With Its Free Raising the Barre Curriculum, Dance Data Project Aims to Get More Women Into Leadership Positions

January 17, 2023

More than 10 years ago, lawyer and philanthropist Elizabeth “Liza” Yntema sat in the audience at a ballet performance and made a paradigm-shifting observation. She estimated that the audience was majority female and saw that most of the donors listed in the program were women, yet all the works on the program were choreographed by men. She began asking questions about these discrepancies and wasn’t happy with the murky and often outlandish answers she heard. “What I found was anecdotal,” Yntema says. “There were no numbers to support the gender disparities in ballet” that she observed. This ultimately led her to found Dance Data Project in 2015. The nonprofit has since published 21 reports laying out comprehensive data that illustrates the current male-dominated nature of leadership within the dance industry, with a particular focus on ballet; in its most recent Artistic and Executive Leadership Report, DDP found women represent 30 percent of artistic directors in the U.S.’s largest 50 ballet companies. 

DDP is now expanding its efforts beyond metrics-based reporting, beginning with Raising the Barre: Curriculum for the Next Generation of Leadership in Dance. Intended to help address the gender and racial barriers that prevent women from securing leadership positions in dance companies, the free online program presents modules that home in on specific skills necessary for various administrative, artistic and executive leadership roles. In its current form, it consists of recorded interviews with field experts accompanied by vital documents and resources. Each topic exists as a standalone session so users can choose their own learning path based on their personal career aspirations, and rewatch interviews as needed.

The first series of interviews, all facilitated by Yntema, includes David Mallette, president of Management Consultants for the Arts, demystifying the job search and interview process for company hiring with an accompanying checklist of do’s and don’ts during interviews. Lawyer Lauren Cramer dives into the legal necessities when forming a dance company or festival and offers a suite of 10 documents—“Dance Company in a Box”—ranging from certificate of incorporation to annual disclosures. Demystifying company finances and exploring innovative budgeting are Dacquiri Baptiste, chief operating officer for Orpheum Theatre Group and former director of production for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Harris Ferris, former executive director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. 

In keeping with DDP’s mission to showcase women-led companies, Raising the Barre will also feature interviews with prominent female leaders. In one, planned for this month, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Susan Jaffe discusses season programming for companies and what it takes to design an artistic strategy. In another interview, former Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan and newly appointed artistic director Jodie Gates discuss their collaborative approach to leadership transition. And later this year, Helen Pickett and Kristopher McDowell will team up to talk through the choreographer/manager relationship.

DDP hopes to begin hosting live interviews this year in addition to the recorded series. Another goal is to form a leadership cohort by 2024 that will learn together; the hope is to eventually develop a cycle of mentorship among dance organization leaders, not just from the coasts but across the country. “Company board searches often think of women solely as ballerinas,” says Yntema. “Raising the Barre is designed to meet a critical need for women, particularly women of color, by providing access to professional training.”