CALLING IN white communities: PWIs, leaders, & teachers in Chicago dance
“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they don’t want it to exist.”
~ Bell Hooks
I’d like to call out & CALL IN predominantly white dance institutions. There’s an issue that’s been overlooked and unaddressed for too long: DISCRIMINATION; You can learn more about how racism affects your mental health. I’d also like to share an article by Sydnie Mosley, How Black Dancers Regularly Confronting Racism Can Protect Their Mental Health & offer suggestions made by Nana Chinara, in her 2020 Open Letter to Gibney Dance Center New York:
It is time for you to do the work. Lose the ego, ignore the clout, and do the hard, gritty, uncomfortable work to uproot white supremacy in all areas of your life and organizations.
Share your power as much as you share the names and images of Black artists involved with your institution.
Teach each other how to undo Anti-Blackness, Transphobia, Xenophobia, etc.
Call each other in. A white affinity group is not enough. Start talking white Accountability and Reparation.
Drop the ego.
Pay your front line staff — who are artists — a living wage, not minimum or one dollar up from it.
Listen to your Black staff. Pay attention to high turnover rates of staff/employees of color. Pay people for doing labor in their exit interviews and advocacy efforts, while educating you.
Stop Gaslighting. Instead, open up your processes and lead with transparency.
When a Black person tells you — actually when several Black people have told you — that you have white supremacy in your culture, LISTEN. Do not defend yourself. Change.
Get trained — People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Training is great for that. Get trained once and then get trained again, from somewhere else. (I, Dionna PridGeon, a black woman, participated in PISAB training, when I worked in New York — it was a requirement at SPACEWORKS NYC)
Give your power away. If you thrive and rely on artists being dependent on you, you are not serving artists — you are promoting an abusive relationship with white supremacy and capitalism. If you are a non-profit organization — focus on creating a future where you are no longer necessary.
To be defensive in the face of racism is to actively choose your white comfort and denial is to actively engage in white supremacy. To actively uphold white supremacy culture is to be an active white supremacist. Period.
Organizations who do not listen with care, and mainly with clout, are unacceptable. I have missed so many warning signs because I was caught up in accolades and success. That is my doing. This is my undoing. I will no longer choose my own benefit if it means that I participate in upholding power and white supremacy by ignoring the flags. That makes me complicit too.
I want to list some discrimination I’ve faced in Chicago (my hometown) at white dance spaces: Joffrey Ballet Academy of Dance (under the previous direction of Anna & Alexei) — I was discarded in the midst of the rehearsal process & after 2 years of teaching for both their trainee program and kids program, I was belittled in my last meeting with Anna & Alexei. Moreover, I decided to leave Northshore School of Dance, in Highland Park because I was mistreated, excluded and falsely accused by Lisa Gold (owner), plus disrespected by some of the NSSD students, with no support from staff, teachers, or parents; Lisa shared with me that “all lives matter” — this was her response to not supporting “black lives matter.” And the mistreatment I received at Visceral Dance Center made me feel unsafe — Nick Pupillo (owner), Katie Cox, & Kelly Crain (employees); I will thoroughly explain later within this letter. I’d also like to mention my experience with white leaders/teachers: After years of supporting each other, I was blocked for no valid reason by Lizzie MacKenzie (Owner of Extensions Dance Studio). I reached out to inquire but received no response. And when Krista Ellensohn (Employee at HSDC) worked under the direction of Claire Bataille (my beloved mentor) at Lou Conte Dance Studio, she created tension between us & more recently decided to block me, for reasons I can only assume. Please note: In these 2 cases, there was never a falling out —It shows a sign of implicit bias. And let me add that a handful of white leaders/teachers have shared empathy for my situations, but yet none of them did anything to hold anyone accountable. And there lies my concern.
