2020 is a year that will certainly be remembered, as much as many might prefer to forget it, but beyond a global pandemic and a chaotic political scene south of our boarder, this year has managed to shine a brighter light on racial inequities in our society. The death of George Floyd at the hands of the police sparked international outrage and fueled an ongoing dialogue among people of all races about privilege and justice, who has and who’s denied. The systemic nature of these racial disparities has been revealed in every aspect of our culture, and the arts are no exception. Access to the art world is often exclusionary, and the higher echelons of most mediums are far more homogenous than society at large. But one Hamilton contemporary dance studio is working to change that.
“Before the pandemic started, we were looking at doing a course called Sharing Privilege run by Good Body Feel,” says Lisa Emmons, co-artistic director of Aeris Korper. “And then as the horrific death of George Floyd happened, that increased our desire to be active and loud in our viewpoints and also recognizing that we don’t have it right. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity and we can share what we have.”
For Emmons and Aeris Korper, that meant offering a scholarship for their second annual Ground Ignite Aim Unite program to three BIPOC participants. Claudia Liz, an artist and actor, discovered the scholarship through a Facebook group and applied, hoping the dance program would help her hone her own craft.
“Dance and movement training is applicable to all art forms,” says Liz. “It just helps you access your language from the inside and helps you be able to take it out into the real world.”
Liz was ultimately selected as a scholarship recipient and completed the four-week program, which included guided meditation and sensory movement, last month. But the scholarship provided more than practical experience; it also opened an often-barred door.
“Scholarships are a real opportunity for artists to go into the room without feeling limited financially,” says Liz. “Especially as an emerging BIPOC queer artist, there’s so many barriers to so many communities, and acknowledging that is a real, big step forward for a lot of organizations. To even do that and then on top of that to also offer a scholarship tells me that they’re putting in the work to create those opportunities, which is a company that I want to be aligned with when I think about the bigger picture of who I am as an artist and the voice I bring to the room.”
Emmons and her co-artistic director, Mayumi Lashbrook, know the fight for equality in the arts is not a passing fad but rather an ongoing movement requiring ongoing action.
“There’s not enough artists and dancers who are represented,” says Emmons. “There’s not enough diverse representation, specifically in contemporary dance. it’s mostly Caucasian females and that’s because a lot of the training happens as young people: we have parents who can afford those classes, we have parents who can afford our pre-professional training, and so [I’m] just wanting to see more vibrant, diverse, interesting contemporary dancers.”
Aeris Korper will continue offering this scholarship opportunity, along with a pre-existing sliding scale, in the hopes of continuing to foster the talents of artists from underrepresented backgrounds.
“It’s apparent in everything that there’s many things about our culture that are horribly wrong,” says Emmons. “We live in a heteronormative, gender-policed, white supremacist, racist, misogynistic, patriarchal society and I therefore am those things. I am those things because I’ve been raised in that and therefore I have a lot of unlearning to do.”