NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Jan Erkert, who was Head and Professor in the Department of Dance at University of Illinois from 2006-2022. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
This 3-part blog series explores how dance artists can utilize embodied knowledge and choreographic process to interrogate systemic racism in dance programs. Dance departments and their curricula entered academia in the mid-20th century primarily reflecting the values of the dominant white culture in the United States. Ballet and modern often became the pillars of these curricula and other dance forms were othered as electives, not as fundamental sources for learning. Many leaders of dance programs are working to dismantle the complex web of systemic racism (found in curricular policies, hierarchies, schedules and nomenclature), which has been actively woven into our programs and the threads continue to hold on tight. The first blog will explore our complex relationships with power and privilege, especially as leaders and advocates for change. The second blog will outline possible strategies for making an impact on who dances, what we dance and how we are dancing together. The last blog in the series will discuss ways to create non-hierarchical systems when offering multiple techniques.
Part 1: The Power and Privilege of Leadership
Dancers know that in order to change a movement habit, an awareness of the habit is the first and most fundamental step toward finding new pathways. Working to bring anti-racist practices to our communities, requires leaders and advocates to attentively look inward. Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to be an Anti-Racist says, “Like fighting an addiction, being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self- examination.”
For all those working or aspiring to undo systemic racism in your programs, you know the patterns of oppression, guilt/shame, and power/privilege are so deeply embedded in our bodies, that even on a good day, the feeling of hopelessness can overwhelm even the hardiest souls. Ironically, the father of darkness, Leonard Cohen, provides a ray of hope in his song Anthem, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” There are lots of cracks in these historic walls of racism, so maybe, shining a flashlight on one little crack on the south side of the Grand Canyon can change something.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted in Between the World and Me, racism is “a visceral experience,” Dancers’ unique abilities to read visceral signs can foster embodied investigations of power and privilege. We come from different experiences and identities. Some have a sophisticated understanding of power/privilege through creative and scholarly research. And of course, for those identifying as BIPOC, daily living provides numerous stories about who has power and who does not.
When I started my job as Head of Dance at University of Illinois, I dismissed power as unimportant, flippantly saying, “I’m not interested in power, I just want to do things.” Leading also felt powerless at times – the Dean distributed resources, the faculty decided curriculum, and HR made life miserable. But by not recognizing the power of position to decide on raises and promotions or assign responsibilities, and by not attending to the privilege of my identity as a white, heterosexual woman, I inadvertently wielded too much power. This led to a realization that I had the power and privilege to set up systems that distributed power. I had the power to be more collaborative; to break down hierarchies and negotiate power. Power, then shifted to a feeling of empowerment.
Power and privilege lurk in unexpected places. Mine resided in white and midwestern values for niceness. Whenever racial tensions appeared in our community, my first call was to a faculty of color. During a very serious conflict, they were out of town, so I had to address the situation myself, which was frightening. As a person of color, she dealt with this every day, while I had the privilege to take it or leave it. I needed to embrace the same physical and emotional courage I demanded of my students. Assuming a position of power can also exacerbate feelings self-doubt, commonly known as the imposter syndrome. Research shows that women and people of color are particularly susceptible to this syndrome, due to the constant messages of not belonging commonly found in predominantly white, male spaces and institutions. This too, requires self-reflection and self- examination to exorcize these roadblocks to mental health.
Fear of failure and the resulting resistance to reveal vulnerability common to imposter syndrome are unfortunate, as vulnerability can be a leadership strength. Failing was never a part of my playbook, due to my warped perceptions of perfection. However, if allowed, people will help you confront your failures. One day at a meeting I framed an issue through race and was immediately confronted by a colleague. My response? Defensiveness can be a very seductive option, especially when in front of your team. But my good senses took over. They were correct in their assessment and courageous to push back. I needed to do nothing more than to apologize and give thanks. The embarrassment of failure was overridden by a realization that by publicly recognizing my failures, the community became more courageous and truthful in hard discussions.
Patterns of privilege are played out in various intersections of class, race, age, gender and abilities. I sat on an administrative council at my institution for 16 years, which was primarily populated by white men. Conversation was not circular – their weight space and time were bound, direct and fast. I learned the art of conversation through my practice of jump roping, which is a circular action. In order to enter the jump rope you take a breath at the top of the circle and then enter creating a seamless flow. I have learned to dart into conversations with my bros, but just once, I would love for them to give me the space to take a breath.
All these interactions forced me to reflect and wrestle with some hard truths about my own story regarding race. I have always attributed my successes to my perseverance and hard work - a part of my German, working class upbringing. But the story began to shift as I studied the effects of racism. After returning from World War II, my father and his Black friend both sought to buy houses in the suburbs of Detroit through the GI Bill. My dad got his dream house in the suburbs, but due to racist policies of red-lining, his friend stayed in Detroit. His son attended dilapidated schools, while I attended the best. When I applied to college, my bootstraps were significant. By unpacking my own history, I learned to hold onto multiple truths: I achieved success through my own agency, AND I had help from an affirmative action plan called whiteness. The practice of dancing teaches us the same- I drop my weight in a hip-hop class and alternately draw my weight upward in a ballet class. These practices don’t negate each other –they provide options.
I have been transformed by leading diversity efforts. The work is never done, but I hope that eventually a brigade of flashlights will light up every nook and cranny on the whole south wall of the Grand Canyon.
Jan Erkert was the Head of the Department of Dance at University of Illinois from 2006- 2022. As Artistic Director of Jan Erkert & Dancers she created over 70 works that received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. Erkert’s current research explores leadership from an embodied perspective. She has been awarded two major awards from the University of Illinois - the Executive Officer Distinguished Leadership Award (2020), for her outstanding leadership and vision, and the Larine Y. Cowan Make a Difference Award for Leadership in Diversity (2014) for her work to undo racism within the department, college and university. She was selected to be a Public Voices Fellow in 2020 as part of the national OpEd Project, and has published numerous OpEds in such publications as CNN Opinion and The Chicago Sun-Times. She is a Fulbright Scholars Awardee, author of Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance (2003), and served as a commissioner on accreditation for NASD. She is seeking publication of her manuscript, Every Body has a Body Full of Wisdom, Stories of Leadership and Life and working as a leadership coach for teachers and dance administrators.
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Dance at Illinois by Natalie Fiol.