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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Promoting Anti-Racist Practices within Dance Programs, Part 2

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. Read part 1 here.

Part 2: Who dances? What are we dancing? How are we dancing together?

Dance/artists understand that making dances is a circuitous and messy process. Dance artists can utilize their abilities to step into the unknown to interrogate systemic racism by asking three important questions - Who dances? What are we dancing? How are we dancing together? This is the second blog in a series of three, sharing our community’s journey as we explored these three compelling questions.

As a young choreographer, I constructed dances out of sheer will and directives….do this, go there, jump high. In time, I learned to ask questions, listen to my body, and ultimately allow the dance to inform me. These skills are essential in leading efforts to undo systemic racism. As our community began to address Who/What/How, a difficult question arose. Where to start? Which of these wheels will set all the others spinning?

University of Illinois is a state institution, located in the cornfields, away from urban population, reliant on tenure track faculty to deliver the curriculum. This set of challenges dictated our first steps, which were to address who is dancing. More specifically, we began with student recruitment, because as a small department, faculty searches were rare. Each dance program has a different context, which will dictate different choices. For instance, an urban school, with access to a diverse pool of faculty expertise (even if primarily adjuncts), might be best served by changing the curriculum (what are we dancing), which if successful might ignite future full-time faculty hires (who dances). A program steeped in racial unrest will be forced to address the culture, (how we dance together), which might in turn, result in action items to change recruitment methodologies (who dances).

As we addressed student recruitment, our gatekeeping methods -criteria, audition processes, methodologies, and scholarships –immediately came under scrutiny and led to questions - What was our definition of excellence? Which technical skill dominated our criteria—a pirouette or twerking? Why? Questions led to more questions. Where were we recruiting? Why were we not seeking potential dance majors at hip-hop battles? By asking questions and pursuing new paths, the department went from 7% underrepresented students to 25-30% within five years and currently hovers between 42-48%. The next wheel started spinning immediately as a more diverse student body yearned for new role models.

Without a faculty search anytime soon, our community agreed to engage artists of color with expertise not represented by our current faculty. This offered an unexpected benefit - we built a pipeline, and when a search was finally approved, many of the guest artists applied. We strategically cast a wide net, knowing if our top candidates had a range of expertise, it would allow us to utilize campus programs to hire faculty of color. We hired four faculty in one search. Sixteen years ago, our tenure/tenure track underrepresented faculty members were 10%. In 2022-23 it will be 33%. As our community became more diverse, it was painfully clear we needed to dig deeper on the inclusiveness of our culture.

How Are We Dancing Together?

How we dance together is the toughest to change, because we’ve been doing the same dances forever. W.E.B DuBois, a historian and civil rights advocate, said at one point. “He was in Harvard, not of Harvard.” Inclusiveness is a small word, but a huge practice.

Operating within predominantly white, male institutions pose hidden and/or unrecognized challenges for women and colleagues of color. For instance, student evaluations can appear to be neutral but are anything but, often containing hidden gender and cultural bias. A seemingly neutral question - does this class start on time? - provides a good example. Several colleagues teaching African based classes noticed that their scores were low in this area, which was odd, because they were always in the classroom on time. But because building community was critical to African American culture, they intentionally let the class mingle, talk, laugh before officially beginning their classes. Students perceived that they weren’t starting on time, because the norms of “officially beginning” were different from the values of the culture being presented. A small point which signals to the larger issues.

Henry Adams understood choreographic process when he said, “Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” We all know the undignified feeling of chaos as the dance falls apart, but we also know that we must move through the uncomfortable space to get to something rich.

As our community changed, we struggled to speak honestly about our experiences regarding the tough subjects of race, gender and class. We committed to participating in annual diversity education workshops, which allowed people to share and listen to the stories that had shaped us. Workshops with professional outsiders provided a shared vocabulary and confidence to discuss issues more openly. It is a tumultuous and ongoing process.

What Are We Dancing?

For our community, the third question took the longest to address. Once we had a broad range of faculty expertise, we needed to interrogate the very nature of dance training itself. The vision of this now diverse group of thinkers went flying past my own imagination, as they formed their own elegant questions:

  • How might we vision a new curriculum that fully embraces difference in all aspects of human dimensions?
  • How might we break down hierarchies between student/faculty and within curricular offerings?
  • What are the special opportunities and possible qualifying characteristics of a dance curriculum within the context of a Research One large University?

Four years later the faculty adopted a radically new curriculum, which will start this fall. The implementation will require just as many questions, in order to keep all three wheels spinning at top speed.

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.



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