Taking the lead

If there’s one thing that COVID-19 has highlighted it is this: that good leadership is crucial in a crisis. Dance/USA executive director Amy Fitterer and Cleo Parker Robinson, founder and artistic director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, tell Andrew Anderson how their organisation is providing just that. 

As we’re seeing across the globe right now, good leadership makes a difference. Where it is present, catastrophes are averted. Where it is absent, chaos prevails. This is as true in the arts as it is for national governments, sports leagues and schools.

In the US, Dance/USA strives to provide leadership that will help the dance sector thrive. Its core programs are focused in the areas of engagement, advocacy, research, and preservation, and it holds an annual conference that shares best practice across the country.

So, who better to turn to and ask for advice on leadership in a crisis? We caught up with executive director Amy Fitterer and Cleo Parker Robinson (founder and artistic director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance) to find out how they are mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the sector, how equity is more important than ever, and what issues will be addressed at the upcoming Virtual Conference (the closing date for registration 10 June). 

Andrew Anderson: How has Dance/USA responded to COVID-19, and how are you helping lead the sector?

Amy Fitterer
Amy Fitterer

Amy Fitterer: We’ve worked in coalition with the Performing Arts Alliance, the Cultural Advocacy Group, the Charitable Giving Coalition and others to conduct federal advocacy on behalf of the dance field. During this crisis thus far, we have sent out several national action alerts resulting in over 7,000 letters to Congress from dance constituents.

In addition, since early March we created weekly space for our 18 member networks to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. These weekly calls have very strong attendance and will continue into the foreseeable future.

Also in March, we conducted the Dance/USA Coronavirus Impact Survey to learn about the initial impact of the pandemic on the dance field. We expect to launch two more iterations of the survey to track the growing impact and eventual recovery of the field.

We’ve also provided other resources: in late February, we launched a coronavirus resource page on our website which features overviews of federal relief programmes, updates on Dance/USA and field advocacy work, performing arts resources, webinars, additional reading, and other related resources. We have hosted webinars and online events on topics such as CARES Act Funding, crisis management, managing stress, and insurance and COVID-19. Then in April, we hosted a multi-day virtual summit for our school directors network in lieu of the planned in-person event. Now, we’re preparing to host a virtual conference from June 17-19 that is open to anyone in the field. Registration is pay-what-you-can, regardless of membership status.

Cleo Parker Robinson: As someone who has led a company for many years, I can say that this kind of information is vital: leaders need to have access to a centralised base of information consisting of myriad resources, with continual updates and alerts being provided on an almost daily basis so that no opportunity is lost. This repository of support should include not only financial resources, but also technologies that enable us to reach out to audiences, students, and patrons in new ways.

AA: You’ve also been posting some ‘leadership in a crisis’ blogs that have made for interesting reads. What do you think are the key things that leaders can do in the current crisis?

CPR: It is vital that the voices of artists, particularly artists of colour, be heard on all fronts – as vehicles of change, justice, and both physical and mental wellness. Advocacy for dance artists across genres is important as we build equity in modern companies, and companies from Indigenous communities. We must be clear – and vocal – that the arts are an irrepressible conduit for the betterment of the human condition on all fronts. Governments on all levels need to be made aware of the significant contribution that the arts make in the fabric of our economy.

The impact of the arts interwoven into our educational systems can no longer be downplayed. In a society where education is being forced to develop new ways to advance student learning and comprehension, the arts will be an ever more evident factor in developing such systems.

Joffrey Ballet © Cheryl Mann
Joffrey Ballet © Cheryl Mann

AA: Will these issues be addressed in the upcoming conference?

AF: In a word: yes. The Dance/USA virtual conference will offer a wide variety of sessions on key topics, educational workshops, movement classes, networking opportunities, and a virtual DJ dance party. Key themes for the conference include health and safety, the virtual world of dance during COVID-19, addressing inequity in dance now and for the future, federal advocacy during COVID-19, and adaptation and innovation during crisis.

One session, ‘Open Space: An Artist Connectivity Series, Special Edition’, serves as a platform for dance artists of colour to share their collective experiences pre-COVID-19 and design and navigate the path forward. The design of this “open connection space” is to create a casual, virtual platform for artists at all stages in their careers to engage in a dialogue about pressing issues affecting the field and dream about what our collective “next“ can and will be. It will be presented by the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), KMP Artists, Sheffield Global Arts Management (SGA Management), and Dance/USA, with Shane Fernando – executive and artistic director at the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College – moderating.

Additionally, the first day of the conference will close with a celebratory virtual DJ dance party featuring The Illustrious Blacks.

AA: The dance sector is known for its entrepreneurial spirit – people making things happen. How can this be harnessed right now?

AF: Many people are asking this exact question now: there is so much amazing virtual content being created, but are we harnessing it strategically? The reality is that it’s a bit early to see how the entrepreneurial spirit will move beyond immediate creation (right now) to longer term, strategic activities that really move the needle. In the coming months I expect to see ideas about how to harness the virtual activity and energy. The question is how to leverage this and move forward. I am optimistic that we will see some things emerge.

You can read the full version of this interview in IAM Vol 16 Issue 8.