Engaging Atlanta: Angela Harris

Courtesy of Angela Harris
Angela Harris smiles at the camera with her head resting in her hand. She is wearing a black tank top, a beaded bracelet and pendant earrings. She is in front of a multicolored brick wall.

March 8, 2022
Volume 3 Issue 2

DanceATL continues to conduct brief interviews with dance organizations around Atlanta to listen and learn about their desires and challenges. In an effort to maintain full transparency, these interviews will be published via our digital publication Promenade. This will ensure accountability on DanceATL’s behalf, and inform readers about the needs of dance organizations in Atlanta.

Our goal in conducting and publicizing these interviews is to gain a better understanding of how we can support all members of the dance community in Atlanta, build a connected network of dance organizations and artists, and institute changes that can act as an example for artistic communities nationwide.  We welcome all feedback about this process, please email info@danceatl.org with any questions or concerns. Below is a transcript of our interview with Angela Harris, Artistic Executive Director of Dance Canvas.

Loren McFalls, DanceATL: Angela, it’s nice to meet you. I don’t think that we’ve actually met each other before, but I am Loren McFalls. I am on the DanceATL board [of directors], Community [Engagement] Committee, and Production committee. I [am a curator] with A.M. Collaborative. I’m trying to come see your show next month, but it’s nice to meet you.

Angela Harris: Nice to meet you too.

Loren: And I’ll just go ahead and get started. So this is a part of an internal initiative to better address the needs of our community in its entirety and DanceATL is conducting brief interviews with dance organizations around Atlanta to learn acts on how we can serve you all as a vital and important member of our community. 

Our main goal is to gain a better understanding of how we can support you, build a connected network of dance organizations and artists, and institute changes that can act as an example for artistic communities nationwide. Some of the questions that we will be asking relate to whether or not you currently use any of our services; what your biggest challenges are right now; your vision for the community, and others. 

Jacque Pritz, DanceATL: Can you introduce yourself, your affiliations, and your interests, please?

Angela: I am Angela Harris. I am the founding Artistic Executive Director of Dance Canvas. I am also on faculty at Emory University, Spelman College, and Brenau University’s dance departments. I am also on the dance faculty at the Dekalb School of the Arts. 

Loren: Awesome. What do you think motivates you and what are you passionate about to work in all these different areas and keep doing what you’re doing?

Angela: I think what motivates me the most right now when it comes to dance and dance in Atlanta is growing the dance audience base of Atlanta, ensuring that there are professional jobs continuing to grow in Atlanta so that dancers in Atlanta can work for a living, which we know is a challenge here and why dancers tend to leave the city, ensure that the professional level of dancing is high so that Atlanta can also be in the national conversation when it comes to dance making and dance presenting. 

And ensuring that youth that are coming up in the Atlanta dance community can see pathways for themselves, and largely with that comes diversity in ballet, which is a driving force for me.

Jacque: Thank you. Can you describe your perspective as an artist? Where are you coming from?

Angela: That’s a really great question. I am from the ballet world. So I think for me the ballet aesthetic is where my personal choreography stems from…taking my hat off from being an Executive Director and Artistic Director. But me personally as an artist, I’m a ballet choreographer, and so I’m driven by creating those types of compositions for myself. I also work heavily in the musical theater community and the theater community. I like storytelling and I like figuring out ways to bring relatable storytelling into dance, especially through ballet. 

If I put my hat on as an Artistic Director, it’s one of those things I often share with the choreographers that I work with, that if we find relatable ways for dance to get out into the community, we can grow our audiences. I’m really big on relatability so that we aren’t in an elitist art field.

Loren: Love that. I am hearing you use the term community, so I’d love to hear how you define community and who or what makes up your community or the communities that you are involved in?

Angela: This is like a grant application, haha. I think community is a really broad, broad word, and I think it manifests itself as something like if you think back to the first question about affiliation, I think that it manifests itself that way a lot. 

If we talked community broadly, Metro Atlanta’s 23 county community of people that reside and work and play within it and so we’ve been community broadly that’s in terms of you know the Atlanta community that’s what that would be.

