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Radically inclusive dance

September 28, 2020

A Sun Devil leads the way for change by helping to create an anti-racist dance world

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

For many people, dance is a form of escape. The sweat-soaked physicality of the art offers the freedom to temporarily forget. For dancer, choreographer and activist J. Bouey, ’14 BFA in dance, dance is healing. It’s doing the uncomfortable work to confront trauma head on. 

For Bouey, dance is the vessel for breakthroughs. It’s a way of dealing with the constant pain of being a Black person in America. 

Healing is a recurring theme for Bouey, who is a member of the world-renowned, New York-based dance troupe Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Bouey’s latest choreographic work, “Chiron in Leo” — originally set to premiere before the pandemic struck — centers on mental health, generational trauma and healing the inner child.

Bouey, who prefers they/them pronouns, is also the founder and co-host with Melanie Greene of The Dance Union Podcast and platform, a community hyperfocused on healing within the dance world itself. Since launching over two years ago, the platform has convened a steadily growing audience of creatives of color, all eager to create a more equitable and just landscape for all dancers. 

A love for dance

Bouey’s passion for abolishing oppression in all forms began at a young age.

Their mother was involved in a nurse’s union at the Los Angeles County Hospital and their father was a community organizer. Growing up in South Central L.A. and later Phoenix and Chandler, Bouey found an early love for dance, performing with step and hip-hop teams. At 15, they decided it was possible to make a career out of it.

J. Bouey

A full ride to ASU led them to the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Bouey originally studied dance education, but when Ashleigh Leite, a postmodern contemporary dance professor, told them they could make it as a performer, they switched majors.

After graduating in 2014, Bouey left for New York — the epicenter of concert dance — determined to build a career as a performer.

Life as a professional dancer

Making a lasting career in dance has become ever more challenging for aspiring dancers and even seasoned choreographers. As governments, from federal to local, continue to cut arts funding, long-standing dance companies have dwindled and audiences continue to shrink. The traditional model  — landing a full-time spot with a company — is not viable for most.

Many turn to freelancing, which means dancing, teaching, choreographing and building a social media presence, all while working other nondance jobs to afford New York’s cost of living.

“It’s a field that makes it really hard for anybody who’s Black and does not have financial support from mom and dad,” Bouey said.

Freelancers must also fund their own training to keep their bodies in top-notch shape. Many don’t have health insurance. In some dance companies, a lack of diversity and hostile environment for Black and other performers of color can make it even harder to succeed.  

“I started to find community in the struggle, the struggle of being a freelance dance artist, which was to essentially be like an indie music artist or any kind of artist without real management support,” Bouey said.

Despite the hardships, they persevered, quickly building a name. From 2015 to 2017, they performed as an apprentice under Artistic Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher with modern company Elisa Monte Dance — launched nearly 40 years ago by a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Before landing a spot with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, they also danced with groups including the project-based AntonioBrownDance and MBDance, a company centering the experiences of queer people of color.

They won residencies and fellowships that provided funding, space and time to develop work, and showed their original choreography about healing in well-known performance spaces, including New York Live Arts and Gibney Dance. 

Bouey also worked to make dance more accessible to Black and brown communities by teaching at Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx and other schools. But still, they wanted to do more.

The Dance Union

Having learned the business side from other dancers and through trial and error, Bouey wanted to share what they learned. This sparked the idea for a grassroots education system — a free podcast called The Dance Union — focused on ensuring that dancers of all ages have the necessary tools to make it.

The podcast also tackles topics that were floating around among other dancers who are Black, Indigenous and non-Black people of color — tokenism, hostile environments, toxic masculinity, the need for a union and what reparations would look like in dance.

It became “a hub and a space to amplify the voices of folks who already have a megaphone and are making really radical and bold choices and change,” said Greene. 

In addition to the podcast, when the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd forced a reckoning over systemic racism in institutions, ranging from academia to the arts, Bouey moved quickly. They planned a virtual space to process, grieve and express anger centering the perspectives of Black dancers. The town halls offered a platform for artists to speak both about failings and about ways to build a more inclusive future. With more than 10,000 views, others have been learning as well, and The New York Times wrote about the work.

