Denise Saunders Thompson, president of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), began her training as a dancer when she was a child, studying ballet and jazz at a studio in her hometown of Coventry, Connecticut. In high school, she added African dance to her repertoire, and also discovered a passion for musical theater. Ready for college, she emerged from those years as a polymathic performing artist.
“It was the triple threat,” as Saunders Thompson puts it.
But after enrolling at Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1987 as the school’s first musical theater major, she came to terms with the challenging path she would no doubt face as a performing artist. “I made a choice not to have to ‘gig’ for the rest of my life,” she says about the realization that eventually led to her current role at IABD. “That particular lifestyle was not what I desired at all.”
Instead, Saunders Thompson went on to earn an MFA from UCLA and worked for three years at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, an experience that prepared her well for arts administration and allowed her to reconnect to her love of the performing arts. So when Sherrill Berryman Johnson, her former mentor at Howard and then-executive director of IABD, asked for her help, Saunders agreed without hesitation.
The Washington, DC-based IABD is a membership organization created to preserve and promote dance by people of African ancestry or origin.
In the absence of support from the broader performing arts and philanthropic sectors, IABD increases opportunities for black artists through advocacy, education, funding, networking, performance, and touring. Members include individual dancers, companies, educational institutions, students, educators, scholars, and more from a variety of sectors. In addition to offering and receiving peer support and training, many members also teach and perform diverse genres, from Afro-fusion, hip-hop, and jazz, to ballet, ballroom, and capoeira for audiences around the world.
IABD was conceived when dance legend Joan Myers Brown concluded that, even as a board member of the national service organization Dance/USA, she could not get adequate support to create opportunities for black dancers and dance companies.
“I was at a board meeting, and the rhetoric was that they were not interested in black audiences,” says Myers Brown. “I and another board member pushed them to address audiences that reflected America’s demographics, and they just weren’t interested. That’s when I said, ‘Let me get black people together and figure out what we can do to help ourselves.’”
IABD was formalized as an independent organization in 1991.
“We’re the only organization that does what we do,” Saunders Thompson explains. “The scope of services offered by IABD remains tremendously valuable to the black dance community.”
Between 1997 and 2010, Saunders Thompson assisted Berryman Johnson with running the organization, juggling administrative and leadership tasks without ever drawing a salary. “I was the arts administrator. I handled membership. I edited the newsletter. I helped launch the website that Howard hosted for IABD,” Saunders Thompson recalls. “I did any- and everything to strengthen IABD. I was deepening my connection to my first passion.”
When Johnson passed away in 2010, Saunders Thompson succeeded her at the helm of IABD.
There, she inherited the rich legacy of its founders—along with the reality of arts funding in America that had been so clear to Myers Brown: while many small, grassroots arts organizations have long been overlooked by the nation’s wealthiest philanthropies and individual donors, black dance companies have been neglected almost entirely. In keeping an influential but under-resourced community of dancers connected, and in providing new opportunities for professional development and artistic growth, IABD is filling a critical gap.
Malik Robinson, executive director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company in Denver, Colorado, says that depending on companies like New York City’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to pass along the legacy of black dance isn’t enough. “It’s too deep, it’s too rich,” he says. “And so you need to rely on these companies that are outside of New York, across the country, that are helping to keep the country connected.”
Indeed, IABD’s annual conference and festival has become the association’s signature event—and the largest gathering of the black dance community in the United States. With roughly 800 participants from around the world in attendance each year, the gathering showcases at least 30 dance companies in three days, allowing experienced and emerging artists to audition for leading ballet companies, to connect with people across the field, and to find work and training opportunities.
Its impact is being felt across generations.
Karen Arceneaux, a dancer, choreographer, and master instructor of the Horton dance technique at the Ailey School, attended IABD’s conference in 1994, when she was a young student from Louisiana, and says the experience set the tone for her career in dance.
“For a young black woman from the South who didn’t get to see much—all I saw was Debbie Allen on TV—but to get there and see all of these beautiful dancers, a lot of beautiful brown dancers, was amazing,” says Arceneaux. “[The conference] took me out of Louisiana and it opened up my mind to so much more.”
The IABD has received support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of its Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI), which aims to address funding inequity in the arts sector. COHI comes at a time when dance audiences are becoming both more diverse and economically important to the sector as a whole.
Through COHI, IABD and its five founding companies—Philadanco! The Philadelphia Dance Company; Cleo Parker Robinson Dance of Denver; Dallas Black Dance Theatre; Dayton Contemporary Dance Company; and Lula Washington Dance Theatre of Los Angeles—are currently receiving in-person support from consultants from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the Mellon Foundation’s partner in COHI. Last June, IABD distributed $100,000 grants for operational support to each of the five founding organizations. Another 25 participating IABD member dance companies are receiving $10,000 grants as well as guidance and training online. IABD has branded its COHI activity MOVE: Managing Organizational Vitality and Endurance.
Meanwhile, its headquarters continue to grow, and as IABD continues to expand its vision, its original founder has no doubt about the association’s longevity. “IABD will survive because people need it and want it,” says Myers Brown. “We open doors. We set goals. We create opportunities that are emulated. And though our main interest is the black dancer, all of our companies are integrated.”
“If IABD did not exist,” Saunders Thompson explains, “the history, identity, and legacy of the individual and organizational contributions to black dance through dance artists, dance traditions, and company artistic/executive founders would be lost. Who would tell the narrative then?”