Goucher College students performing Women's Resistance (Jason Lee, courtesy Goucher College)

4 Colleges Committed to Diversifying Their Dance Curriculums

In the face of today's racial crisis, many Americans are now reckoning with their own complicity in the oppression of marginalized groups, and asking, "What can I do?" For college dance programs, which help mold the minds of the next generation of dance artists, this is an especially important question. For decades, most departments have centered on white, Western styles—ballet, modern, contemporary—rather than dedicating resources to the world's myriad other dance forms.

Fortunately, some college dance programs have pledged to diversify their course offerings, and to dismantle the layers of white supremacy that still pervade our art on a larger scale. And while many colleges are now beginning this work, a few have made
it a central part of their mission for years. Here are four schools with longstanding commitments to a more equitable dance education.

Alabama State University student Lauren Erwin (Devin Rickett, courtesy Alabama State University)

Alabama State University

ASU BFA majors are exposed to two non-Western tracks twice a year, offered in four levels: African dance and hip hop, or jazz and tap. Both tracks have deep roots in Black American culture and the African diaspora, and have been a part of the program since its inception. As one of the nation's remaining historically Black colleges and universities, ASU has long prioritized a dance curriculum that reflects its student body.

The result has been beneficial not just for the students but also for the school. "By offering these courses," BFA program director James Atkinson says, "we have been able to increase the interest of students from other departments, students who may not have previously considered dance as a major or minor." In addition to the dance program's set curriculum, ASU offers students master classes in a range of non-Western forms, to further broaden their understanding of dance and dance history.

Jazmun McCoy, a sophomore BFA dance major at the school, says learning non-Western styles has instilled a sense of confidence in her college training. "There is never a moment when I have to question if I am learning about myself," she says, "because my personal history is rooted in the non-Western dance training available to me at ASU."

Efeya M. Ifadayo Sampson (front) leading class at Sarah Lawrence (Ian Douglas, courtesy Sarah Lawrence College)

Sarah Lawrence College

Sarah Lawrence's dance department puts a special focus on exposing the layers of implicit bias in dance history. John Jasperse, the director of Sarah Lawrence's dance program and a noted NYC-based choreographer, believes that dancers must "reckon with our history to reveal connections that have often been obscured in the past in order to begin to heal ourselves as a society. In the past, the United States has euphemistically been referred to as a cultural 'melting pot,' but to do so is to erase the differential power structures that were historically at play in creating our hybridity." This coming semester, the dance history course will be called Hip Hop: Dancing Diaspora from the Local to the Global, examining other forms of street dance, including voguing and house. The school will also offer a course about using dance as a lens for cultural critique.

But explorations of implicit bias go beyond dance history courses, too. "The analytic seminars all support a historical and theoretical understanding that is in dialogue with what we do in practice-based studio classes," Jasperse says. Those classes range from West African dance to hula to hip hop to Butoh.

Goucher College

At Goucher—located in Baltimore, MD, where 62 percent of the population is Black—offering non-Western dance training has been a way to tackle issues of social injustice. Rick Southerland, a dance professor at the college, says dance programs in higher education tend to whitewash what dance is and should be. "Dance exists everywhere and is experienced in a myriad of ways and for a variety of reasons within different cultures and societies," Southerland says. "The study of non-Western dance sheds light on other histories and philosophies."

The program offers a BA in dance that requires students to be technically proficient in West African diasporic dance, modern, and ballet. Students can also take theory courses that address body politics. Nicole Blades, a senior in the program, says she's loved being able to train in non-Western dance techniques: "My professors have been encouraging and informative in not only teaching non-Western styles, but also educating us in the history and origins of the movement we are learning."

The department is also committed to engaging the greater Baltimore area. "We employ expert drummers and dancers from the community," Southerland says. "Even students who have never taken a West African dance class are deeply engaged and excited about their dance-study experience."

University of Colorado, Boulder, students studying African dance with professor Nii Armah (Daniel Beahm, courtesy University of Colorado, Boulder)

University of Colorado, Boulder

CU Boulder started working to address racism in dance nearly 18 years ago. "We first began dismantling the ideas of level and 'technique,' offering instead a variety of styles that include hip hop, house, jazz, and transnational fusion," says Erika Randall, chair of the department of theatre and dance. "Classes that have, in the past or in other programs, been relegated to elective status are absolutely required here—not required because of their 'diversity,' but because they are essential to training. We want to support the education of dancers who are going to become the problem-solvers of our global experience."

