Dancing to the beat of change
Monday, January 25, 2010
On a typical ’60s Sunday night, five Kansas City sisters and their parents watched a Russian dance troupe whirl and jump and kick on Ed Sullivan’s television show. Sister number two – 4-year-old Debra – discovered her destiny in that thrilling performance.
“I had never seen anything so exciting,” said Professor Debra Leigh, who since 1989 has been teaching dance at St. Cloud State. “I just got up and started dancing. I became the daughter who knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Leigh did become a professional dancer, then a teacher of dance, inspiring her students to see their own magic in the art form and creating new opportunities for dancers to perform in their communities. But it was four decades before Leigh would come to grips with obstacles that complicated her journey and that of every person of color with a dream. That second moment of discovery offered her new avenues of influence in her community.
“I was serving on the Central Minnesota Arts Board and volunteered to represent the group at an anti-racism workshop,” said Leigh, who had encountered signs of racial roadblocks throughout her career – dance companies that would not put black performers on stage for fear of offending audiences, universities that would not consider tenure as an option for faculty of color.
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” she said. “Before this I didn’t know how to talk about my experiences, how racism had been institutionalized in my world and how our socialization causes all of us to perpetuate racism. We all participate in this dance, and we all have the power to change it.”
Leigh has since spearheaded the creation of the Community Anti-Racism Education – or CARE – initiative that has brought awareness of racism’s broad reach to a wide range of campus and community members. The initiative has its roots at St. Cloud State, but Leigh hopes its message and its meaning will branch out to bring understanding and change far beyond the borders of her institution.
Growing up, Leigh built a foundation of knowledge, skills, confidence and desire to achieve that would serve her well as she pursued goals often groundbreaking for a woman of color. She worked her way through her first year at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and auditioned for the school’s dance program.
By the end of the first year her skill level had increased dramatically, and Leigh was ready to pursue a professional dance career. In 1974, the Kansas City Ballet professional company was all white, although there were several students of color studying there. “We were told that if the company had members of color performing on stage, the company would lose its patrons.”
She found opportunities to perform outside the regular dance company and began building her resume. Leigh’s first breakthrough job came when the “Glitter Girls” professional cheerleading team for the then-Kansas City Kings NBA basketball team hired her as their first black member.
“This time it helped to stand out,” she said. “When I went to auditions, they knew who I was.” Worlds of Fun made her the first black woman to dance on their stages, and she traveled in a summer touring company of “Showboat” that starred film star Van Johnson. “It was terribly exciting.”
Marriage at age 23 slowed Leigh’s performing and traveling, and two years later she returned to college. When she graduated, she became a partner in The Dancer’s Studio in Kansas City, and then earned her master of fine arts degree at the University of Illinois.
After being invited by other universities to teach without opportunity for promotion, Leigh came to St. Cloud State in 1989. As the university’s only dance instructor, she was determined to avoid the practices she had seen too often on other campuses – faculty providing advantages for white students and marginalizing students of color because “their body shape was wrong” or “they didn’t have the right skills.”
She worked to move the dance minor out of the College of Education and into the College of Fine Arts and Humanities. “Dance is a performing art, and I wanted all my students to have experience performing on campus and in the community.”
Leigh also has been instrumental in building dance companies for young people and for alumni that cultivated young talent and brought performances to Minnesotans in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.
This past year she helped organize Omeka! – a learning circle Leigh helped organize to encourage cultural interaction among the community’s growing number of immigrant and African-American families. It was a natural outgrowth of Leigh’s longtime practice of inviting African-American students to her home on Sundays to cook and socialize.
“Debra’s impact on our community has been immeasurable,” said Hedy Tripp, coordinator of the St. Cloud Create CommUNITY initiative of which Leigh is vice chair. “Through her leadership we have had more than a thousand people who have come and continue to come to the table to intentionally talk about race and systemic racism.”
“Race has been a fundamental organizing principle in our society,” Leigh said. “It has economic, political and social implications and can place us in artificial categories that break the bonds of community. Anti-racism must be one of the strategies that begin to rebuild community.”