Our JUNTOS Community is constantly growing and connecting us to global organizations that work to change the world and uplift the lives of those who are marginalized . Through our Community Alliance Spotlight Series, we aim to bring awareness to the important work that these incredible organizations do year round, and, in honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we are highlighting Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour, and their women-led businesses that are dedicated to making a difference in the dance world. By offering space for the stories of female community leaders and organizations to be shared, we hope to highlight the ways many women and people of color are working to create better communities, through the oppressive forces of sexism, racism, ableism, and more.
We were lucky to get to meet with Malerie Dempster, the founder of Dancer’s Hospitality. A graduate of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, Malerie has performed across the US with artists such as Janelle Monáe, Melii, and Deborah Cox, as well as in projects including Marc Jacobs New York Fashion Week, and the upcoming “In the Heights” movie. She founded Dancer’s Hospitality as an organization to bridge the gap between Southern artists and their dreams by providing master classes and mentorship for young dancers who have the training necessary, but need guidance to navigate their journeys in pursuit of a career in the dance industry.
We believe that Dancer’s Hospitality holds an important role in our global community as a beacon of representation and mentorship for young artists who lack direct access to role models who are active and successful in their artistic fields.
Read on to learn more about Malerie, her experiences as a woman in dance, and her work elevating her community through Dancer’s Hospitality.
Learn more about Dancer's Hospitality
We met with Malerie over Zoom on a sun-drenched afternoon in March, where she signed on from a coffee shop in Manhattan with a bright smile. After exchanging introductions, we started our interview by discussing the inception of Dancer’s Hospitality.
“Dancer’s Hospitality all started when I was taking an academic course at Juilliard, and the professor, Professor Baker, gave us an opportunity to pitch an idea to create our own organization. So, I pitched my idea of Dancer’s Hospitality, named as a twist on the idiom of ‘southern hospitality’, which works to create a pipeline of young artists from the South to professional dancers that are also from the south.
A lot of kids in the South have big big dreams, but there’s no facility, there’s no encouragement, and there’s no real support for those dreams.”
She pauses before beginning to share a touching story:
“When I was in middle school, there was a guy who could really draw. He was one of those kids from school, you know the kind of kids that are always pulling out masterpieces. People used to fight for his drawings; they were that good. But we lived in an incredibly small town where sports are very important, and this kid wasn’t a football player or an athlete of any kind.
So I graduate high school, and I’m one of only two people, out of around 400 kids, that actually left the state for college. One year I go back home to visit, and I’m at the grocery store running an errand for my mom. I was asking around for help finding something and out walks the kid from the back room. He recognised me and started asking me about college in New York, telling me that he still followed and supported me online.”
‘Forget me,’ I said, ‘are you still drawing?’
“He replied that he had stopped his art in high school, and I literally could have broken down crying right there. It was just so terrible that he didn’t have the resources or a support system that could encourage him to keep going with art because we need artists and designers right now. People pay for creativity because we know that while not everyone has it but everyone needs it.”
Between that moment and Professor Baker’s opportunity at Juilliard, Malerie was inspired to create Dancer’s Hospitality.
“I realised that I needed to be the person that’s feeding these kids lives by giving support and, ultimately creating a pipeline from young dreamers to professional dancers.” She specifies dancers because it’s her niche – a world that she has a deep and thorough understanding of.
Dancer’s Hospitality began with in-person workshops, around once a year whenever Malerie was able to visit her hometown. But as COVID changed the world, Malerie noticed how much more support the kids needed than ever before.
“Their dance schools were failing them, the education system was failing them, and they needed more.”
And so Malerie evolved her workshops into a mentorship program where she meets with high school aged dancers, and helps them facilitate and understand the journey they need to take in order to reach their goals. Whether it’s getting into a college, gaining confidence as a dancer both in and out of the studio, or it is wanting to truly pursue a professional career, Malerie strives to create even more opportunities for each young artist, especially while they’re still young creators in high school.
Recently, Dancer’s Hospitality dropped a campaign called ‘Still Dancin’, to remind people that dancers are still here, still moving, still loving dance, and still sharing energy. This opportunity gave dancers in the program the opportunity to either develop choreography themselves, or have Malerie set choreography on them. Following a rehearsal process, Dancer’s Hospitality hosted a large filming day, the finished products of which are being incrementally released on their Instagram (@dancershospitality).
While Malerie’s work through Dancer’s Hospitality isn’t targeted towards a specific gender, she acknowledges the difference in lived experiences between young men and female dancers in the South. If a young man reaches out to her and she feels that one of her male colleagues could better mentor them, Malerie works to connect them. It’s just another part of the pipeline that Dancer’s Hospitality is building, and it’s important to know that this pipeline doesn’t just lead to opportunities with Malerie, but also to connections with other professional dancers that have had the same Southern beginnings, and who saw bigger things for themselves.
