Practical Questions/Suggestions for White Teachers

I am sure that many of you by now are aware that there is an ongoing crisis of racial injustice in the United States.

First: black lives matter.

Second: I am going to give some advice here that white people can implement in their classrooms. This advice will not solve racism and does not supersede the need for everyone to educate themselves on black history and racial injustice. It does not supersede the words, needs, or guidelines already put out there by people of color. This is a supplemental collection of practical suggestions that you can use in addition to those resources. As a dancer, I’ve really appreciated this list of questions by Ballet Black, and their list of questions for ballet companies inspired this post.

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Third: there is a difference between a one-off action and a systemic change. Right now we need a combination of both, but with a priority on the latter. Don’t burn out on one big thing if it’s going to stop you making long-term change. Work with the resources you have.

With those three caveats, here are some questions and suggestions to implement in your classrooms and check for in your teaching practice. Some are specifically related to blackness, and some are about inclusivity more broadly. I have tried to avoid suggestions that require extra labor from black professionals, as across industry in general folks from marginalized populations are already asked to do more work for the same recognition and reward.

  1. Require your students to watch and discuss media/performances by black artists. How often do you do this a semester? Do you have a broad range of examples and practices?
  2. Require your students to read black authors, both on blackness and on subjects other than blackness. How often do you do this a semester? Do you include black authors of multiple genders?
  3. Present black scholars/creators as experts during your teaching. Who are you citing? Do you cite black authors on subjects beyond black history/performance?
  4. Teach black perspectives on subjects. Do you offer more than one narrative? Do you show students how narratives can differ based on the power you have?
  5. Pay a black teacher to teach your class at least once a semester. Introduce them as an expert. Have a black instructor teach ballet. Have a black instructor teach your ballet class West African Dance. What is the difference and the value of each of those experiences? How would you have a conversation about that with your class?
  6. When was the last time you played music by a black musician to accompany class? Do you tell your students whose music is playing?
  7. When was the last time you watched art made by someone black for your own pleasure?
  8. If you could choose to own one piece of art by a black artist, what would it be?
  9. Who is your favorite black author?
  10. What was the last movie you saw with a black director? A black protagonist?
  11. When was the last time you took a class from a black instructor? What black instructors have inspired you?
  12. What creators are your students most excited about? Who do they follow on social media? How have you brought those influences into your classroom?
  13. If a student asked you to explain Jim Crow laws, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movement, or the contemporary protests, how would you reply? Would your answer change if a black person could hear you?
  14. You have a pre-professional opportunity for five students in your class. Who does your mind immediately go to?
  15. Look at your grades for the last semester or the last five semesters. Who got the lowest grades? Is there a group of students you consistently give lower grades to? Why? Are there certain assignments where there’s a racial imbalance in the grading?
  16. Do you grade written assignments based on “standardized” English? What systems of support do you have in place for students who speak an English dialect or English as a second language? Do you teach standards for format and citation? How do you penalize people if they get those standards wrong? Do you explain why you’ve chosen a writing format e.g. Chicago or MLA?
  17. What financial burden do you put on students in your classes? What clothes and books and tickets do you require? Does your syllabus have a clear procedure for what students can do if they can’t afford these things?
  18. Do you have a “student in distress” and a “disruptive student” policy in your classroom? Do either of these involve the police? What resources will you draw on instead of the police?
  19. Think of the last five audition notices or job opportunities you’ve seen. Did they include a diversity statement? Did the notice specifically invite people of color?
  20. Establish an independent board to review the grant and tenure process in your department. Are marginalized professors expected to do more work than their peers?
  21. Describe the last three interactions you had with a black colleague. Were you asking them for help or labor? Did you talk about their life outside of work? Did you make a positive or negative judgement about them? Did you express it?
  22. How many black colleagues do you have? How do they feel about racism in your shared workplace? In the wider world? What micro-aggressions do they face? What support does your workplace offer them right now? What do they need?
  23. If you don’t have black colleagues, why not? When was the last time you hung out with a black person, either virtually or in person?
  24. How fluent do students need to be in black history and culture and dance to pass your class/program? What about white history, culture and dance?
  25. When was the last time you publicly said something was racist? Have you ever told your students that something was racist?