 I think when you parse it out into the different affiliations, there’s a dance community and even the dance community is broken up very differently and you know I think Atlanta is the most segregated dance community that I have been in, in my life.

I’m originally from Baltimore so you know I definitely still have a connection to my hometown community and my hometown dancing, and I trained in New York so my dance community in New York is still very much present in my life. I think Atlanta dance is very segregated. Whether that comes to dancers that are creating dance in Decatur versus dance intown versus dance in Marietta versus dance in Gwinnett versus Black dance and non Black dance versus contemporary versus ballet. You know, it’s so very segregated that I think it’s unfortunate, but it is.

But also for me, my community is also the African-American community outside of the dance world. I think Atlanta is a really rich experience within the Black community and that is a huge part of my life. I’m interested in how that intersects with the dance world because it doesn’t right now. That’s a little bit of a driving force going back to that previous question, too, about audience building. And then I think I’m in this new realm of community within the university systems that I just started teaching within, so I think academia is a whole different community of people that I am just newly introduced to, so that’s another kind of layer.

Loren: You kind of touched on this a little bit already but do you have any specific examples of what you feel the Atlanta dance community is lacking or in need of, and any ideas around ways to solve for that?

Angela: That’s a really good question. I think obviously funding, that’s huge because, I think that would solve a lot of problems. I think that in essence would solve a lot of problems. I think funding is huge [and] access to high-level dance classes that professional dancers can go take and that professional dancers actually take because, that’s a thing. Cause in the past, and I’ve been here for now, oh god, my age, goodness, gracious, for almost 20 years. Wow! It has morphed over the 20-years right? There have been times that very high-level professional classes were here, and I don’t want this to come across as thinking down about anybody, but as a professional dancer, I wanted to take the class with a master teacher that has that level of experience.

That does not take away from any of the teachers that are currently teaching open classes. I actually think right now in the Atlanta dance community there are lots of emerging, really talented artists that are giving really great classes. 

As a ballet dancer and a technical modern dancer, what I was craving while I was coming up as a professional dancer was the technical training classes from the level of teachers that are teaching classes in larger dance markets. And we did have a few of those occasionally pop up throughout my time as a dancer here in ATL and what tended to happen was not many of the professional dancers were going to take class and I don’t know if it was a cost barrier, I don’t know if it was a time barrier and all of those are real, all of those are 100% real. Who can pay $20 a class to take classes? That’s insane. 

When I was in New York and training at Steps [on Broadway], I was on scholarship at Steps so I can take unlimited classes and as a professional dancer that’s what I was in class 24/7, as often as I can be in class and I think that was something that was lacking in some of the dance talent that was here in Atlanta, which was actually dropping a little bit of our professional level and proficiency. If you’re in a company you have company class available for you everyday, but if you’re a freelance artist, you don’t have access to company class or free classes for that matter. And it was showing. I would go into auditions and could see that the dancers hadn’t been in class (if you are not on your leg, we can tell in a heartbeat.) But, I do understand the challenges in place with the expense and lack of available classes.

And so I think that’s one of the things that I crave for Atlanta, some more professional level classes that are cost-effective and at times that work for dancers to take classes on the regular.

I think even there was a time at Atlanta Ballet where there would be tons of classes that were taught by teachers that I would in a heartbeat go take from, and I’m struggling to find that now, so I think that is something that’s needed. I also think that places for performance like theaters, theater spaces, or we can even go non-traditional theater spaces. What are the venues that are also cost effective? 

One of the reasons Dance Canvas was founded was because I was a young choreographer that was looking for a place to present work and I needed to mitigate some of those costs and I knew I couldn’t be the only one that couldn’t self produce for thousands of dollars. So having venues that are available that aren’t expensive for artists to create work. Those are the things I would want for the Atlanta community because it all leads to the reason (we) aren’t recognized outside of Atlanta, the reason that it’s hard for Atlanta artists to get on a national stage, it’s hard for Atlanta artists to get funded nationally — by Atlanta I’m also going to say southern artists — is because the lens of people outside of Atlanta and in the funding community is that the level of professionalism in Atlanta dance and in the southern states is not the same as New York or LA, and that’s what we need to change in order to so that that funding can grow.

