One of the few black people in leadership roles in the industry is Sonia James Pennington, a founder of the National Dance Showcase competition. “I watch colored studio directors come to one of our events and see that I’m African American and there is a feeling of, ‘I can breathe out,'” she said. “If we could normalize diversity at all levels, everyone would benefit.”
Lately some established competitions and congresses have taken small steps forward. Break the Floor Productions, which hosts some of the biggest events in the industry, has launched an educational YouTube series highlighting black dance artists. The trophies for the winners of the New York City Dance Alliance national competition no longer mention gender. Large-scale reform, however, seems a long way off.
It was this slow pace of change that led Olivia Zimmerman, 23, to develop the Embody Dance Conference. Starting this weekend, the new dance convention – whose competition will debut next year – aims to create “a safer and more inclusive dance community”.
Zimmerman grew up at competitions and congresses and worked as a competition director for a dance studio. Embody, who started out as her college job, is thoroughly ambitious. This weekend’s event at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut will feature seminars for dancers on anti-racism, mental health and gender. (TikTok dance star Charli D’Amelio will discuss the effects of social media on mental health.) Cogliandros the Dance Safe will lead workshops. Classes will not divide students by gender, and students will give their pronouns. Accommodation will be provided for dancers with disabilities.
The faculty will include transgender artists, including Frederick; several colored people; and mental health professionals including dance artist and therapist Breanna Myers. And – perhaps most revolutionary of all – while Embody is currently a company with a not-for-profit arm, Zimmerman plans to eventually run the entire company as a not-for-profit organization.
Only a few hundred people signed up for Embody’s first convention. But Zimmerman hopes to pilot a model that other events can then customize. “It’s not proprietary,” she said. “We’re not trying to make money by ‘being the change’. I want everyone to follow suit so that in five years we will only be one convention. “