Dancing the Line

How race and class affect extracurricular activities

May 26, 2017

Somewhere in the world right now, there is a girl watching a Beyoncé video and dreaming of being a backup dancer. She twirls and shimmies, imitating the moves as her body responds to the beat of the music. She may never take lessons; she may never enroll at a dance studio. But the Dream Divas would want her anyway.

“With Dream Divas, it’s open to everybody. No matter how old you are, what race you are, any of that,” said Te’Angela Lewis ’17.

“Coming into Dream Divas, you don’t need to have experience,” said Shevonna Norris ’18. “You can come in at a beginners level and we will work with you. When you’re confident and ready to perform, then you’ll do it.”

Lewis and Norris are dancers with the Dream Divas, a nonprofit dance team in Iowa City. For many  teens in Iowa City, the Divas offer an inclusive and accepting entry point into competitive dance.

Without the Divas, many aspiring dancers in the Iowa City area might not have the opportunity to perform or learn how to dance. Unlike other dance teams, most of which are affiliated either with schools or studios, the Dream Divas don’t require their members to pay a fee or have any formal training. By contrast, to audition for other dance teams, such as the City High Dance Team, a level of professional training is mandatory.

“Most of [the City High Dance Team] has been dancing for at least 13 to 14 years. If they’re 16, they’ve probably been dancing since they were 3,” said City High Dance Team member Ellie Ballard ’19. This extensive training takes place at one of the selective — and expensive — local studios.

According to Ballard, National Dance Academy and Nolte are the only studios that City High Dancers attend. Lessons at these academies can be a significant financial commitment — according to the studios’ respective websites, individual classes cost between $40 and $50.

“It’s pretty expensive,” admitted Ballard. “Especially if you’re on a competition team. When I did it we would do around five dances and altogether I think it cost — to go to every single competition, for the costumes, and for the practices — it was probably around $1,500 [annually].”

This kind of high-end price tag has become the norm for dance training. According to Professor Rebekah Kowal, chair of the University of Iowa’s Department of Dance, “Dance has definitely become more of a commodity and less of an art form.”

The commodification of dance, which has been increasing for the past 20 years, she said, poses a problem on a number of levels. “It poses a problem for art making, in a sense that people are being trained to see themselves as winners and losers, they’re training to win, whereas in art making that’s not usually a priority or a guiding objective. The competition studios are in tension with the practices of art making,” she said.

Kowal is also concerned that the high price of studios and the emphasis on competition is diminishing diversity in dance.

“If those places are prohibitively expensive or not welcoming or making accommodations for racial and/or socioeconomic diversity, then downstream there’s going to be a problem for the art because there aren’t easy entry points,” she explained.

The commodification of dance has been increasing in the last 20 years, she explained. Prior to the explosion of these studios in the 1990s, you had local studios that were much more arts based and potentially more local and drawing in a variety of students who just have an interest.

Kowal continued, “With the explosion of dance on television and the internet — that’s a driving factor — you have a focus on winning that hadn’t ever been there before. And access to a winning body is financial.”

These two City High dance teams are not anomalies when it comes to this stark division in race and class. In general, high school extracurricular activities have a direct link to socioeconomic status — a link with significant negative consequences. A recent article in American Educator cites evidence that wealthier children have higher school achievement, not because income is directly correlated with achievement but because “money is an obvious enabler of opportunities: cash buys books, and summer enrichment camps, and access to tutoring.” Money also buys access to expensive extracurricular activities, which have also been shown to boost school achievement.

Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, agreed that socioeconomics and race play an important role in students’ extracurricular opportunities and subsequent success.

“Research shows that people who have roots or are connected with a student group or a sports club do better in life than those who don’t have those connections,” said Sole. “The strongest argument they have is, ‘This helps us with grades, with our cohesion, with our peer support.’ If you look at who has the highest graduation rates, a lot of the time communities with low black-to-white graduation rates don’t get to execute our talents or be around people who are struggling with the same things as us. That group that’s not being supported at the same rate, they run a risk of not being able to finish high school as a result of not being able to have a safe space where they can connect with each other. That’s the main thing.”

Alina Borger-Germann, a teacher at City High, agrees with Sole.

“Anything that increases students’ participation in school life in a meaningful way is important,” said Borger-Germann.

Sports participation is one example of the rich-poor divide in high school extracurricular activity. An article in CommonWealth magazine notes, “While youth in high-income school districts are playing as many sports as ever, students in low-income communities are far less likely to participate in athletics at all.”

The article goes on to say that this is a troubling trend, as sports participation plays a key role in academic success and “teaches students valuable skills such as strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and a sense of civic engagement.”

