Modern Dance Is Not A Pyramid Scheme: Roz LeBlanc Responds

pyramid

A recent, widely circulated article in DanceUSA’s e-journal asks “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?” Its author, Sarah Anne Austin, questions if modern dance is turning into a “pyramid scheme” that encourages students in higher education to enter a field where there is little to no promise of job opportunity or financial stability. This pits professors in dance departments as a sort of fraudster, duping students in to a line of study that will result in no eventual payoff.  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission explains a “pyramid scheme” as a line of work where “participants attempt to make money solely by recruiting new participants into the program. The hallmark of these schemes is the promise of sky-high returns in a short period of time for doing nothing other than handing over your money and getting others to do the same.” Many have come forward to challenge and expand the dialogue on this notion, including a recent DanceUSA response piece by Jennifer Edwards. Culturebot has also posted a response by respected professor and choreographer Tere O’ Connor, who incited a flurry of activity on Facebook when he posted his initial thoughts on this article.

In the days after the article’s release, a different set of issues came forward. This concerned current Assistant Professor of Dance at Loyola Marymount University, Rosalynde (Roz) LeBlanc, whose personal story and photo were used to frame Austin’s argument.LeBlanc was a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and White Oak Dance Project in much of the 90s and early 2000s and then freelanced. Her story seemed like an apt way to frame the argument: an active freelance performer who still ended up back in the throes of academia, despite doing everything “right.” Unfortunately, Ms. LeBlanc was never contacted about the use of her personal story and photo for the article and elaborated on her initial confusion and shock over this on her personal Facebook page. The original article framed LeBlanc’s story in a way that implied her endorsement of the author’s views. Since then, Ms. LeBlanc’s story has been removed from the article; DanceUSA has not publicly acknowledged this edit.

Culturebot contributor Tara Sheena interviewed Ms. LeBlanc via phone from her office in Los Angeles on the aftermath of the article and her thoughts on the scheme the author proposes. Excerpts of their conversation are posted below.

Editor’s note: The author would like to thank Roz LeBlanc, Tere O’ Connor and Jennifer Edwards for their eloquent, informed responses. She would also like to extend a huge thanks to Elena Light and, especially, Brandon Cournay for encouraging and helping to facilitate this article.

Editor’s note: As of March 20, 2015, Dance/USA has publicly acknowledged their unauthorized use of Roz LeBlanc’s story and photo in the original article.


Tara Sheena: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. The article has been out for a week so I am wondering if your thoughts are different now; your story was obviously used without your permission and has since been removed. How did you first find out about the article? What was your initial reaction to the article and your response to how the author framed your story?

Roz LeBlanc: The way I found out was that one of my colleagues here [at Loyola Marymount University] in passing said something along the lines of, “I read the article, wow!” She said I was talked about in an article and my photo was used. I thought it was something I had written in the past that she had just come across. I just thought, “Oh, ok great!” The following day another colleague said something along the lines of “That was really controversial.” And, he showed it to me.

My first reaction was shock. I think the most jarring thing was my photo; to see my photo so large and where it was placed in the article. The [original] article began with my name and my story. It implies immediately that I have something to do with it or I had contributed something to the article, but I had known nothing about it. It felt like a violation.

TS: Did you contact someone at DanceUSA at that point? How were you removed?

RL: The first thing I felt was important was to alert everyone I work with at LMU what the situation was. Loyola Marymount was mentioned [in the original article]; students could see that article; prospective students’ parents could see that article; my colleagues; the deans of the college. And, calling our profession a “Pyramid Scheme” is a scathing accusation to what we are actually doing. At that point, my reputation and my job was at risk. It was unethical journalism and was taken very seriously. They [colleagues at LMU] had it taken down, they contacted the editors, and they removed me form the article.

In the end, they removed me from the article and they reposted it and I have no involvement in it and that’s great. But, that doesn’t repair the damage. As far as I know, DanceUSA has not printed a public apology or a retraction. I think they should have; that has been upsetting. The reason why they should have is because there are people who read it who didn’t and aren’t going to click on it again to read the edited version. There are people who read it and associate me with it and think that that’s my viewpoint. I can only reach the people who I know personally And, because DanceUSA did not put out a public apology, there is no way for anyone to know.

TS: That was the most surprising thing to me about it. There was no editor’s note and no acknowledgement of that at all. It was very surprising that wasn’t a part of their reposting of the article; almost like it never happened.

RL: Exactly. And, I feel that a responsible publication has to do that. They have to preserve that level of respect for the people they are writing about.

Another thing I think is important to take away from this is one of the things she mentioned about people being ambassadors for the field [of dance] and not just training dancers to be technicians. I then say that part of being an ambassador to the field is that we are constantly trying to teach people about the value of dance and the worth of dance. And, you’re doing it your whole life. Students are doing it when they’re trying to convince their parents, I love this and I want to do this as a career and I want to major in it. We do it as dancers, we do it as choreographers, we do it as teachers– not just for our students but the rest of the academic community. We are saying that dance has value, it is an epistemology in and of itself. It needs to be in the curriculum. So, for Austin to put a fist in the air and say let’s be ambassadors to the field [and] to not interview me, to get the story wrong, she devalued that information. That’s important. That needs to be talked about. I always bring up the Beyoncé/De Keersmaeker plagiarism; because it’s out there, it immediately devalues the art form. Dance is not just out there for the taking. You can’t just take it and use it for something else.

TS: You touched on it a little bit, but I am wondering if you had been consulted for the article, what is your response to this “scheme”?

RL: The use of the phrase “pyramid scheme” is, to me, sensationalist and inaccurate. I think there’s an important conversation that has been lost in the sensationalism of calling it a “pyramid scheme.” But, at the heart of it, is an important thing, which is true, which is that I ended up in academia out of financial frustration in being a performer in modern dance. That is absolutely true.

