What you can do to promote diversity in CI

This is likely the first of many posts about diversity and contact improvisation.

It is hopefully no secret to you that contact improvisation dancers are not a particularly diverse group. CI dancers tend to be white, quite educated, coming from upper-middle-class backgrounds (though not necessarily making a lot money themselves), physically fit and able, and politically very liberal. A significant portion are yoga teachers, dancers, massage therapists, teachers, therapists, and computer programmers (of some sort). Many attend neo-hippie-ish events such as Burning Man, the Rainbow Gathering, and other things I’m not so familiar with (I don’t mean to be reductive of these events, but they share some similarities). Many more than you’d expect are straight, given both the overall rate of queerness in society and in dance in particular, and there’s a lot more heteronormativity in CI than might be totally necessary.

Diversity is talked about frequently with much concern in CI circles, but nothing much ever seems to be done about it. I think, actually, that the CI community as a whole hasn’t really confronted diversity as a challenge or a commitment the way that universities and even corporate America has. Once I happened to have been invited to a gala dinner where the McDonald’s corporation was being honored for its commitment to diversity. Afterwards I found myself thinking, “Wow, McDonald’s is way more committed to diversity than contact improvisation.”

I think part of what happens is that folks don’t know where to start. I think it’s fair to assume that CI is not actively exclusionary or hateful, random individuals aside, and so well-meaning souls look around at a homogenous room and think, “Well, how will this become more diverse? How can I start? Why aren’t people just showing up?”

But then often CI dancers, in my experience, make the mistake of getting way too deep and complex on this, and get a little lost. Conversation goes towards deeper underlying social issues, large demographic trends, complex (and fairly spurious) anthropological theories, and much apologetic hand-wringing. And then we feel really bad about it, sigh, say “It’s a really complex problem,” and then we go dance. And the dancing is fun and we forget about the difficult conversation, and nothing much happens after that.

The problem is that the complexity becomes a deterrent towards taking action, or even an excuse for inaction. When really, it doesn’t change the fact that we should do something, even if we can’t transform the contact improvisation world overnight.

Here are a few simple suggestions for what you can do. There are no particularly brilliant solutions here, but I don’t really see these things being tried around the CI world. Will doing these things make CI a significantly more diverse place? Maybe not, but it can’t hurt to try. Let’s at least do these if we’re not doing them already, and then see.

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(Thanks to Ali Woolwich who gave me the ideas for some of these.)

1) Diversity scholarships.  Give “scholarships” to weekend events and classes to try to bring some people to jams that might not otherwise come, from backgrounds that aren’t particularly well-represented. You could give folks free admission to a jam, maybe some travel money if you could. It should be relatively inexpensive to the sponsoring organization (save the lost potential revenue, of course).

You might word it very open-endedly, letting anyone specify how they think they might bring diversity to the event. Let them write an essay where they point out how the group they come from or identify with is under-represented in the contact community. I think it’d be good to get a recommendation from a local dancer/teacher as well — someone more experienced who can attest to the person’s commitment to or enthusiasm for the form.

2) Advertising that includes photos of a range of people, implying that those people are welcome. Maybe try to avoid the classic photo of a young, white, fit woman flying on a somewhat older, fit, white man’s shoulders. Things rarely seen in contact photos: wheelchair dancers; minority dancers, especially black dancers; men dancing with men; etc.

3) Clearly stating physical accessibility for all contact events — elevators, automatic doors, wheelchair access, etc. This is very easily forgotten, but without it, you’re essentially saying that you haven’t given thought to how people with disabilities might come to your event, or you’re making those folks go through extra effort to find out if they can attend or are welcome.

4) Welcoming unfamiliar faces at jams — particularly those whom you might feel uncomfortable towards. Maybe it’s someone who’s older, or physically larger, or dressed differently, or physically hampered, or foreign-looking. Maybe it’s someone you just wouldn’t notice, for whatever reason. Our natural tendency is to welcome those who we feel comfortable with, which is going to tend to be those whom seem familiar to us. Creating diversity requires stepping outside that comfort zone.

5) Using language to describe CI events that’s not too inaccessible or mystical.This might mean class descriptions that are a little more mainstream and not as poetic, but that are also not as distancing.

6) Describing and defining contact improvisation, in a way that’s reasonably straightforward.

7) Overall, having an attitude not of looking for “people like me” or “my tribe,” but looking for everyone — looking to bring everyone into contact improvisation, or at least expose them to it. This, of course, could change contact improvisation — but we should be willing to see what happens.

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