“Many professional dance companies in major U.S. cities dream of having more African American audiences for their work. Reality sets in as artistic and administrative staff look out over the crowd and wonder where all the African Americans audiences have gone. Sure there are a few people of color scattered among the sea of dance lovers, but not nearly enough to fulfill the dance field’s collective desire for more racially diverse crowds.”
– Roger Lee
So begins the self-described “dilemma” dancer, choreographer and writer Roger Lee identifies in his recent article for Dance/USA’s e-Journal: “Where Have All the African American Audiences Gone for Concert Dance?”(January 15, 2013). This young artist from Philadelphia shares sobering thoughts on the twin challenges of building culturally relevant content and of retaining African American audiences for the concert dance stage.
Articles and blogs have been surfacing online offering provocative and sometimes challenging viewpoints on cultural relevance, issues surrounding diversity within dance, equity and concerns from various communities regarding “seeing themselves represented onstage.” As the current researcher in dance for CAR and curator of Moving Dialogs, Diversity+Dance, a Chicago-based humanities discussion series, I'm interested in hearing local and national perspectives on dance, culture and community engagement.
As the discussion surrounding “diversity within dance” continues to expand, I reached out to Roger and asked him to share his thoughts on his particular dilemma to see how it applies to Chicago.
CAR: So tell me, Roger, what inspired you to write your article for Dance/USA?
Roger Lee: I felt inspired to write that article because African American audiences in Philadelphia love the arts, but the majority feel a disconnect with the current offerings presented on stage. They long for work that is culturally relevant, so I felt inspired to write an article on this that was grounded in research related to dance as a performing art. This research came from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance publications and focus groups conducted by Slover Linett Strategies, a Chicago-based audience research firm for cultural and educational organizations.
What does cultural relevance mean to you?
Cultural relevance means that a work deals with social issues that are specific to a particular culture. For instance, a culturally relevant work for an African American audience may be a work that explores slavery or civil rights. I want to be very clear that African Americans are not one in the same. We each come with our own experiences, tastes, interests, and shades. However, the heart of my argument is that the majority of African Americans are interested in seeing their heritage celebrated on stage. They want and deserve the option of seeing themselves represented on stage. African Americans want more options than just traditional, European-based works.
I believe that audiences of all colors long for diversity on stage. Not just artistically within dance—ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, African, et cetera—but diverse in thematic content. Caucasian audiences may be interested in a dance concert about Asian American history or African American audiences may want to see a Latino history dance concert.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into this concept of diversity and its relationship to dance. What did it mean to you ten years ago? How has that shifted? What do you believe is the cause of that shift?
Ten years ago I was 14 years old and believed that diversity only dealt with race. I thought it only referred to the color of a person's skin. Now, at the age of 24, I see that it goes a lot deeper than skin color. It deals with philosophies, childhood experiences, religion, wealth, sexual orientation, all sorts of things.
Ten years ago I believed that dance was all about energy, excitement, and up-beat music. I thought that dance was a big party where the performers were charged with getting the audience out of their seat, moving and having the time of their lives. My philosophy was that dance was supposed to be simply entertainment at its finest. Now I appreciate all movement forms for their beauty, history and contemporary development.
After many life experiences inside and outside of the dance field, I believe that dance is also about artistry and conviction. I believe the role of the dance artist is to connect with the audience on an emotional level, to make them feel something powerful.
How did higher education played a key role in deepening your understanding?
Living on a college campus for four years really opened my eyes. I went to Ursinus College and encountered a diverse culture that ran deeper than race. On a campus with a small percentage of multi-cultural students, I learned that students had different religions, sexual orientations, home lives, finances, academic pursuits, etc. While attending graduate school at Drexel University, I experienced much more racial diversity on campus. I also experienced the “diversity of real life”: adult experiences pertaining to work, families, and finances.
In working with choreographers from all over the world in variety of dance genres, I experienced that there is true diversity in dance philosophies, aesthetics and techniques. This revelation deepened my studies in dance and took me out of merely study in the classroom to teaching, research, writing and choreographing.
How do you see the role of performing artists—specifically, dancers—within the larger cultural community?
Due to the economic recession, the performing arts are now competing more intensely with a number of leisure-time activities such as sports, entertainment and dining. If we do not find meaningful ways to engage with our community and show them why the performing arts should be their top choice for an evening out, we will soon become extinct. The good news is that with enhanced technology and social networking capacity, performing arts organizations have the opportunity to reach out to broader audiences in new and exciting ways. Long gone are the days where we could sell tickets by just promoting our own work and not tailoring our communications to specific audiences.
We need to adopt an audience-centered approach and talk about how our work fulfills the audience's needs and desires. We need to be able to articulate why our work is important to the audience. Although every dance company and choreographer brings their own unique perspective to their work, dance has a universal importance. Dance is so important because it is one of the most natural forms of physical self-expression. It celebrates heritage through specific movements, use of music and a carrying of tradition from generation to generation.
On a personal level, dance builds self-esteem, promotes team work, creativity, problem solving, physical and emotional health, and communication between people—particularly artists and audiences. If performing arts organizations are to survive, we need to think more about our consumer and less about ourselves.
Roger Lee is a 24-year-old dance professional from Philadelphia, PA. He provides clients with dance classes, choreography, parties, and promotional services including audience engagement, social media management, and media relations strategy as the owner of Roger Lee Dance, LLC.
Lee performed professionally with SHARP Dance Company and Mid-Atlantic Ballet. He has also guest taught hip-hop at The Rock School of Dance Education and Koresh School of Dance. His writing has been published in Dance/USA e-journal, Dance Magazine, Dance Magazine College Guide, Dance Studio Life Magazine, Dance Advantage, The Dance Journal, The Dance Enthusiast, Broad Street Review, and on Examiner.com as the Philadelphia Dance Examiner.
Roger obtained his Master's Degree in Arts Administration, Magna Cum Laude, from Drexel University and his Bachelor's Degree in Dance and Media Communications, Magna Cum Laude with Honors, from Ursinus College. www.rogerleedance.com.
The article was inspired in part by Roger's article on danceusa.org.