These 25 suggestions, which you will almost certainly have to adapt for your teaching, boil down into three main ideas:

  • You must be fluent in the past and present of blackness. Without a working knowledge of black history you cannot understand the impact of racism in the lives of black people today. However, black people are more than their shared past, and you should be familiar with contemporary black artists, creators, and people. If you do not find genuine pleasure in your black friends, in black artists or writers… you need to expand the content you’re consuming.
  • You must make blackness visible in your classroom. Cite the experts, play the music, speak about the issues. Silence makes it harder for everyone and conveys the message that you do not have the strength to be an ally.
  • Racism acts at a person level, a community level, and at a systemic level. We must address all three of these levels in order to be effective. You have to recognize racism in yourself and in the world that surrounds you and use that recognition as a force for change.

I can tell you that this process is uncomfortable. It is hard. You will get push back and you will feel like you can’t get it right. You will get tired. You will mess things up, and that doesn’t mean you should stop. Please go first to resources that aren’t your black friends if you want to know more or do more. If you use resources by black people, find where they want you to donate and give some money.

It begins with the knowledge that black lives matter.

We won’t know where it ends unless we keep going.

Notes on Assessing a Source Part Two – Research Red Flags

Thank you to all of you who read and – apparently really enjoyed – “Notes on Assessing a Source.” Given the response I decided to make a part two, this time talking about five “Research Red Flags.” Research Red Flags are key words, sentences, or argument types that I see over and over again in amateur/student research writing and, frankly, facebook comments, that tell me right away that I cannot trust what this person has to say.

Not every Red Flag is intentional, and a lot of people use them to make their writing sound more punchy or persuasive. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you recognize a lot of these in how you write or talk. What it does mean is that you’re sharing your opinion in a way that sounds less-than plausible. It might mean that your opinion is not as well-supported as you think it is.

I hope that by offering up this handy guide you’ll be able to weed out at least the most obviously egregious misinformation and maybe…. Oh please oh please oh please…. Get rid of these red flags from your own writing.

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Notes on Assessing a Source – Part One

Confession: I have too many quarantine projects.
I put up a new art video on the blog just yesterday, I’m organizing a conversation series, and today I started yet another project.

Confession: One of the reasons I start too many projects is because I’m angry about the world, and I want to do what I can to make it better.

Right now I’m angry at how freely folks spread misinformation and bad data. At how easy it is for people to grab mis-representative screenshots and incomplete quotes from shoddy studies and use them to support biased and frankly inaccurate conclusions.

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Contemporary vs Contemporary Dance (with videos)

I’ve been a contemporary dancer for almost 15 years now, and I still don’t know what that means.

In fact, since my first year as an undergrad at a contemporary dance conservatoire, I’ve heard my professors discussing what contemporary dance “is” and how we should be doing it, without ever really coming to a consensus.

In the UK at least there seems to be a common notion that contemporary dance is experimental, involves a process of curiosity about the body and its potential, and an investment in “what’s going on?” more than “what does this look like?” It gets complicated when you start to talk about things like “contemporary ballet,” which is often more aesthetically oriented, but people generally have some idea of what they’re about.

In the US….

In the US that definition of contemporary dance exists, but people might also call that kind of dancing downtown dance, or modern. “Contemporary” dance is, among other things, a competition genre of highly virtuosic, balletically-rooted, acrobatic spectacle.

Just to recap then, contemporary dance is pedestrian or balletic or something in the middle, aesthetic or anti-aesthetic, competitive or communal, and it might be for an outside audience or totally internally driven. You can see, then, why its something of a problem for people to have a conversation about.

So why write this article?

A LOT of students come into university dance training with experience in contemporary dance, often competition contemporary dance. So they go into a “contemporary” dance class or a “contemporary” choreography class in their university and suddenly they get told that not only do they no know what they’re doing, but they’re going to have to un-learn everything they thought they knew in the first place if they want to succeed or be thought of as artists. Because one thing you need to know about contemporary dance is this: there is a LOT of stigma in university settings towards competition contemporary dance.

