• Zoe Phillips

The Juneteenth Dance Break was COVID's silver lining

Updated: Sep 7

Coronavirus is not going to let us back onstage anytime soon, but Howard’s Juneteenth celebration teaches us that perhaps we can make this hiatus an opportunity.

San Francisco Ballet

It’s said that every theatre is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theatre’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes? 


This week marked four months since San Francisco Ballet first cancelled a performance due to coronavirus. In early March, the company was one of the first in the country to feel the effects of stay-at-home orders and their much-hyped run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” came to a screeching halt. Soon after, SFB cancelled four more productions, locked their rehearsal spaces and spearheaded a series of online programming that, like most other companies, established Instagram as a quasi-home base. Over the last four months, SFB’s feed shifted from a uniform presentation of professionally staged photography to a rather endearing hodgepodge of at-home studios, amateur lighting and IGTV streams of digital seasons. 


This collage of imagery was no different two weeks ago on June 19 when the company took part in the #JuneteenthDanceBreakinitiative started by Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of the organization Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. A week and a half prior, Howard had challenged the global dance community to join her in “lifting up the legacies, contributions, accomplishments, and stories” of Black artists. The task was simple: On June 19, “dedicate your feed to the display of the beautiful diversity of Blackness” with at least four separate posts throughout the day. 


Howard’s proposition was one of the many initiatives born of a burgeoning awareness for the Juneteenth holiday. The date commemorates the day that the last enslaved people finally received news of their freedom on June 19, 1865. The event took place two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and its history, like many other facets of Black history, remains largely absent from our public awareness. This year, ongoing protests against racial injustice have emboldened arguments for America to recognize the date both as a federal holiday as well as a chance to reflect more generally on the systemic issues of racism that still exist today.


Juneteenth thus has multiple angles: It celebrates the freedom of Black Americans while also offering somber perspectives on the progress that we have yet to achieve. Howard distilled these two meanings in her creation of the Juneteenth Dance Break — she wanted to make space for Black people’s “beauty, creativity, ingenuity, elegance, power, and perseverance.” To celebrate, but also to learn. 


SFB was one of many organizations that partook in Howard’s project. Their June 19 feed started with an Instagram Live stream of dancer Kimberly Marie Olivier and her father-in-law, principal bassoon player Rufus Olivier. The two Black artists took an hour to talk about ballet, bassoons and Black history. The rest of the company’s posts were a mixture of shorter videos and still photos. All in all, SFB shared over an hour and a half of content and multiple paragraphs of information about Black dancers, choreographers and musicians who form part of SFB’s past and present. The result was an impressive use of the dance world’s quarantined predicament — an insightful yet fully digital combination of education and celebration with the timely and timeless lens of redefining racial perceptions of ballet. 


The outpouring from other organizations was also impressive: The celebration cut divides of hierarchical status and spanned the distance between institutions like American Ballet Theatre all the way to smalltown dance studios. When the sun rose on June 20, the world suddenly had access to a wide-reaching archive of information about Black dancers of past and present and their profound effect on our stages today. In an added bonus, the resources were (and still are) easily accessible in one place under the #JuneteenthDanceBreak hashtag on Instagram.


Howard quickly took to her own account to thank everyone for their “enthusiastic and creative participation.” Indeed, the celebration had uncovered something rather unprecedented: Dance history, let alone Black dance history, is a dwindling field. The Juneteenth Dance Break gave a voice to marginalized stories within an oft-forgotten domain. “This is history,” Howard said, “this is world history. This is dance history. This is not just Black history, it’s history. It’s American history, and it’s all of ours. It belongs to all of us.” 


But Howard was also clear: “It’s just a start. And I hope that this is the beginning.” 

June of 2020 operated almost as a highlight reel of dance companies dedicating and re-dedicating themselves to racial justice in the performing arts industry. The process started with messages of #TheShowMustBePaused on Blackout Tuesday, moving to initiatives like #BalletRelevesForBlackLives or #NoJusticeNoDance and most recently the #JuneteenthDanceBreak. These are, of course, only hashtags — they do not replace updated policies and real change, but they do seem to have provided a start for some. The even murkier side of this movement, however, lies in what hasn’t even made it to Instagram at all: the companies that waited until their only Black dancer complained of racist policies to release a solidarity statement, the companies that didn’t acknowledge Juneteenth or the ones that only posted one haphazard photograph to jump on the bandwagon. Actions speak louder than words, even though words are much better than silence. 


But even on the most active of accounts, something is missing — the figures that cannot be celebrated because they simply do not exist. The companies that wait 10 years between their commissions of Black choreographers and the ones that have never promoted a Black woman to principal status (based on the incomplete information available online, SFB has yet to do this). Companies that have not diversified their boards and don't educate their audience on the Black heritage of the choreography they perform. Author Brenda Dixon Gottschild once wrote that “the Black dancing body was the negative space around which the white dancing body was configured,” left to be defined by their absence from the picture. 


Coronavirus is not going to let us back onstage anytime soon, but Howard’s Juneteenth celebration teaches us that perhaps we can make this hiatus an opportunity. There are no curtains to hide behind and no rehearsals to run off to. Instead, the international dance community waits as a captive audience on a global digital platform. We have the chance to tell our full history and shape a more just future. We have the time to teach, to listen and to learn. We should not waste it.

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on July 1, 2020 as part of the series "Ghost lights and Instagram likes."

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!