Randall, who grew up dancing in a competition dance studio, understands the challenge of changing a dancer's long-held perceptions of which dance forms are important. "When a dancer comes in with three pirouettes and a high leg kick, and that doesn't hold the same currency of accomplishment in a house class, they can feel frustrated at first," she says. "But they learn a new virtuosity, a new relationship to speed and rhythm. What was once prioritized as 'petit allégro' in their bodies is now achieved through 'footwork.' They find gravity and groundedness and a new connection to the earth that they had perhaps spent their entire lifetime trying to defy."

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Kylie Jefferson (center, back) in "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud, courtesy Netflix)

Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things” Faces Ballet Stereotypes Head-On

The pilot of Netflix's dance-centric series "Tiny Pretty Things"—based on the YA novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton—will leave you breathless. It touches on, well, everything: love, murder, racism, competition, jealousy, girl cliques, sexual experimentation, eating disorders. And the intricate plot is propelled by equally breathtaking ballet sequences.

Here are the basics of that plot: The Archer School of Ballet is the premiere conservatory in Chicago. During the first three minutes of the episode (no spoilers!), star student Cassie Shore is pirouetting along the edge of the roof of the school when she's pushed off by a hooded man (Her boyfriend? A jealous lover? A ballet master or choreographer?) and dies. Neveah Stroyer, who'd previously been rejected from the school, is flown in from L.A. to replace her.

While the series can verge on melodrama—the pilot does open with a dancer being pushed off a roof, after all—its depiction of the finer details of the ballet world feels spot-on. That was paramount to the production team. "We wanted the dancers to feel represented in their athleticism, and in the sometimes ugly business of making something beautiful," says executive producer Jordanna Fraiberg. "The show encompasses the grit and sweat, before it's wrapped up in costumes and makeup."

Catch "Tiny Pretty Things" streaming on Netflix Monday, December 14.

Finding the Right Cast

To ensure the show would feel authentic, the creators set out to cast dancers who could act, not actors who'd require dance doubles. The process spanned three months and many continents. It often felt—especially when casting two of the leads, roles that ultimately went to Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite—like "trying to find unicorns," head choreographer and dance consultant Jennifer Nichols says. "To be at that level of dance skill is already a huge feat, and to be a brilliant actor on top of that is hard."

Nichols was also tasked with making sure every other element of the production accurately reflected the ballet world. "The team consulted about how the shoe room would really look, how the studio was set up, how to tie a pointe shoe ribbon," Nichols explains. "These are all dead giveaways unless they're supervised by someone in the dance world. I was worried we wouldn't have the time and money to make it all look right, but it was never pushed aside."

A still from "Tiny Pretty Things." Dancers stretch on the floor of the studio. Our focus is on Kylie Jefferson and Daniela Norman, who seem to be engaged in conversation while stretching. Both girls look serious, and face each other. Kylie Jefferson is in a split, and Daniela Norman is in a lunge. Both wear long-sleeved dresses, tights, pointe shoes, and their hair in buns.

Kylie Jefferson (left) and Daniela Norman in an episode of "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud courtesy Netflix)

Ballet-World Realness

"Tiny Pretty Things" explores issues many young ballet dancers grapple with: How do you befriend your biggest competition? How has racism stained the ballet world? How does a young dancer figure out their sexuality? How common are eating disorders among dancers? "In the past, entertainment often hasn't done justice to the dance world," Nichols says. "Not just the ups and downs of it, but also all the difficult work that goes into it." Oren, played by Barton Cowperthwaite, struggles with his sexual identity and an eating disorder. June, played by Daniela Norman, is tortured by a mother who doesn't believe in her talent. Bette, played by Casimere Jollette, lives in the shadow of her more gifted sister, a principal dancer in the company. Shane, played by Brennan Clost, worries that his male lover will leave him for a woman.

