Mentoring the Next Generation of the Dance Field's Leaders


Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training Provides Support for Emerging Arts Managers 

By Lisa Traiger

When Dance/USA inaugurated the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training (DILT), its professional dance mentorship program in 2011, the intention was to encourage the next generation of leaders in the field. Since then, Dance/USA has matched 58 mentors with an equal number of rising young arts administrators. Beginning in 2012, with generous lead support from the American Express Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the training program grew, leveraging connections between dance professionals while bolstering personal and professional development through mentoring relationships.

Over the course of the year-long mentorship program, mentors and mentees forge close ties in their one-on-one meetings and via phone and email communications. These personal networking and leadership opportunities are meant to support emerging leaders in the field. From the Green Room asked two 2016 mentor-mentee pairs to share some of their experiences and insights during their year in the program.  

Sabrina Madison-Cannon, professor of dance and the associate dean of academic and faculty affairs in the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri in Kansas City (UMKC), said she decided to become a mentor because she has reached a stable place in her own career trajectory and feels that it’s time to help guide others who are interested in her area of expertise: arts administration in higher education. 

While her mentee Michael Medcalf has more than 30 years of experience in the dance field, he just received his MFA in dance in 2013 with an interest in moving into academia and building on his experience teaching at various colleges and universities. He explained, “Being an artist inside and outside of academia is quite different. Amy Fitterer, Dance/USA’s executive director, matched me perfectly with Sabrina. We both came from professional dance backgrounds before entering academia. I hoped to be enlightened. This has been a very successful experience for me.”

Carla DeSola, one of the founders of the liturgical dance movement, said, “After so many years of pioneering in liturgical dance as well as teaching courses in dance and spirituality, my theme is passing on and supporting young dancers and future leaders in this field.” DeSola founded New York-based Omega Dance Company in 1974, then in the early 1990s she relocated to Berkeley, Calif., to teach at the Graduate Theological Union and opened a “sister” company, Omega West Dance Company. She added, “I hope to be open to my mentee’s experiences in the field and discover new ways of synthesizing material and approaches, both in terms of dance and spirituality, which work for her, as her work develops.”

DeSola’s mentee, Jessica Abejar is the founder and director of The Moving Prayer, a dance company that nurtures and uplifts the mind, body, and spirit by bringing sacred and liturgical dance to venues around the world. “I was in a place of growth with my career,” Abejar explained. “I wanted guidance and direction as I navigated this path carefully, and I felt it would be best to have a mentor who could help along this journey. Other than sharing experience and expertise, having a mentor to simply accompany me is something that I very much hoped for.”

Site Visits Help Mentors and Mentees Connect

Through DILT, Dance/USA supports site visits, where the mentees can meet with their mentors at the mentors’ organizations and gain a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities each face.

“Michael was initially interested in framing the conversation around 21st-century leadership and how that translates into excellence in leading his program through a strategic planning process,” Madison-Cannon said. Medcalf concurs: “I wanted information on developing a strategic plan for my program. Sabrina’s initial questions were geared toward getting to know me in relationship to my position and understanding my university structure and procedures.”

Madison-Cannon spent much time listening, while she also asked probing questions to impart options and possibilities for Medcalf to consider. When he came for his site visit at UMKC, he was able to deepen his understanding of the workings of an academic dance department. “Michael met with conservatory leadership and dance division faculty at my institution and we talked a lot about his future plans. Thinking about our in-person meeting, it might have been beneficial for me to be able to visit his institution as part of this process in order to meet with his chair, the dean, the provost — anyone who has direct affect on his trajectory,” explained Madison-Cannon, who set up the visit to enable her mentee to gain a broader understanding of the academic processes and hierarchy, which differ from other structures Medcalf had been used to.

DeSola focused on being open to Abejar’s experiences in the field with the goal of helping her mentee discover new ways of synthesizing material and approaches in terms of dance and spirituality. As a mentee, Abejar said, “From Carla, I hope to learn some of the things she had learned, to review and reflect on her career, to assess the state of sacred dance in the present, and to explore new ideas, options, and more. Especially when there are so few peers who share in the same interests or follow a remotely similar career path, having Carla mentor me gives me the needed encouragement to continue on my path. With all that she has accomplished, and through her bountiful resources and her abundant network, I feel less isolated and more connected, less apprehensive and more determined to move forward with sacred dance.”

Building a Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Forging a successful mentor-mentee relationship requires a commitment to communicating, whether that is in telephone conversations or through email and texting. Madison-Cannon said, “We tried to structure the topic of our conversations in advance, but we left time to follow a different path if we needed to discuss some new development at Michael’s institution, for example. We spoke and texted quite regularly.” 

Medcalf described their conversations as fluid and organic. “Whenever we communicated with each other, it felt like we were picking up where we left off in our previously contact. We didn’t constrict ourselves to a specific line of dialogue or when to connect. Both of our schedules were very busy, but we found time.” Abejar said, “For us, it has been a really structure-free format. We speak on the phone about once or twice a month for about one to two hours. Usually when something comes up, I will send Carla an often lengthy e-mail and we would set up a phone call.” Both mentor/mentee pairs noted that the multiple means of communicating, via phone, text, email and in-person, have been particularly helpful. Abejar added, “Sometimes writing would be more direct and more time-efficient in conveying my thoughts and experiences, while meeting in person would be the best way to work out creative solutions together and build a true human connection.”

Even as their mentor-mentee relationships continue to grow and Abejar and Medcalf continue to get solid support from their respective mentors, they are developing newfound confidence and skills as leaders. Abejar said, “When I first started the DILT mentorship program, I was intimated by all the other mentees and was simply mesmerized by all their accomplishments. I was thinking, ‘WOW! I want them as a mentor, too!’ But I think this just reveals how much learning there is in life no matter what stage — whether in the very beginning, new beginnings, at a plateau, or chartering unexplored paths.”

Learn more about the 2016 DILT mentees hereand DILT mentors here.

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week.

Photos:
Image 1: Sabrina Madison-Cannon
Image 2: Michael Medcalf
Image 3: Carla DeSola
Image 4: Jessica Abejar

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