It was never that I wasn’t good enough, they made me feel this way. Most people/places sought me out because of my (proven) talent. However, if I brought up something that made them feel uncomfortable; I suddenly became the problem. ~ dionna
What I faced last year alone. . . put me in a dark, depressive spiral, deeply affecting my mental health, which recently became a diagnosed mental illness, while already experiencing a physical disability: multiple sclerosis. Presently, I’m being called to write my 2nd Open Letter because 1. Very few showed support for my 1st Open Letter & 2. I’ve begun to fear my safety & support from the white dance community in Chicago.
Today is April 10th and on this very date last year, I was pushed out of Visceral Dance Center & later (April 15th) had my classes taken away, for the mere fact that I SPOKE UP for myself & others; I challenged whiteness: I spoke up when I received hostile text messages from Nick Pupillo, I spoke up about the obvious privilege being given to white students at Visceral (work-studies), I spoke up for my Trans student, when she wasn’t hired for a work-study position, I spoke up when it involved representation and compensation, for teachers who were asked to teach (outside of the Visceral faculty), I spoke up about not having a contract for both of my roles at Visceral: Creative Operations & Dance Educator (which were never received), I spoke up about how much work I was doing for free, outside of my Visceral hours & even the times when I actually chose to be silent (while doing my job) — I was asked to speak more, then called negative, while being belittled by Nick in front of my colleague Katie Cox. And on March 11th of this year, I was labeled “disruptive” & then told “we were not friends,” by Nick, on a conference call that was also attended by Visceral Executive Director, Dawn Stanislaw. And no, I am not aware of any advancements made within the Chicago Dance Community as a whole, nor am I aware of any advancements Visceral Dance Center has made since April 2021 because I stopped following them; I needed to protect my space from all, the community I blindly trusted, genuinely supported and grew very fond of, plus no one from the Visceral community did anything to advocate on my behalf!
Let me reiterate that I was the only black staff member at Visceral. So I was shocked, confused, angry and hurt when Nick called me into a meeting and made me cry on April 5th, then asked me to work remotely the very next day (with no direction,) then proceeded to strip my studio access & my income from me on April 10th, stating that “I resigned,” which I did not. The last straw was having my classes taken away on April 15th. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to the students I loved & invested in — from classes I taught & subbed, to rehearsing with the studio company teens.
Dionna is an outstanding teacher, choreographer, and advocate. She integrates anti-racist teachings in every class she teaches, actively creating a dance space rooted in community, reciprocity, and transformation. Her love for her art, her students, and their intersecting futures drives her unwavering pursuit of learning. Dionna truly embodies what it means to be inclusive inside and outside the studio. ~ Nora Klein
During this time, I texted, emailed and called Nick several times begging him for a conversation and also sharing my positive contributions with both the Visceral staff & Visceral’s predominantly white Board (including Pam Crutchfield & Kim Kernodle), asking for resolve — but no one responded! I was silenced, ignored, mislabeled & later, blocked by Nick. Here’s a little history: I taught at Visceral back in 2009 & ended up leaving before I moved to LA 2010 (I didn’t feel respected by students), however I was asked to teach Master Classes years later. To add, I was asked to return in the 2 roles I previously mentioned Dec 28, 2020; though I started subbing classes again Oct 2020.
