The Performing Arts Connection’s updated studio handbook—colorful, with lots of fun fonts and cool backgrounds—looked great. “It was very visually appealing,” says Samantha Bower, owner and artistic director of the Sudbury, Massachusetts, studio. But when one of her colleagues pointed out that a person with a visual impairment might struggle to read the text woven through the energetic design, Samantha and her team created a sensory-friendly alternate version with a clean layout, block text, and simple white background.
Like Samantha and her colleagues, many studio owners are reconsidering how they can help each and every client feel accepted and welcomed. But “each and every” can sometimes feel like an overwhelming—or even impossible—responsibility. “Tackle one thing at a time,” Alana Tillim, owner and director of Santa Barbara [California] Dance Arts, says about taking steps to assure that clients of different backgrounds and experiences feel at home in a studio space. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Ashley Mushamba, owner and director of 4.0 Movement Studios in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, says that client choice is an important part of a diverse and inclusive studio environment. Recognizing that styling a slick bun could be time-consuming or downright unrealistic for some dancers of color, she allows non-bun options such as half-up half-down, braids, or pigtails. “Most of the time, [hair] just needs to be out of your face,” she says.
With tights now available in a multitude of colors beyond pale pink, studios can offer students a choice of tights that will match and flatter their skin tone. A 4.0 Movement Facebook page for a ballet class sign-up points out how the pictured student’s tights and shoes match. “Receive a free pair designed especially for you,” it says, along with the hashtag for Blendz, one of the dance apparel and shoe companies that offers products in a variety of skin tone colors.
Samantha has removed gendered language from dress code and costume descriptions. “We’ve morphed into saying, ‘Option one is a leotard and skirt, and option two is a shirt and leggings,’ ” she says.
Performances also provide new opportunities for inclusivity. “A lot of studios have a Christmas showcase, but not everybody celebrates Christmas,” Ashley says. “Seeing that different cultures need different things means not just calling the show your ‘winter showcase’ but actively including elements that acknowledge other celebrations like Kwanzaa.”
As part of a broader effort to increase transparency, The Performing Arts Connection has made a public commitment to being more intentional about choosing music for classes, and musicals to present. Last year, in an open letter to families and the broader community, Samantha and team stated that staff would be engaged long-term in anti-racist education, and that certain shows performed in the past would be retired indefinitely. “Unless we have an Asian cast, we’re just not going to do Mulan anymore,” Samantha says. “The question is, who is in our population? What shows can we do that fit that population?”
Start by finding out what’s most important to your community. To learn where her studio had room to grow, Alana and her team met with a local Black Lives Matter chapter. “Our dress code, which referenced culturally inappropriate terms like ‘booty shorts,’ was a real blind spot,” Alana says. After revisions to the dress code and the addition of an Equity Statement, Santa Barbara Dance Arts’ website now sends the clear message that all are welcome to dance there.
“If we’re having these conversations, it’s important that we’re willing to get feedback and educate ourselves,” Alana says. “There are so many local organizations in our communities that can help us see where we can do better supporting issues of race, LGBTQIA, intersectionalities, feminism, mental health, and body positivity.”
Beyond community resources, diversity educators can be found by searching online for “unconscious bias training,” “anti-racist training,” and “diversity and inclusion training.” These professionals train faculty and staff on best practices around matters of inclusion and social justice; Samantha hired diversity coach Liza Talusan, Ph.D. to teach a workshop for faculty at The Performing Arts Connection. “She did a training with our whole staff that was terrific,” Samantha says. “We’ll bring her back as well [in the future].”
Questions of identity, diversity, and belonging are not easy. These discussions can be emotionally charged and difficult, to say the least. It might be helpful to solicit anonymous and/or written critiques on how your studio can improve. 4.0 Movement Studios has received helpful feedback via online surveys of their parent population on a regular basis. “We try to avoid asking in person because a lot of people don’t want to feel like they’re causing any type of trouble or confusion,” Ashley says. “They don’t want to be the reason a complete program changes.”
Ashley recommends giving out an “interest inventory” when new families register. That’s why she asks, via checkable boxes, “about what makes a family unique, including what holidays they do or don’t celebrate, and anything else they might need.” Ashley also issues periodic anonymous surveys to take the emotional temperature of her studio population. However you decide to gather requests, Ashley says, removing the intimidation factor of speaking up face-to-face opens space for parents and dancers to advocate for what they need from a studio’s programming, culture, and policies.
To foster a truly diverse and inclusive dance environment, keep an eye on a major contributor to studio culture: the dancers
themselves. “We’re pretty vigilant about watching the dynamics between kids, paying attention to things like whispering on the sidelines when someone’s singing a solo,” Samantha says.
Every class at The Performing Arts Connection begins with an explanation of what it means to foster a supportive environment where it’s safe for everyone to take artistic risks. “If we do see any kind of behavior or comment, or notice that certain kids always seem to end up on the sidelines, we address it with a quick aside so we can move forward,” Samantha says.
For many young dancers the studio is a second home, and it’s essential that young people feel comfortable expressing their authentic selves and learning about others’ differences. Structures such as gender-inclusive restrooms and registration forms that recognize gender diversity and fluidity will support young dancers in exploring what makes them special as individuals.
“We’re moving towards encouraging teachers in all classes to share their pronouns at the start of the semester,” Samantha says. “Starting when they’re in second or third grade, we invite students to also share their pronouns when they introduce themselves.”
Compassion: for others and yourself
When dance instruction went virtual last spring, Ashley set the studio technology up for success. But when participation seemed near nonexistent, Ashley realized students from low-income households might not have reliable access to high-speed internet connections. “We ended up doing more out-of-door programming, rather than virtual,” Ashley says.
Samantha acknowledges that while her studio does offer programs open to performers with physical disabilities, actual enrollment remains low. Alana sometimes still catches herself addressing dancers using the gendered language “ladies.” All of which is to say, mistakes will be made and hard lessons will be learned on this journey to make studios more welcoming for all dancers.
Such moments of discomfort and discouragement can be well worth it in the end. “I’m a sensitive human by nature. I don’t like to see kids being teased or bullied or left out,“ Samantha says. “As teachers we want to welcome all people into our studio community. But there’s actual work to be done before that can mean welcoming people from the most vulnerable communities.”
As an example of the work to be done, think about the difference between posting a single contextless picture of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson during Black History Month versus regularly highlighting properly researched Black dance history on your studio’s social-media feeds. “If you’re not going to follow it up throughout the year, don’t just throw out a statement out of nowhere,” Ashley says. “It’s somewhat offensive, and doesn’t seem sincere.”
Be patient and kind with yourself as you learn and grow, Alana says. “After 23 years of ownership, it’s hard to make these changes! But it’s so important,” she says. “Just remember that a 400-page book wasn’t written all at once. It’s written chapter by chapter.”