An online petition calling for new leadership at Joy of Motion Dance Company has more than 2,000 signatures.
On June 5, as mass protests demanding racial justice continued in the D.C. area, the Joy of Motion Dance Center, a local arts nonprofit that serves thousands of students, posted a Black Lives Matter logo on its Instagram page.
In an accompanying message, the nonprofit promised to prioritize the needs of staff of color, make its programs more accessible to dancers of color and treat all types of dance, including non-Western dance, equally. "Joy of Motion stands up against the violent act of racism," the post said. "We stand with those who fight systemic racism through art, organizing and advocacy."
It rang hollow for 10 former and current Joy of Motion employees, who tell DCist/WAMU they directly experienced or witnessed racial discrimination at the center.
Popular classes taught by faculty of color were routinely rescheduled to less convenient times, according to six former staffers. "I witnessed what I would deem a whitewashing of Joy of Motion," says one former faculty member, who is white. "The racist practices at Joy of Motion are very covert. They're not blatant."
Several former employees also say the director of Joy of Motion's Dance Institute, Helen Hayes, made racist remarks in the presence of parents and students on more than one occasion.
For example, during a photoshoot of the institute's dance classes last December, Hayes, who is white, told a young female student to "stop being so ghetto" while on stage, according to an April 4 letter that a group of 24 employees sent to the nonprofit's board, executive director, and business manager. Some of the employees overheard Hayes making the remark and saw a student run off the stage, crying.
"There was no one running to the child to apologize," says one former Joy of Motion dance teacher, who, like the nine other people who told DCist/WAMU about their experience working at Joy of Motion, requested anonymity, some citing concerns about retaliation from the company or others in the local arts community. "It was business as usual."
The letter outlined employees' various grievances against Hayes, ranging from allegations that she body-shamed people to engaging in what the employees called "segratory behavior." The 24 signatories on the letter to the nonprofit's leadership included both faculty members and employees who worked in other roles, according to a statement from the board. The letter followed a Joy of Motion faculty meeting held virtually April 2, at which staffers discussed concerns related to the coronavirus crisis and that ultimately revealed chronic issues of racism at the organization, according to a former faculty member.
A week after the meeting, on April 9, Joy of Motion laid off 84 employees, citing financial pressures caused by the pandemic. (The organization's studios have been closed since mid-March.) Those laid off included all faculty, work study employees, and studio assistants, per the board. Eight former employees who spoke to DCist/WAMU for this story were among those furloughed.
The faculty members say Hayes, who declined to comment for this story, is at the root of the alleged racial discrimination at Joy of Motion. Among other complaints, the April 4 letter obtained by DCist/WAMU claims that Hayes engineered a "systematic, purposeful, and overt effort" to oust instructors of color from the center's dance institute.
After receiving the letter, Joy of Motion asked an outside law firm to investigate the claims the signatories had raised, according to the organization's board. "Joy of Motion takes any allegations of inappropriate conduct seriously," the board says in a written statement. "We particularly take seriously any allegations of conduct that could be harmful to our staff and students."
The board declined to comment on specific allegations for this story. The law firm is still searching for people to speak with for its investigation, which the board says is taking longer than expected. "At the conclusion of the investigation, we will take what actions are appropriate," the statement notes.
At least three current or former employees that DCist/WAMU spoke with for this story said they have spoken with lawyers or plan to do so as part of this investigation.
Meanwhile, a movement to change leadership at Joy of Motion has been gaining traction over social media and on a Change.org petition, which has garnered more than 2,000 signatures. Former faculty member Lorianne D'Orazio launched the petition on June 19, demanding that the board of directors and current leadership be removed. The petition details former faculty members' demands to remove discriminatory staff, create a transparent board, and include people of color in leadership positions. A group of former faculty also detailed their experiences and demands in a letter posted in the public DMV Coalition of Dance Instructors Facebook group.
"Yet, again our requests have gone unanswered," the petition states. "The JOMDC Board of Directors' continued silence affirms that they are complicit in condoning the aforementioned behaviors. And that silence is deafening."
In an email to DCist/WAMU, Hayes says she can't comment on the allegations until the investigation has finished. "From my understanding, everyone involved has been provided strict instructions not to discuss this matter with anyone outside of the investigation team until it is concluded," she adds.
Joy of Motion declined to comment on whether Hayes is currently employed, saying the board cannot comment on personnel matters.
