The Jan. 19 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at Northeast Portland’s Highland Christian Center had all the trappings of a typical commemoration for the civil rights leader.
Crowds filled the pews as Mayor Charlie Hales spoke of ending racial injustice. Church groups sang gospel songs. And dancers from Jefferson High School, Oregon’s only majority-black high school, performed an African dance.
But for many Jefferson students, parents and alumni, one thing stuck out—15 of the 19 Jefferson Dancers were white.
“It’s confusing,” says Carolyn Brown, a 1963 Jefferson graduate. “You go, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?”
That’s a question Jefferson’s Black Student Union is asking, too.
This school year, Portland Public Schools imposed a new policy that was supposed to make the dance troupe better reflect the makeup of Jefferson itself. It hasn’t worked—even though there are plenty of African-American students from Jefferson who want to dance.
“The dance program does not create dancers,” says Lauren Steele, a 17-year-old senior and Black Student Union member. “It takes dancers from elsewhere and shows them off.”
Give us a few years, says Steve Gonzales, the troupe’s artistic director since 1999 and a Jefferson Dancer from 1983 to ’86. “Do I want a more diverse company?” he says. “Absolutely.”
The Jefferson Dancers formed in 1979 as the Northeast Portland high school prepared to launch an arts magnet program.
At first, only Jefferson students could join the troupe. But eventually Jefferson’s enrollment plummeted. The school district made a switch: Starting in the mid-1990s, dancers could attend other high schools, then travel to Jefferson just for dance practice.
Under that policy, the Jefferson Dancers included students from wealthier, whiter schools. Community activists started to notice.
At a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in the early 2000s, Lakeitha Elliott, a 1994 Jefferson graduate, overheard an audience member say, “Jefferson Dancers? They look like the Jefferson Dalmatians—almost all white with a couple of black spots.”
In 2008, PPS toyed with reinstating the requirement that Jefferson Dancers go to Jeff full time.
But the district only recently phased it in. Another change was altering the makeup of Jefferson. In 2011, PPS launched a program with Portland Community College, allowing Jefferson students to earn college credit.
Jefferson became whiter. Its white enrollment grew from about 13 percent for most of the past decade to 19 percent today. Most of the dancers are transfer
Several students likened the shift to neighborhood gentrification. To get in, dancers have to pass a rigorous audition in a range of styles, including ballet, tap and modern.
The students who succeed often have had dance training from an early age, making it difficult for neighborhood students who lack that leg up to compete, students say.
Mary Folberg, the troupe’s founder and director until 1992, says the company looks for experience in its dancers regardless of race.
“The years that I had a large number of black kids, some school administrator would be on my case because I didn’t have enough white dancers,” she says. “And the years I had a majority of white dancers, I’d be criticized for not having enough black dancers. All that is so political.”
Jefferson has a second-tier troupe, Jefferson Dancers 2, which is supposed to give students who don’t make it into the top troupe a chance to improve.
Students say the racial makeup of two groups perfectly illustrates the problem. The principal group is predominately white. The second group is predominately black.
“They’re not taking the existing, amazing black dancers from our school,” says Aliemah Bradley, a 15-year-old sophomore. “They’re saying ‘Oh, you’re not ready,’ but why aren’t they?”
Gonzales says that’s not the full picture. Some students elect to try out only for the second troupe because it requires a smaller time commitment. “The only divide right now is based on training,” he says. “It has nothing to do with race.”
Bradley says part of the problem is that the Jefferson Dancers place great emphasis on classical dance, such as ballet, at the expense of other forms, like
hip-hop or African dance.
She says that’s a slap in the face.
“It says to students, ‘We don’t value what you bring to the table” she says.