Is Free Speech Created Equal?

Today was the third time this year that anti-abortion protesters have been invited to host demonstrations in my university. This may seem an unlikely subject for a dance blog, and for those of you who want to skip this post we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon, I promise. But this blog is my professional platform, and the university is my professional home; my colleagues, and my students are being affected. As a dancer I deal with bodies, and there are (as one of my professors would put it) “bodies on the line.”

The group in question is Created Equal, an organisation that sends protestors, literature, graphic displays and giant TV screens to universities and towns across the United States. They are not a university group; they are a collection of people dedicated to using shock tactics to spread a nationwide political agenda. The first time I saw them on campus I tried to get them removed by security, only to find that they had full permission to be present, rationalised as “free speech.”

Unfortunately, the terms of free speech do not quite apply here: the university requires external organisations to get permission to use the grounds, which means that somewhere in the administrative chain someone has looked at what this group stands for, decided it seems like a good idea, and offered them university space to continue their work. I believe this also makes the university complicit (at least tacitly) in the tactics used by Created Equal to do that work, which include harassment, invasion of privacy, and causing deep fear and anguish among the student and faculty populations.

I will clarify now: this post is not for me to argue my position on abortion. Instead I want to state my heartfelt objection to the way one particular stance has been promoted in university space, and with university backing.

To begin with, Created Equal’s protests are in the centre of campus grounds, and obstruct the majority of students on their way to and from class, home, and other resources. This means that when walking across campus you have no choice but to see the violent, bloody images on signs and screens, which are a regular feature of these demonstrations. You must pass through a scowling army of volunteers who try and interview you – some of the volunteers are women, some men, and some just teenage boys.

I won’t belabour the nauseous horror induced by that particular gauntlet, but suffice to say that it’s not something anyone should have walk through just to get to class.

Secondly, Created Equal volunteers are all equipped with cameras on body harnesses. I don’t know if these are video or still, but I do know that they record images of students without their consent, and threaten anyone who objects to their presence with a warning that those images will be spread around. A superbly brave collection of students who staged a counter-protest during the first visit, found that exercising their – actual – right to free speech (students may use campus grounds without applying for permission) resulted in harassment from which they were not protected. One student was asked if she would “drown a two year-old,” and said that Created Equal seemed determined to provoke them into an emotional reaction.

It’s also worth noting that Created Equal did not target the university’s own counselling staff, who came down in their own free time when notified of what was going on. Created Equal does not want to engage in debate, or convince others of their position with logic – their primary methods are bullying and intimidation, backed up by a known history of violence towards those who disagree with their stance.

When students first protested the presence of Created Equal on campus, they were promised a number of protections: a warning that Created Equal would be on campus, and privacy corridors for getting to class. Neither of those measures were in place at any of this year’s protests. If the university will not stop this group from coming it should, at the very least, allow students to avoid them.

But why does the university continue to allow them to come? This group deliberately sets out to horrify/intimidate/traumatise students, photographs or films them without permission, and threatens those who try to stand up to them. They spread information that is demonstrably untrue, and have no official representation inside the student body.

My final consideration is that this university has a young population, but nevertheless it is a population who may already have had to make difficult choices about their lives and bodies, or may have to make those choices in future. The goal of an educational establishment should be to serve that population with the best information available for its wellbeing, and the university should therefore be making sure that it promotes the best knowledge available, in an atmosphere where students can think, discuss, and use that knowledge without fear.

I have prioritised logic over feeling in writing this post, because I hope that will help those who do not empathise with my feelings at least understand my argument. Nevertheless I am shocked and appalled at what I had to walk through today. I have deep gratitude for those who have attempted to mitigate the impact of this unwanted incursion into our space. I feel betrayal at how the university is shielding Created Equal behind a tenuous justification of free speech, but turning its back on the students it should be educating and keeping safe.

Misty Copeland and the Men in Tights

I just watched Misty Copeland give Jimmy Kimmel a ballet class, and this is what I learned: Misty Copeland is a nicer, more graceful and open hearted person than I will ever be.

I’m not sure quite what it was about the segment that particularly got my goat, which you can watch here, but for me it hopped straight over spoof and right into disrespect in a way that, say, French and Saunders never did. But me not knowing doesn’t make for a very good post, so let’s work our way through some of the issues going on here.