Joy of Motion has three locations, in Bethesda and Friendship Heights, and on H Street NE, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. From September 2017 to August 2018, it offered 300 classes and rehearsals at its studios each week and served more than 10,000 people across all its programs, according to the nonprofit's most recent annual report. The center also partnered with more than 20 local schools to provide on-campus dance programs.
Dancer and arts educator Michelle Ava founded Joy of Motion in 1976, and in its early days the organization taught tap, jazz, improvisational, mime, and Afro-jazz dance to youth and adults at a studio in Dupont Circle.
"It was really about bringing different worlds of dance, different genres from the most classical to the most avant garde, together," says Ava, who worked at Joy of Motion until 1990. "It's not a studio, it's a center. It's a place to bring together community, collaboration, co-creativity and compassion and communication."
None of the employees DCist/WAMU spoke to named Ava in any of their allegations. She commented on a public Facebook post about the situation earlier this month, saying she was "very concerned," but is not in a position to change any policy at Joy of Motion. "I am here to help and support those have been directly and indirectly affected by these circumstances," she wrote. "If I can help make a difference, and assist in this healing process I will!!"
The organization's focus pivoted under Hayes' tenure starting in 2016, when she was appointed as the head of Joy of Motion's Dance Institute, according to former employees. The institute began marketing "rigorous conservatory-style training" on ballet, modern, jazz and Broadway-style dance. Before assuming her current role, Hayes spent the previous 25 years teaching those dance types as well as compositional and improvisational dance for adults and youth at Joy of Motion.
Nearly all of the former faculty members interviewed by DCist/WAMU described Hayes as someone who could influence board members and drive programming decisions that significantly impacted teachers and students of color.
One former Joy of Motion instructor, who is Black, said the frequency of his classes plummeted from a dozen to two per week around 2016, after Hayes joined the organization. He taught classes in ballet and Afro-Caribbean movement.
Fewer classes means less income because faculty are paid hourly (while other staff are salaried), according to several teachers. Joy of Motion declined to comment on its pay structure.
"She's the queen bee behind the scenes who's pushing everybody off," says the ballet and Afro-Caribbean movement instructor, adding that he started questioning his own qualifications and nearly stopped teaching. "My income was struck down to nothing. I couldn't pay rent. I was trying to figure out what I could do to resurrect some modicum of employment."
Some former teachers say Joy of Motion has similarly diminished other non-Western dance classes over the last four years, including its belly-dancing and African-dance fitness program, called Asa. While Joy of Motion didn't cancel those classes outright, former instructors say it moved them to new locations or times that weren't convenient for students, and class enrollment declined as a result.
"Everything just started disappearing from their offerings and being replaced by modern or contemporary classes taught by Caucasian women," he says. "That was part of [Hayes'] strategic efforts to cut all of the culture and make it more ballet-centric, [with classes] being taught by white teachers."
Another Black former faculty member says she left Joy of Motion in 2017, after teaching at the organization's hip-hop dance program, HYPE, for four years. The program was popular, she says. In 2016, students from a number of its youth programs, including HYPE, performed Michael Jackson's "Thriller" for the Obamas at the White House's annual Halloween party.
She says leaders at the nonprofit told her there wasn't enough funding to continue the program in its current format. (HYPE started with about 30 students and ended with more than 50, according to the former instructor.)
"It felt very clear that Joy of Motion was making choices that were negatively impacting teachers and students of color," the former faculty member says.
As for Hayes' alleged racist remark during the December 2019 photoshoot, a different former employee who witnessed the incident says she reported it to her immediate supervisor, who then relayed her concerns to Joy of Motion's interim executive director at the time. But the organization's leadership took no immediate action following the incident, according to the former staffer.
The former Joy of Motion dance teacher who saw the young female student run off stage also recalls Hayes making a racist remark during a 2016 audition at the organization's Bethesda location. As he was exiting a restroom, the former teacher says he overheard Hayes talking with a white parent while a Black girl was auditioning.
"I heard [Hayes] saying, 'Ew, look at that little Black girl,'" he recounts. "My heart sank because the tone she expressed was one of disgust."
Another parent heard the exchange as well and took their concerns to Joy of Motion's management, according to the former teacher. He adds that the organization never moved forward with a racial sensitivity course for staff, despite having preliminary talks about one.
"It's such a plethora of madness that has been going on," he says of Joy of Motion. "If it was not for COVID, they would continue with these practices, because their biggest fear was having a discussion."