I’ve never done competitive contemporary dance, but I did have a similar kind of experience of stigma when I went to a contemporary dance school, because I was, until that point, mostly a ballet dancer. Suddenly all my glorious, rigorous ballet training meant that I was shallow, rigid, out of touch, and ignorant. I wasn’t just a bad dancer, there was a feeling in the air that I was a bad person too, for absolutely no fault of my own. No-one took the time to sit down and explain that there was a historical conflict of values going on, and that my body was somehow caught up in the middle. The impression I got was that once I saw the beautiful, natural, thoughtful thing that was contemporary dance I should just be swept up in a rush of emotions and my body and mind would come together in a beautiful outpouring of genuine, holistic expression and I’d want to leave all that bad, nasty, artificial ballet training behind…

Let me tell you right now, it didn’t happen.

Instead I stepped back and realized that there were rules to contemporary dance, just like there were rules to ballet, or tap, or Graham, or Cunningham etc. My body wasn’t failing to do something that should have been natural, it just hadn’t learned the right techniques and rules yet. So when I think about contemporary dance, and especially students who come in from competition dance, I think we give them a better shot at learning if we sit down and talk through some of the differences in rules and values; NOT because one is better than the other, but because ideally a great dancer can switch between systems and do both.

So. Potted history time.

During the 50s and 60s in the US, dance started shifting away from “this is the person who invented a technique, and these are its steps” and towards “lets get together and find ways to improvise and see what comes out.” Dancers became less interested in “what does this look like?” and more interested in “what happens if I do this?” or “how does this social condition inspire me to move?” and one of the results of this was that the audience became not so much recipients of a visual treat as much as they were witnesses to a communal experiment. Another shift that happened was that dancers began to increase their play with the weight, mass, and anatomical realities of the body as sources for inspiration – one fairly extreme example of this is Elizabeth Streb, who uses extreme physical situations to explore the body’s relationship to things like gravity:

Competition and – for want of a better word – avant garde contemporary dance actually share a lot of the same values: they both want to explore the human condition, they both believe that dance can speak to social and political concerns, and they both value individuality in expression. The difference is that in competition dance technical difficulty is read as commitment to your message, the performance of emotion is read as power and passion, and the more people in the audience you can share those things with the better. So on one hand you have a contemporary dance where steps are unimportant, and “authenticity” of connection with yourself (seen as an affect-less performance) are the best indicators of artistry and a different kind of contemporary dance where steps and emotive performance are absolutely vital.

That’s the dilemma students face when they come into a “contemporary” dance class – which one of these systems is going to be more important? Because a lot of choreographers now will even split the difference between these two systems – asking dancers to improvise with high emotional affect, for example, without clearly communicating what their values are.

What’s going on, in a word, is dogma.

Contemporary dance is all wrapped up in the idea that it will make you a better person, and that’s great. Theoretically. But how that can manifest is a refusal to explain your choices, scorn for other ways of working, people tackling issues they have no claim to and thinking that their movement will lead them to the truth, judging people whose bodies and movement don’t fit within the system etc. etc. ALL these problems are equally rampant in both kinds of contemporary dance, which means – as far as I’m concerned – that we need to be more pragmatic, and a lot more up front about what we’re doing and why we’re asking people to share it with us.

Time to put my money where my mouth is.

I’d love you to watch two video clips where I attempt to show some of the differences in how different types of contemporary dance might handle the same choreographic structure.

First we have Mia Michaels’ Gravity – a contemporary piece from So You Think You Can Dance exploring addiction. She does so in accordance with the rules of competition contemporary dance – virtuosity, and high emotional affect. You’ll see Kūpono Aweau grabs, Kayla Radomski a lot, forcing her into shapes and throwing her around, but for the most part she uses her strength to control the movement and remain in charge of what her body is doing, giving the impression of lightness. The dancers throw out step after step in quick succession, with high emotional affect and exaggerated expression. The choreography has a high degree of synchrony with the music.

Next you have my own attempt to recreate the first 30 seconds of the choreography according the rules of academic contemporary dance (I’ve added an in-screen shot of Gravity to make comparison easier). Note that I’m not exploring addiction because I’m not qualified to do so. Instead I had two fantastic dancers – Emilia Stuart and Chad Finch – explore the weight, dependence and control going on in Michaels’ choreography. In this work the choreography is much more loosely tied to the music –  the timing comes instead from how long it takes for Chad to shift, push, support and drop Emilia’s weight. In many places she is deliberately not in control, and when he drops her she really does fall to the ground, for example. I gave them no instructions for performing other than to feel what doing the movement caused them to feel. While you can see a lot of similarities in the shapes and structures, these are two very different pieces of choreography because of the rules that have been applied to that structure. While you are welcome to prefer one or the other, try not to think that one of them is better, try instead to see why each one is the way it is, and how you can get more of what you want.