What is the most important thing for people to know about you as a woman?
“I honestly do everything out of my overflowing faith and love for humanity. So many people have this light within and it just diminishes over time. I hate the way the world snuffs out that flame, and I believe that light connects light. If I have to do all the work myself to make sure I continue to try to propose the key positivity and creativity in this world, then I’ll do that. But while I’m still pushing forward with light and positivity, I’m always speaking the truth as well. I never sugarcoat things.”
Who are the mentors or role models that have inspired you personally or professionally? What are the most important lessons that you’ve taken from them?
“I come from a family where women are very strong, very powerful, and there are a lot of us. We’re very strong and opinionated, but we love hard. And as I got older, it was a lot of my friends that really pushed me to grow.
A lot of my professional role models include Danielle Polanco, Jessica Castro, and Kim Holmes, whose respect for the craft and strength to continue in this industry really inspire me.”
What does it mean to be a woman in dance for you, and how has that meaning transformed over the course of your training and your career?
“It’s so funny because I first started in the concert world it was all girls, maybe one or two boys, and when I started in the commercial world it was a shock to meet the ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, as we call them. There was definitely an adjustment to that, but as always my love for dance continues to push me forward.
A lot of people may think that you have to go the route where you have to go through trials and tribulations, but I decided to kind of take myself out of it, and I’m kind of doing the roundabout way so that I don’t have to go through some things that I just don’t want to go through. Everyone has their own journey, but because I started Hip Hop late I felt like I had to start from the bottom and go through some things, and learn from people. But after a while, I decided that I didn’t want to go through it. I’m gonna do my own stuff and I’m going to connect with people I respect, and go that way.
Being a woman in this industry, a lot can come down to how you walk onto set, what do you wear on set, how do you speak to people, etc. There is a lot more for me to calculate if I’m going to maintain my power and strength in this industry. Unfortunately, we have to think about the way we appear more than men do. They can really show up to set wearing whatever, doing whatever they want, and they don’t have to think twice. To be honest, it’s a lot. But I still want to show up, and I’m still gonna do my job, and I’m gonna walk away with all the respect. But, honestly, it’s not easy.”
How has the gender-power imbalance of the dance world caused you or your peers harm? What steps do you think need to be taken to ensure equality in commercial dance?
“I really want to push that people understand that what they do now can truly hinder their relationship with dance. There are repercussions that can and will affect you, and sometimes that means that people will never dance again. I’m not sure exactly how to answer this, but I truly believe it’s up to us, especially as we’re going through this new age of everything being online and we need to put more responsibility and mandate relationships within dance that have an inherent power imbalance, like the teacher-student relationship. We should be educating everyone in the space. A lot of people have been training and dancing all their life and because they’ve been stuck in this messed up cycle for so long, they don’t even understand how damaging some of the engrained behaviours are.”
When did you first experience discrimination based on gender, and how has that shaped the way you navigate the world?
“I feel like it’s interesting because, like I said earlier, I started in the ballet world where the gender imbalance is so different than in the commercial world. I will say that a lot of things may have been overlooked by me. I didn’t really truly see it until I stepped into the commercial world where as a woman, you’re literally told to be the woman that women want to be, or the guys want to…whatever. That’s the essence that you have to give and project, and yes, you can absolutely tap into that energy, but are you ready for what comes with that projection of energy? It’s not a comfortable position, and after experiencing it I’m a lot more careful about the spaces that I allow my energy into.”
According to studies by Data Dance Project, between 2018 and 2020, young girls outnumber boys 20 to one in tap, ballet, and jazz dance classes. 70% of major donors to dance companies are women, 87% of professional concert dancers are women, and 76% of our teachers are women. But despite all of that, in 2019, 81% of all new ballets were choreographed by men, only 27% of leadership roles were held by women, who, on average, made 68% less than their male counterparts, while 72% of major ballet companies in North America are directed by men.
How does that make you feel as you look back at your time growing up as a concert dancer?
“I think it goes back to how we naturally want to give men more power. If you hold a master class with a male instructor versus a woman, even if the woman had all of the credentials, you know, performing for 20 years, working with this institution, working with that college, and now she’s in this position in direct competition with a man. She may get 15 people to attend but his class will sell out with 75 people, and now he’s booking two more classes for next week. I don’t know why, but people give men more credit and praise for the same work that women do and I don’t understand why.
What I try to do now is concentrate my energy on solely supporting women. I do my best to show up for women-hosted classes and if I can’t go, I make sure to share the event as much as I can on my social media platforms.”
We’re so thankful for Malerie and her important work with Dancer’s Hospitality. We believe that by creating awareness of the work that they are doing, we can help news of their mission reach the communities who would best benefit from access to this kind of programming. Dancer’s Hospitality is a life changing initiative, creating safe and accessible mentorships and pipelines to opportunities and connections for underserved dancers in the South with dreams of building a career in dance.