Thursday, April 4, 2013

Making a Claim For African American Dances in Higher Education

NOTE: This paper serves as the script I used for my presentation at the NAAAS conference in Baton Rouge. The original version was a 25 page thesis for my MA from NYU.

The American dance education system continues to function with an archaic model. One that specifically caters to both 19th century and racially marginalized hierarchies. Stemming from the historically recognized “high art” (European) vs. “low art” (Black/African) dichotomy evident in western concert dance, this structure is imported into and persists in the curriculum model for dance education. Although the following components of African American dance techniques such as Jazz, Hip Hop and African derived styles are being offered, they are typically not a central part of the curriculum but rather exist as electives. While learning classical ballet and modern dance techniques are essential to the development of any trained dancer, other cultural approaches are generally overlooked and or considered non-essential as a foundation of the well-trained 21st century dancer and dance studies major. 

Black Popular Culture and Dance Studies Scholar Dr. Halifu Osumare poignantly stated, “Almost every discipline in the academy has had to adhere to a revisionist history of their discipline and dance has yet to do so. Why is that?” W.E.B Du Bois tells us that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” I argue that this problem remains in the 21st century. And while many disciplines in the academy have recognized this and are taking the necessary steps to interrogate the issues of racial and cultural biases, dance has yet to join in the reforming in any substantive way.

Consequently, dance students in higher education are not developing the skills or knowledge base to incorporate a well-rounded dance education that includes an Africanist aesthetic approach to dance. The current inclusion of black dance styles into higher education dance curricula are superficial and that does not explore the genres' complexity and sophistication in proportion to its influence within American and world cultures.[1] Interrogating the ideology of western concert dance and education, which misappropriates and segregates the practice and performance of Black dance is the subject of this research.  In so doing I examine its realities and explore its ramifications, while offering a more inclusive alternative dance curriculum.

My purpose is to promote authorized appropriation and proper integration of the Black dance aesthetic in the methods for dance studies and performance. What I refer to as “authorized appropriation” draws on aesthetic traditions derived from the West African, Afro-Caribbean and Black American cultures.

Achieving authorized appropriation is not only essential to the aim for reparations required to end the conscious and unconscious decentralizing and misappropriating of the Black dance aesthetic in its practice and performance, but also to end the discredit of and disrespect for the potency and significance of Black dance aesthetics inherent in American dance history and culture. The purveyor’s of dance education and performance should be required to be authorities of this Black dance aesthetic and maintain the ability to provide authoritative and inclusive knowledge. In this way dance artists, scholars and educators can provide a mutual respect for all contributors to the field, past, present and future. 

Why are African-American dance techniques under represented in higher education? How has it been decided that European dance techniques are most essential to the development of dance curricula? Why aren’t we being expected to learn African-American dance techniques at a level comparable to existing ballet and modern dance techniques? If dance students are to be amply prepared for access to the profession as performers and or choreographers, why are so many dance programs limiting the focus of their intensive training to Western concert dance practices? Since the job market and industry for dancers has greatly expanded and continues to do so with each new rising modern/contemporary company shouldn’t dance students be fully prepared to compete for positions in the wide range of work that encompasses today’s dance world? The answer to these questions brought me to this research topic. This paper endeavors to offer methods, materials and modes of inclusion in dance curricula that reflect a Black dance aesthetic.

My argument is, African American dance curricula in higher education has yet to reach a level comparable to existing ballet and modern dance techniques. Of the three existing codified techniques for African American dance: Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Umfandalai (Asante, 1993), only Dunham and Umfandalai are sparsely implemented in dance curriculums. The purpose of this study is to provide a greater understanding for developing and implementing an African American dance curriculum in higher education. This study advocates heightening cultural/racial awareness, broadening dance curricula perspectives, and a complete dance curriculum overhaul. The major focus of my argument is for the inclusion of African American dance perspectives in higher education.

My research adheres to a qualitative descriptive case study; techniques included are, interviews, surveys and a literature review. The focus of this study is delimited to research inquires which consider only African American dance curricula in higher education. The research for this study is limited to participants and resources available on both the East and West Coasts. The data I have collected is concentrated on faculty and student perspectives as well as scholarly texts that address the driving questions of this study. In my experience as an African American student of dance, Western concert dance is commonly stressed more than any other style or technique and other approaches assume a minority role. As an African American dance educator I would be remiss not to pursue such a study for the purpose of furthering my own education and in preparing myself, my cohorts, my students, and the dance community at large, to meet the challenges of overhauling the curriculum for dance in higher education. 

In addition to the progress of education, the job market and industry for dancers has greatly expanded and continues to do so with each new rising modern/contemporary company. Beyond Eurocentric ballet and modern dance companies are a wide range of Afrocentric ballet and modern dance companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dallas Black Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan Dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Philadanco, and Urban Bush Women just to name a few. Perhaps, ballet and modern/contemporary techniques cannot efficiently inform students about the techniques and methods for African American dances and students’ limited diversity may hinder their opportunities to succeed in less traditional dance companies such as the ones I’ve mentioned and more.

