An Interview with Debra Cash at Boston Dance Alliance
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Debra Cash is the Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance, a dance service organization that builds capacity for dance by identifying and creating shared resources, information, and partnerships across the Boston metropolitan area and New England region. Here, Debra shares the myriad ways Boston Dance Alliance has responded to the needs of the dance community throughout 2020, the organization’s plans to address accessibility for dancers with disabilities, and how the plethora of virtual events this past year are both a boon and a mixed bag.
This interview is part of a series looking at how dance organizations have responded to the tumultuous events of 2020.
What was Boston Dance Alliance’s initial response to the pandemic back in March and April?
Boston Dance Alliance (BDA) was about to have our annual in-person gala days before Massachusetts shut down. We ended up losing our deposit for the banquet and the performers couldn’t come. For a while, we just paused. At that point, the idea that we wouldn’t be able to do anything in late summer had not sunk in. We eventually moved the gala to a virtual event many months later so the people we had intended to honor would still have the celebration they deserved.
One of the first things I did was repurpose what had been a weekly newsletter that went out to about 3,000 people. Prior, it had been information about upcoming workshops and performances from website postings. We completely repurposed it to go out every couple of days with information about COVID requirements, relief programs, encouragement, and crisis management. BDA’s strength is that we’re very small, but we have a big network. I was able to connect people with resources – not necessarily to give them the information they needed, but at least how to get information. At the same time, I became part of a cohort of cultural leaders in the Boston area who were on weekly calls with the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. It became a place where we could talk directly to the city agency and public health experts and then share that information with our constituency.
Soon after, I got an email and a small check from someone asking if there was going to be a relief fund for dancers. A larger foundation came forward with seed money. That was matched by one other organization and we started with about $5,000. We decided the relief fund would be open to dancers, choreographers, and dance teachers within a certain catchment of the Boston metropolitan area. The only thing BDA required in the application was that people say they had lost at least $250 due to cancellations. It was a low bar, as some people lost a lot of money, but once people said they lost income, they got on my spreadsheet. Each emergency grant would be $250.
We knew that primarily white contemporary dance artists are on BDA’s social media network. The hip hop community, for example, is not as integrated into our networks. Because the grants would be given first come first serve, in order to distribute the money in an equitable way, we got in touch with two Black women involved with programming festivals primarily for Black artists, and asked them to activate their networks so more people would be connected to this opportunity. I was extraordinarily gratified that we ended up with a proportionate distribution of funds across different demographics.
When we opened the call for applications, I was nervous and skeptical. The universe of need was enormous, and we had $5,000 in hand. The first 24 hours, we had 35 or 40 applications. The community stepped up and, by the end of the program, we had raised $15,000 and made donations to 62 dance artists. The relief fund opened April 1st and closed in June. Many other organizations across the country were similarly managing local relief funds. One of the things that has come out of the pandemic is enormous cross-disciplinary and national cooperation from those of us who are in service and coordinating functions.
How did Boston Dance Alliance shift (or did it shift) in response to the George Floyd protests this past summer?
Like everyone else, we sent an eblast saying that our hearts were broken and we have a commitment to doing justice work. One thing we did that was different than most other organizations was that our statement defined what we had already put in place to support dancers of color in our community.
An example of support BDA already has in place is a program I started many years ago that distributes brand-new dancewear to low income dancers, who are primarily dancers of color. It’s a wonderful arrangement with the strip mall dancewear folks when they have leftover inventory. If they have pointe shoes in sizes 4, 7, and 9, for example, but have sold the other sizes, they may take the random sizes off the shelf and put them in a back room. What small dancewear stores have done over many years is give their excess brand-new inventory to BDA once or twice a year and we distribute it through our member organizations. We have distributed close to $150,000 worth of new dancewear. We consider it part of our justice initiative. Nobody shouldn’t be able to participate in this artform because they can’t afford the equipment. You can’t take a tap class if you don’t have tap shoes. We’re not in a position to give scholarships, but we can help make it possible for low income dancers to participate.
It was a deliberate decision to say we’re already doing the work. We know there’s a long way to go and we’re happy to learn of more needs we can address. We’re happy to be in collaboration and solidarity with other organizations. But we have already been listening and hearing what is needed.
What are some ways Boston Dance Alliance is currently responding to the needs of the dance community?
