Catching Up With the ACDA: On COVID-19, New Leadership and the Future
July 16, 2021

When the world shut down last March, the American College Dance Association was smack in the middle of its busy conference season. Six of the organization’s 13 regions were able to hold their 2020 conferences—the last few with many students leaving early to move out of their dorms as college campuses abruptly closed. The other seven regional conferences, along with ACDA’s biannual National College Dance Festival, were canceled.

After hosting a Virtual Year in 2020–21, the organization is now planning for 2022 and beyond—with a new president at the helm. On July 1, Elizabeth Ahearn (professor and dance program coordinator at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD) took the reins from Andrew Vaca (professor of dance at California State University, Long Beach). To learn more about the transition and the future, Dance Teacher spoke to Ahearn, Vaca and ACDA executive director Diane DeFries.

The Virtual Year   

When planning for 2020–21, “We knew that not everyone would be able to come to events in person,” says Vaca. “States had different regulations, different levels of shutdown, different timelines for reopening. Some colleges were planning to be on campus, while others were going remote. How do you make a national strategy when everyone’s reality is different?”

Courtesy ACDA

The answer was ACDA’s Virtual Year, which kicked off with a series of donation-based virtual guest artist classes called Give & Take. Next came a series called Conversations Worth Having, in which each of the 13 ACDA regions hosted discussions on topics like student engagement and retention and decolonizing the dance curriculum. Also in the fall, members were invited to submit proposals for video presentations for ACDAcademy—a new digital library for members.

Beginning in March, ACDA also hosted 16 “Dance and…” workshops, designed as deep dives into a particular area, such as dance and motherhood and dance and queer embodiment. “We have so many knowledgeable faculty members in our schools,” Ahearn says. “The ‘Dance and…’ workshops and the ACDAcademy lectures gave these educators a platform to share their research and expertise in an in-depth way, for a national audience.”

Exploring Screendance

As part of its Virtual Year, ACDA hosted six screendance workshops on practical topics like framing, editing and montage, to provide foundational knowledge to students and faculty. In April, ACDA held its first Screendance Festival. “We received 152 submissions, which were reviewed by adjudicators who provided written or recorded feedback,” DeFries says. Outstanding works were chosen to be presented in one of three virtual gala concerts, and all other works were put online in an informal showcase. 

 “We felt it was critical that every work receive feedback,” Ahearn says. “That’s something that doesn’t happen with other screendance festivals, but it replicated our adjudication process for our in-person conferences.”

A Hybrid Future

“As a national organization, we want to serve all our members,” Ahearn says. That means accommodating schools that are ready to return to in-person events, as well as those with more restrictions. For 2021–22, ACDA will give participants a choice among standard in-person conferences or virtual conferences. The Screendance Festival also will stick around, with each school able to submit two screendance works for feedback.

Elenna Derkach, courtesy ACDA

Another Virtual Year initiative that’s continuing is Conversations Worth Having. “We found that our faculty representatives welcomed more chances to connect with their colleagues at other schools,” Ahearn says. This coming year, each region will host one dialogue in the fall and one in the spring, with regional directors selecting topics relevant to their membership.

Under New Leadership 

Ahearn has already been hard at work for the past year. “It’s a five-year term,” she explains. “You spend one year as president-elect, three years in office and a final year as past president, to bridge the transition.” Thus, Vaca will remain in a co-leadership role as past president through June 2022.

A major focus of Ahearn’s tenure will be developing ACDA’s core values and auditing its mission statement, policies and procedures, specifically through a lens of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. The ACDA board has committed to putting time, money and energy toward fostering these values within the organization. “I’ll be spearheading and helping to facilitate,” Ahearn says, though she’s quick to stress that hers is just one voice among a 59-person board. “We’ve all made the decision to make deliberate, consistent and ongoing efforts in anti-racism work.” 

Celebrating 50 Years

With ACDA’s 50th anniversary coming in 2023, having to push the next National Festival to 2023 feels like a blessing in disguise. The upcoming season will be complicated, with its mix of live and virtual conferences, and an additional year of planning will help the board make the 50th anniversary event extra meaningful.

Elenna Derkach, courtesy ACDA

The milestone also provides yet another opportunity to reassess ACDA’s mission. “It’s an appropriate time to be asking ourselves, What’s our role as we move into the future?” Vaca says. “Do we reflect what’s going on in dance in higher education, or do we lead dance in higher education? The pandemic forced our hand, but it also gave us an opportunity—both in terms of trying new things and in asking important and tough questions.”

“The decisions we’re making now will provide our road map for many years to come,” Ahearn finishes, “and that makes this time really exciting.”

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