As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Ziegelman.
Andrea was born in Detroit, Michigan and comes from a family of classically-trained pianists, cellists, singers and violinists. Along with the study of piano, Andrea pursued rigorous ballet training throughout her youth, enrolling after high school in the ballet department of the University of Utah. Andrea also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature from the University of Michigan and attended Georgetown University School of Law and Columbia Law School. After spending thirty years as a children’s advocacy and family attorney, Andrea started Accent Dance NYC, a charitable 501(c)(3) organization, with her fellow teaching and performing artists to bring the highest quality of dance education programming and professional dance performances to school-aged children and local arts organizations in New York City and neighboring areas.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After raising my own children and spending thirty years as a practicing family lawyer and children’s advocate, I decided to change careers by entering public service. In my particular case, public service meant bringing the power and beauty of dance to neighborhoods where children too often lack exposure to transformative experiences, including the arts.
The actual public service opportunity presented itself in an unexpected place and with an exceptional group of artists. After stepping into a ballet studio after thirty years behind a desk with stacks of legal pads, I had the good fortune of striking up a friendship with my ballet teacher, Elisa Toro Franky. Elisa is an exquisite professional ballet dancer from Colombia who shared my penchant for doing public service work. Her close friends also were professional dancers, teachers, musicians, videographers, secondary school educators, and choreographers from Cuba, Spain, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Italy, Japan, the United States, and other countries. I befriended this close-knit “family” of multicultural artists, and the idea of Accent Dance NYC — where everyone speaks with some sort of accent — was born at my dinner table.
Over our lively dinner discussions, we asked ourselves some deep questions: How could we satisfy the moral imperative to advocate for innumerable black and brown children who face daily inequities — not at the hands of warring parents or guardians with whom I was accustomed to dealing as an attorney — but by an educational system that favors children in wealthy, primarily white, communities? How could Accent Dance NYC provide dance opportunities for underserved children? What difference were we trying to make and why? These are the central issues we have been tackling with passion since the inception of Accent Dance NYC.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
During one of our first educational performances, our moderator sustained a mild electric shock when plugging our sound equipment into an outlet in the school’s gymnasium, causing me to take over her speaking role that day. Although I also was responsible during this particular performance for turning on the music before the start of each dance piece, and otherwise orchestrating other aspects of the show, I was distracted by the fact that this particular school gym seemed “electrified”. The music was loaded onto one of our artist’s computers. Although my colleague explained to me that I needed to hit some buttons on his computer after starting each piece so that the rest of the pieces would not play automatically thereafter, his explanation went in one ear and out the other as I tried to juggle the many events of that morning. After the dancers had finished an exciting ballet duet and were taking their bows, the next dance piece started playing, much to my embarrassment and the children’s laughter. This happened again later in the performance. After the performance, one of the students came up to me and said how much she enjoyed it while also suggesting gently that I should consider brushing up on my basic computer skills, because learning new things — as we had pointed out during the performance — was important in life.
One take-away lesson was that I was going to have to learn many new things beyond my thirty-year professional experience as an attorney, things I never thought I would learn, including how to post on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, how to work with a PR firm to create a public presence, how to fundraise and write grants, how to load music and videos on my own computer, how to recruit and work with a Board of Directors, how to teach dance in underserved public school settings. The list goes on and on.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
After the death of George Floyd, I began digging deeper into my white privilege, and the magnitude of the socio-economic and racial inequities that Accent Dance NYC was trying to address in our educational system. One of the books that my Accent Dance NYC colleague, Mara Driscoll, strongly suggested I read, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, affected me profoundly. Until then, I did not appreciate fully the extent to which our government — at every level — long employed racially discriminatory housing policies leading to the segregated society in which we live today. Why was this personally important for me to understand in my work for Accent Dance NYC? A starting point for making a difference in underserved communities is having a genuine appreciation for what factors have contributed to the ongoing struggles in communities of color. Being aware of how government-sanctioned policies have shaped societal inequities has made me a better advocate for the children of Accent Dance NYC and has deepened my understanding of how, at a young age, underserved youth bear witness to a disproportionate share of economic strife, unemployment, educational opportunities, violence, stress, serious illness and death. School, in and of itself, is not a consistent and creative outlet for the daily challenges these children face. Their parents — unlike those from wealthier communities — cannot afford private lessons, camps and program that foster their children’s exposure to the arts, and their schools may not offer much enrichment either. That’s where charitable organizations like Accent Dance NYC can make a difference.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Accent Dance NYC has sought from the beginning to create a positive social impact on children in underserved communities. We do this by bringing quality multicultural dance education and performance initiatives to schools and communities, advocating for widespread access to the arts and dance education while highlighting the power of dance to showcase diversity, unify cultures and communities, and transform lives.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
We remain true to our mission and purpose, always looking for creative, innovative, and inspiring ways to transform the lives of children; they are the future of our country, our planet. We strive to ensure that every dollar earned and spent goes to helping and advocating for the children and communities whom we are dedicated to serving. We ask ourselves regularly, are we “on” or “off” mission”? How can we do better to further our mission? How we can reach children more effectively?