BDA’s biggest initiative to date is that we have for the past four years hosted a dancer health day where dancers from across the region have come for a wellness screening with some of the Boston area’s most experienced dance medicine clinicians. These include orthopedists, physical therapists, and others trained in different sports medicine modalities. They test range of motion, lung capacity, stamina, and more, and then dancers receive one-on-one referrals by the clinicians. They wouldn’t necessarily prescribe, but they would give dancers information about what to do next. It’s part of a larger Dance/USA initiative that was started for ballet company dancers, but BDA was able to roll it out to freelancers.
This year, we of course couldn’t do it. We had always combined that event with an Open Call Audition where approximately 80 dancers would take up to four master classes while local choreographers observed them. We had to think out of the box, and, with the help of the clinicians, we were able to schedule 10 different online dancer health sessions on everything from nutrition and stress to how to take care of hamstrings and core strength. Especially given that people have been dancing at home, the focus was how to take care of the dancer’s instrument during this time. Much of that advice will be useful forever.
We were fortunate to be featured in an article in Pointe Magazine, and as a result we had people login for the sessions from as far away as Australia, South Africa, Los Angeles, and Wisconsin, as well as reaching the local Massachusetts dancers. That told me there was great hunger for this information, and that BDA was offering something not generally available. It was a way for people to get their questions answered. Many people came to many sessions, though some just came to one. People registered for $15 and could go to one session or all 10. People now can still register for that same $15 and get access to the video archive. It will be available for probably a year. Things like that have been blessings in disguise; we weren’t previously thinking of ourselves as broadcast entities.
Instagram image for the launch of BDA’s Dancer Health Month
The other thing we launched after Thanksgiving is a project funded by The Boston Foundation to support dance and disability. Five years ago, BDA did a one-day conference called Wheels Up! It was a chance for dancers with disabilities to talk about what was needed in the community. At the same time, I was part of the team that put together the National Convening on the Future of Physically Integrated Dance in 2016. So I was very up to date on disability and dance. After BDA’s regional event that followed that convening, we took away that we could create a bespoke matchmaking service for people with disabilities and people who wanted to work with them, schools that were accessible, and programs that had resources.
Here’s an example: I got a call from a person who uses a wheelchair and who was getting married to someone who is able-bodied, and they wanted to dance together at their wedding. I was able to put them in touch with a ballroom dance teacher who works with seniors and is comfortable with people who use wheelchairs. Moms will call us and say, “I’ve got a kid who loves to dance and who is Deaf,” and I will call the studios in the area and see who is interested in making their class available to the student.
We had been doing that, so the idea when I went to the Boston Foundation this past year was to do a one- or two-day conference about where things are now with dancers and disability. Then COVID hit. I rewrote the entire proposal to be a series of virtual conversations that are artist-led among dancers with disabilities over the course of a year. Essentially the project is to build a network among the dancers and learn from them about what the ecosystem in New England needs to make us more accessible and equitable.
BDA has subcontracted with Inclusive Arts Vermont to facilitate the virtual events and ensure our technology is accessible. There are dancers of all disabilities participating – both visible and invisible. The idea is they will meet each other and talk, as they don’t all know each other and work across genres. We are hoping that as ideas emerge, those needs can be met, or at least the organizations most likely to be able to fulfill them can engage.
For instance, we know that one of the priorities for concert dancers is accessible greenrooms in theaters. But it’s a heavy lift to make that happen. We can certainly explain to theaters and cultural facilities about what is needed so they can distribute information to anyone renovating a theater, but there are lots of smaller actions that are less expensive and quicker to put into place. We may find that there’s a good understanding of audio description for dance in Massachusetts but not necessarily in Maine. That’s something that can easily be replicated. People who have those assets or resources may be able to share or teach what is needed. Different problems will be dealt with by different combinations of people and resources. Some things may need new funding, while others just need awareness. We’re very excited about this initiative.
Looking toward the future, how far out does Boston Dance Alliance feel able to plan? And are events all virtual, or have any in-person events been planned?
We always had two main in-person activities: the open call audition/ dancer health day and the gala. Our gala was more of a community celebration. We have decided our next gala will be virtual and a little earlier in the year. Even if a vaccine is available, it won’t be available to everyone. Many of the people who come to the gala in our community are older, and the person who is nominated as Dr. Michael Shannon Dance Champion must be at least 60 years old to be in the running.