While wealthier parents sign their children up for sports leagues at early ages, pay for summer travel and buy expensive equipment, poorer parents don’t have the money or time to do the same.

“In terms of the economic ladder, as people of color we might not be able to pay for uniforms and all of the things that other clubs can pay for, just because of how money is allocated,” Sole said. “[Many school administrators] know that if it really comes down to putting money in it for costumes and contests, and everything that traditional clubs have, they know they have to supplement some or all of the funds. And they’re not willing to do that. It’s 2017, they should be willing to do that so that everybody can execute their talents.”

Despite this overall problem, the administration at City High has programs in place to lower cost barriers to extracurricular activities.

“I have a fund that has been donated by individuals who just give a little bit here and there that say ‘Here, help kids participate in activities that they may not be able to,’” said Bacon. “So, we have an account that is available when a need is apparent and exists. If a coach or advisor or teacher comes to us and says, ‘Hey, I’m aware of this need that this kid might have,’ we do have some ability to help in those situations.”

Yet the school’s two dance teams remain separated by race and class divisions. The Dream Divas team is not officially sponsored by City High, whereas the all-white City High Dance Team is. As a school-sanctioned sport, the City High Dance Team receives a small amount of funding from the school.

“We don’t have school funding to provide uniforms or things like that, so we pretty much have to provide it all ourselves,” said Rude. “We do a ton of fundraising, [which] helps a lot, but it is a pretty hefty fee, especially the first year, because you have to buy everything.”

Ballard added, “Plus we go to Disney, which costs a lot. Flying itself is already kind of expensive, and staying at Disney costs a lot.”

The Dream Divas fundraise too, in order to help cover the cost of costumes. But they don’t do as much travel, so there are far fewer additional costs for participants.

Dance team is the only extracurricular activity at City High that features two distinct groups with mutually exclusive membership.

“I just think we’re looked at as two separate teams majorly because of our styles,” said Lewis. “Our style is different from their style, so it’s always that fine line between City Dancers and Dream Divas.”

Rude and the members of the City High Dance Team agree.

In an effort to bridge the gap between the two teams, Bacon encourages the Dream Divas to perform at City High events, such as pep rallies. At the winter pep rally, the Dream Divas and the City High Dance Team collaborated in a routine.

“It was a really good experience, and I’m glad we got to do that. They’re really talented at their style of dance and I thought it was really cool to be able to see that,” said Rude.

The Dream Divas have noticed students comparing the two teams. “I feel like everybody at City makes it a competition between the two teams. It’s not a competition,” said Lewis. “We’re all friends. When we practiced together and when we performed together it was all good, good vibes.”

However, members of each team see no possibilities of joining the other — that line appears uncrossable.

“I feel like it’s the intimidation. We’ve been asked to be a part of the City Dance Team and it’s always that factor of audition, audition, audition,” said Lewis. “It’s really strict, and you have to be at a certain level of dance that they’re at.”

The City High Dance Team’s audition requirements are rigorous.

“We have to learn two different routines that Barbie [Kopp, coach] choreographs and teaches us,” said Rude. “It’s a two-day process, so you have one day where you come in for two hours, learn the routines and Barbie will explain stuff about the team, and you’ll get forms and like technique things that you’ll need to be able to do to qualify for the team. On the second day it’s the audition day, where you’re asked to audition in groups of three to four people.”

Ballard added, “I think this year we’re gonna have last year’s seniors come back and they’ll help with the judging process, [which] I think [will help] ease the tension a little; I don’t think they’ll be so biased.”

Kowal recognizes that dance, like other extracurricular activities, is marked by deep splits that will not be easy to mend.

“Someone like Misty Copeland is held up as an example, but she has really survived. She is a survivor of this culture. People held her up as an achievement, and what she’s done is amazing, but certainly it’s not an excuse to not do more,” Kowal said.

Despite the separation that socioeconomic status can cause in extracurricular activities, Bacon and the school’s administration continue to work towards integrating the two teams racially and socioeconomically.

“That’s certainly something that’s concerned me over the years, and as a result of that I’ve tried to take a few steps in the right direction,” Bacon said. “We’ve tried to be very inclusive and encouraging of our Dream Divas to participate in spirit assemblies and any other event that they have an interest in partaking in with the school — homecoming parades, for example. We always want to make sure that they feel totally wanted. I felt so strongly about it.” The winter pep rally, he said, “was a step in the right direction, but we have farther to go.”

Bacon went on to say that seeing added representation within the City Dance Team would be a “goal to be had.” He is aware that diversifying extracurricular activities at City High would address achievement gaps and help foster success for all students.

“That’s something we think and talk about a lot,” said Bacon. “We’ve had lengthy meetings about how we can make our existing activities more diverse or what new acts to bring on board to interest and help more kids.”

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