A Match Made in Heaven


Mentor-Mentee Program Provides Powerful Tools To Strengthen Young Dance Leaders

By Lisa Traiger

Anne Huang and Vijay Palaparty were a match made in heaven. No. They’re not a true-love happily-ever-after couple, but one of Dance/USA’s Institute for Leadership Training (DILT) mentor-mentee matches. DILT is Dance/USA’s nationally recognized professional dance mentorship program, which forges connections between experienced managers and directors in the dance field and emerging leaders with the goal of supporting personal and professional development via one-on-one mentoring. Since 2015, the program has focused on shifting patterns of inequity in the dance field by recruiting applicants from diverse communities with a specific interest in supporting emerging leaders of color. 

Huang calls herself a reformed dentist. She closed her successful dental practice to work for the Oakland (Calif.) Asian Cultural Center in the heart of Chinatown, moving closer to her early roots as a dancer and singer. During the day, Palaparty works as a senior communications specialist at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, D.C. In parallel, he leads Spilling Ink, a multi-arts organization that interprets, creates, performs, and presents dance, music, visual and literary arts of India and the diaspora. The company is based in Washington, D.C.

Although Spilling Ink has been presenting its works for nearly a decade and Palaparty earned an MBA, he sought a mentor because, “We were at a crossroads. I felt Spilling Ink was doing well artistically, but from a business standpoint, we were looking for guidance on where to go next, and how to get there. As resources are typically limited for small arts organizations, I certainly had many questions [for Anne] about how to best invest them to help drive both our artistic and business goals.”

Presently Huang is development director at World Arts West, but when she switched careers in 2000, she found herself at the helm of a community cultural arts organization. “I really didn’t know anything about arts administration, let alone being a nonprofit executive,” she admitted. “I came with strong business management skills from my dental practice, but nonprofit management was brand new to me, and quite frightening.” At the time Huang was matched a mentor — Ron Chu, the executive director of Win Lu Asian Museum.

“The challenge to culturally specific arts organizations, I realize now, is that they’re so unique,” she explained. “There may be some basic similarities in an organization that serves the Afro-Haitian community and an organization that serves the Pan-Asian community in the Bay Area. However, the individual communities are so different and unique that the mentee will only thrive if the mentor is extremely familiar in working in the culturally specific community.” She added, it's important that the mentor “has not only done a lot of work in that culturally specific community, but has a comprehensive view of the broader community in policy, in funding, and in engaging the media because the only way a culturally specific arts organization can succeed is to engage stakeholders beyond the culturally specific community.” At Arts West, Huang serves a roster of 450 dance companies, most that grew from culturally specific communities. She has observed that many remain in cultural “ghettos,” unable to build capacity beyond their own communities and attract funders and audiences outside their insular cultural groups.

Huang’s expertise was exactly what Palaparty needed. When they were matched in 2017, the two set about defining goals. “The job of the mentor during the first few meetings is to listen a lot and to work collaboratively with the mentee to figure out what challenges they’re going to tackle together during the mentorship period,” Huang said, having learned from her own mentor-mentee relationships, when she was new to arts management.

Huang realized quickly that her mentee didn’t need organizational skills as much as focus. Palaparty said, “Anne has a unique way of remaining strategically focused while concurrently being aware of implementation implications. My mind tends to think that way too, but she offered me and the organization objective ways to think about what we do, why we do the work, and she was able to question the value of those efforts.”

The DILT grant period includes a site visit when the mentee visits the mentor. Huang and Palaparty agreed that he should fly to San Francisco for the Ethnic Dance Festival, even though it occurred shortly after they met. “One area where Vijay wanted to gain knowledge was producing,” Huang explained. “I wanted him to come and see how traditional dance can be produced on a huge stage with 3,000 people, three floors, a huge sound system. That experience was extremely eye opening for Vijay in the context he works in — Indian dance.” He also connected with some Indian dance company artistic directors located in the Bay Area.

Following that brief visit, the mentor and mentee scheduled phone calls every other Sunday — though there were periods when they had to skip their appointment. When Huang checked on Palaparty’s progress he frequently was ready with more questions to further advance his goals. The calls themselves required advance planning on both the mentee’s and mentor’s parts. Palaparty appreciated his mentor’s organizational planning and sharp focus on getting to the crux of issues, as well as her expertise in culturally specific dance. The DILT mentorship program has enabled him to address areas that he might not have been adept at tackling without Huang’s support. “The six months that we had — a critical investment made by Dance/USA — was very valuable. An opportunity to learn from someone with Anne’s robust experience, one-on-one, does not come along very often,” Palaparty said. “I am truly grateful,”

“My experience in working with Anne helped me really define my personal artistic goals, and it was an exercise,” Palaparty noted, “to experiment with different ways of working. Today, I am clear about what I want and why I do what I do.” He’s changed the way he works. “One of things Anne and I talked a lot about is how I want to make use of the time I have. With a few hours a day devoted to art, I have to be able to produce artistically, but also run a business. I had to evaluate which was more important to me. That was a hard question to ask. Today, I am clear that I am laser focused on creating interesting projects — perhaps one or two per year. Everything else I do should support that administratively.”

The result? He stated: “Having such clarity takes a huge burden off of my shoulders — trying to navigate the unknown and pressuring myself to becoming something I am perhaps not even interested in is something of the past.”

Huang added, “I benefited greatly as a mentee and participant in various professional development programs. I know that kind of tailored coaching and professional development really works. I regularly see the impact of coaching on folks who are now less seasoned than myself. Good coaching works.” She is also committed to coaching and supporting folk and traditional artists, noting, “When I sit on grant panels those are the most under-funded artists.”

“I commend Dance/USA for creating this leadership training program to develop dance leaders of communities of color, immigrant communities,” Huang said. “This is a case where a mainstream organization that recognizes there are areas of historical inequity and says, 'We’re going to do something to address these historical inequities.’”

For Palaparty, who hopes to continue working with Huang in some capacity in the future, the DILT mentorship program was a perfect fit. “The beauty of the DILT program is that mentees are able to tailor their experiences to their needs, or what they seek. Perhaps it’s also an opportunity to help mentees think more clearly about what they might need, or what they should be seeking.”

For information on the Dance/USA Institute for Leadership Training, visit https://www.danceusa.org/instituteforleadershiptraining

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, Washington Jewish Week and DCDanceWatcher.

Photo credits
Image 1: Anne Huang and Vijay Palaparty, courtesy of Huang and Palaparty
Image 2: Spilling Ink, photo credit: Madhaviarts Photography

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