What was missing from my performing arts education

My time at a performing arts high school about 60 miles north of Philadelphia was an integral part of my adolescent years. Without that training, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I credit my time there with planting early seeds of creativity and for equipping me with technique that prepared me well for college level training, improvisation, composition, and dance history. I had memorable performances with peers and excellent direction from teachers that taught me about professionalism, artistry, and commitment to the art form.

 Photo by: Jeremy Zimmerman -  jeremy-zim.com

Photo by: Jeremy Zimmerman - jeremy-zim.com


When I think back to that time in my life, I feel waves of nostalgia and self-compassion for who I was in all my angst - on the brink of many formative experiences that would bring me closer to living my best life in every sense. If my younger self had just a glimpse of who I would be, so much of my angst would have been alleviated. My awkward, shy 15-year-old self would be impressed with the independent, charismatic artist I have become.

It’s common for high schoolers to experience angst they can’t name. Maybe the only difference now is that I have language to clarify my experiences. As a twenty something, I continue to feel things deeply, but I have more patience and skills to process those experiences. The angst hasn’t gone away. I’ve just built my support system to care for that angst. Something that I would say to my younger self would be to think about the future less. And maybe I thought about the future so much because my context at the time didn’t fully meet my holistic needs.

Now that I’m in my mid/late twenties, I understand what was missing from my training.  Based on where I went to high school and where it was situated in the suburbs, I look back at my 16-year-old-self and I see how training with Euro American instructors and learning to express myself through only Eurocentric forms just wasn’t enough. I had excellent training, but I didn’t have role models that gave me an understanding of my cultural legacy.

My late teens to early twenties were critical in reshaping my understanding of this.  I was was transformed by social justice discourse, community based art making, interfaith activism, and recovering my connection with the Latinx diaspora. As I emerged into my adult life, I found mentors and collaborators that affirmed these essential parts of myself, and I find more and more thought partners in these circles.  The pivotal formation in spaces outside of classical training and concert dance has allowed me to ground myself in ways that honor and complete who I am at the core. And this self-work in community allows me to show up for moving conversations forward around multiculturalism, activism, faith, and community-based praxis.

It was through deep listening in other formative spaces that I have been able to do recovery work that has bolstered my own sense of identity.  This has also allowed me to emerge as a thought partner/co-thinker in the creative community by allowing me to both participate in and inform wider conversations around cultural innovation and local movements.  

All over the theater community in Philadelphia, there is a growing dialogue around inclusion, representation, and equity across process and production. In the conversations I have participated in as of late, I am keenly aware of the invaluable role of multiculturalism in the creative and community spaces I inhabit, and the ways inclusion and representation shows up in visioning conversations I am a part of.

Are these same conversations happening as frequently in educational settings for high schoolers? According to Hanover research analysis, the first tier of critical 21st century skills for the classroom are identified as:

  • Collaboration and teamwork

  • Creativity and imagination

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem solving

While the second tier identified as:

  • Flexibility and adaptability

  • Global and cultural awareness

  • Information literacy

  • Leadership

For educators and administrators committed to effective 21st century learning, I contend that global and cultural awareness of self and community captures the first tier in an experiential, embodied way, and that multiculturalism is essential to 21st century learning skills.

Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and 19th century ballet are all great, but I feel alive inside and fully in touch with my artistry and personhood when I learn about the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, Dolores Huerta, Celia Cruz, and contemporary artists like Ricardo Levins Morales, Michelle Ortiz, Erika Nuñez, Las Cafeteras, and more.

Let’s imagine, design, and implement arts training that gives black and brown stories a place of prominence, not a checked “diversity” box. Let’s center the legacy of Latinx, African, and Asian diasporas and talk about the relevance of these legacies today. Eurocentric dance forms have been privileged long enough-let’s treat a West African, capoeira, and/or bachata class with the same seriousness that institutions treat their ballet training.

Let’s put priority on responsibly teaching multiculturalism, and equip students with the tools for putting cross-cultural empathy in practice. I believe this is what 21st century education in an arts setting should look like. I know how meaningful my own cultural recovery work has been and I am committed to advocating for this in today’s youth artists as well.