Creating space for tough subjects is one of Bouey’s strengths, Greene said. “It’s been a blessing to actually have someone in my life that is modeling a type of vulnerability and courage and growth, creating a very hospitable environment for that loving and learning to actually happen.” 

A topic that has come up often since the podcast started in 2018 and now in the town halls is white supremacy in dance. It shows up through implicit racism in dance education — the idea that Eurocentric ballet is the foundation of all dance technique, Bouey said. The hyperfocus on ballet often means the contributions of dancemakers of color throughout history are sidelined. 

On the podcast, Bouey, Greene and others in the community could dream up a more inclusive education that gave the same reverence to dance styles from the Black diaspora and other ethnic groups.

Bouey points out other ways that white supremacy shows up in dance: “not allowing trans and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folks to live in their full expression in dance … not letting children who are of trans experience, nonbinary or nonconforming experience really be fully supported within the studios and education process.”

The conversations on The Dance Union Podcast, in the town halls and on social media platforms were about shifting the dance community from being “not racist,” which is a passive state of being, to anti-racist — acknowledging complicity in white supremacy and actively fighting against racism. 

Many people were unaware of these topics and conversations. But in recent months, racism and white supremacy in dance have burst into light. 

Raising money for dancers 

In recent months, the Dance Union team has been working overtime in response to back-to-back societal crises, from seeing the continued violence perpetrated on people of color, to seeing the way COVID-19 has disproportionately killed people of color, to the additional crisis that the shutdown of live entertainment has had on dancers and other artists.

When it was clear COVID-19 would be devastating for dancers, wiping out gigs and performance opportunities, Bouey sprang into action, helping to organize a relief fund which raised over $23,000, going to more than 130 dancers so far. 

Moving forward

As long-standing institutions including American Ballet Theatre and Gibney Dance have recently posted messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and made promises to rectify damage done to dancers of color, it’s easy to question if true lasting change is possible. 

The question then becomes: What’s next? There’s no comfortable answer, Bouey said.

They want institutions to practice radical transparency and admit they ignored the long-lingering trauma Black people have faced in America and its consequences.  

“Because only from then can we actually do the work of dismantling things and building better structures,” Bouey said.

It takes inner work in hearts and minds, and actions, to uproot oppression and create an inclusive and equitable future in dance and everywhere else. Bouey is doing that work by working on their own healing, helping others to heal, providing a platform for healing and listening, envisioning a better future and helping to hold those with power accountable.

They summed up their vision during the second town hall in June. “The Dance Union is intentionally a space for dance artists to share their ideas, voice their concerns, demand change, resist and unite.” 

Written by Makeda Easter, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times who covers the arts. When not writing, she can be found in a dance studio taking a class or in rehearsal for an upcoming show. She was previously a science writer for a supercomputing center at the University of Texas.

Photos by Brad Ogbonna

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Green screen

September 28, 2020

YouTube stars the 'Green brothers' and ASU partner to create high-quality, timely videos based on expert curriculum

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

A lot of people watch YouTube videos — 1 billion monthly users, in fact. Because much of that content is user-generated, quality can vary. Over the years, though, some content has become highly professional, including videos by the “Green brothers” (young adult novelists Hank and John Green). They have created several educational YouTube channels, including Crash Course, which has more than 1.3 billion video views and more than 11 million subscribers. 

Arizona State University is helping to further expand professional-quality educational offerings by partnering with the Green brothers to create entertaining content based on curricula from ASU faculty. ASU Study Hall on YouTube serves up expert content in an entertaining format combining the brothers’ knowledge in scriptwriting and Thought Cafe’s animation to bring complex lessons to life.

“Both Crash Course and ASU are all about providing high-quality educational content for a global online community,” Hank Green said. “So we’re excited to help you build your skills. Grab hold of this opportunity because it’s open to anyone and it’s going to be great.”

Green brothers

YouTube creators and authors Hank and John Green.

A valuable resource

Sean Hobson, chief design officer for EdPlus, which houses ASU Online, says that the content is created especially for juniors in high school to juniors in college and mostly meant to supplement classes by clarifying key concepts. Each course comprises about 15 videos per subject. Existing series include English composition and college algebra with data literacy and chemistry rolling out this fall. 

“Our viewers are often people supplementing their high school curriculum or preparing over the summer,” Hobson explained. 

