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Thoughts & Dialogues: Whose Culture is it Anyway?

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Ok, so I know it’s 2023, three years, and a Supreme Court Decision to dismantle Affirmative Action past the once hopeful conversations for change under the academy’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative. Back then, I didn’t have a blog and used Facebook, now known as Meta, to ask a few questions about who from the majority had the right to educate about the culture, dance, and rituals of the minority.

I graduated with an MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan in the Summer of 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. I was mentally exhausted by the state of the country and emotionally fatigued by Zoom Meetings and impractical DE&I dialogues to help encourage Performing Art students to Kumbaya instead of burning their tights in protest of the Academy's tendency of prioritizing the Colonial Aesthetic. It was a dark time marked by Blackedout profile pictures and war cries to "Get Dis War Dance." In the spirit of introspection, I sought guidance from fellow Black artists, scholars, and activists.

Check out the dialogue and comment with your thoughts below.

Response by Brittany Harlin

What needs do you need to be met within these predominantly white and colonized spaces?

Many needs are to be met in the University system for the spirit of inclusivity even to begin to exist -- especially in dance. First off, it needs to be understood by every single professor that Ballet is NOT the foundation of all dance. It is a cultural dance, just like the other dance forms. Ballet is of European descent and far too young and local to Europe to even begin to act as the foundation of indigenous dance, Bharatanatyam (Indian Devotional Dance colonized and slut-shamed by the British if you'd like to call that "foundational imprinting"), West African, and countless other dances that matter.

I'd like the demographic of the dance faculty in relation to the student body to be deeply considered. Institutions are being invalidated by their dependence on white supremacy to thrive left and right, and work needs to be done fast -- for the good of the countless recipients of accreditations from these institutions, past and present.

What classes would you like to be incorporated?

American Dance - Jazz with attribution to black origins, Tap with attribution to black origins and interethnic origins, Hip Hop as a CULTURE -- this one is tricky as professors who are worthy of this position presently do not always have the accreditation from these institutions to be considerable to qualify for this position, while the very origin of Hip Hop roots in oppression and creation out of lack of access.

How do we, as a collective people, want Africanist traditions to be represented within the institutions?

The distinction between African and African Diasporic forms and representatives. We can't be interchangeable -- we have our outpouring of stories, cultures, and art forms, no matter how interlaced and dependent on African origins.

Do you have any suggestions for contemporary black dance forms?

Absolutely. Invite Egun Artists Collective (my NFP) as an organization to program workshops, panel discussions, and commissioned works, and let people in the culture of African Diasporic forms speak truth to power. Making black dance forms a part of the foundational requirements for dance major graduations as institutions such as Columbia College (largely thanks to Onye Onzuzu) established years ago. I invite institutions to catch up and finally acknowledge the ground we stand on. Black people not only supplied your economic growth, your agriculture, your textile industry, and the general construction of this colonized land, but we also supplied your culture. Black dance is American Dance.

What are the purposes of rituals?

A multitude of purposes. For me, rituals are effective in terms of mental health and self-care. Traditionally, religion lends to using rituals, but that can also be oppressive and indoctrinated behavior when the spirit isn't connected to the particular practiced religion.

Do individuals outside the community and culture have a right to these rituals? ...if so, how can we assure incorporation and not appropriation?

Origin, intention, and attribution first. Once established and administered by someone with a cultural right to that passing on of knowledge, we can move forward.

I was on a Zoom call with California curriculum builders. I asked if hiring more--as in 2, as opposed to the one token black professor, is the answer or just a band-aid/good show of faith? Only to keep that professor/s in a box of what is expected or allowed?

I'm always looking for more Black educators in these institutions. Tokenism is a lazy effort by an otherwise knowledgeable group of administrators.

I have suggested hip hop and its connection to African American history, which we know is American history. Why not immerse students into the very African American communities in which these institutions are located to take their students to the source rather than appropriating the culture?

Absolutely! Not only Hip Hop but other American Black Queer forms such as Waacking (Los Angeles), Popping (Fresno), Vogue (New York), House (Chicago), Footwork (Chicago), and countless others.

-- Hope this helps! Looking forward to your thoughts.


Brittany Harlin

Response from Marlies Yearby

Alexandria, it's excellent your thinking and inspired to ask... I've always elected to be a guest artist in institutions because they are often caught up in the bureaucracy and politics inherent in the competitiveness of obtaining tenor and status. That being said, what I think would be groundbreaking is to eliminate the barriers that separate the departments to give way to a collective learning experience across the departments... in this way, Africanism is truly embodied its richness is not in its steps alone ...but in its steps that emerged from lived experiences... the environment it reflects and the spirituality that allows it to resonate in someplace deeper than the steps itself. Cross Collaboration is really the Culture responding to the now! My approach to creation as much embodies the story stories in the bodies as it does the story linear or non-linear in its telling..these are the Africanisms that the institution, by design, does not embody. As a guest artist, It affords me the opportunity to shake it up and explore bringing together departments to discover a topic concept more as it evolves in the moment of a culture of living. So exploring the ritual of a Senegalese movement phrase without the context of its creation falls short....should not the various departments that could rub or touch the origins be a part of the process....this is a big question you are asking... the longevity of change is huge and will take monitoring and action... the institution will have to dedicate money to its longevity for it to have a chance..... Hip Hop has its roots in Africa... and is inspired through the response to a struggle to be heard and seen... in its attempt to create its own swagger; it actually lives in movement originating from Africa but on a different placement in the heartbeat of the beat! So should these two forms be removed from the historical context of how it came to be? or taught in cross-collaboration with other departments and or information sources...see appropriation happens when you remove and or don't consider the source... this now is changing the institutions' pedagogy to now see the whole not the part in the context of one class... which can only truly be done with departments and or knowledge from different gazes! Hence cross-collaboration!

© 2020 by Alexandria M. Davis

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