An Interview with Amy Fitterer at Dance/USA
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Amy Fitterer is the Executive Director of Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance, which serves a broad cross-section of the dance field. Here, she shares how the country’s largest dance service organization has been responding to the needs of both individual dance artists and dance organizations during the pandemic, how Dance/USA has integrated equity into a core part of its mission, and how she sees virtual platforms as an opportunity to increase reach and accessibility.
This interview is part of a series looking at how dance organizations have responded to the tumultuous events of 2020.
Amy Fitterer, Executive Director of Dance/USA, Photo by Alison Bank Photography
What was Dance/USA’s initial response to the pandemic back in March and April?
Dance/USA immediately convened all 18 of our member networks, which include artistic directors, executive directors, service organizations, presenters, agents, and affinity groups. We came together starting on a weekly basis. Those calls have continued, though some have evolved and are now every other week or once a month. Attendance is very strong and the feedback from the membership is that these calls have been a lifeline. They are opportunities for people to share how they are problem solving in the moment, understanding the latest health guidelines, and supporting each other as they make very difficult decisions. It’s been joint community problem solving and idea generation. There’s a sense of a very strong network.
We employ a government affairs director who is a registered lobbyist for the dance field. It’s a shared position with OPERA America. It’s actually the position I held when I first got hired by Dance/USA over a decade ago. Advocacy at the federal level is core to what Dance/USA does. We jumped into lobbying for COVID relief support. If you remember, a series of bills were passed. We did a lot of advocacy and action alerts around the third one, which was the CARES Act, and it resulted in more than 10,000 letters to Congress. We put the call out over social media and on our website, so we had many people participate beyond our membership.
We included in all our lobbying packages pandemic unemployment, which continues to be very important, knowing that one of the hardest hit constituencies in this pandemic are individuals piecing their income together. This is the majority of the dance field. Tacking on that additional $600 for individuals in the CARES Act was incredibly important and something we continue to push for.
An image from Dance/USA’s social media promoting COVID-related advocacy
How did Dance/USA shift (or did it shift) in response to the George Floyd protests this past summer?
Working in advocacy and social justice has been core to Dance/USA for almost a decade. We have been trying to tackle our own internal inequities and our history of inequity. We are working not just to transform ourselves but also to work with our members in the broader field on the importance of becoming a much more equitable and anti-racist industry.
When the George Floyd murder took place, Dance/USA felt like everybody else: We were heartbroken and angry, but we also felt that we were not beginning at step one in awakening to the inequities in our industry. In all honesty, what was encouraging was that the uprising awakened many more people working in the industry to our field’s inequities than were sensitive to them before. We felt that, rather than getting pushback from some of our constituents for our work around undoing racism in dance, more and more people were willing to come to the table.
As everybody did for better or for worse, we released a statement on Black Lives Matter. A statement is incredibly important, but everybody knows a statement is just a statement. In our statement, we affirmed our mission and values, which were rewritten three years ago by the board to center equity and justice as core to the work we do. We still have so much work to do ourselves and are continuing on this journey. One of the things that came about from the George Floyd protests was more dialogue around white supremacy culture. We are diving deeper into what white dominant culture is and how it is playing out in our art forms.
Dance/USA had booked the organization Service Never Sleeps for our in-person June conference. With our in-person conference not able to happen, we pivoted Service Never Sleeps to virtual. There is a thirst for what Service Never Sleeps does, so we expanded it beyond a conference session. The staff and board went through a four-module training, and we’ve been offering external trainings to anybody in the industry who would like to join for a very low fee.
The Service Never Sleeps training is brilliant. Module one is allyship. This empowers everybody to understand that no matter who you are, we all have privilege in some areas, and in that moment it’s our responsibility to be an ally to those who do not have privilege in that area. I think that is powerful because it provides a platform of strength that everybody can stand on. Module two is understanding and unpacking white supremacy culture. Module three is microaggressions and internal bias. And module four is building equity.
As we pivoted our June conference to virtual, we centered the BIPOC voice. We also brought in a psychologist who is an expert on the effects of racism on mental health. While we spoke about COVID and the safety and health issues there, we also spoke about racism and its effects on mental health. We had a couple of dedicated sessions for artists who work in social justice, moderated and in conversation with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director/chief visioning partner of Urban Bush Women. The conversation was geared to leaders and social justice warriors who have been doing this work for decades.
We also coordinated with The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD). “Open Space: An Artist Connectivity Series, Special Edition,” presented by IABD, Sheffield Global Arts Management (SGA Management), KMP Artists, and Dance/USA took place during our conference. We opened with a session by Urban Bush Women and we closed with Cleo Parker Robinson’s “Celebration of Life.” Cleo talked about living through the 60s and the civil unrest then. She talked about her life’s journey and how proud she was this summer to see the next generation on the streets. Watching it from my home on my laptop, I was very moved.
