On Monday, September 28, the Arcus Center for Social Justice and Leadership hosted a forum on Cultural Appropriation in Dance. The presentation and discussion were facilitated by this year’s Frelon senior directors, Kelly Treharne, Andriana Evangelista, Shadi Larson, and Billie Heard, in collaboration with Academic Director of the ACSJL & Associate Professor of History, Dr. Lisa Brock.
The forum began with a presentation highlighting the white supremacist roots of cultural appropriation and the distinction between what it is and what it is not. One slide defined cultural appropriation as the “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group.” It explained that cultural exchange and cultural assimilation are two phenomena that are different from cultural appropriation. The former occurs when people share mutually without a systemic power dynamic, and the latter occurs when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive.
The presentation also featured Amandla Stenberg’s viral youtube video called, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.” The central purpose of the video was to provide the audience with a crash-course on the cultural significance of black hairstyles and to expose cultural appropriation in the media. Stenberg explained that while white rappers, namely Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, gained success in the hip-hop world by appropriating black culture, they were disappointingly and disproportionately silent when it came to supporting the growing number of protests ignited by institutionalized racism and police brutality against black bodies in America since the start of 2013. Stenberg closed by asking, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”
Although there were only a handful of students gathered for the forum, the presentation sent a powerful message to Frelon choreographers, dancers, and fans alike. Indeed, the discussion that took place afterward was very productive. Some students asked how far cultural appropriation stretched, in terms of naming what is off limits, when we belong to such a diverse nation.
Dr. Lisa Brock answered, “Even though we commonly view America as a melting pot, this country has a history of violently exploiting non-white people and their cultures, and that is a reality that we cannot ignore. Certain things, like sports, don’t carry the same culturally-distinct relevance anymore, since they’ve been popularized in America for so long, but it is important that we hold people accountable when they are currently engaging in cultural appropriation.”
This forum was a response to the demonstration, organized by members of the Black Student Organization, that took place two years ago, immediately after the Spring 2014 Frelon show. The original name of the spring show, which used Mr. Miyagi as a caricature for “Frelon-Freloff,” quickly received enough criticism to be replaced with a more appropriate name. The main upset was over the senior dance, a section of which involved twerking, which included no students of color on stage. When the directors were confronted about the offensiveness of the dance, during tech-week, they agreed to cut it from the performance, and they also submitted a written apology. However, Frelon is still working toward becoming a more proactive, conscientious student organization.
When asked about how they remembered the protest, the current Frelon directors couldn’t even agree on what the details were, but they were sure that the directors from two years ago could have handled the conflict better.
“There was no communication to the dancers as to what had happened. All we got from the directors was their emotional response without any contextual information,” said Billie Heard ’16.
When they did inform the company that there was going to be an action in the theatre, after the last performance, very few people knew what to expect, and it was made clear that the directors did not want dancers getting involved in support of the action. Kelly Treharne ’16 added, “[The directors] felt very emotionally invested and possessive over their choreography because it was their final Frelon show and it was the senior dance. It made it more difficult for them to understand that they couldn’t do it. Their immediate reaction was very defensive…they had never been exposed to the idea [of cultural appropriation] before, and they just weren’t knowledgeable. I think that’s our responsibility as leaders and directors, to be knowledgeable and to understand the consequences of our actions, especially when Frelon is one of the biggest student organizations on campus.”
Last year’s directors had a hard time getting the ball rolling, but they did improve the show’s standards by adding “dance biographies” to the programs, where choreographers could give recognition to the historical and cultural significance of their dances. However, they struggled to gain awareness and hold accountability within the company. Andriana Evangelista ’16, who was studying abroad in Madrid during that spring quarter, remarked, “If someone didn’t tell me about it, I would have had no idea that it happened. I don’t really think last year’s Frelon directors did enough to fix what had happened or to make more people aware of it.” However, they were mindful enough to leave this year’s directors with a binder to prepare them and the advice to meet with Dr. Brock about the impact of cultural appropriation in dance.
With a strong start and an opportunity to do things differently this year, the directors plan on spreading awareness beyond their forum. Treharne, who is teaching a Tango for the upcoming Fall show, stressed the importance of doing her research, since the dance’s cultural origin is not her own.
“I want to make sure that my dancers and I are aware of the historical context of the Tango, because it is a dance that stemmed from oppression. It’s a beautiful old dance, and I think we should be able to share in it, but I need to make sure that my dancers show it the respect that it deserves. I’ve already shared some great articles with them, and I plan on having discussions before rehearsals.”
Assistant Director, Oluchi Ebere K’18, choreographed a traditional Nigerian dance that is personal to her.
“I was born in Nigeria, and I was raised there. The style of dance [that I am teaching] is very special to me. Sometimes, people assume that certain dance moves are provocative or slutty, but that is not how it is portrayed in my culture at all,” she said. “During rehearsal, I like to play music before we start so the dancers can get in the same headspace as me and just have a good time when we’re going over the steps.”
Treharne voiced her concern that, due to the large size of Frelon, there is a greater capacity to inflict unintentional harm on campus than good. However, the influence goes both ways. The directors this year are doing their best to change the dynamic within the company, but they remark on the audience’s impact on the shows.
“We tend to forget that dance is a forbidden art form in many countries. I’m teaching a Persian belly dance, and I think it should be honored and [celebrated] because we get the privilege to perform it in front of so many people,” said Shadi Larson ’16 says. There is an invitation to everyone else on campus to leave expectations and assumptions at the door, and to regard the showcase as an art collection.