Watch President Biden Present the National Medal of Arts to the International Association of Blacks in Dance

March 21, 2023

Since its origins in 1988, the International Association of Blacks in Dance has grown from a once-a-year conference to a thriving nonprofit boasting 3,500 total members worldwide and programming and resources available year round. Throughout, IABD’s mission has stayed the same: to preserve and promote dance by people of African ancestry or origin.

Now, its legacy is being honored with the United States government’s highest arts award. On Tuesday, March 21, President Biden will present IABD with a 2021 National Medal of Arts.

The ceremony, which will be attended by both the President and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, is all the more special for its return to tradition. During his entire presidency, President Trump handed out only four medals, in contrast to the usual 12 per year; the last dance artist to receive the honor was Ralph Lemon, part of the 2015 class of recipients, the last to be awarded by President Obama. Once President Biden took office, the awards resumed as normal, but the ceremonies were delayed due to the pandemic. Now, IABD is joining the other 2021 awardees, a group including Mindy Kaling, Bruce Springsteen, Vera Wang and the Billie Holiday Theatre, among others, in finally receiving its medal.

Since its start in the 1980s, the National Medal of Arts has been given to many dance artists, including Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Katherine Dunham, Merce Cunningham and Arthur Mitchell. Like IABD, all of these recipients have, in the words of National Endowment for the Arts chair Maria Rosario Jackson, “helped to define and enrich our nation’s cultural legacy through their life-long passionate commitment. We are a better nation because of their contributions.”

IABD’s long history began when Philadanco! founder Joan Myers Brown (who received a National Medal of Arts herself in 2012) organized the first International Conference on Black Dance Companies. Two years later, in 1990, the attendees of the annual conference, hosted in Denver by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, presented a motion calling for a formal association. Their dreams were realized with the official founding of IABD in 1991. IABD incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2011, but remained helmed by volunteers until 2017, when its board appointed Denise Saunders Thompson as its first—and current—president and CEO. That year, IABD also received a half-million-dollar grant from the Mellon Foundation, which allowed the organization to develop infrastructure and blossom into what we know today.

In addition to its conference, IABD’s current projects also include an initiative to strengthen the financial health of small and midsize Black dance institutions, a regional dance summit, emergency preparedness planning and funds, archiving and preservation, fiscal sponsorship, auditions, summer and college training programs, and more. “Receiving this National Medal of Arts award is a significant milestone in the history of this organization,” said Saunders Thompson in a release. “It acknowledges the work, years of dedication by so many and endless contributions of Black people in dance.”

The Arts and Humanities Award Ceremony will be livestreamed on The White House’s platform on Tuesday, March 21 at 4:30 pm ET.