While dance programs appear to be more diverse in recent years, African American artists, texts, and dance techniques remain excluded from the American cultural arts curricula. As long as the influences and contributions of the Afrocentric aesthetic on the European aesthetic are not recognized, the American cultural arts curricula as a whole is diminished (Asante, 1993; Bennefield, 1999; Hazzard-Gordon, 1991; Hubbard & Sofras, 1998). While the minority innovators of revolutionary scholarship and art have a presence in American culture, our culture has yet to reach a point where issues of race are non-existent.

When students and faculties question the value of education based on the exclusion of their cultural heritage, a resistance to learning and teaching becomes instinctively inherent. Responding to this resistance will require an informed and objective plan for the stimulus of dance curricula expansion. According to author and dance educator Hubbard (1988) and many educational theorists (Dixon, 1991; Kerr-Berry, 2004; Smith, 1993; Thompson, 1997; Ward & Overby, 1993; West, 1994), providing minority students with a form of cultural validation is often a neglected aspect of the course design. Carter G. Woodson argues, “Students must see something of themselves in what they study” (Hubbard & Sofras, 1998, p.77).

Several other educational theorists (Dixon, 1991; Hubbard, 1988; Vandarakis-Fenning, 1994) agree that the realm of dance curricula must broaden to be more inclusive and subsequently more substantial. The challenge and responsibility dance educators are being charged with is the implementation of a well-rounded dance curricula that promotes dance, “as a meaningful and viable discipline and provides scholars and students with a means of study that does not compromise the heritage of any people” (Asante, 1993, p.51). Ward & Overby (1993) present a similar argument stating, "Ethnic dance brings various cultures together where participants begin to recognize and appreciate the contributions of various groups to society" (pp.72-73). 

The American culture has been infused with African American influences for its lifetime, which in turn, has transformed the evolution of American dance culture. Kerr-Berry (1994) claims that, “there are endless examples of how African Americans have contributed to the Western hemisphere” (p.26). She also argues that the Western European perspective of dance must be challenged to develop beyond its current spectrum to include other approaches. Her sentiments are coupled with various cohorts namely Vandarakis-Fenning (1994) who would agree that, “the significance of teaching various approaches to dance serves as an essential method for providing American students with cultural literacy” (p.44). If we as dance educators disregard the charge to expand the curriculum to provide a more balanced perspective, ultimately we are continuing to perpetuate a biased, and delusional picture of American dance culture, thereby doing a great disservice to all students (Dixon, 1991). 

If we continue to seek refuge in the comfort zone of one-dimensional, marginal thinking, then a superlative world will always be unattainable (West, 1994). Much is left to be done is an understatement that requests a call to action for implementation strategies which demand curriculum revisions that extend beyond the classroom. Jackson (1996) argues the following: "More African American and African dance professionals need to be part of higher education; more research needs to be done on figures lost and more questioning needs to be done about modes of representation of race in American dance" (p.110). Developing strategies and modes of inclusion only scratch the surface of the many necessary curriculum revisions required to effectively represent our diverse American dance culture. Acknowledgement and authorized appropriation are the next steps to accurately implementing a curriculum resembling a more balanced perspective.

Fifty-two years later some may argue that Affirmative Action has resolved these issues and that we are in a post-racism era and others will disagree, arguing that it only sought to bandage the wounds since inclusion has now become about tokenism, racism’s greatest disguise. Strategically positioned throughout the classrooms of various education systems seeking to fill their quota, sits the “spook” by the door. Thus, the fact remains that, “the supply of minority teachers does not correspond with the current or future supply of African American children who need cultural role models" (Smith, 1993, p.66). 

Admittedly, some progress is better than none and without the many efforts of educators who have and continue to advocate for equality in conjunction with inclusion, our evolution thus far would be non-existent. Recent evidence shows that this ongoing struggle is not in vain: "A new report from the U.S. Department of Education states that in 2002, the latest year for which complete data is available, nearly 2 million Black students made up 11.5 percent of the 17 million students of all races enrolled in higher education programs in the United States. In 2003 there were 33,097 Black full-time faculties at degree-granting institutions of higher education nationwide" JBHE (2005). 

While the presence of African American artists, scholars, writers and educators are prevalent in American higher education, they are not being equally represented and neither are their influences and contributions. "Traditionally Blacks have been shortchanged both financially and in the area of public recognition for their contributions to mainstream American culture" (Dixon, 1990, p.120). There is a continuing struggle to bring the contributions and influences as well as the legacy of African Americans into the full view of the predominately European American education system. Scholars in support of this struggle such as Dixon, "aim to promote continuous dialogue, needed definitions, and heightened awareness in this area" (p.117).