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At the start of the pandemic, I experienced significant anxiety, unable to see my older son, age 24, who lives and works in Manhattan. My husband and I reside in what was the initial epicenter of the pandemic, in lower Westchester County, a short train ride from Manhattan. Our younger son was sent home from college in the middle of his last semester of college, finishing his senior year in front of a computer screen in his childhood bedroom while my stepdaughter continued working and studying outside of Boston. Because COVID testing was not readily available at the start of the pandemic, and my younger son is asthmatic, my husband and I made the difficult decision to have our older son remain in his small New York City apartment while we spent night after night worrying about him and our two other children and their significant others, watching the nightly news tracking the mounting death toll encircling our loved ones.
Accent Dance NYC also suffered the loss of considerable income when schools and afterschool programs closed, performances were cancelled, and the stock market took a nose dive. The Board of Directors had to cut salaries and furlough some of our teaching and performing artists, people whom I considered not just employees, but close friends. I also watched their other sources of artistic employment evaporate overnight.
Notwithstanding the significant challenges, we have been able to pivot relatively well and deliberately to creating a host of virtual educational programming, reemploying some of the teaching artists and dancers whom we had to let go at the start of the pandemic.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Many schools will remain closed for an indefinite period. Even where schools have reopened, it’s been a partial reopening at best. School administrators are deciding that arts programs should be reduced or eliminated, with school resources and student hours devoted to “core” subjects, such as math, science and English. This approach does not consider the need for students to have more, not fewer, emotional, physical, and creative outlets. That’s why this year, Accent Dance NYC is teaming up with some of the schools with whom we’ve worked, as well as new schools and afterschool programs both inside and outside of New York City, to bring interactive, virtual dance programming to students. Lessons are designed for small, apartment-sized spaces. Offerings include choreographic workshops to explore the creation of movement sequences, taking inspiration from, among other things, every-day objects, language-based prompts, teacher-led videos, and other educational materials.
We also are in the midst of creating a virtual educational performance for widespread dissemination to schools akin to the live, in-school program we launched successfully at the inception of Accent Dance NYC. As part of this latest educational initiative, school-age children will learn about the history and cultures behind various dance forms, including ballet, hip hop, salsa, tango and more, and watch professional dancers perform pieces spanning all of these dance styles. The children also will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive Q&A with the artists after the performance, similar to what we were doing before the pandemic in live school settings.
Accent Dance NYC also has partnered with a local television station where culturally-responsive dance programming will be streamed to school-age children and their families. Additionally, we created a global dance video this summer featuring children from around the world, and curated an “Evening of Advocacy” on television, giving voice to top educational leaders discussing the challenges they face in educating youth, and keeping the arts alive, in their respective schools and after-school programs during the era of COVID.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Particularly during periods of upheaval, it’s imperative to keep moving forward, keep finding new ways to connect, keep believing in the ability of each individual to summon and then spread joy and hope. For me, dance is a perfect vehicle; it’s a universal language that unifies people from diverse places and cultures, bringing joy and hope to those who summon it into existence and to those whom it reaches, despite all of the uncertainty, fear, and loneliness in the world.
My husband, children, friends, and family have watched me struggle to adapt to the new reality, through the help and support from my artistic colleagues (along with, let’s not forget, the attorneys, accountants, public relations and web design teams behind the scenes). Seeing me “pirouette successfully”, I believe, helps my family and loved ones reinvent themselves, too. While this may not be “business as usual”, it’s “business with a twist”. Everything is workable.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There is greater possibility for us to reach children far beyond our borders as more people turn to on-line educational materials to supplement their children’s learning and to connect with one another for solace, inspiration, and joy. We also can potentially interface with many more educators who will be looking for interesting educational content to keep their students engaged and stimulated intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
The challenges we have faced have stretched our creative thinking in surprisingly positive ways; among other things, we have created several dance films during quarantine; curated documentaries for community organizations; filmed interviews of our artists and students; learned to collaborate remotely; reached students using Zoom, and otherwise learned new technical and artistic skills outside of our previous comfort zones. All of these challenges increase our resolve to continue to think outside of the box.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Countless more people are suffering terribly and that’s not going to change any time soon. The pandemic has laid bare the extent of racial and social inequities in our country; I hope this changes our perception of, and motivation to, do what needs to be done to help those in need.
It also may take a long time before theaters and other important places of congregation are filled again, which necessarily affects our ability to express our true natures. And when the arts are affected negatively, that part of each of us longing for connection is stifled. This has the potential for arresting the social-emotional development of our youth in a profound way if we don’t take active and continuous steps to counteract it.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are using this time to strengthen and grow our roots that allow our organization to flourish. We recognize that to survive, we need to go beyond what we previously were doing and provide a higher level of public service to those in need.
At a more granular level, we are in the process of diversifying and growing our Board of Directors; looking for new media opportunities; exploring new grant possibilities; developing our educational models and on-line platforms; strengthening our connections to existing schools and arts organizations; identifying new schools and organizations with whom to partner in the future; creating new virtual programming; widening our reach to the global community, and providing as much beauty and joy for youth and their families as we possibly can.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to do more public service, think about those less fortunate than them, and make this world a better place for all of our children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Angela Davis.
I don’t know if I will radically transform the world on my own but I know that, collectively, it’s possible, and that there are many people in this world willing to try. I’m just one of them.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Connect with us on, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @AccentDanceNYC, and on our Youtube channel at Accent Dance NYC. Use our hashtag, #AccentDanceNYC; and go to our website at www.accent.dance for more information about us, our programs, media, and upcoming events. Donate online at www.accent.dance/support-us.