Transcending Racism in the Dance World

By Joslynn Mathis Reed

Outdoor dance photo of Joslynn Mathis Reed balancing on one leg

Photo by Shannon Stubblefield
[ID: Joslynn, African American woman faces the camera, black locs in a bun on top of her head, wearing a black shirt and black pants, standing on one leg, other leg extended 90 degrees to the side, back flat, hinged at the hips at 90 degrees, with orange nail polish.]

Right after I completed my MFA in 2014, I landed my first dance professor job. I was hired to teach a Hip Hop class at a community college, and I was super excited for the opportunity to teach at the college level. I felt that this college would be a place where I could grow and collaborate with my colleagues. The students were driven and willing to put in the work of learning Hip Hop culture as well as movement, and I saw a future in which I could achieve my goals as a professor and mentor my students. During my first week on the job, a colleague asked if I thought I had been hired because I was Black, or because of my skills and expertise. Reeling from how explicitly racist the question was, I didn’t address it, and instead explained that my skill set included training and experience teaching multiple styles of dance as well as an MFA in Choreography and Performance.

After several years teaching Hip Hop dance at that college, I realized that expanding to teach other techniques was not in the cards. There were always different reasons—everything from not enough studio space to scheduling challenges. It became increasingly clear that as the Black Hip Hop teacher, my opportunities would be limited. My presence there conveniently served to diversify the program, but only on superficial terms. Even though I was qualified and professionally trained to teach other styles of dance, my colleagues continually referred to me as “the Hip Hop teacher.” I love teaching Hip Hop, but I resent the assumption that it’s the only dance form I can teach because I’m Black.

I have had to deal with racist microaggressions and attempts to put me in a box as a Black dance professor and choreographer my entire career. The cumulative effect of having students and colleagues question my authority and expertise (like the time a colleague asked if I had worked as hard as she had to get my master’s degree) has compelled me to confront these stereotypes directly. Even though this experience is far from unique to me, it still hurts—every time.

Headshot of Joslynn Mathis Reed
Photo courtesy of artist
[ID: Joslynn, an African American woman with black locs smiling at the camera, left hand at her chin, wearing a turtle ring, bangles, black nail polish, and a black tank top.]

I know a lot of Black people in the dance community don’t say much about the racism and stereotyping they experience because they don’t want to rock the boat, or because they’re just tired of dealing with the relentless disrespect, regardless of the degrees they hold or how good of a job they’re doing. I’ve been afraid of being called the angry Black woman if I answer a question too directly or come off too strong. When I was younger and the only Black person in the room, I would never speak up because I already felt that I was in the spotlight.

In college, I began to speak up when confronted with racist comments because it was already clear to me that regardless of what we do as Black people, we continue to be disrespected. After having countless ballet teachers tell me to tuck in my behind because it was too big (“tuck tuck!”), I told one professor that this is my body type and my pelvis is exactly where it needs to be. (I also had to tell him to never touch me with his ballet stick to correct me again; I was sent home for the day for that one). When a director told me my locks were getting in the way of my movement and distracting from the technique, I told him that my hair is part of my body and if it’s a distraction maybe he should concentrate a little harder. I was surprised when he laughed and told me I was right, and that he had never thought of it as an extension of the movement.

But there have been times that, in the face of a particularly appalling remark, I couldn’t find my voice. When I was pulled to the side by a director of a dance program, who asked me to confirm that I would not raise any racial discrimination issues against the institution because they had had “problems with black dancers in the past,” and they hoped I was not that kind of Black person, I was left speechless and disempowered. I wish I had said something in the moment, but I didn’t because I respected my professors so much at the time, and because I was stuck in disbelief.

Performance photo of Joslynn Mathis in mid-leap
Photo courtesy of artist
[ID: Joslynn, African American woman looking off to the right, in billowing green knee-length pants, black waist band, and silver top, in a jump with one leg extended to the right, arms raised and bent at the elbows.]

It might be hard for people of color to hear, but all racism and racist actions do not come exclusively from White people. I was once told by a Black instructor that I must have been trained by a White instructor to be as good as I am. People of color are also part of this broken system and, therefore, at risk of contributing to the systemic racism that has been integrated into the dance community—even if not on a conscious or intentional level. Ignorant and racist statements like that are heartbreaking to hear from someone who looks like you.

I am sharing these hurtful and racist experiences because it’s time to put an end to the pretense that we have an inclusive environment in the dance community and in the larger arts community, not just in the Bay Area but everywhere. Merely hiring people of color does not create anti-racist spaces; we have to change the people who are calling the shots.

I am working hard to make the Bay Area dance community more inclusive and diverse. I’m excited to be joining the Board of Directors of the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley to lend my voice to reimagining a thriving community arts organization. I’m looking forward to creating more equitable and positive spaces for dancers and other artists. I don’t want the next generation of people of color to feel like they don’t belong because they look different, even though they put in the work like any other dancer. Being proud of your blackness or heritage should not be a threat. We need to create an environment where people can be embraced for being individuals, rather than trying to put dancers of color into pre-designated, racist boxes.

It is important to point out that I have had many positive experiences in the dance community as a professor, dancer, and student. I have been fortunate to have great mentors and collaborators of all ethnicities, and in general the Bay Area is a great place to be an artist because of the diversity of cultures and experiences we have here. But the struggles with racism I have highlighted here are unfortunately endemic to my experience, as well as to the experiences of other BIPOC people.

The dance community (and the larger arts community) still has a long way to go. It is time to understand how White privilege is damaging and limiting all of us, and that we need to reimagine what it means to value and respect the contributions we are all working hard to make.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of In Dance.

Joslynn Mathis Reed hails from Detroit Michigan. Her lifelong passion for dance has taken her on a journey that includes performing with Aretha Franklin as a teenager, studying West African dance in Ghana as an undergraduate, and teaching dance to a wide range of students over the years. In addition to leading workshops and intensives, she currently teaches ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, dance history, hip-hop culture, and advanced technique courses at several Bay Area colleges. Joslynn founded Mathis Reed Dance Company in 2014, presenting work that explores the black experience in America through a multicultural, multiethnic lens. She has performed and collaborated with Shinichi lova-Koga, Nina Haft, Wanjuru Kamuyu, Ana Marie and Sylvia Water (Alvin Ailey Company), Heather Stockton, Mills College Repertory Company, and California State University East Bay Repertory Company. Joslynn holds a B.A. in Dance/Theater Arts from California State University East Bay and an MFA in Dance Performance and Choreography from Mills College.