5 Things I Learned From My Only Resignation

 Photo: Suzette Lucas Photography

Photo: Suzette Lucas Photography

In my career so far, I have formally resigned from a role once. I was heartbroken by the experience, but I didn’t have the awareness or understanding of the circumstances that I do now. After reflecting on the experience, I want to share my story so that I can relate the lessons I learned in the hopes that I can help others process any harrowing experiences in their careers. Here’s how it started…

One of the jobs I applied for after college was for a dance company that was starting an outreach program. From the description, it looked like a good fit. I was interviewed and left a good impression on the company director. 

About two months later, I was called in for a second interview. I hoped to secure a position as a Teaching Artist. They asked me about my experience, administrative skills, and whether I was organized. I had a little bit of part time coordinating experience, and yes, I was organized. They told me, “We’re looking for an Outreach Coordinator and Lead Teaching Artist. We think it’s you.” I was offered a job on the spot. The role wasn’t something I sought; it fell plainly into my lap. I gladly accepted the role. The company generously provided and accommodated for my training in the specific method the program was based on.

However, I found it to be a grueling, and at many times overwhelming season. I had to simultaneously administer the program, lead 15 classes a week (including 7 classes for my second job), and organize a final performance for 200 children - with only one year of teaching for a living under my belt.  I didn’t feel free to focus on bringing my artistry to my teaching when there was just as much attention needed for coordinating the program. I didn’t feel supported when I had uncertainties or like I could access my director, as the education work was a fledgling part of the company’s programming, with most of the attention going to performance and touring. And at the end of it, I was called in for a meeting. 

I thought that the purpose of this meeting was to set an agenda and clarify intentions for the rest of the spring while the program was in the planning stages for next season. This is where I was blindsided.

The director expressed great disappointment with my performance. They criticized my teaching, my appearance, and the way I represented the program. I was criticized for speaking up in company meetings. They said they were mortified when they introduced me to a funder. It was blatantly clear that I didn’t fit their aesthetic or personality preference. “It was embarrassing,” they said about my students’ final performance.

I felt belittled, demeaned, humiliated, and taken advantage of for being young and inexperienced. I felt like the director would have never treated the teaching artists who were 10 years older than me the way they treated me. I left the meeting disoriented, disillusioned, and sobbing. 

After an hour of being shredded to pieces for my work with criticism that I felt was rooted in the director’s personal preferences and biases, I spent the weekend reflecting on the experience and sought advice from people I trusted. I decided to email my letter of resignation the following Monday, expressing that I became aware of our philosophical differences regarding dance education and that my values and goals didn’t align with the program. I realized the director and I weren’t interested in dance education for the same reasons, and their evaluation of my performance didn’t line up with the quality of my work for other organizations.

With that experience in hindsight, I’d like to share some key things to remember if you feel like you’re experiencing a work conflict that crosses personal boundaries.

1.  Never take your superiors' poor judgment calls personally.

You can’t blame yourself if you’re expected to do things that you never said you could do. In my case, I think I would have been far from their first choice as program coordinator/lead teaching artist if the company truly prioritized the growth of the outreach program. I wasn’t on the same level as the teaching artists who were ten years more experienced than me, and that’s something I don’t take personally anymore.

2. Know when to say “no”.

Take time to decide whether or not you should commit to a role. Money and promotions aren’t the only factors.  You don’t want to be put in a situation where you’re held to a high standard that you can’t meet because you don’t have enough experience to ground you in the role. I realize now that I accepted more than I knew how to handle. 

3.  Identify your learning style and work with a director who will set you up for success.

Ask yourself: What are the ways I need to be supported in order to successfully complete a project? What values do I look for in an organization’s mission? Do they align with my goals? My experience clarified what I value in a director. My favorite directors are process-oriented. They see mistakes as part of learning, and they set an example throughout the process. There is equitable dialogue when I am learning a new skill or improving my craft. 