One of the millions of Crash Course users is Yumna Samie, a senior majoring in English and communication and an ASU Study Hall host for the video series on English composition. 

“I’ve been a fan of the Green brothers forever,” Samie said. “As an aspiring novelist and writer, I admire them and the novels they write, and I’ve watched Crash Course for years. To be part of this is one of the coolest things I’ve done.”

Now that Samie is the host for one of the ASU Study Hall series, she says that she gets numerous messages on social media from students and teachers about how much they appreciate ASU Study Hall. “People say this has been such a valuable resource not only for themselves but their students,” Samie said. “It’s been wonderful to get that feedback.”

It’s not just students in Arizona or at ASU using the Study Hall content. A college student in Egypt majoring in chemistry and a student at California’s Diablo Valley University are supplementing college math classes with the algebra series — among thousands of others.

Although students and high school teachers are often the ASU Study Hall users, others include lifelong learners, such as a politician in England running for a local seat who is using the composition series to help him write better speeches, and a mom homeschooling her kids.

Putting the effort into the design, professional production and entertainment aspects of Study Hall matches with ASU’s Charter, which is to measure the university’s success not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes. 

“ASU has such a strong mission around access and inclusion, and a deep commitment to serving learners where they are regardless of where that might be — and that can be literally where they’re located anywhere in the world, and also where they are in their learning journey,” Hobson said.

While many universities are using YouTube as a repository for lectures they deliver in a classroom, Study Hall uses the platform to provide engaging narratives that resonate with viewers. These 15-minute videos include live action, photographs and animation with a charismatic and personable host, and are posted on ASU’s YouTube channel and featured on the Crash Course channel to increase reach. Study Hall videos are getting tens of thousands of views, which has so far translated into tens of thousands of new subscribers for ASU’s YouTube channel.

“Creation of this content requires more investment in a storytelling narrative,” said Wayne Anderson, EdPlus senior director for design and development. “The partnership between our faculty experts who have taught thousands of lessons with a storytelling approach combined with high production value creates a rich learning experience.”

Study Hall

ASU and the team at Crash Course have partnered to create four different learning playlists. They dive into subjects like writing composition, chemistry, algebra and data literacy. Check out ASU Study Hall to supplement your high school or college courses:

Easily searchable

People often come to YouTube to answer a specific question, Hobson said. Indeed, according to Ipsos, 80% of Gen Z (born 1997 to 2012) say YouTube has helped them become more knowledgeable about something, and 68% report that YouTube has helped them improve or gain skills that will help them prepare for the future. And YouTube searches are a primary way this generation finds information for nearly everything from “how to tie a tie” on the “Dad, how do I?” channel with 2.5 million subscribers — or simply to hear words such as, “I’m proud of you.” 

Gen Z consumes an average of 68 videos a day, according to a report by media company Awesomeness. That includes everything from two-minute videos to immersive hourslong experiences, such as studying along with someone doing homework on YouTube, called “studytubers.” 

“There’s no other learning platform in the world like YouTube,” Hobson said. “This makes it a logical place for us to be reaching and serving learners where this generation already spends time.”

Many people search YouTube for videos that break down aspects of complex school subjects. To improve user experience, Study Hall videos serve up an engaging narrative within each video and within each series — and are designed to answer students’ questions.

“If your content isn’t optimized to solve a specific problem in an interesting way, you’re likely not going to be able to serve your learner,” Hobson said. “The best content that solves the educational question rises to the top.”

Improving educational content

Over the years, the Green brothers have been approached by many universities about collaborating on content, but they chose ASU primarily because the university’s mission is to expand access to high-quality education.

“ASU sees the need for powerful and free online education and sees the massive opportunities in YouTube. They refined their place as an educational institution and want to offer more educational opportunities, not just to their own students,” said Nick Jenkins, Complexly’s senior producer/director/editor. “That falls in line with how we view education at Complexly.

“More free online education is great. It’s going to be great for students and for teachers so they can spend more time interacting with students, whether online or in-person,” Jenkins adds. “That, to me, is the heart and soul of education.” 

Check out ASU Study Hall to supplement your high school or college courses:

Written by Kari Redfield/ASU

Top photo: William Comar, an instructor with the School of Molecular Sciences, presents the ASU Study Hall chemistry series. Photo by Jared Opperman