Austin referenced an article I wrote in Dance Magazine [in 2005] because it said that I was frustrated and wanted to have a family. I was always able to support myself but the frustration came in when I wanted to support other people. And, that is a problem with American culture, not just modern dance. One of my good friends dances in Germany and, around this time, I was in Austria with him. He has two kids and we were performing and I was watching his kids watch him on stage. I remember distinctly thinking this was a European moment. These young kids knew their parents to be performers. Their parents weren’t professors, they weren’t physical therapists, they weren’t in “dance-related” fields. They were performers. I thought, wow, wouldn’t that be great if that could be an American experience in modern dance. But, it’s not unique to modern dance, it’s not unique to this era, it’s not unique to any art. That is our culture.

A pyramid scheme implies a promise of profit and there is no promise of profit when students come and interview to be in a dance department. I’ll speak for my own but I can pretty much guess across the board that no one is promising any kind of profit, especially if that profit means a job at the end [of college]. No one is saying, “Come to our school and you’ll get a job in dance.” Also, the idea of a pyramid scheme implies we [as professors of dance] aren’t offering anything of real value. There’s a bait and switch; we are baiting people in. But, dancers come to us because they have a passion. They have already swum upstream. They say to their parents, “I want to major in dance.” They already have that fight to them; we are not out there pulling them away from other majors, such as economics or business.

TS: Yes, that’s true. No one is being duped into anything.

RL: I think what’s important to know is that if you choose to go to college for dance, we [as professors] are cultivating an artist. We are not cultivating a technician. And, when in history has the job of the artist been to go out and occupy a job that is offered to them? The jobs are out there and the goal of the artist is to find them? No. The goal of the artist is to create something that isn’t there.

When you think about what modern dance started from– Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis– they weren’t sitting around saying, why isn’t burlesque and vaudeville hiring me to do my barefoot expressive dance? That wasn’t the spirit of how this started. The spirit of this is to carve a path that doesn’t exist. Those are the students I am training. Austin touches on this idea of the “impoverished field” of dance [and ] you could argue that with facts. The amount of money going in to modern dance, the amount of people seeing modern dance, perhaps, is declining. She is talking about a financial poverty. But, I am talking about spiritual poverty. I am more concerned with who we are putting into the world.

So, thinking of what we are lacking in money is not our fear; our culture is lacking spiritual and artistic engagement. And, in that case, those of us as professors in college have a really important job to turn those people out and say, don’t be lawyers. We have enough of those. We need artists. That’s what I would have said, had she interviewed me.

TS: Is there anything else you want to mention?

RL: The only thing that I would say is that, in rereading her article, I think that there was a certain amount of it that was influenced from my article I wrote for Dance Magazine in 2005. I think what is important there is that, in the end, I came to the conclusion that dance defies thinking about money. That’s an important part of that article: if I am primarily concerned about money, then I shouldn’t be a dancer. It’s outside of the realm of dance’s concern because it’s not about that. It’s larger than that. The purpose is very pure.

The disciplines that don’t have commercial force behind them, like modern dance, and, for me, I’ve more recently gotten into documentary film and I see the same culture. It is not an art form that has yet been contaminated by money. And what you find is that the people who are there need to be there. They have a purity of purpose. That’s the beauty of modern dance. That’s why it stands outside of commercial corruption. And, we don’t want to lose that — not that people shouldn’t be paid — but you want people there because they need to be.

That’s the aspect of that [Dance Magazine] article that Austin did not come back to and that’s important. That’s my journey. And, taking someone’s story and photo and framing it in a way that’s convenient is not being a good ambassador. That’s not an ambassador to the field.

One thought on “Modern Dance Is Not A Pyramid Scheme: Roz LeBlanc Responds”

  1. TLockyer says:

    Great interview. A conversation between LeBlanc and Sarah Anne Austin might be a productive debate–both parties appear to be on binary ends of an argument.

    I agree with RL that “pyramid scheme” is an inaccurate descriptor, that artists often have to create their own paths, and our country increasingly lacks “artistic engagement”. However, the conclusion that we don’t want our field “contaminated by money” and it is somehow more “pure” if we ignore “thinking of what we are lacking in money” is swinging to the other extreme, and ultimately also unhelpful to the field. RL’s examples of Loie Fuller and St. Denis exemplify two very entrepreneurial women who were also masters of self-marketing. Despite our nostalgic mythology that artists after the Romantic period needed to be isolated in ivory towers or were high-priestesses moved by the spiritual purity of the muse . . . the evidence doesn’t support the myth. Many Modern Dance pioneers were not “too pure” to think strategically about promoting their work, or their personas (or using both to attract audiences and major individual donors). Perhaps that’s ALSO what we need to be teaching dance artists in universities, along with other practical tools to help them carve out their own paths (or work collectively) in inventive ways that are ultimately sustainable.

    The image of the artist is shifting again, towards the model of a creative or social entrepreneur. Are we adequately preparing dance artists to enter that world? Modern dancers have always had to be resourceful (or born into money, or married to money, or tenured . . . ) to have sustainable careers. Considering Modern Dance’s history, the invitation to thoughtfully consider how we can also educate dancers to more successfully access resources, and/or control the means of production, is not as out-of-the-box as some of the responses to SAA’s essay have implied.

    Being “a good ambassador to the field” might include inviting Sarah
    Anne Austin to respond. Perhaps this reach-out happened? If not, I would be curious to hear if SAA’s thinking may have changed since she published her essay? And I’m also curious to hear what IS happening in our university settings to prepare dance artists for the times we live in.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: