March 27, 2022—I am honored and proud to introduce the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to Endalyn Taylor, the recently appointed Dean of the School of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. An award-winning educator, Endalyn is now among the highest-ranking women of color in the academic world of dance. I believe this is a historic opportunity for these students to learn and benefit from her years of training as a conservatory-trained dancer and choreographer, as well as from her long-time career in the world of professional dance.
A native of Chicago, Endalyn received her early training at the Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts. Her illustrious career has included being a principal dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), where she performed for global luminaries, such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton; Coretta Scott King; US Secretary of State Colin Powell; Princess of Wales Diana Spencer; and South Africa President Nelson Mandela. She also performed on Broadway in Carousel, The Lion King, and Aida, as well as at the Tony Awards.
I first met Endalyn at DTH when she was a principal ballerina. In addition to her beauty and elegance, she was totally committed to her craft. When she retired from performing, she became the director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem School. Endalyn taught dance, as well as choreographed and staged works with students in the DTH’s Professional Training Program. Highlights of her tenure often cited by Endalyn include taking a group of students to the White House during the Obama administration as part of an arts initiative, and having a group of young students perform at the Wives of Heads of States luncheon at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which was sponsored by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. She later taught master dance classes throughout the United States and around the world, and ran a performing arts institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Inspired by DTH founder Arthur Mitchell to pursue higher education, Endalyn received the MFA in dance from Hollins University. Before accepting the position at UNC, she taught dance and musical theater as an Associate Professor and Dean’s Fellow at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where she received an Excellence in Teaching award and the Initiative for Multi-Racial Democracy award.
I was delighted to have an opportunity to interview Endalyn for Arts & Culture Connections, in which she shared her vision for dance education and discussed the importance of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging to the arts, especially in dance.
Donna Walker-Kuhn: Why did you decide to accept the position of Dean of the School of Dance at University of North Carolina?
Endalyn Taylor: I was not looking for a change when Sara Hook, a mentor, colleague, and alumni of UNCSA, told me about the national search. When she suggested I apply, I initially dismissed the idea. I knew of the school and its storied reputation for quality training and programing for student artists. I vaguely knew about its less discussed history, as well as the limited diversity amongst the school’s administration and faculty.
At the same time, there was quite a lot going on for me, both personally and professionally. I had recently received tenure at the University of Illinois and was rounding out the second half of a one-year position as the Dean’s Fellow for Black Arts Research. I also was working on an inspiring side project with two incredible artists and humans.
My father passed away just before COVID-19 hit, and I also was mourning and moving through the universal losses and massive changes fueled by the pandemic. My mother now lived with me, and my grown and nearly grown children were close by. We are a tight-knit family. We were making our way, holding on to pockets of joy. But we also were like everyone else—in survival mode.
I share all of this to convey that life felt the best it could be under the exceptional circumstances we all faced; the entire world faced. There was a certain rhythm or groove to my existence that seemed sustainable and safe.
However, as I familiarized myself with the job description, I was struck by how closely aligned my professional and artistic values, credentials and experiences were to UNCSA’s strategic plan, mission, and what they were looking for in the person that would become the Dean of Dance. The plans for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging; the conservatory dance environment; supporting students seeking professional careers in both Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance—these issues have always been my wheelhouse. The position seemed to be a “Taylor-made” opportunity to merge my knowledge and expertise with a team ready to take a great program and its initiatives to the next level.
Donna: What is your assessment of the current landscape of dancers in America? Do you feel it is reflective of the changing demographics in our country?
Endalyn: I believe some progress has been made in this area, but not enough. The standards of beauty and aesthetics established hundreds of years ago—standards that are innately flawed and elitist—remain intact. Consequently, the exceptionally talented and beautiful Black and Brown dancers breaking the color barrier and obtaining positions in major companies around the US have to reflect the desired aesthetic.
True diversity flips homogeneity on its side; it not only broadens the ideal of what the dancing body should look like, but also what the dancing body can do.