Loren: Awesome, I am sitting here just agreeing with you being like that yes, every time I talk to Jacque I bring up the Philadelphia dance community and cause I lived there for ten years and there’s so many things there in New York that I’m like “haha, I wish we could do this.”

Jacque: Maybe a follow-up with all of those communities you listed out can you define or give specific examples of what it means to actually be engaged with those communities and affected by them?

Angela: I think it’s having either a stake within the community, like when things happen to something in the community. It affects you, or actively working within or for. I think those are the defining things. 

I’m adjacent to many communities. I don’t necessarily think I am in the Gwinnett Community but I’ve done a lot of work within the Gwinnett Community. I don’t live there, I don’t pay taxes there, if government changes something up there, it doesn’t affect me so I don’t necessarily think I have a stake in that community although I do a lot of work within that community. When I’m on grant applications defining what our community is, the Dance Canvas community is going to be pretty much Fulton [and] DeKalb County. And me personally, I consider Metro Atlanta community, but for me it really is Fulton [and] DeKalb County. That’s where I pay taxes, if something changes in the government, those will directly affect me and I think the same probably goes with the dance community. The reason that’s considered community is because there are people within that community that I work with regularly; I am an artist creating work within that community. If policies change within the dance community, it’s going to personally affect me. I think that you have to have a personal stake in the areas that you’re defining as community otherwise you’re just kind of an outsider that’s offering ideas. That’s how I feel in Gwinnett a lot of the time. I am on the board of the new performing arts high school that’s there. I have worked at Aurora Theater for 15 years. I was the interim director at Gwinnett Ballet Theater. I started the professional Ensemble for Gwinnett Ballet Theater so I mean I’ve done a lot of work out there [but] it’s still not my community necessarily.

I think there should be a certain respect level because people that actually live and work and are there on a daily basis should have the ownership of that being their community. And I, as someone who’s not necessarily a member of that particular community, respect them enough to say, “if I’m coming in and working within the community I want to get your ideas of what you need for this community.” I don’t want to impose what I think this community needs because I don’t know. I don’t live here, this isn’t where I spend the majority of my time and I think that that’s really important in any community.

I think the reason that Atlanta dance is my community is because I’ve been here for so long. I’ve been here for 20 years. If I went back to Baltimore right now, there is not any way I could go back into Baltimore even though I grew up there and lived there my whole childhood. I couldn’t go back there and say to them, “you know what you should do here?” Because I hadn’t been there for 20 years. I definitely still support everything there, go back, my family still lives there but I can’t personally say that that’s my community anymore.

What happens sometimes is when people move here to Atlanta and they are coming from some of the larger dance communities– if you come in from New York and you’re going to imply, “we’re better” or don’t engage with the dance artists making work here, it rubs me the wrong way because I’m like “you haven’t invested into this community yet.” Once you invest into this community, once you have a stake in this community, then I will appreciate what you’re saying. Again it’s not about like catering or bowing down or doing any of that, it’s a respect level anytime anyone comes in to a new community…you should want to be a part of it and you want to understand it and you want to appreciate anything the community has to offer first and then what you’re coming in to offer is just enhancing what already is there and would already is great about that community.

Jacque: That’s great! To follow-up, what do you think is great about the Atlanta dance


Angela: I say it all the time, I say it at every opportunity I get outside of Atlanta and say it. I would not have been able to start Dance Canvas anywhere else, and it be where it is today.

When I was starting Dance Canvas, I was in my late 20s. I had the support of the City of Atlanta. I had the support of other companies that were here. I had the support of Richard Calmes who took all of my pictures. I just had a great community support behind an idea that I had as a young artist at work in the community. As an emerging artist and director, I was able to get meetings with Lisa Cremin, who was running the Metro Atlanta Arts fund at the time, or Leslie Gordon, who was running the Rialto at the time. I could pick up the phone and call them and ask, “hey can I grab coffee with you?”