Historically Europeans deemed African dance a vulgar, impure and essentially unethical form of dancing, yet their fascination with the unfamiliar resulted in contrary views and adverse affects. Epskamp & de Geus (1993) make a similar claim, "African dance was uncivilized, and far from exercising any influence at all on North-Atlantic forms of dance. However, there are innumerable examples of the opposite phenomenon. The White man’s culture acquired itself a place in African dance” (p.59). Even Balanchine believed, "Black dancing was an important source of revitalization for ballet and routinely incorporated steps and movements that were derived from African American theatrical and vernacular dancing" (Jeffrey, 2000, p.35, 39). Then why discredit the significance, value and cultural richness of something you wish to take credit for? This phenomenon has prompted researchers to investigate the issues surrounding appropriation and ultimately discover methods for purging such exploitation.

To consider appropriation merely an accident rather than another form of racism, would be a considerably naïve concept in my opinion. My experience as an African American student renders me defensive in an education system that would rather I be present but silent. My experience as an educator tells me that years of progress have afforded me a position in life that no more than twenty years ago I couldn’t even have imagined. Still, the issues surrounding race relations are not obsolete and the time is yet to come when this topic will be null and void. Overcoming this grievance should not be met with avoidance or silence but confronted with uncomfortable discussions that become the driving force for immanent approaches to “rebalancing the equation of race relations and the universe” (Hazzard-Gordon, 1991, p.38).

As American citizens and more specifically as educators how can we overlook the racial issues that remain prevalent in our society? Perpener III (2000) writes, "in spite of the progress toward inclusiveness that dance as a performing art and as a field of intellectual pursuit has made, I believe that racially prospective thinking still exerts its presence with surprising force in different aspects of our discipline” (p.63). 

I believe racial awareness requires the realization that the human race involves more than just Blacks and Whites. In order to move beyond the surface of this issue we must acknowledge the beliefs, attitudes, and symbols legitimized by successive generations that have caused a trickle down effect. By restructuring curricula and teaching methods and addressing dialogues of racism, our education system can encourage acceptance, understanding, and celebration of racial and cultural differences. Dance educator Julie A. Kerr-Berry addresses the concept of race:

The very concept of race was invented by Whites in [sic] post-Enlightenment Europe for purposes of power and imported to the Americas so that Blacks could be identified, denigrated, and bought and sold like livestock. Intertwined with this phenomenon, Whites have envied, imitated, and [sic] exotified the Black body. Despite the inequities, Blacks and Whites kept talking through an intense bodily discourse that has been going on between them for over four hundred years. Ironically, this clash of dance cultures, which occurred when African and European peoples came to the “New World,” has produced amazing and diverse forms of dance in this country. The fusion of these culturally distinct dance/movement traditions is where the story of American dance begins. (Kerr-Berry, 2004, p.45)

I cannot say that I totally agree that appropriation, or even “clash of dance cultures” for that matter, is the sole cause for racial indifference within our education system. However, it is the lack of racial dialogue, the lack of representation of race and the lack of diversity in student and faculty populations. Fear of discussing this subject matter keeps us ignorant and full of hostility and resentment, thereby devaluing the effects of race in education. 

I believe we must refrain from the subtleties with which we use to address the topic of race in the classroom. Yes, this age old topic is difficult to discuss but that is because we fail to utilize a candid approach when confronting the ugly truths and harsh realities that are attached to it. Audrey Thompson provides an exemplary candid description of the effects of race in education:

Liberal education helps us flourish within a society committed to individual freedom. If society in question is actually organized to prevent or suppress the flourishing of some groups so that others may flourish, liberal education lacks the framework it requires to support its mission. Because race does matter in American society-although race, even more than class, is something we resist seeing as an organizing principle of social relations-the effort at colorblindness actually serves to deny the effects of racism, rather than to eradicate racism. In seeking to avoid racism by avoiding race, colorblind liberal education actually undercuts its own scholarly mission, for by refusing to address questions of race directly, it sidesteps one of the most pressing social questions confronting democracy in the United States. Such an education thereby risks promulgating either miseducation or non-education. (Thompson, 1997, pp.8, 14 & 26)

Denial is the first feat we must conquer in order to begin addressing curriculum revision needs. The common misconception is that if you are not a minority you are not affected by diversification. However, ignorance holds the same power that knowledge does and if our future means anything to us then ensuring that our children are exposed to a complete historical/cultural perspective is crucial. 

African American dance education research spanning the last two decades reveals the abhorrence towards appropriation, lack of recognition and exclusion that many scholars of Black dance have reflected in their studies (Dixon, 1990; Hubbard & Sofras, 1998; Jackson, 1996; Perpener III, 2000). This abhorrence stems from the repercussions of many years of oppression, dehumanization, and disrespect as well as the constant reminder that there is no cure for racism. My study seeks to reignite the waning murmur of this topic, which now more than ever desperately seeks attention.

[1] Dr. Halifu Osumare (in conversation).

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