4.  You are not alone.

If you feel that something is wrong, talk to friends and mentors you trust. If you feel icky, you need to ask why. The more I processed the situation with friends and mentors, the more people have said to me, “You’re not alone.” My friends and mentors have also clashed with directors and shared their takeaways with me. 

5. Honor your boundaries and advocate for yourself.

This one is simple: if you are approached in an unprofessional way, address that. Protect yourself if the setting no longer feels safe. The friend I confided in later told me that vulnerability (when I started crying in the meeting) should never be forced. What I didn’t know is that I should have known that the meeting was going to be an evaluation and that it is inappropriate to discriminate based on age. I could have paused the meeting, expressed that the tone was going in a direction that wasn’t professional, and asked for the evaluation to be scheduled at another time via email. I realized that the way I was approached shattered my trust and I knew I wouldn’t fulfill my role successfully after such a negative experience.

In closing, I’m happy to say that since this experience I have gained great clarity and only worked on projects that truly align with my mission. My choice to resign has been affirmed by my circumstances and opportunities again, again, and again. If you’re going through something similar, be encouraged and don’t give up. Use these disappointing fallouts as an opportunity for clarification, healing, and refocus. I hope by sharing my story you will be inspired to create more equitable spaces for your art to have an impact in your community.

Edited by Nathan Landis Funk | www.liveitreal.org

A Month in the Midwest

This past September, I had the unique opportunity of joining Carnival De Resistance as a Crew Member during its 2016 Minneapolis residency. Professional artists, activists, and community organizers from North and Central America gathered for a month to perform, learn, and live together with the community of Harrison in North Minneapolis. The project, bridging worlds of art, activism, and faith, manifests in three parts: carnival performances, the ecovillage demonstration, and curated community engagement.

A regular day for me involved any combination of rehearsal, teaching classes at an after school center, setting up tents, helping cook in the fossil fuel free kitchen and sharing nourishing meals, discussing cultural appropriation, singing, and soaking in the wisdom of seasoned activists and artists local to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Here's a quote from Restoration Village Arts to get a better idea of the Carnival context:

Often, art is treated as incidental to gatherings, conferences, institutions, movements. Artists are invited to participate for their additions of texture and creative flair-but what happens when art is centered in the struggle for collective liberation?

I'm rewinding in my mind's eye all that was the Carnival De Resistance in Minneapolis and I smell firewood, taste local squash, kale, and oatmeal, feel grass and mud on my feet, the heat of lit poi, sooth on my hands, I hear drums and movement to and from tents, and I see 30+ people and the light they carry, a lively yard colored with flags, curtains, silly but profound games and sideshows, tents, painted faces of all ages, and I feel the adrenaline in the choreography and music where the clown oppressors are overthrown in Stay On the Battlefield.

The Carnival De Resistance is an embodiment of what is sacred in ceremony, storytelling, advocacy rooted in faith, and a physicalized experiment in living in a new way that heals our relationship to the Earth and each other. It inspired wonder in me to be in an immersive project where performance and community building all happened under the umbrella of a creative space where healing permeated the hearts of many.

Check out more reviews from RadicalDiscipleship.net, Southside Pride, my friend Jenna's blog, and my friend Joshua's blog. Stay tuned for the 2018 iteration of Carnival in Philadelphia!

 Photo: Tim Nafziger

Photo: Tim Nafziger

When You Don't Get That Contract

Have you ever been in a dance class or simulated audition situation where your teacher told you that your level of performance mattered because whether or not you landed the job depended on how crisp your technique is and how bold your performance was?


Well, that's an incomplete part of the story. The audition-to-contract tradition and world in which that is the norm is a narrow part of the dance industry that (I'm pretty sure) is phasing out. Will auditions still happen? Certainly! They're just not the only things that really matter.

It is always good to strive for a high standard. Sometimes your own excellence won't fit a cookie cutter type of excellence someone else is looking for, and that's okay. Securing work with a full time company from an audition isn't the only way to confirm whether or not you are a Professional Dancer.

The dream of becoming a Professional Dancer still comes true outside of what a company contract has to offer.