Always as I’m going about things, I always “pay it forward” (like the movie) because I think that there is so much talent here in Atlanta and that talent is growing here and that talent can add to the ecosystem that we have of Atlanta dance and it needs to be supported and nurtured and grown. I think that’s what’s really beautiful about Atlanta…that people want to come here and create and make things. Now keeping them here is a different story. I think that we have a really robust community of artists – and not just dance artists– artists in general and it’s a really creative community and a really creative city and I try hard to get the government to see the same value in what we have here because I do think it’s a cultural asset and it’s an asset to tourism and if it was embraced by the leadership and the city government in the same way that Broadway and arts in New York are embraced by the people that market New York for tourists, I think we would be in a different place than we are right now but I do think Atlanta has some gems that need to be highlighted.

Jacque: Thank you for answering all of the community questions. We are going to transition into DanceATL specific questions before we wrap up. Do you know what DanceATL is and what we do? If so, can you explain?

Angela: I do, and I was actually around when it started. I know it’s transitioned once it moved solely under the umbrella of Core [Dance] and then moved out of Core [Dance]. I may not be able to spout the mission of DanceATL but I know it is a resource for the Atlanta dance community to be a one-stop place that houses information, shares information, gathers information, and offers support to artists and organizations.

Jacque: I asked that knowing you knew the answer but yes, DanceATL is a dance service organization, and we want to be a central hub for information, not necessarily creating new things, but gathering them and disseminating it out to the community. Especially with our Monday Moves service, sharing when the auditions are happening, when  performances are going on, classes, grants, opportunities, artist residencies, all the things.

Is there a reason you have not become a DanceATL member and I will say the question asks “or aren’t involved” but I know you have. Obviously, the Remembrance Page was completely your idea and I know you know of us, but yeah, is there a reason?

Angela: It’s on my to-do list and I need a reminder. I will say that the reason that we would become a member is to support the organization.

We 100% support the organization, it’s not any reason other than I forget so if you want to harass me with a reminder then I will pay you guys some money.

Loren: Next question that I want to ask and you have touched on it a little bit but I want to dive into it a bit deeper… what services does DanceATL currently provide that could be improved in order to serve Dance Canvas better? What services that we can’t currently provide because we’re still in infancy that would benefit you and how? Kind of to give us a trajectory of ideas of where we should be aiming to go.

Angela: Definitely the information about the shows, the Monday Moves, I think that’s awesome that you all do that. 

I pitched the compensation project to Jacque because I was getting a lot of calls from choreographers and from my students that were entering the professional world about they got offered a job but they didn’t know what to ask of the people in terms of a pay rate. Additionally, I was interacting with other sectors who want to hire dancers, but don’t understand our costs. I was once contacted by a Dept. at the City of Atlanta (not Office of Cultural Affairs). They said, “we’re doing an opening of one of our downtown streets and we want to have a dance performance out there. Could you do that?” I think they asked for 10-15 dancers or something like that and wanted 20 minutes. So, I quoted them something like $5,000, which is very low for 15 dancers for 20 minutes and it would let me pay the dancers and the choreographers and unfortunately Dance Canvas would make $0 off of it, but it would still be giving jobs to artists. I didn’t hear back until a couple weeks later when I contacted them again and they said, “Oh, we found someone who could do it for $500.”

Every time something like that happens, it undercuts the professional community of Atlanta. So if there was like a standardized list of rates and fees especially because other people don’t know what they should be paying artists like people that are outside of the arts world don’t know what they should be paying artists and that includes film people because I have been approached by so many film industry people that are like “Oh you know we don’t have a budget for the dancers but it’s just background work or whatever”. And I’m like, you have to pay people for this. This isn’t free labor here. But if there was some place that we could point them to go like, here’s the official list of rates for, you know, Atlanta Artists. Canada has something like that, New York has something like that. Those were the only two places that I saw those standardized lists. I knew that Dance Canvas wasn’t the right organization to publish something like that because we can’t tell other people what they should be paying or charging people, but if an organization like DanceATL had a service like that, we could point them your way. For instance, if we are putting together a contract and we can say “these rates are based on DanceATL’s current list of rates for Atlanta” or if putting our grant applications budgets together, we could say “the rates for these artists are based on current standards from DanceATL.” That was just one of the concepts and ideas there.

