Returning after its two-year pandemic hiatus, the 33rd International Conference and Festival of Blacks in Dance kicked off at the end of January with 500 attendees from ten countries convening in downtown Toronto. Hosted in a different North American city each year, the conference visits Toronto for the third time with local co-host dance Immersion, a non-profit organization that produces and promotes dancers and dances of the African Diaspora.
The conference has been a gathering for the Black dance sector since its first meeting in Philadelphia in 1988, organized by Philadanco! dance company’s artistic director and dance luminary Joan Myers Brown. Just a few years later, five Black-led dance companies (Philadanco!, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company) came together to formally create the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) which now oversees the annual conference and has a wider umbrella of activities that “preserve and promote dance by people of African ancestry or origin.”
At the Sheraton Centre and Hotel, the conference’s homebase, there was a palpable buzz in the air. Young dancers criss-crossed the lobby on their way to prep at the theatre or take an audition, some collapsed audibly into hotel chairs with exhaustion before being pulled into the next wave of activity. The large presence of youth invigorated the conference format, reminding me that this event was equally a festival. A packed three-day schedule of dance workshops and auditions were hosted in the studios of Canada’s National Ballet School, and both professional and in-training dancers took to the stage over multiple days in mixed bill performance showcases at the Jane Mallett Theatre. It was great to see such a wide variety of dance styles and expertise represented in one place. Among the masterclass offerings were classical ballet, Graham technique, African-Ethiopian dance, tap, Radio City Rockettes style, and fusion contemporary dance techniques like L’antech which combines European, Asian, and Afro-Caribbean movement vocabularies to reflect the plurality of the Caribbean experience.
This year’s conference was increasingly oriented towards the international Black dance community with the theme “Globally Connected: What does our tomorrow hold?”
“The theme builds on the last conference that took place in Philadelphia in 2020 where we had over 1000 people with a large contingency from the UK, Europe and the Caribbean,” said Vivine Scarlett, the founding executive director of dance immersion.
“We are making connections to dances of the diaspora around the world,” IABD President Denise Saunders Thompson said. It signals a complex and far-reaching network of Black dance artists working today who encompass the broadest range of movement styles and dance influences across geographies, cultures, music, and histories.
Saunders Thompson has been steering IABD for over a decade and announced the end of her tenure this year. It was under her leadership that in 2020 IABD published a survey of 30 Black-led dance organizations in the United States entitled “The Black Report: What you thought you knew about Black dance.” The findings reveal a challenging environment: funding for Black-led dance companies falls far behind White-led mainstream dance, and most U.S. presenters “still only commit themselves to presenting one Black dance company per year, regardless of the program content.” The hard facts are that Black-led dance companies in the United States have historically struggled to receive the same recognition as their White peers due to pre-Civil Rights era racial discrimination that delineated what Black bodies could do and where Black bodies could be seen. The trickle-down effect of that era to the present day shows up in a lack of opportunities and funding for Black dancers and dance companies. Black aesthetics and artistic value are still largely judged against Eurocentric standards.
One way the conference and festival chose to address these ongoing systemic issues was through celebration—openly sharing Black dance histories and recognizing achievements across the Black dance sector. This year’s awards ceremony honoured Black dance artists and dance professionals from Canada including John Alleyne, Rosemary James, Don Jordan, and Ola Marie Skanks.
Alleyne was a dancer at Stuttgart Ballet in the 1980s where he created many pieces for the Noverre choreographic workshop, later taking up post at the National Ballet of Canada as resident choreographer and then becoming artistic director of Ballet British Columbia in 1992 where company member Crystal Pite had recently made her choreographic debut. Rehearsal director Rosemary James was honoured for her decades-long career at Toronto Dance Theatre which has been a hub for Canadian and international dance artists for more than 50 years and has recently welcomed a new artistic director Andrew Tay. Don Jordan, hailing from Montreal, received an Innovators Award for his co-founding of the Jazz Dance Factory school that nurtured many Broadway talents. Jordan also had a long and successful dance and acting career, earning over 80 film and television credits at a time when few Black performers appeared in mainstream media (Jordan’s first television gig was at the height of the hippie youth movement in Canada as a dancer in the ‘60s variety show Like Young). Ola Marie Skanks, a native Torontonian of Caribbean descent, was recognized posthumously for her development of African diasporic and modern dances in Canada. She was also featured in an excellent panel exhibition displayed in the conference lounge entitled It’s About Time: Dancing Black in Canada 1900-1970 curated by dance historian Seika Boye.
“We are saying to our ecosystem, please recognize and acknowledge the contributions of these Black dancers in the work you are continuing to do, and who have most likely paved the way for us to be where we are today,” Saunders Thompson said.