The independent dance artist is equally qualified as the contracted company dancer. The experience of performing as different projects come and go along with self producing in your region and local artistic community is just as valid. If you are finished with your training, don't beat yourself up if you haven't been offered a company contract. Organizations aren't the only ones with vision and artistry that you can grow from. Your brilliant and like minded peers are within your grasp.

"Professional Dancer" doesn't mean you work full time for a ballet, modern, or contemporary company. Professional Dancer means that art is your life and that you maintain your craft across a spectrum of ongoing and seasonal assignments, projects, and causes; and that you are true to your artistic vision. Does your what you are working towards reflect the kind of art you believe in?

My peers and I are living proof that new initiatives and projects spring up right and left. We are putting our skills to work. We're developing quality performance and honing our administrative skills. We self produce. We perform for each other. We actually gain a more diverse skill set than someone who dances full time for a ballet company.

Most of us aren't contracted full time, but we have degrees, conservatory training, and the capacity to create programs and move our artistry forward. What constitutes our professionalism is our commitment to innovation backed by our entrepreneurial skills.

What Undergrad Didn't Prepare Me For

Some of my best days as a 21 year old were Friday morning modern classes. The course was led by a local dance artist that everyone respected and accompanied by a skilled jazz guitarist. We aligned ourselves, memorized long floor warmups and standing patterns, built our stamina, and sweated hard. One of the things that has kept me in dance for most of my life is the limitless sensation of moving and it has shaped me into the person and arts professional that I am today.

When I think about my alma mater, I think about how much I admired the artistry of the graduate students, my cohort, and the students who graduated after me. My program represented a spectrum of aesthetics. There wasn't a singular agreement on what dance had to look like and it was both challenging and enriching. I developed a palate for everything from ballet to hip hop to post-modern to silence to text to well selected pop music to live accompaniment. Some of the best courses I took were writing intensive courses where we read and discussed dance in culture, creating dance histories, and making meaning in dance.

The program cultivated my technical proficiency and my artistic worldview. I grew as a dancer and choreographer and I developed skills to articulate my values, ideas, and contribute to dialogue in a thoughtful, well researched way. I earned a 4.0 my very last semester and I was proud.

Transitioning out of undergrad was a different story. Collegiate training is valuable, but it was only one stage of my continuing artistic realization. 

I'm critical of assumptions young adults may have about getting hired out of college and I'm critical of what universities don't implement into their curriculum. After graduation, I had no idea how much to charge for a dance class. I was frustrated that no one ever gave me a straight answer about income unless I asked a friend or I heard stories of recent graduates who worked 7 jobs at a time.

It took nearly a full year before I could identify with clarity and intentionality what work I wanted to do, and I'm so thankful for the people that extended those early opportunities to me. It took several months out of college before I started perceiving my artistry as a small business and before I could confidently articulate the through line in my work. 

College students, it's not up to your university to prepare you for a job. You prepare you for a job, start now. Education is one qualification employers look for. Perhaps more importantly, you should also be ready to articulate your own goals and values and back them up with relevant experiences. When it comes time to enter the field, you must be driven by your mission. The assumption that going to college will get you a job is outdated and incomplete. Our economy stopped working like that a long time ago.

Your faculty is wise and experienced-listen to their stories and advice. They are the ones who can be more transparent about the business of the field and what young artists can expect. Talented students, don't be deceived into thinking that a consistent job is one audition away or that a full time performance company is a feasible option. If you're just starting out, you'll hear a lot of  "No." Never take rejection personally. The field is changing. Artists, together we must continue advocating for our livelihood in the field of creating culture.

University arts programs, treat your students like the entrepreneurs they are and implement curriculum that will better expose them to managing the business of their art, creating jobs, and inspiring social change. Your alumni ought to thrive.

Today I'm proud to be doing exactly what I want to be doing, but it took an extra year in the making after earning my degree in order to secure sustainable streams of income and re-learn how to stay active as a performer and choreographer. And I'm still learning as I go, wondering with the rest of my peers and mentors where the funding is, and continuing to imagine where our artistic initiatives can take us.

dancing joyfully,