But I love the Remembrance Page, I really think that that’s going to be a great one for Atlanta History. As people come in and out of the city but the people we lose here, we don’t want to lose their stories too, so I appreciate you guys getting that up. I think it’s beautiful.

Jacque: As we wrap up, two questions: Do you have any questions for us? And is there anything else you’d like to share?

Angela: I don’t think I have any questions for you guys. I think y’all are doing great work. I have one of your former interns in my class at Brenau, Katie Watkins, who is awesome.

DanceATL is having a huge impact on people. The one thing that I would just leave y’all with and I have said it before in a strategic planning session before the organization was formulated is just to keep an eye out for duplication in programming with other dance organizations.

At first DanceATL wasn’t necessarily doing artistic programming and somebody brought up the idea of artistic programs in the strategic planning session (like choreography initiatives), which initially made it hard for us to be a member organization of DanceATL. Because if both of our organizations are doing the same thing it doesn’t necessarily benefit us to be a part of it. (*I think at the time DanceATL was discussing creating something similar to our Palette Project, but I was advocating for if an organization already offers a service wouldn’t it be more beneficial for DanceATL to steer people to apply to this program or this program?) As you alll are thinking about the programming that you do I would just offer up potentially thinking about the organizations that already do the work and if there was a way the DanceATL might plug into what those organizations do with programming versus creating artistic programming that potentially ‘competes’. And that’s just me as an outsider just mentioning what i mentioned before but I support you guys, I think y’all are doing awesome work.

Jacque: Thank you, thank you for your time and your wisdom. 

Loren: No, I think this is a lot of really good stuff and it gives us food for thought to as we’re planning the next couple years.

Angela Harris is the Executive Artistic Director of Dance Canvas, Inc., a career development organization for emerging professional choreographers and youth. Through Dance Canvas, Angela has been a catalyst, consultant, and resource for numerous new dance organizations and artists, both locally in metro Atlanta, as well as nationally. Angela has developed programs for the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Department of Recreation, recording artist Usher’s New Look Foundation, and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation. Angela is a graduate of The Baltimore School for the Arts and received her dance training at Dance Theater of Harlem, School of the Hartford Ballet & The Eglevsky Ballet. She attended Mercyhurst College and City College of New York, earning a B.A. in Journalism, while on full ballet scholarship at Steps on Broadway in NYC. Angela danced professionally with The Georgia Ballet, Columbia City Ballet (SC) and Urban Ballet Theater (NYC). Her theatre credits include: Sophisticated Ladies and Degas’ Little Dancer (Marie u/s) at the Alliance Theatre; A Chorus Line (Kristine), Chicago (Mona Lipschitz), Camelot and Annie Get Your Gun at the Aurora Theatre; Hunchback of Notre Dance at Theatrical Outfit/Aurora Theatre. Angela has choreographed for professional ballet companies and schools across the country. Her work has been performed by The Georgia Ballet, Ballet Lubbock, Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute and has premiered at the Rialto Center for the Arts and the Ferst Center for the Arts through her company, Dance Canvas. Angela has choreographed for professional theater productions, including: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance and the Suzi Award winning Bridges of Madison County (Aurora Theatre), The First Noel (Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater Company),110 in the Shade (Theatrical Outfit), Little Shop of Horrors (Actor’s Express), Frankenstein’s Funeral (Found Stages) and University productions: Ragtime (Kennesaw State University), Drowsy Chaperone (Georgia Tech). Angela was one of five Inaugural National Visiting Fellows at the School of American Ballet. Angela was awarded a Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) Observership to work on the Broadway Lab of Little Dancer, a new Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flahrety musical, under the direction and mentorship of Susan Stroman. Angela received the 2011 National Emerging Leader Award from Americans for the Arts and American Express and the 2012 Emerging Artist Award from the City of Atlanta. She served on the national Emerging Leaders Council for Americans for the Arts for three years and was a member of the 2014 class of Arts Leaders of Metro Atlanta (ALMA). In addition to her work through Dance Canvas, Angela is on faculty at Emory University, Spelman College and Brenau University. She is also a ballet instructor at Dekalb School for the Arts and Academy of Ballet. She has served on the faculty of the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute and has been a master class/guest instructor and lecturer at colleges and universities across the country.