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Inspired Inclusivity

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Richard Smith’s passion for dance is palpable. You can feel it radiate from his voice when he talks; his fingertips when he types. His smile precedes him, reminding students and colleagues alike that he’s there to challenge them, yes, but also to cheer them on. A “teacher’s teacher” known for his training presentations and videos as well as his instruction on the convention circuit, Richard is the owner of 360 Dance Festival and former Artistic Director of Inaside Dance Chicago. He is a tireless champion of technique and how to help kids feel accepted and loved in the dance classroom.

As a Black man in dance, Richard says that his experiences growing up made him “tough and smart and deliberate” with the way he teaches now. There were times that he was passed over for principal roles; times that he felt overlooked or undeserving—not because of his ability, but because of his skin color. Now with a keen sensitivity to inclusivity, Richard is eager to help studio owners and teachers navigate their way to understanding and supporting their clients of color.

Start with offering suggestions that are beneficial to all the dancers at your studio and true to your mission, says Richard, like with the dress code or costumes. “If you want all dancers to have skin tone tights, but you don’t carry them, direct [your clients] to where they can purchase what they need. Blendz Apparel carries multiple shades of brown tights and ballet shoes,” Richard cites as an example. “Freed and Ballet Black partnered to create pointe shoes in a range of shades of brown.” If a vendor doesn’t have what you need to serve a variety of skin tones, Richard says, don’t accept a generic answer as an explanation. Keep asking. “It has long been accepted [that there are few choices],” Richard explains, “but we accept everything we tolerate.”

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When it comes to asking your clients of color about their wants and needs, Richard says you must approach with kindness and curiosity. “Seek to be educated and drop the fear of offense,” he advises. “Remember that the anticipation of fear is greater than the fear itself. For most studio owners, it is not on purpose that they have not noticed the little things that are now brought to light.” Those “little things” might include the aforementioned dress code or costuming; or perhaps which hairstyles are recommended. It could be asking your clientele about how they’re feeling when racial tensions flare.

Inclusivity doesn’t stop at the classroom door either, Richard reminds us. “The impact goes so much further. Whom studio owners contract to do business with, from construction to landscaping to overall business best practices—these are opportunities to broaden the circle of people involved with the success of the studio.” Hiring plays a part too, he says, as does paying special attention to the way you speak to and treat your students and encourage them to open up too.

“’Make a friend’ is a common phrase that parents tell their children when they are going into a new situation,” Richard remarks. “Let’s expand it: How about ‘make a friend who looks different than you’? This would include children with disabilities [and] people of all different shapes, colors, and sizes. It will teach our students to be aware of differences and give them a way to use the differences to find similarities.”

Our kids are watching, says Richard, and they will continue to pick up on what the adults around them say and do. It goes back to his philosophy of teaching; of encouraging his students to be their best and allowing them to see dance as a pathway to success.

“The truth is, we are all more alike than we are different. The only thing standing in the way is fear. Teach our students to tackle and handle fear, and we can see them improve in class and in life.”

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