Disclaimer: I’ve never watched a full Jimmy Kimmel. I’ve seen other clips on YouTube that other people have highlighted as particularly good. Perhaps it works better in context? For that reason I’m leaving aside discussion of Guillermo as a character, and I’m not going to comment on the wider aims and scope of the program. Just the clip.

Perhaps it’s the men in tutus getting out of the taxi? Dear Jimmy, NO-ONE wears those any more. The one-piece pink tutu combo might be a nice dress-up outfit for a 5 year-old, but you were wearing a practice skirt. A practice skirt that, I note, had been spritzed and sprayed to stick up the wrong way – you put effort into making that skirt look bad Jimmy Kimmel. Also, why do we still have this idea that men in tutus are intrinsically hilarious? Or that men even wear tutus to go take class… that ANYONE wears a tutu to go take class in? Did you think you needed to look any more silly than you were already going to?

Before anyone starts, yes I know this is supposed to be a spoof piece. We’re all supposed to laugh at the famous guy who fails completely at doing ballet, and fails so completely that he doesn’t even know what clothes to wear. So ok, I’ll let the skirt drop and lets go on with the class.

The steps you were doing. Good lord. Again, were you so convinced you’d look too good doing plies and tendus you had to go straight for the leg whacking? I mean, I can kind of forgive you if this was an excuse to let Misty show off her moves, but there’s an arrogance to it, and to my mind you’d actually have looked sillier trying to hold an extension – which you might have tried – than striving and failing for something utterly and completely beyond your competence.

But no, then you had to go and put on the pointe shoes. There’s an odd messing with gender thing you’re doing here Jimmy Kimmel, and I’m not really sure what you’re hoping to achieve. Do you think it’s just so hilariously unthinkable that men would do pointe? They’ve been doing it in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire since the 70s. Also, the Trocs would like to have a word with you. Are you trying to show that what Misty Copeland does is super hard? So why are you working so hard to be ill at ease? Guillermo isn’t comfortable – he’s in pain and he says so – so what’s with you?

Your side speech, Jimmy Kimmel, says that you’re a master of ballet. But Misty’s speech is just the opposite: today, ballet died. There’s too much conflict in how you’re acting towards the ballet, towards Misty Copeland, and what you’re saying about what you’re doing.

I feel like you went for the stupidly unobtainable because you didn’t want to be funny failing at something more basic – and perhaps this gets at why I take issue with this little segment of yours. When you turn up in the tights, and you put on the pointe shoes, you set the bar so high that excuse yourself from attention, effort or generosity towards ballet in general and Misty Copeland in particular. French and Saunders, in the name of humour, worked really hard to understand the traditions and conventions of the world they were stepping into, which is why it’s screamingly funny for dancers and non-dancers alike. You used Misty Copeland to get a cheap laugh out of cross-dressing.

There is no kind of dance that you can master on the first try, but I feel like only ballet smiles and nods and allows celebrities to pretend that they can be excused the effort. Ballet smiles, opens its doors, and puts a company on stage in a routine choreographed so that you can look terrible at doing ballet. In the same costume you went to class in – hell, you even did exactly the same steps. When you use ballet like that you cement it as this rarefied, elitist thing that no-one but the experts can possibly attempt, and you do a disservice to other dance forms, and to every amateur out there who does ballet for the sweaty, riotous joy of it.

Misty Copeland. Gloriously beautiful Misty Copeland, role model for so many young people out there in ballet and outside… your message all along has been that you should grit your teeth and work for the thing you want to do, even when everyone tells you its unobtainable. I realise you probably didn’t have much choice when some rich tv guy comes along and hands you a script where he has do precisely no work whatsoever, so I’m not blaming you. In fact, I’m sorry you had to put up with such a shallow use of your many talents. I don’t blame the dancer in the Free People ad. either, who was probably just trying to earn a salary, although I do have plenty to say to the people who wrote the storyboard pitching her as a professional, rather than an enthusiastic hobbyist.

But dear TV, and dear Jimmy Kimmel. Do better. Don’t treat any kind of dance as something you can use for a cheap gag, or a poetic moment, or a background shot without being prepared to actually respect what it is we do. Respect that people might want to get something from the dance as well as watching you laze around failing at it. Work a bit harder, and if you don’t know how to do that? Ask a dancer.