Kylie Jefferson, 25, who plays Neveah and earned her BFA at The Boston Conservatory, says her character's storyline reflects her own experiences with racism in ballet from "top to bottom." In the first episode, the head of the ballet school, played by Lauren Holly, glibly claims that Neveah, who is Black, was plucked out of Compton (she wasn't); fellow dancers make fun of a YouTube clip of her dancing hip hop; and her ballet teacher critiques her every move (and clothing choice).

"At the Boston Conservatory, girls were complaining to the head of the dance division about parts I was getting," she explains. "They said I was given them because I was Black. Don't they think I was aware of the stares or forced smiles they gave me when I did more turns than they did, or my arabesques got higher?" She appreciates the show's unvarnished portrayal of the challenges she and many other Black ballet dancers face. "Representation is so important," she says. "I'm grateful to be part of a show that's able to do that—and not just in one light."

Using Dance to Tell the Story

The show's conflicts play out in the dialogue, of course, but dance also plays a vital role in the storytelling. (A pas de deux between two dancers might preview an unexpected love story, for example.) That meant choosing choreographers was particularly important. "We asked ourselves: How can choreography amplify and reflect the inner workings of narrative and the psychology of the characters?" Nichols says. "How can the dance further the narrative without playing second fiddle to it?"

Five A-list choreographers were hired to reflect the show's varied moods and styles: Guillaume Côté, Juliano Nunes, Garrett Smith, Tiler Peck, and Robert Binet. In typical entertainment-world fashion, they had relatively few rehearsals with the cast. Since time with each choreographer was so limited (dancers were often off shooting other scenes), Nichols—who was on set the whole season and choreographed all the in-class segments—acted as a go-between, helping the choreographers understand each dancer's strengths.

A still from "Tiny Pretty Things." Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite dance together in an empty, sun-lit studio. Kylie Jefferson's arms are extended above her head, and her legs are bent, with one extended to the side, on the floor. She wears black leggings and a metallic, geometric-printed long sleeve shirt. Barton Cowperthwaite stands with both legs bent, and one arm extended over his head. He wears navy joggers and a maroon tee shirt.

Kylie Jefferson and Barton Cowperthwaite dance together in an episode of "Tiny Pretty Things" (Sophie Giraud, courtesy Netflix)

Inside the Creative Process

The production process was fundamentally different from what the dancers, many of whom have impressive concert-world resumés, were accustomed to. "I learned that time is money!" Cowperthwaite says. "I'm used to performing onstage. The show goes how it goes, and you decompress and process after. When you're shooting, it's the same kind of pressure, but you have much less time to decompress. On set, you get your six to 10 takes, and you move on."

The camaraderie and professionalism of the stellar cast helped facilitate the filming process. The dancer-actors soon became "best friends," according to Cowperthwaite. "We would shoot all hours of the day and hang out all weekend. The dynamic was something to behold."

The natural chemistry between Jefferson and Cowperthwaite, in particular, made their onscreen dancing feel seamless. "We started filming a scene where they're paired for a Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, and immediately there was a spark between them," Nichols says. "It's written into the script, but it happened in real life, too. We all thought: 'We're really lucky to be able to pair them together.' "

The hope is that the show's clear-eyed portrayal of ballet, and the way it showcases gifted dancers at the top of their game, will hook Netflix's massive mainstream audience on dance. "When I got to set," Jefferson says, "I knew that everything I've been through in my life—everyone who's told me I wasn't working hard enough, every heartbreak that had nothing to do with dance—all of that was to get me there. It was to get me there and to help me keep going."

Meet Two "Tiny Pretty Things" Standouts

Barton Cowperthwaite

Age: 28

Higher education: BFA in dance from the University of Arizona

Hometown studio: Denver School of the Arts and The Academy of Colorado Ballet

Proudest career moments: Performing the lead in Lar Lubovitch's Men's Stories, and going on as Jerry in An American in Paris on tour. "I got thrown on 15 minutes before curtain, when both the lead and alternate called out!" he says. "I'd never done it with lights or costumes or with the female lead. And it was April Fool's. No one believed it!"

How he got the job on "Tiny Pretty Things": "I was in China with An American in Paris. I did a Skype audition from the basement of the theater during the one hour my Wi-Fi was functioning properly. It was a small miracle."

