.”

Carlos R. A. Jones
photo courtesy of Carlos R. A. Jones

The Euro-centric system that is in place, leaves out blackness, the very nature and foundation of movement. Our dance world has become a singular, non-inclusive aesthetic that is traditionally taught through ballet, jazz, and modern curriculums. Consequently, there is a narrow landscape of artistic sampling. “And we’re trained that technique is creating those lines to perfection.”

Prioritizing dance education for persons of color demands that the tools and skills of dance founded upon eurocentrism be gained in order to have a voice in the arena. Making a space for oneself in the artistic community with equal footing is important and one in which education is key to creating this space. “This is the dichotomy in which we all, people of color, live. [Those of us] that spend our time in circles of leadership and scholarship call it ‘code-switching.’ You speak and talk one way with your community and then you have to speak a code in order to be accepted in another. It’s what we do our entire lives.”

That system which presents an almost impossible malaise of obstacles that prevents young people of color to pursue and take their more relevant place in the world of dance, is the same system to further a career in either academia or commercial dance. As a performer, director, playwright, and nominee for the Artie Award three times for outstanding choreography, Carlos is familiar with the work and gratification of the commercial arena. Yet, he considers education to be the viable process for current and future generations to garner strongholds as participants in the dance world. It is only by enlisting African American artists to participate in the conversation on content and bring their experiences to the forefront, that a new and balanced spectrum of artists and creatives will emerge. “Going to college, [the student] has the opportunity to develop. When they get out, they can level the playing field.”

“It is a misnomer when people say, ‘we don’t need dance education, you just go dance.’ Well, for some who’ve grown up around dance – their whole lives in studios, in L.A., Chicago, New York, wherever, they have a faster track to it. But if you grew up in the mid-west, such as I did, your best way of getting training in a consolidated, condensed way, is to go to college.” A major metropolitan area more likely offers a plethora of dance experience, but “if you grow up in rural America, and though you may have the same power, desires, and talent, you may not have the opportunity to develop [the craft].”

It is through a dancer’s drive for higher education that will bring more value to our communities

“So, while [the student is] learning and getting their education, they’re practicing their craft every day. And when you talk about it in terms of race, I also think that it is more important for people of color. Because if you take the white dancer and the dancer of color, one has more opportunity to work than the other. The black or Latino dancer is going to have to have multiple ways of earning money. For them to go to school and earn this education gives them extra footing to land on when they finally get there. The sheer economics of our world is why you want to go [the college] path.”

As we know, dance courses are more than learning the steps and spatial acclamation. Beyond the tangible mechanics that dance teaches us, there is the aspect of expanding our sense of self. “What I think is important to speak to, most colleges are liberal arts colleges. You learn about yourself in relationship to the world. In this country, we’ve gotten into this mindset to go to college to get a job. College is not vocational. College was never meant to be vocational. It was meant to be educational -- let me educate my mind; let me train myself; let me learn how to investigate, research, expand my space; and let me learn what skills I have that are tangible or that I can access to build a career.”

The dictionary defines education in terms of enlightenment. “I think outside the box; I can work on a team; I can work on a deadline; I can problem solve; I can do creativity. These are the things you learn in an academic environment.” It is through education that a person can then present themselves with a common understanding, and as Carlos has suggested, “level the playing field.”

photo courtesy of Carlos R. A. Jones
photo courtesy of Carlos R. A. Jones

Of the many prestigious awards and fellowships Carlos has won, the Dr. Muriel A. Howard Award for the Promotion of Respect for Diversity and Individual Differences (SUNY College at Buffalo) is particularly impressive and brings focus to his findings. “Leveling the playing field” has far-reaching relevance in education for our generation of “swipers.” If the reason that education stays Euro-centric is “people get discouraged from continuing to finish their undergraduate, then they don’t go on to finish their graduate level, they don’t become professors. So, the pipeline gets broken along the way. Then there is no person of color or dance diversity in the system to represent and move a community through. Instead, there is white people dancing and learning from white people.”

That the education system is slowly availing itself to the larger understanding of change and away from eurocentrism, is good news. “Faculty and teachers of K-12 are beginning to have larger conversations and subject matters because they know who their students are and are saying, ‘I see my students’.”

In terms of redesigning curriculum to speak to all races and cultures, we find more instances of teachers who inspire students through more thoughtful method and content. “They’re wanting to have the conversation. I think there’s hope in the newer generation as [positions] are changing,” and the curriculum updates the older process. “As ownership changes and new people develop [the current education system], they’re doing it more responsibly.”

“I’m encouraged. I hear the conversations and I hear what people ask. I see K-12 teachers seeking knowledge regardless of their color, to be much more representative in their classes. I can see the bodies of educators at these workshops, are more and more people of color. And that can change the future of who continues and moves into higher education.”

Being in a position to witness and bring about change for our new generation of dancers, educators, and humanitarians, Carlos shared his ideal curriculum: “One that is flexible enough for people to find where their passions lie, but vigorous enough to where they get a sound understanding of what they choose to study. [A flexible education] allows people to be more open and connected.”

I think there’s hope in the newer generation as [positions] are changing, and the curriculum updates the older process.

A program designed around change, “can accept more kinds of people and enrollment would increase. A variety of people will come to a more diverse curriculum. And further, you’d be able to demonstrate how those skills you pick up translate into many concerns… Then you have a cultural, scholastic dialogue; a collaboration. Maybe you’ve got someone great in ballet and someone great in West African dance and they have to create together. What would the outcome be? What would they learn from each other? Just in terms of how they express and visually see movement. And they would talk. Undoubtedly, the [process] would change and shift and work. Now, we’re talking about a level playing field across the arts.”

This shift will come from emotional stamina and discipline. The will to be present in the process will bring about a finer, more vivid tapestry of human expression. As dancers are known to bring a spirit of can-do, “we have the ability to work tirelessly. What we take on as a load is far greater than many other people. Because we’re constantly asked to do the impossible with our bodies and to do it now!” It is through a dancer’s drive for higher education that will bring more value to our communities.

The dancer’s sense of do it, correct it, clarify the shape, and hit the timing will help bring about change in an environment that at present, is less than optimum to a path that will honor the roots of dance and allow for a wider spectrum of artistry. And from mentors and educators like Carlos Jones, whose smile broadened at the end of our conversation as he said, “I do my best in my little corner of the world.”

About the author

Laura Fremont’s Dancing Ahead interviews dancers who have gone before, either leaping down a traditional path or twirling along a road less traveled. For more than thirty years, Laura’s dance work as a performer, choreographer, and educator has connected her to an industry of talented and passionate fellow professionals in film, television, and stage. These closely held associations offer rich insight to our newer generation of dancers, to help guide their success, give support, and offer confirmation for their dance journey.