three veiled women with the words 5 ways that dance can be more inclusive

5 Ways that Dance Can Be More Inclusive

In a few past blogs I’ve pointed fingers at the more disappointing areas of the dance industry. It’s a bit strange that dance, unlike other art industries, has sort of avoided deeper scrutiny into its more unjust and discriminatory practices. Of course criticism does exist, and the academic field of dance studies has turned its attention to this since the turn of the century. Still, I find that questions of inclusivity and diversity (and particularly accessibility) remain scarce.

I could spend a whole blog speculating on why that is. Is it because dance is so ingrained in our practice of being human and being human is synonymous with unjust power hierarchies? Or because we are just so stuck on a certain understanding of what a dancer should look like that we haven’t even considered the implicit bias?

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Today I’m looking at five ways that dance can be more inclusive. Remember, inclusion is an action, not a state: in order to make an industry inclusive, it means that its members need to step up and make it happen. That’s why the points in this blog are aimed primarily towards individuals, also because I assume that’s the audience. I’m doing my best to keep evolving in my journey as an ally, and hopefully wherever you are in the process, this blog can help you do the same.

Step 1: Don’t assume or restrict styles to certain people

All kinds of people can do all kinds of styles at all kinds of levels. And yet, if you meet someone and they tell you they’re a dancer, you probably will have some kind of assumption about what style they do and at what level, aligning with some stereotype. Do you get surprised if you see someone dancing a style that doesn’t “match” with what you assume about their background? These are all signs of those pesky implicit biases that we all have.

Try to keep track of these little mental moments of surprise. Definitely try not to comment on it. Probably, that person has heard it a thousand times before and it could come across as a microaggression. When you do speak to them, engage them as you would a peer or colleague without judgment or commentary on their choice of style.

If you’re a choreographer or working with dancers, take a look at your habits in finding or casting dancers.

If you aren’t working with diverse dancers, why not? Is it really that you can’t find them, or you’re not open to it? Oftentimes choreographers or companies will hide behind audience response or expectations as a reason for not casting diverse dancers. While it can be understandable considering how difficult it is for dance companies to survive and many do rely on private donors, I don’t think it’s a good excuse to not be inclusive. You can change bit by bit, or market to new audiences that do appreciate what you’re doing. If you find yourself making excuses, it’s probably time to have a deep conversation with yourself and find out why you feel so resistant to the idea.

Remember: It’s not about judgment or guilt, especially if you’re white. You aren’t a terrible person if you have implicit bias, because everyone does. That’s why we talk about systemic racism as a separate thing from individual racism, though I’m talking about more than just racism here. Ableism and homophobia are two that also come into play with dance’s particular inequalities. The point is not to wallow or try to ‘make up’ for what you’ve done, it’s just about being better going forward. That’s it.

Step 2: Give equal weight to all styles

Certain styles are for theaters, while others are for street. Likewise, certain styles are ‘real’ or ‘legitimate,’ others are less worthy of research, study, or support. Sound familiar? That’s the unjust system talking. Why do some styles get more weight than others, besides the fact they are practiced by dominant or minority groups? There’s no reason, really, and if you think about it. It doesn’t make any sense.

Just because it is not necessarily practiced in an expensive and specially designed studio, or performed in theatres that charge excessively for tickets, does not mean a style is less technical, less good, or less worthy. If you find yourself poo-pooing styles for their popularity, the fact they are performed in clubs or streets, think again. Why do you think that? What makes them lesser, and are those reasons connected to the people or the culture it originated from?

Take the time to think through your associations with various dance styles and where you think or assume they should be performed. Be honest. Self-awareness and growth only works if you’re willing to look at yourself without the social media filters, so to speak.

Step 3: Check your language

Once you start to become aware of your biases, you’ll need to start working on the way you talk about dance, dancers, and different styles.

How do you talk with peers about different dance videos, performances, events? What do you say to dancers when you meet them? What advice do you give for people entering the field? Are there offhand assumptions or judgments do you make about dancers?

This step also includes gently correcting or speaking up when others make these kind of stereotyped statements. Again, if you feel resistance, take the time to notice that and try to pinpoint the cause.

Implicit bias is not something you get over. In a society where we are pelted with colonial imagery and narratives 24/7, it’s hard to step away from it. You just keep checking yourself, taking notes, and ensuring that your words and actions aren’t contributing to furthering or adding to the situation.

Step 4: Do better with regional and folk dances

For god’s sake: There is no such thing as African dance. There is no such thing as European dance, is there? Nor is there Latin American dance, or Asian dance. There are dances which originate from Africa, and they are as varied and diverse as any folk dances anywhere.

Earlier I talked about dismissing styles based on where they come from and who practices them. Isn’t it strange how regional and folk dances are usually described as being just for rituals, or communities, or other non-serious events? How they rarely, if ever, factor into dance histories and dance studies? How they are often viewed as primitive, less advanced, less evolved?

When you start looking at it like that, it gets very slimy very fast. Regional and folk dances have their own place and deserve to be treated equally and with respect and understanding. That also means that if you live or work in a place with regional styles and you aren’t trained or part of that culture, you should think twice about using that style in your choreography – it gets tokenistic really fast. (International choreographers in Cambodia throwing in token Apsara moves to make things ‘exotic,’ I’m looking at you.)

In short: do better with regional dances. Check your thoughts, check your language, and once again, for god’s sake, there is no such thing as African dance. All you western universities, including my own alma mater, I’d like to see the person who’s naming courses.

Step 5: Deal with history better

Have you taken a dance history class? What did they focus on? What did they call the different ages or periods, and what was the standard against which the styles were compared?

I bet you anything it started with ‘ancient’ or ‘primitive.’ It might have then touched on folk, and then jumped to the origin of ballet and stayed in the west through a deep, intricate look at how ballet evolved. From there it followed the evolution of contemporary, and all the stages of western contemporary in the 20th century. If you’re lucky it’ll mention Bhutto in the mid 20th century.

Dance seriously needs to update its teaching and narrative around its history, because it’s all eurocentrism all over the place.

As you can see, dance has a long way to go. But it’ll only get there if its members, those crafting, teaching, and perpetuating its narratives, start to behave in inclusive ways. I started in a very standard, very western model, and it’s taken me a very long time to understand and see these things, and even longer to figure out how to articulate them. My journey proves that it’s possible, and therefore, whoever you are, however you come to this field, you can contribute.

See you in the inclusive future.