Our organization’s value is primarily sharing information and resources. The one thing we do have that is physical and tangible is our portable dance floor. It’s a very expensive asset – $50,000 – and it costs us more than $500 a month to store and insure. It was developed by Wooden Kiwi, a Boston-based manufacturer of dance floors. When the floor was originally designed, BDA wanted dancers to be able to set it up themselves and perform anywhere: a cafeteria with linoleum, an asphalt parking lot, carpet, or grass. It works with percussive shoes and barre feet as well, and sets up in about half an hour.
Historically, we would have a lot of rentals of the floor with sizes ranging from about 5 x 10 ft. for someone doing clogging or flamenco, to the full floor, which is 37.5 x 35 ft. People will rent the size they need for the amount of time they need, and pricing is according to size and membership. Most of our rentals are from March through September, and then another bump with Christmas programming. That went away with the pandemic, but we were gratified that in the summer we had four floor rentals. That’s way fewer than we usually have, but it meant there were four different events where people were able to dance outside with social distancing protocols.
We hope that for next spring and summer, dancing outside is going to be possible. Given what the science says, people will be more comfortable going outdoors in masks and watching a performance. Our floor makes that possible. New England is cold, so there’s no use of the floor until April or May, unless someone rents the floor to make a video.
How do you think 2020 is going to impact Boston Dance Alliance in the long term?
Our biggest problem is going to be funding. Like everyone else, we are facing an existential crisis. Membership brings in a little money, but the dancers themselves are out of work. Additionally, because the need in every sector of the economy is so great, people who might have given to BDA may feel there are other organizations that need more. When you have food insecurity – one out of five people in Boston are food insecure – there’s going to be a real pressure on individual donations even though there are some people who continue to have jobs and wealth.
We are an organization that is responsive, so as the conditions change for dancers and dance studios, we’re here to help. Early in the pandemic, I got a call from a man who runs a ballroom dance studio in Cape Cod. He said, “We’re in trouble. We can’t teach partner dancing right now, and that’s all we do.” We pulled together a Zoom with his community of studios, which it turns out hadn’t met before and didn’t understand themselves to be a cohort. I told them about small business loans and gave them suggestions and clarifications about the terms of the CARES Act and different programs. I also wrote the City of Boston plans for reopening dance studios, so I was able to share that with them, which incorporated both the Dance/USA guidelines as well as guidelines from Europe and the theater scene. I didn’t tell them how to fix their HVAC but told them air circulation mattered. I could not have anticipated that BDA needed to talk to commercial social dance studios, but as things develop, we find out where the need is.
Virtuality is a mixed bag. Lectures and classes are valuable during this time, but people gathering is the heart and soul of what we do. Virtual events do make things more accessible for dancers with disabilities and dancers who are distantly located. My hope is that we retain a certain hybridity where people can tune in online. But certainly, as an audience member, seeing a dance performance online is not remotely the same experience as being in the theater with others. I’m delighted that people have moved forward with dance on camera, but we really shouldn’t be saying that’s all we’re going to do, just as live theater wasn’t completely eclipsed by movies. I’m eager to get back to being together with strangers and experiencing something visceral.
How do you think 2020 is going to impact the dance field in the long term?
One thing I’ll say as myself, not BDA, is we must have universal healthcare in this country and must detach employment status from healthcare. 2020 has shown us how vulnerable we are. One illness is enough to drive a person, a family, a business, or a discipline into complete poverty and existential crisis. That’s not acceptable. As much as I’m eager to be part of the conversation about how to make dance careers sustainable – even the lucky ones are lurching from grant to grant, and we have issues of equity and what gets presented to whom – if our society doesn’t have a basic social safety net, especially around health and food security, we cannot do anything. I am hoping the pandemic gave enough people in positions to do something about it an awareness of what is at stake. It’s one thing for BDA to talk to dancers about how to deal with their feet. It’s another to talk about how to keep from dying, how to access quality healthcare with the resourcefulness and ability to pay. That’s the place where my commitments to the field and my commitments to artists as humans who live in community come together.
Debra Cash, Photo by Craig Bailey at Perspective Photo
To learn more, visit www.bostondancealliance.org.