All Small Dance Businesses Should Take These 5 Steps Toward Anti-Racism

Owners of small dance businesses have a responsibility to uphold anti-racist values. Take this pledge to make five actionable steps toward putting those values into practice.

Graffiti on a concrete wall says "end racism."
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If it wasn’t clear before the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the holding-to-account of institutions large and small that has resulted from it, it’s certainly clear now: All business leaders—no matter their business or its size—have a responsibility to be actively anti-racist. We can’t go back to business as usual.

While putting out public-facing statements is nice, it’s not nearly enough—how you implement anti-racist values into the everyday running of your dance business, as well as into your long-term goals and strategy, is what really matters.

At a recent town hall organized by business coach and attorney Rachel Rodgers, diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Ericka Hines and life coach Susan Hyatt, small-business owners were challenged to take an anti-racism pledge, with five clear steps toward implementing anti-racist values and lots of real-world examples of how they play out in small businesses.

We recapped the pledge, which can also be found here, for the dance industry, and rounded up the biggest small-business takeaways from the event.

1. Name white supremacy and racism.

The first step in the anti-racist small-business pledge addresses the fact that we can’t work toward dismantling white supremacy and racism unless we’re willing to talk about these concepts and how they operate in our personal lives and businesses.

Before you bring this conversation to your studio or store, you may want to first engage with it on a personal level. Think back to the training or experience that got you to where you are. How many Black dance artists did you learn about in your dance-history education? Did you mostly learn about dance from white teachers and mentors? What about business—who wrote the entrepreneurship books that guided you as you opened your studio or store? Thinking about the perspectives that have shaped your worldview as a businessperson and member of the dance community can help shed light on what perspectives you may be missing.

Then, think bigger about how is white supremacy playing out in your business’ values, operations and culture. Yes, this might mean acknowledging the lack of diversity in your staff or on your board, but it will also require a deeper look at your policies, procedures and practices as an organization.

Don’t have these conversations in isolation: The pledge requires business owners to discuss white supremacy and racism with business partners, customers and the greater community.

2. Engage in anti-racism education on an ongoing basis.

The town hall participants—who also included actor and CEO Robert Hartwell, author and CEO Sonya Renee Taylor and CEO Nathan Barry—made a compelling point: Business owners are typically willing to spend money to hire a coach, attend a training or invest in the resources they need to educate themselves or their employees about a new skill or business trend, but may not be thinking about their anti-racism education in this same way.

As a dance entrepreneur, you didn’t get to where you are by waiting for knowledge to come your way—you went out and actively pursued the tools you needed to succeed. The same should be true for anti-racism education. The pledge asks that business owners take courses, read books and hire a DEI consultant to work with your entire staff. It also recommends reengaging with anti-racism training of some sort on a quarterly basis.

Studio owners who are working with children have a special opportunity for anti-racism education. Pay careful attention to the version of dance history you are teaching at your studio, who it leaves out and whose values it upholds. Stock your studio with age-appropriate books about race and with protagonists of color—dance-related or not—and be intentional about any other resources you are providing to your students (posters in your studio, videos, music, etc.) and who they are representing.

3. Make space for open dialogue and discomfort.

“Be humble and ready to fumble,” is the motto Hines shares with her clients who are working toward anti-racism. You inevitably aren’t going to do this perfectly, and when you mess up, don’t try to hide it or ignore it. The point is to mess up and catch yourself, says Hines. If you’re called out, say “I’m sorry; I’m going to take action to change this”—and then do it.

The same goes for any conflict that arises among your staff or community. Acknowledge the issue at hand, hear out any stakeholders and take action to address the underlying problem without demonizing whoever brought it up.

If you manage any sort of online community or group, welcome open discussion, but have guidelines around what sort of conversation is not tolerated. Have moderators who are equipped with the tools to handle conflict. Don’t delete threads or comments just because they are critical of you or your business, or where difficult conversations are happening. As the pledge acknowledges, these conversations are going to happen regardless—and making space for them within your community allows you to be a part of them.  

This does not mean protecting hate speech or tolerating racist opinions. As Hines put it: “Diversity of thought is important, but not in relation to people’s actual racial identities.”

4. Invest 30 percent of your monthly budget in the Black community.

No, this does not mean donating 30 percent of your budget. (Though charitable contributions are, of course, a great way to put your values into action.)

Instead, the pledge is recommending that businesses work toward having 30 percent of the money they are already spending each month going toward the Black community—whether that’s hiring Black teachers, employees, contractors or vendors, investing in Black-owned dancewear products or studio software, bringing in Black guest artists or speakers, or purchasing books and materials by Black creators.

Set a goal for when you’ll reach this 30 percent—maybe 3–5 years down the road—as well as incremental goals leading up until then. 

Note: Your anti-racism training or DEI consultant shouldn’t count toward this 30 percent.

While you’re at it, do the same exercise for your personal budget, too.

5. Publicly express your commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization, with clear, concrete steps.

The pledge requires businesses to create a permanent, outward-facing statement that outlines your stake in anti-racism and the steps you will take to get there. It’s OK if you’re not where you want to be yet: The statement can be aspirational and acknowledge this, talking about how you plan to get there. It should be specific to you and your business, so you need to write it yourself, rather than trying to follow a template. Putting this statement out into the world is a way of holding yourself accountable.

Especially now, your customers will be looking for a statement like this as they choose which studio or summer intensive to send their children to, or where they’d like to invest their money. Make it crystal clear who you are and what you stand for.

This is the last item on the pledge for a reason, says Rodgers: You have put in the work before making such a statement.

The Bottom Line

If you’re thinking about anti-racism as a separate, extra project you need to tackle on top of reopening your store after COVID closure or reimagining your summer camps, you’re thinking about it all wrong. In fact, anti-racism work should be integrated into every aspect of your business—from how you hire teachers to which dancewear manufacturers you support; from how you communicate with students, parents and customers to how you resolve conflict among your staff. Rodgers quoted a recent Vox interview with author Ijeoma Oluo to exemplify how all business owners should be thinking about this work:

“Be wary of anything that allows you to do something that isn’t actually felt by people of color,” says Oluo. “I always ask myself when I’m trying to do solidarity work, can the people I’m in solidarity with actually feel this? Can they spend this? Can they eat this? Does this actually help them in any way? And if it doesn’t, let it go.”

Yes, this will involve considerable work. But, you built an entire business! The same skill set that you’ve applied to other business goals can be applied here, too. Anti-racism doesn’t have to be a vague, abstract idea that you’re working toward: You can instead set measurable goals and track your progress over time.

And, the sense of restarting that most dance businesses are experiencing right now due to COVID makes this the perfect opportunity to give your commitment to anti-racism a rethink.

Lauren Wingenroth is the editor in chief of Dance Business Weekly and Dance Teacher.