I hope that this kind of an experiment can show more people who are confused about contemporary dance some of the difference that go on underneath that umbrella. I hope that it encourages more productive conversations about our techniques, values, and the benefits of both kinds of training.

Notes from the Front Lines

To all my readers, thank you for sticking with me during these tough times. I don’t often guest post on this blog – in fact I don’t think I’ve done it ever – but right now I want to share with you words that I have found truly inspirational, and helpful, when trying to put my relatively safe experience together with the awful and overwhelming globalized impact of COVID-19.

These words come from an ER doctor on the front lines of New York’s fight against the coronavirus. They come from someone who is my friend, who I trust, and whose judgement I value without question. His words are realistic, and his stories are sad but they have also given me great hope. I believe they will do the same for you.

Please welcome Dana Levin – Doctor, NASA Scientist, Wilderness Explorer, Pilot, Diver, and amazing friend.

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Dana… Halfway up Everest I believe? He’s climbed it for medical research, and to help a women’s professional equity organization play the highest game of football on record.
EDIT: He tells me that this is actually Kilimanjaro

April 4th:

TL:DR I am an Emergency Medicine doctor in NYC. There’s a lot of fear and stress in the world right now and I want to give people access to the same sources of hope and fulfillment I have found. I’ll try to make this a regular post.

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Dance in the Time of COVID

Well hello there, social isolators!

Whether you were already an introvert by choice or whether you’ve been forced to become one by government mandate, we’ve all been through some radical transitions to our life and livelihood over the last few weeks. I really hope that wherever you are you are safe, that you have some form of income, that you are able to quarantine, and that you are able to remain in contact with your friends and loved ones.

A few notes for the duration of isolation:

  • I am very lucky in that I am part of a two-income household. We are both working from home, we are both being paid, we are fine.
  • Because of this I am really going to restrict the kinds of content I produce, and I am not going to monetize this blog. If I produce free content, people will use it instead of paying the people who really do need the money.
  • That said, if you ARE enjoying the blog, or if you have ever used any of my resources for teaching etc. and you are financially secure then PLEASE consider giving money to a local food bank, mutual aid fund, or unemployed freelancer. Pay for a remote dance class. Do something to support those around you whose lives are precarious as a result of this crisis.
  • If you are a freelance dance artist and you would like me to feature you and share what you’re doing with my readers, fill out the contact form and send it my way.

And now, the post:

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A, E, I, Ow! You… The Vowels of Disagreement

It’s February, the weather is lousy, and we’re in the democratic primary season. It’s the season to be grouchy, exhausted, and frustrated with everyone around you. It’s the season to have fights, or, if you are English… disagreements.

Whether it’s that one student in classes, or your colleague, or your cousin’s republican friend on the social medias, it’s very easy right now to get ticked off and discombobulated with other people’s thoughts, actions, and attitudes.

In previous posts I’ve talked about having conversations across disagreement, and about building empathy with others. But before you can get to a place of even having the conversation, you need to be able to bring up problems in a professional manner, in a way that won’t shut down or unduly hurt the person you’re talking to. Yes, sometimes you’ll be in a situation where you want to shut someone down, but the advice in this blog post is geared towards professional settings and people you want to continue interacting with.

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Professional Kindness

Oh the beginning of the semester. New students, new classes, new responsibilities. A million projects with conflicting due dates, no time to get any of them done, and it’s only Tuesday.

Academia. I love it.

Except, really, I actually love it.

…Sorry…

But.

One of the reasons I do, in fact, enjoy the beginning of the semester is because it’s an opportunity to reaffirm your ethics as an instructor, and your relationship with your students. How are you thinking of them? How do you want them to think of you? What rights and responsibilities should they have within your classroom and how does your classroom policy support that? How does your behavior?

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From the Outside In: Dance and Aphantasia

Imagine you’re lying on a beach on a sunny day. Do you see palm trees? Water? The sun set?

Picture the house you grew up in. How many windows does it have?

Do you remember what your best friend looked like when you were small?

If you can answer all these questions, congratulations! You probably don’t have aphantasia. I do. Today I’m going to talk about how it relates to dancing. Continue reading →