On the contrary, I will take full accountability for not handling things well, AFTER being let go! However, here’s a few examples of what I experienced, solely at Visceral:
microaggression — What have you contributed to Visceral? Nick asked (4/5/21)
implicit bias — The privilege given to Maeve Cosgrove & Alexandra Tatro (workstudies)
gaslighting — Nick constantly telling me that I was unhappy in the office & that teaching was a better fit. Also when I referenced being Black & the differences I noticed, immediately Nick said “Visceral is not about that!” (4/5/21)
manipulation — Nick was forcing me to make a decision whether or not I wanted to keep my office role (4/5/21)
exclusion — Being the only staff member asked to work remotely
condescension — Nick told me “the offer email was enough,” as if I couldn’t inquire about my contracts
intimidation — Nick once told me that my colleague Katie Cox wasn’t going anywhere; it didn’t matter what mistakes she made
invasion of privacy — trying to use my personal social media posts against me, to be more about personal attacks on Nick & Visceral
the utilization of white supremacy tactics — Nick taking away my job & my teaching for no legit reasoning, other than his fragility
defaming my name — sharing personal messages between him & I, with his underage teen company, which was shared with me by Nora Klein, Visceral work-study & also one of my former adult students
demonization — making me appear as a threat to the Visceral community, after receiving many positive reviews from students, as well as members from the Visceral studio company
ostracized — “The door is closed” (sent by Nick 5/5/21 @ 11pm via email)
Moreover Visceral ED: Dawn Stanislaw never talked to me nor did she or Katie Cox make me feel welcomed. All of this has triggered memories of my past, dealing with discrimination — mostly in Chicago and later, New York.
To add, it broke my heart when some of the Black community leaders didn’t share their support or try to advocate for me when I shared the discrimination I faced at Visceral, nor were other black dancers ready or willing to share their personal stories of mistreatment at Visceral. I’m guessing because they feared retribution amongst this white community or they were forced to hold onto their trauma and just move on. Now, I understand. There are not many places where black artists are given opportunities. I get it. Most of my career as a Dance Educator has been thriving in white dance spaces, but after experiencing so much discrimination my hope is that one day, we can ALL look beyond the surface and look at the systems in place without simply worrying about our class slots or who has the best spaces for workshops. Take a moment: Think about the black leaders we admire, the ones who spoke up in black history; Speaking up proved to be a way of getting their voices heard. I ask: how do you feel when you walk in and out of those white establishments? Can you truly be your authentic self, are you making a quick exit or code-switching to be accepted?
At this point, I have zero desire to be “LIKED” in a community that doesn’t have time or looks past the harm that was done to me, (after the years I invested in the Chicago dance community, with my teaching and choreography), not to mention the harm currently being done to other black artists who contribute or have contributed their talents and gifts. I choose to BE A LEADER by self-advocating, going against the grain & inspiring TRUE CHANGE (without anyone’s influence on my decision). Let’s not base our support for white dance communities, just because of their performative activism: “black lives matter, #stopasianhate, LGBTQIA pride” etc posts, but more so question the validity of their work: cultural humility & accountability.
In times of slavery, “breaking a person’s spirit”, was often seen as a necessity in order to make a slave take orders without talking back or acting out. I see my dismissal as the ultimate aggressive act my employer took towards silencing me. ~ Omonike Akinyemi
Being discriminated against yet again, in my hometown has caused me to lose my JOY = teaching. So I’ve taken a year off to reflect and fully process these interactions. On the contrary, the mistreatment and lack of support I received last year taught me to have more discernment when it comes to offering my talents. And with that, I also choose to protect my space moving forward; I will continue to move deeper, but no longer hiding behind my brand.
Lastly, I sincerely appreciate those who have always supported me, including my former white students and allies; I don’t take you for granted — thank you for appreciating my artistic ability. Nevertheless, I do hope that my self-advocacy becomes a deeper lesson for you, as well.
On another note, I passionately want other black female artists to know: BLACK WOMEN, YOU MATTER! I, Dionna PridGeon will eventually return to my (artistic) practice but for now — I need to continue healing, but will always support/advocate for my black community first, while also showing support for POC, leading with authenticity & integrity; not perfection. My intention with this 2nd Open Letter is to start a conversation that truly matters . . . #moveDIPR
dionna JOI pridGeon |Founder & Creative Director of moveDIPR | Freelance Consultant for Dance Media | mental health/multiple sclerosis/Arts advocate | Dance Educator |Published Poet|Writer
Open Letters written by BIPOC artists, who’ve also faced discrimination in the Arts: Omonike Akinyemi |Emily Johnson| Nana Chinara