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Washington, DC Director Builds Black Ballet Autonomy

Everyone has dreams. We all desire to follow those dreams. Many young dancers, boys, and girls, dream of becoming professional dancers. The famous ballet teacher David Howard once said in a Dance Teacher interview,” If you are okay with the reality of knowing that less than 25% of your students will become professional dancers, then you are prepared to become a dance teacher.” Dance can be a tough profession, like any sector in the entertainment industry – especially for Black dancers. As many dance institutions embrace the trending topic of diversity and inclusion – increasing numbers of Black and Brown students in dance studios across the US – Black ballet activity is still as similar as it was in previous years with minor exceptions. With the COVID pandemic, a constant presence in global societies, new innovations, and prospectives have solidified into new best practices; shaping the future of the industry sectors en masse. Shawn Short is the Founding Director of Dissonance Dance Theatre in Washington, DC. Dissonance Dance Theatre is the only nationally recognized Black-managed contemporary ballet company between New York City and Atlanta – a program of Ngoma Center for Dance. Short is building Black autonomy in the DC ballet sector through Dissonance Dance Theatre and its parent organization Ngoma Center for Dance; ushering a new era of ballet artistic innovation, larger enrollment of Black ballet students, and a greater dialogue into the future of the industry. 

Washington, DC has a Black dance history that is vast. Since 1932, the time of DC’s roaring 30s Black U Street history, Black dance artists have been a part of the fabric of DC’s social culture. It all began when Bernice Hammond (a Howard University alumnae) established the first dance studio as a licensed DC business for U Street Black socialites. Short, a native of the DC area, embraced said history and quickly dedicated more than 10 years to develop spaces for developing and increasing the visibility of Black dance artists and ensembles. In the past, Shawn has established an online bi-monthly (Ngoma Reader Magazine) to promote minority dance artists, and outreach/education programs (Dawn: A Black Men’s Initiative). He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Theater from Howard University, a Master’s in Dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a PGC in Business Management from the University of Liverpool. 

Artistic Innovation

Wanting to create a host institution for African-American dance activity, Short founded Dissonance Dance Theatre (DDT) in 2007 and Ngoma Center for Dance – DDT’s parent organization – in 2012. Short believes in creating a space for Black artist choreographers, music collaboration, and dance artist development. 

“One of the 11 small-but-mighty dance companies outside of LA and NYC”, by Dance Spirit Magazine, Dissonance Dance Theatre’s contemporary voice feeds on diversity, looking for choreographers who build works from a solid classical ballet foundation, and a contemporary dance style. Through DDT’s Guest Choreographer program, choreographers have honed their skills and have developed into emerging talent; working in major dance spaces. Emerging Black Choreographer Kameron N. Saunders, dance maker of DDT’s contemporary ballet Unsettled, recently received Jacob’s Pillow’s Ann & Weston Hicks choreographic fellowship, gaining the opportunity to work with Lines Ballet’s Founding Artistic Director Alonzo King. Saunders also presented at Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s Emerging Choreographer Showcase. Moreover, it is not common for many Black dance entities to house resident choreographer programs. Through this insight, Short has developed DDT’s resident choreographer position to provide new choreographic talent the opportunity to work with contemporary ballet dancers annually. 

In regards to musician collaborators, Shawn’s vision of building a space open to Black creatives is working. From Blues Alley jazz band Sine Qua Non under the direction of Black bass player Michael Bowie, to local Black DC rapper Tru Ghost, Dissonance Dance Theatre has created a space for Black musical artists to work with classically-trained dancers. With more than 120 works in its repertoire, approximately 90% of DDT’s repertoire has been created through Black choreographic or musical genius.  

Nothing can be done, artistically in dance, without the talent of dancers. Short has built a system to bring more Black dancers into the ballet industry, who normally would not have had the opportunity. The Ngoma School was founded in 2014 by Shawn Short, establishing a DC area home for Black ballet students. Under Shawn’s artistic planning, Ngoma Center for Dance invested $100,000 to bring a Black pre-professional ballet program to professional-dance barren Prince George’s County, MD – a suburb of DC. Dissonance Dance Theatre has produced a space that celebrates the African-American experience through choreographic innovation and artist development. Many of DDT’s African-American dancers, especially the company’s male dancer roster, are emerging artists who seek additional mentorship. Short has worked hard to provide personal and professional mentorship through artistic partnerships with former artists from companies such as Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Stuttgart Ballet. Many DDT alumni have graced the stages of companies nationally and internationally.  

Industry Dialogue 

As the Creative Producer of Black Dance Festival DMV, Black to Silver: A Black LGBT Experience, Ngoma Reader Magazine (a minority artist magazine), and many others, Short’s arts contributions – celebrating Black dancer representation – span across more than 15 years in the DC area. 

New innovation in technology and production, is key for any business sector. Since the dawn of the COVID pandemic, the arts sector has attempted to gain its footing as the industry has suffered from closings and low-event participation. Launched in the summer of 2020 in partnership with Dog Bark Media (a DC-based media company), Short’s newest innovation – Ngoma Film Works (NFW) – is founded highlighting urban and classic dance society, human relationships, cultural history, and “visual-choreo” art through documentaries and narrative film.

Short, now a holder of a certification in TV and Film from New York University’s Tisch School has embarked on and released two award-winning films since the program’s launch – His Eyes Saw Dance (2020), and Mute (2021). NFW has seen its films screened locally, nationally, and internationally – winning an award for best dance film at the Cannes World Film Festival, and selection at American Dance Festival’s Movies by Movers Film Festival. Short is finding new routes to increase the visibility of Black creativity. 

A dancer can wait for traditional ballet companies to catch up in the diversity department. However, the likelihood of there being a massive amount of opportunity is unlikely. Short is building Black ballet autonomy in the DC ballet sector through Dissonance Dance Theatre and its parent organization Ngoma Center for Dance. As he ushers in a new era of ballet artistic innovation, Shawn is bringing his community of artists and supporters. Secondly, through The Ngoma School, he is increasing his organization’s capacity to enlarge enrollment of Black ballet students. Lastly, sustainability is key for Black ballet entities to increase their visibility. Short is thinking about the future as he grows his organization’s film program through his public/private partnership with Dog Bark Media LLC – a Black-owned media company. Like Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), varied voices (who are granted autonomy) are essential in building a better future, and community. Shawn is taking on the massive race challenge, within the ballet industry…step by step.

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