In the conference itself, we talked about dance and performance seasons, but everything was grounded in a strong reality of what we were living through. Not that I want to program a conference in eight weeks under crisis again, but it gave the Dance/USA team a chance to be responsive.
A screenshot from the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training 2020 virtual seminar
What are some ways Dance/USA is currently responding to the needs of the dance community?
As our weekly and bi-weekly member network calls have continued we decided to survey our member groups in August. In order to stay responsive, we made some minor adjustments to ensure we were providing the best networking experience. There is power in a national association to create space for connection, peer learning, and information sharing.
Our virtual conference had almost 1300 registrants because it was more accessible and equitable. We offered pay-what-you-can registration and the entry rate was $10. We’ve done some extensive processing about what we learned from a virtual conference. The virtual model is something we’re going to hold on to next year. And in the future when we can go back to in-person, we’ll be looking at a hybrid model.
We also blew open our membership structure. COVID is giving Dance/USA a huge opportunity to move further along on what we call our equity continuum. Structural change is one of the next big areas. From July through December, we completely abated membership dues. If you were already a member, you didn’t have to do anything but keep showing up and responding to action alerts. Members might be laid off or furloughed, or they might have just had to lay off many people. They might be looking at ending their company or be under pressure by their university to close their presenting house. The pressures are extreme and hard, but we just want people to stay in the conversation to navigate toward solutions.
We also opened membership to new members at just $25 for both individuals and organizations. That has been well received. So far, we have more than 70 new members, the majority of which are organizations, but we do have many new individuals as well.
Looking toward the future, how far out does Dance/USA feel able to plan? And are events all virtual, or have any in-person events been planned?
As we look to the future, we will continue our core services of engagement, advocacy, research, and preservation. As we’re still in the middle of this pandemic, we will continue aggressively with our federal advocacy. Tony Shivers is our phenomenal government affairs director. He recently released an election analysis. During the crisis, he had our members speaking with Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate.
Dance/USA’s get-out-the-vote campaign #Dance2Vote
We also participated with the broader nonprofit sector on policy position statements as well as broader arts sector statements. At the coalition tables, there’s a lot of conversation around how we’re advocating for the individual artist. That was on the table pre-COVID, but it has grown. “Individual artist” is a complicated term; they might be employed parttime. The majority of the independent artists in our industry piecemeal their income together, and they were disastrously hit. In that regard, our advocacy will continue.
We will be asking for membership dues again in 2021 because we need revenue, but we will keep them as discounted as possible. We are also going to keep new-membership dues at a very low rate. We can’t serve people unless they are connected and participating.
It is going to be a hard year financially for Dance/USA because we don’t expect membership dues to come in at the levels they have in the past. Our other funders and sponsors have stayed and are being supportive. Dance/USA is financially stable. But the reality is that the longer this crisis drags on, the harder it will be for everybody.
We have been very frustrated that Congress cannot come to an agreement for a new COVID relief package. As the legislation is frozen, people are losing jobs, unable to pay rent or groceries, and organizations that employ people are going into the red and looking at new rounds of furloughs and layoffs. We absolutely need our federal government to take action.
How do you think 2020 is going to impact Dance/USA or the larger dance field in the long term?
I am optimistic that when we get to where it’s safe to dance together again without masks, there is going to be a heyday for live performance experiences. What we carry forward is the learnings and experimentation of virtual, so there’s a hybrid future for all of us where there is joyous time dancing together. It’s going to be so wonderful to be together again breathing and exhaling the same air and not worrying about getting each other sick, as well as being able to shake hands, hug, and sit shoulder to shoulder.
I think we’ve also been given a huge opportunity to invest and experiment in technology, because it’s either that or go away right now. We’re learning so much about what works in the virtual realm and how we can engage people from all over the world. Companies are having people log into their virtual seasons from different countries. There has been a huge opportunity to experiment with how to create dance for film and in unique venues. We’re learning about distribution networks, and I wonder if the rightsholders and unions will adapt to be more responsive to virtual platforms in the future.
We’re continuing to ride the waves – it’s still a difficult time – but I think the storm will end. Humans dance; I’m not worried about that. I just hope we take advantage of this terrible crisis. In a way, there’s no better time to experiment with new ways of doing things than right now, so let’s carry what works forward.
Any other thoughts?
In January 2020, I announced that I’m stepping down as executive director at the end of this year, after being in the role for 10 years. I have a small child and am excited to prioritize my family for a while. On December 1, Dance/USA announced Kellee Edusei will step into the role of Executive Director. Kellee has been with Dance/USA for 12 years and will bring great passion, insight, and energy to leading the organization. It’s been an honor to lead and serve the dance field simultaneously. This position has taken constant adaptation and humility, and I am taking with me many great memories and connections.
To learn more, visit www.danceusa.org.