While I only made it to two conference sessions, I would have liked to attend many others: Barbadian dance cultures, AfrikCore movement as medicine, digital archives for contemporary Black choreographers, and Afrofuturism influences in dance. Early Saturday morning, I attended a virtual session with co-presenters Maria Earle and Roxana Menzies on the legacy of Black dancer Kathleen “Kathy” Stanford Grant (1921-2010) who was formative in the development of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and a prolific Pilates teacher who studied under Joseph Pilates.
Kathy is just one example of “a long history of Black artists making themselves visible when they were made to be invisible,” said Maria Earle whose Master’s thesis “Sing My Song: The Legacy of Kathleen Stanford Grant” laid the groundwork for the joint presentation, which revealed just how much the history of concert dance in the United States is also the history of racial segregation.
“She was not allowed to stand at the same barre as the White students,” Earle remarked, speaking to Stanford Grant’s early education in classical ballet at the Boston Conservatory of Music in the 1930s where she was the only Black student. Despite there being no opportunities for Black ballerinas at the time, Stanford Grant completed her ballet training and took the next best job as a chorus girl for Cafe Zanzibar in Harlem, one of New York City’s top nightclubs known for its floor shows and regular appearances by big name African American jazz musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. A quick search into Zanzibar’s history provides a glimpse of a racially divided New York City mid-century. Most dance clubs prohibited Black customers or discouraged them from entry, and although Zanzibar admitted both Black and White patrons, people of colour as well as lower class White customers were seated a level apart from wealthier White clientele. A flyer for Zanzibar boasts its “sepia” chorus line. It becomes painfully evident that there was a whole culture of policing around who was permitted to be on stage and who was permitted to be in the audience.
Due to racial prejudice at home, many Black performers left the United States for Europe. Kathleen Stanford Grant went abroad too after completing a full run of the 1947 Broadway production “Finian’s Rainbow,” the first racially-integrated show on Broadway which features a leprechaun and a magical White-to-Black(face) transformation in its story of race and class among sharecroppers in the American South. It was in the 1950s that Stanford Grant’s personal history intersected with the growth of one of the most popular forms of body conditioning for ballet dancers—Pilates. By the time Stanford Grant approached Joseph Pilates with a knee injury, Joe, as his students called him, had already earned a name among the New York ballet scene thanks to his first studio being in the same Hell’s Kitchen home as George Balanchine’s rehearsal space for the New York City Ballet. Stanford Grant studied with Joe and effectively created her own Pilates training certification under the New York State vocational rehabilitation program, becoming one of two students to be officially certified by Joseph Pilates himself. She went on to teach Pilates to dancers for 50 years. Later in life, Stanford Grant directed the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in New York City which was created under the guidance of Alvin Ailey to alleviate the problem of few rehearsal and performance spaces for Black artists, and her work also led to the formation of Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first black American classical ballet company in the United States.
I also attended the first public screening of the documentary film Maboungou: Being in the World (Canada, 2023) on Franco-Congolese choreographer, dancer, and philosophy professor Zab Maboungou who founded Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata in Montreal and was a 2021 recipient of a Governor General’s Artistic Achievement Award.
Directed by Mouvement Perpetuel (Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar), the documentary’s poetic approach lends itself to Maboungou’s brilliant philosophies on society, individuality, democracy, and time that flow from her relationship to dance. Growing up in Congo-Brazzaville during the country’s fight for independence from colonialism, Maboungou’s family fled to France and she later settled in Montreal. The film opens like a myth. Narration written by dance scholar Dr. ‘Funmi Adewole Elliott lends timelessness to Maboungou’s deeply personal history as a girl of mixed European-African heritage growing up in Central Africa during a period of social and political upheaval. Archival footage captures the liveliness of village dance circles that Maboungou participated in as a child, which became central to her understanding of the world. In Maboungou’s words, “dance was part of the revolutions, dance is processing history.” Sequenced with environmental shots of Montreal through the seasons, the documentary posits what it might mean to exist at the confluence of two cultures (French and Congolese), between tradition and colonialism, and to be rooted in Central Africa while living in Canada. The film will be available online starting March 23rd at the 40th Edition of the International Festival of Films on Art.
In its far-reaching program and educational outreach, the 33rd Annual International Conference and Festival of Blacks in Dance sheds light on many lesser-known Black dance histories and dance professionals that have shaped what we understand to be dance and performance today. Curator Seika Boye wrote in her exhibition text, “African-American culture influenced and defined much of twentieth-century culture and entertainment in North America and beyond.” As futures are built on pasts, this generative and resilient history offers infinite possibilities to the question what does our tomorrow hold?