In today’s dance landscape, now more than ever, versatility is a superpower. In that sense, we are seeing progress. Dancers need the classical ballet chops, as well as the ability to move in contemporary, secular and any number of specialized dance forms. And we find ballet companies expanding their repertoire to include any number of dance styles during a season.
Donna: How have the nationwide racial and social justice movements, most notably influenced by Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, impacted your approach to your work as an educator and the nourishing of dance students?
Endalyn: Watching George Floyd’s murder was sickening and a startling access point for many to the racism and injustices faced by people of color. It opened the eyes and ears of some folk who were either content or not ready to face what Black people have long been experiencing. Mr. Floyd’s death became a catalyst for protests, movement, change.
As a woman of color there is always a conscious and subconscious effort to navigate life in a way that allows me to be seen, to be heard, to be safe. How do I find ways to speak my truth? How do I support causes I believe in? In what ways can I activate my power to effect change without fear of being shot down or snuffed out?
Living life to the fullest, and doing things that matter, makes you victorious over would-be oppressors—that is my message and my approach when I am nurturing and fostering students. I encourage them to show up; to be their unique selves. Most importantly, I encourage them to commit to doing the work, without the delusional expectation of “all that you deserve will come your way.” I encourage them to do their work anyway, and to be ready for whatever happens.
As dancers, we are built for activism. Community is so much part of what we do; collective and individual expression are powerful change agents. So, for me, as a nurturer of students, I continue to foster the notion that your art should draw from and pour into the world. The push for the changes we seek—diversity, equity, inclusion, safety in the dance landscape—like the changes we seek in life, is ongoing. So, we must keep going.
Donna: The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of performance arts centers and ended up generating a new platform for dance. What has been the impact on creating new work, sustaining dancers, and performing opportunities?
Endalyn: I would say that the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the value, beauty, and sustainability of dance for the camera.
During the shutdown, there were live-streamed dance films and performances. Virtual festival opportunities were critical to keeping not just dance, but all the performing arts, alive during that time of isolation. Zoom and other social media platforms opened doors to working with artists far and wide. Not only could we synchronize schedules, the previous costs associated with in-person collaborations, such as travel, rental spaces, housing and per diem, were eliminated.
On top of that, fees for artists that normally would have been out of reach, were more readily accessible due to their desire to create and share work with an ever growing, broader virtual audience.
There also were some incredibly moving and beautiful works done in the spirit of civic and social activism. There were uplifting and humorous works done that served to heal and transcend. And then there were the dance videos designed to entertain.
I believe courses offered in academia that allow student artist to hone their skills and create work through video and other digital mediums should be offered and viewed as both valuable opportunities for learning and for developing professional pipelines into theatre, dance, and film.
Donna: What is your vision for transforming the dance landscape to be more inclusive?
Endalyn: I have recently been in conversation with facilitators and directors of national and international dance programs and, like me, they are in a place where statements naming the systemic exclusivity within the dance landscape indicate progress, but they do not go far enough.
Those of us who have any stake in making shifts, must reconcile our own learned, but skewed perceptions of who—referring specifically to Ballet—can embody excellence in the field.
To transform the field, I envision bold statements of acknowledgement yielding way to bold actions that reinforce their words, such as directors of companies employing artists that mirror the world in which we live. That means hiring artists of varying body types, ages, and ethnicities, and choreographers creating works that demand cohesion in the commitment and quality of artistic and technical execution.
If we make these types of companies and performances available to audiences, they will one day be able to look beyond the external to the thing that should be the focus—can you dance? Do you move me and are you moved by the art you are creating? Have you put in the work to represent the form at its highest level? If the response to those questions is “Yes!”, the color of one’s skin, the shape of one’s body, nor their years on this earth is not a factor.
I see evidence of this taking place at UNCSA and other academic programs. My hope is that the artists we are training and nurturing on our campuses will become the future population of professional working artists, who are employed by and represented in companies worldwide.
Donna: Thank you, Endalyn!
As always, I want to know what you think. I invite you to share your comments below about the issues of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Access and Belonging in the world of dance.