A Birthday Lookback

A few weeks ago wordpress invited me to celebrate the Headtail Connection’s birthday! I knew when I sat down and started blogging that this was something I really had a lot of time and love for, but I never thought that I’d end up known in my department as “the blogger,” I never thought I’d wind up going toe to toe with Hofesh and co. or shared by Neil Gaiman… I never thought I’d have such an awesome bunch of readers interested in what I have to say. I hope you’ll stick around for the next birthday, and as long as I can keep this blog going.

Since blogs are THE medium of the 21st century for getting your opinion out there, and since they’re so, well, free to start, here are some of the things that I’ve learned in a year of blogging for all of you who might want to give this a go.

Things I’ve learned in a year of blogs:

  • Keep to a schedule. It seems trite, but your audience will only be as consistent as you are. I (as I’m sure you’ll all have noticed) have a couple of shorter formats that help me keep putting posts out (just about) once a week. I’ve started to keep a list of topics in a scrap book as well for when I really run dry. Is writing a blog post sometimes the last thing I want to do? Yes. Is it worth it to see people reading and responding? Has it got much harder since I’ve been asked to maintain organizational blogs as well as my own? Hell. Yes.
  • Know your own conscience. This blog is my official professional platform, and sometimes that means not writing about topics that I can’t maintain a professional demeanour about. On the other hand, some of my favourite posts have been the ones where I’ve pushed that boundary. Little old me a year ago wouldn’t have said a word publically against three giants of the choreographic world, but then they messed with my students, and I couldn’t NOT say anything. Keeping a blogs helps you know what you want to say and how you want to say it, and I’ve also pulled a guest post on another, larger blog this year because they edited my viewpoint to the point where my conscience was distorted.
  • Which leads me nicely on to… you cannot be anonymous on the Internet, and you cannot restrict how you get used. When I wrote “A Rebuttal,” I wrote it mainly for my students’ eyes… and then someone tweeted it directly at the big three. I got a lot of lovely responses from all over the dance world, and I got some horrible ones too. One chap thought he could say appalling things and disguise his identity behind a false name. Unfortunately he forgot that the dance world is too small for that… Five minutes later I knew his full name, age, email address, career history, and where he’s hiding. I’m not going to tell all of you that because I’m But be warned.
  • Twitter is your friend – if you use it wisely. Do not spam.

Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam. Do not spam.

But do send posts to people you think will like them. At the very least they will share them on and you’ll get more people looking at what you do. At best, Neil Gaiman reads your blog and you twitter like a ditzy fangirl for the rest of the day.

  • You don’t have to attack someone when you state an opinion. I’ve covered some emotionally laden subjects this year, and I intend to keep doing so. In part because more of you seem to care about LGBTQ visibility and educational ethics than you do about comic book characters reviewing critical theory. (I’m still going to do the comics too though, if only for my pleasure). My aim has always been to state my point in such as way that someone who disagreed with me could hear what I had to say without feeling insulted or alienated. Sometimes that means walking more of a middle line than you’d find me holding down in conversation with my friends, but this is a public forum, and I want it to stay that way.
  • You can speak about difficult topics in simple words. I’m always surprised how much people LOVE the In Three Sentences posts. Among by dance academia buddies they are an absolute hit, and I know that students have made use of more than one. I always knew I wanted an academic dance blog that could be read by people from outside dance academia, which has meant cracking down on the Derrida, the intertextual-hyphenating, r(and)om brackets that PhDs love to play with. Is that the route for everyone? No. Do I think there’s a valid place for non-specialist writing? I think it’s essential.
  • Practice what you preach. Your students have read your blog. Your friends have read your blog. People who hire you, your relatives, and people in China who you’ve never met but who happen to be involved in dance will tell your brother in China that they’ve read your blog. So if you start telling people what you believe the ethics of a particular situation are? You’d better be prepared to stick to them. I’ve started to really hold myself accountable for which photos I use since I wrote my piece about pay – I Google search through creative commons and I only use what comes up. I recommend it for everyone, even though it makes it much harder to find the pretty.

Last but not least? I’ve learned that I love blogging. I love having people talk to me about posts, and I love seeing in my statistics that I’ve got readers in a new country. Thanks to all of you for sticking around and making this such a happy birthday. See you next week!