“Somebody has to stand when other people are sitting. Somebody has to speak when other people are quiet.”
– Bryan Stevenson
On the 31st May 2020, Urdang Academy student Chris Otim sent an email to all students and staff calling for a coordinated response to the BLM outcry following the murder of George Floyd. This sparked an internal dialogue about a collaborative student and staff response, that would not only influence Urdang public communications, but most importantly, shape internal changes that could further improve the experience for Black and Mixed-Race students pursuing vocational training in the performing arts. This call to action would lead to the formation of the Urdang African Caribbean Society (The Urdang ACS). (Main image Chris Otim)
Urdang students started a group chat on social media where they could go to vent, express emotions and share thoughts on the Black Lives Matter activism evoked by the death of George Floyd. The conversations that took place within the group prompted the development of an aim: to form the first ever student society within the Urdang Academy, ‘The Urdang ACS’, which evolved into a structured society within 3 weeks.
In the early stages of collaboration, Urdang CEO Solange Urdang enlisted Executive Director Karina H Maynard to work with co-principals, students and staff to develop goals, the vision, and a pathway to change the future of training for Black and Mixed-Race students. A main objective was to start a conversation between students of colour and faculty, to develop the trust needed to empower change. A new dialogue was established and previously deemed difficult conversations took place which sparked a new strand of motivation for change. Urdang ACS students wrote a constitution, published a handbook and began campaigns and initiatives underpinned by the slogan: ‘Empower, Educate and Entertain’ – which is what The Urdang ACS strives to achieve.
‘During the early stages, for me, as a Mixed-Race performer, I found it difficult to find identity in some elements of my vocational training, due to the lack of confidence I had in my own heritage. As a young, Mixed-Race woman in an age of ‘ticking boxes’ in the industry, it can be difficult to know whether your opportunities stem from your talent, or your skin colour – for me, I knew that I would use the ACS and the platform we’ve been given, to demolish this binary perception of skin colour in musical theatre.’
‘For me, I found it difficult to stand out as a dark-skinned male artist as I did not fit into the stereotype of a Black man. Growing up, I was always told that Black dancers are supposed to be physically strong and work twice as hard, as their talent would be overlooked because of their skin complexion. During the BLM Movement, I felt that the stereotype and expectations of Black performers in the entertainment industry needed to be changed. Knowing I couldn’t make that change alone, I helped form the ACS to bring together those who shared the same feelings and desired the same changes.’
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown procedures, a lot of the work in establishing the ACS occurred online through social media and emails. The impact of seeing your community fighting their corner, once again, through the screen of a phone can be empowering yet bring on feelings of helplessness and depletion. Having a support system like the ACS allowed us as students to support each other in expressing feelings of frustration, anger and desire for change, leading us to spearhead the change ourselves.
The Urdang Academy facilitated online meetings and encouraged dialogue amongst students and staff to see what changes could be made to ensure the needs of students were being met. From September of 2020, contrary to traditional ballet stipulations Urdang’s uniform rules were changed and now explicitly state that Black and Mixed-race students are allowed to wear ballet tights suitable and compliant to their skin colour. The college also changed the rules to permit a wider range of protective hair styles within dance lessons. These sorts of changes allow students of colour to feel comfortable and confident within themselves, in order to focus on getting the most out of their training. Additional workshops have been provided including studies in African-American Vernacular English, and African and Diaspora inspired contemporary dance techniques.
Our advice to any Black or Mixed-race performers, hoping to enter training in the near future is to empower yourself and others around you to be the change you want to see. Educate your peers with the same knowledge you would educate yourself with and entertain from your heart in any way you can. You have the power to make change where it is needed and the heart to shape the experiences of others.
By Chris Otim and Tamara Morgan
The Urdang ACS was founded by Urdang Academy students Equine Givans and Chris Otim, with the support of a core team of students including social media manager Tamara Morgan. The Urdang Academy is the UK’s most diverse conservatoire of dance and musical theatre. Based in London, the Urdang provides vocational training for young performers aged 16 and up. Follow @theurdangacs on Instagram for performance videos and updates. For more information about the Urdang Academy visit: theurdang.london