SPEAK: Taking Action

By Charles Slender-White

two dancers lie face down removing tshirts
two dancers lie face down removing tshirts
FACT/SF’s Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White in Platform, photo by Kegan Marling

Defeated and despondent, I spent the months between the 2016 presidential election and inauguration on January 20, 2017 commiserating with friends, and evaluating my level of political engagement. I’d voted and marched and donated to advocacy groups, but suddenly that felt insufficient. I took stock of my resources and skills, and examined how I had been spending my time. I realized that for all of 2016, and throughout most of the last decade, I’d been directing the vast majority of my energy towards my dance company, FACT/SF. Could I have been making more dances with clearer and more forceful political messages? Would that have made a difference in the election? Probably not.

In the past, my considerations of an artist’s role in society were always a bit esoteric and philosophical. They seemed relevant to the field as a whole, but never really felt personal. I live in San Francisco, and I’m an economically secure, white, cis-gendered, married, gay man. My identity is rarely under attack, and this has afforded me the privilege of choosing when and how I engage with politics. It did not always feel like I had this choice.

I was born in 1983, and grew up in a single-parent household in a working-class, military town just north of San Diego. When I was fourteen, I came out to my high school counselor. She ran a private support group for other LGBT kids and invited me to join. Two years later our group decided that we should become more visible, and we established a Gay Straight Alliance. On our rather conservative campus, the GSA worked to give voice to queers and their allies, combat bullying, and support our broader community. As our GSA’s primary act of service we volunteered for Mama’s Kitchen and, for the next two years, helped them deliver free meals for low-income people living with HIV in our region. High school was already tough, and making ourselves visible made things even harder. We got bullied every day. But, we were fortified by our collective strength and the support from our allies. Our work felt non-optional.

In October 2000, I got my license and a hand-me-down car from my grandparents. Every morning, I would pick up my 15 year-old stepsister from her mom’s house across town, and drive thirty minutes to our high school. That same fall, Proposition 22 was on the California ballot, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. On the drive from her house to our high school, we saw lawns covered in signs in favor of the measure. This terrified us both, and we decided to take action. One day after school, in broad daylight, we drove around town and stole about thirty ‘Yes on 22’ signs from peoples’ lawns. We went home and wrote a letter about the importance of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. We turned the signs inside out, painted ‘No on 22’ on them, printed copies of our letter and, at 3am dressed all in black, returned the signs to their respective households and left our letter on each doorstep. That year, even though Prop 22 won with a startling 61% of the vote, my sister and I felt a sense of pride and strength in our guerilla activism.

By spring 2002, my senior year, I was fairly well known on campus. I was president of the GSA, president of the French club, a cheerleader on the competition squad, a varsity diver, a member of the yearbook staff, and a new dancer on the dance team. My school voted to make me Prom King. When my name was announced at prom, I was loudly booed.

A month later, I graduated from high school and moved to the Bay Area for college. Being in a new place, and a bit traumatized from my earlier experiences, I focused on myself. I quit diving and started taking more dance classes.

In dance, I found immediate acceptance – my peers and professors didn’t care about my sexual orientation. They were more concerned with what I could do in the studio and on stage. In this process, my political lens shifted. I no longer felt embattled, advocating for gay rights became less important to me, and pursuing a dance career became paramount.

In 2006, just after graduating from college, I accepted a job with Provincial Dances Theatre and moved to Russia. The working situation at Provincial Dances was extremely competitive. Rather than being paid hourly or weekly, our pay was based on the amount of time we spent on stage. This created an environment where dancers worked against each other. Though I was proud of the work we made, and thrilled to tour across Russia and Europe, I started to feel exhausted and isolated. I lost the stamina for the daily jockeying to be cast in the best-paid role, and I longed for a sense of belonging. In 2008, I gave up my life abroad, moved back to California, and started FACT/SF.

With FACT/SF, I was able to focus my energy on building the community I wanted to be a part of. I endeavored to create an environment that was much different than the one I had been working in – one where my collaborators and I offered and received mutual support and respect.

Over the past nine years, FACT/SF has pursued goals to provide dancers an hourly pay, annual raises, and contracts with detailed schedules. We have policies in place for conflict resolution, conduct annual reviews, and maintain space for open dialogue and questioning within the rehearsal process. In 2014, we created a commissioning program, JuMP, to share our resources with other local choreographers. This year, we’re launching PORT with the LA Contemporary Dance Company and ODC Theater. By bringing West Coast dance companies together, PORT increases regional touring capacity while decreasing financial risk. I am proud of how FACT/SF works, what it has done, the community it has created, and the role I have played to make
it happen. I know we are contributing to the dance field, and society, in important ways.

The recent shifts in our political landscape, though, have called into question my myopic focus on FACT/SF. My entire, tight-knit community of family, friends, and colleagues now feels tangibly and directly under siege. Our large group, spread throughout California and across the country, includes a diversity of people from different economic classes and with different faiths, ethnicities, places of origin, occupations, genders, and sexual orientations. An attack against one of us feels like an attack against all of us. It feels personal, and combating injustice and discrimination feels non-optional, much like it did when I was a teenager.

Using the organizing skills I’ve developed in running a dance company, I decided to spend the next two years working to unseat the Republican Congressman in the CA-49, my hometown district. He has been in office since 2000, when Prop 22 was on the ballot, and in 2016 he was re-elected by a 1% margin. In collaboration with my high school classmates from long ago, we have started to build an on-the-ground team for getting out the vote and hopefully flipping our hometown district from red to blue. Even though I won’t vote in the CA-49, I know a lot of people who will. I’m hopeful that this effort will have a positive, if small, impact on our national government.

My work with FACT/SF will continue, too. Liane Burns and I are premiering a duet, Platform, at ODC in June 2017. We are gearing up for our productions with the LA Contemporary Dance Company in September, and preparing to tour the Balkans in October.

Organizing political action has required finding more time in my day, and more courage to have uncomfortable conversations about policies and political priorities. It’s a challenge, but I feel optimistic. My enormous community has been a primary source of encouragement, and working for its survival the main catalyst for action. I feel empowered by a new sense of purpose, and more energized than ever before.

Charles Slender is the Artistic Director of FACT/SF. He began his career with Provincial Dances Theatre in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and has worked as a dance artist throughout North America, Europe, Russia, Hong Kong and Australia. Slender-White is one of 28 Countertechnique Teachers worldwide. In addition to extensive studies with Anouk van Dijk, he spent a year in mentorship with Elizabeth Streb via CHIME Across Borders at the Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab. Slender-White completed his undergraduate degrees in Dance & Performance Studies and English Literature at UC Berkeley.