What he's been doing in quarantine: "Working out, and taking ballet online three to four times a week. I'm also reading sci-fi and acting books, and working on my voice. I've been active on social media, supporting Black Lives Matter, learning to be an ally. I'm also involved with Vote Forward, a letter-writing campaign to engage underrepresented and unlikely voters."

His advice to young dancers: "Find your dance instincts, and then train in a style on the other end of the spectrum so you stay grounded and disciplined. My physicality pushes me towards contemporary, but I turn to ballet as my rock, my lightning rod."

What the team says about him: "He's a brilliant dancer," Jennifer Nichols, the show's dance consultant, says. "He's a sinewy chameleon. He can be powerful and snappy, or soft and fluid. He has a lot of training in a myriad of styles, and an extensive professional past. I remember within seconds thinking: 'This kid can do anything.' "

Kylie Jefferson

Age: 25

Major: BFA in contemporary dance performance, with an emphasis in pedagogy, from the Boston Conservatory

Hometown studio: Debbie Allen Dance Academy. At 6, Jefferson was the youngest student to ever be admitted—the cutoff used to be 8. "From the beginning, Ms. Allen kept me close and pushed me beyond my limits," Jefferson says.

Proudest career moment: "Choreographing ScHoolboy Q's 'CHopstix' music video. I was able to hire friends I grew up dancing with—African-American women performing ballet exceptionally on TV. It was the first time the community I grew up with and my craft were aligned. In that moment, it became clear that I would never give up."

How she got the job on "Tiny Pretty Things": "I called so many dance studios in L.A. looking for space to make my audition tape, but they were all booked because so many dancers were auditioning for the show! The only time I could get was 7 pm on the night of the submission deadline. I spent the whole night editing. I was stressed-out getting it to upload!"

What she's been doing in quarantine: "Most mornings I wake up and mourn Breonna Taylor and turn on Lizzo and dance however I want to dance. If I want to put my leg up one second and twerk the next second, I will. I'm trying to set healthy patterns for myself, so I can get out and fight for my future and my future children. I've gotten to a point where I'm not asking for love or protection: I'm going to be that love and protection. I know that my spirit needs it, and I know my friends need it, too."

Advice to young dancers: "You have to show up for your lessons to receive your blessings. Stay 10 toes down in that. Sometimes you are the lesson you have to learn, and sometimes there are outward lessons. When you get shaky—questioning yourself, your confidence—the universe will respond to that."

What the team says about her: "There's an innate grace and purity to Kylie's lines," Jennifer Nichols says. "There was an authenticity to her audition tape: This is Kylie dancing, not a graduate of such-and-such school, where you see their teacher speaking through them. There's a real freedom to her movement. She comes alive when she dances."

Because it's important to let yourself feel #AllTheFeels (Getty Images/shironosov)

All the Feels: How to Give Yourself Space to Deal With Hard Emotions

Have you ever smiled through a show even though your heart wasn't in it, or put on your game face in class despite feeling tired or out of sorts? Dancers are performers, and performing positivity is a skill that can get you through tough moments without anyone knowing you're upset. But that doesn't mean it's always the healthiest choice.

"Hiding your emotions for too long can lead to a backlash," says performance psychologist Linda Hamilton. "It's like a pressure cooker. You can push it down, but it isn't going to go away." This year has been full of disappointments, frustrations and fears, so it's understandable if you're struggling. Try these strategies to acknowledge your emotions—and work through them in a healthy way.

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Including AS Dancewear, brought to you by our eternal fave, Alison Stroming (Aaron Pegg, courtesy Alison Stroming)

6 Black-Owned Dance Brands to Shop this Holiday Season

It's officially holiday gift-giving crunch time, but don't panic: Dance Spirit is here to recommend some fab dancewear brands—that also happen to be Black-owned small businesses. New dancewear, supporting Black-owned businesses, and #ShoppingSmall? It's enough to get anyone in the holiday #mood.

Here are six Black-owned dance and activewear brands to shop this holiday season. But if your fave dancewear brand is missing, spread the love, and give them a shoutout in the comments section! Help us to make the season ✨bright ✨.

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