"I Don't Want to Do African . . . What about My Technique?:" Transforming Dancing Places into Spaces in the Academy

Article excerpt

Abstract: Building off of the work of dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild, the author argues that the American dancing body is a fusion of West African, ballet, and modern dance techniques. Yet, curricula in collegiate dance departments throughout the U.S. reduce West African dance and dances from the African Diaspora to electives, while modern dance and ballet are regarded as foundational. This article theorizes how the delegation of modern dance and ballet as the proper "techniques" for training dancers in the academy invoke de Certeau's notion of "place" and "space," and reifies racist constructions of the black dancing body.

Keywords: Dance, Technique, West African, Modern Dance, Ballet

Introduction

"I don't want to do African, what about my technique?" a Latina student thoughtfully explains to her advisor when asked why she wanted to drop the Contemporary African/Modern I class and take a modern dance class from another teacher. Similar to other students who had dropped the class, the student cited fear of losing her "technique" as her primary reason. Like most dance programs throughout the country, our program requires that students spend the majority of their studio time in modern and ballet classes, while other genres are relegated to electives. To advance through our program, a panel reviews students in their modern and ballet classes to determine if they can move up to the next required level.

The students have to reach at least level two in both areas for a BA in Dance and advance further in technique for a BFA. The majority of our students, or at least the majority of our African American and Latina/o students, begin in introductory modern and ballet classes, which precede level one. These classes count as electives and not towards technique credits.1 Students who begin in introductory courses fear being left behind as they feel they are already getting a late start in their dance training. Unfortunately, neither the students, nor our department and others across the country, have yet to figure out how to make the movement practices they enter with advantageous for their training in the academy. Our failure to do so impacts retention efforts, as students struggle to advance in our program. It might also impact diversity since these students, who are often of color, are simply not admitted into other collegiate dance programs.

I do understand the conundrum my students face. I was once one of those young, dance students entering the academy with training in jazz, ballet, and tap from a competition studio.2 Like them, I was also well versed in the vernacular dances of the time. I could Snake, Prep, Wop, Reebok, Smurf, and Guess with the best of them. My expertise with the popular dance styles served me well at my dance studios. My teachers would ask me to teach the dances to them and my peers, so they could "clean up" the steps and insert them into our two-minute competition choreography. But it did not do much for me at the university, or so I thought. I, too, avoided West African or Afro-Brazilian classes afraid that they would not help me become a better dancer. Those classes were fun and came easy to me, unlike ballet. Thus, I failed to see how they would help me improve my technique. And, my teachers did not help me discover the connections between the various forms.

As I watch my students struggle with the same physical ideologies as I did twenty plus years previously, I am inspired to write this article. Conversations with colleagues at my own and other institutions who struggle to overhaul curriculum to include dances from the African Diaspora, also inform this essay. And the student compositions, journals, and formal interviews layered throughout this paper, evident the need to revise our programs to better suit the diverse student bodies that dance through our doors. Each instructor I spoke with or emailed, holds a full time or adjunct position, and teaches one or more of the following courses: modern, ballet, West African, pedagogy, dance making, and dance history. …