It seems like daily I am bombarded by cultural dance purists, who rage about keeping the dance pure, or who rant about appropriation and so-called cultural insensitivity. You know what? I am tired of it. I am not saying that appropriation does not happen…sure it does. And I am not saying that we do not need to be concerned about this... we do. What I am saying is that dancers of today are sowing the seeds of change for tomorrow and that others just cannot seem to deal with the natural flow of change.
Lately, it seems, when a dancer creates a movement piece using their imagination, and creates a new move, they could be considered to be guilty of appropriating someone else’s dance form. Many years ago, in my ballet/modern dance class, as part of our training, each of us was required to choreograph a piece. Knowing nothing of Middle-Eastern dance and living a half a world away, I came up with a combination of moves for my piece. Now, almost 40 years later, I find that this combination can now be considered part of a culture that was not open to me, and I can be accused of appropriating those moves.
I want to scream, “What?!"
People need to be a little more understanding, stop the hate, and quit tearing-down other's artistic expression. We need to stop the nitpicking of details such as how a hand or foot is placed, or the type of jewelry one wears, or comments like, “OMG, she used a move from such-and-such a culture!”. This behavior actually suppresses the evolution of dance.
Take a look at history and ask yourself why performers act this way. Is it ignorance, lack of education, misinformation, or perhaps something else?
I have seen choreographed dances by plenty of experts where one or more of their moves or combinations resembled that of another culture (or even a religious dance). The move could be something as simple as a hand gesture. If someone pointed out the similarity to an expert dancer, would the artist change it when she or he created the combination from their imagination? They would not. They would defend the move, and say they created it, or maybe it was part of their own culture. The human body can only move in so many ways. Even if the performer had researched the moves carefully in advance, someone, somewhere, has probably already used the move or perhaps a subtle variation of it.
Okay, so here is a reality check. I am human. I love to dance. I know anatomy and what I can do with my body. I also dance for my health, so it is a form of exercise, and I teach my students not to worry too much about what others think. Many of us first learned to dance by copying moves that excited us when seen on a public dance floor or when a family member danced. That is how I became passionate about dance! I have been trained in Ballet, Modern, Country line dance, Square dance, Tap dance, Raqs Sharqui, Shaabi, Egyptian folklore, Flamenco, Bhangra, and many others. I have created moves and combinations in my mind that I have never seen done by others before and put them into my choreography, because they fit my interpretation of the mood and feeling of the music. Dance is my art form. Am I to be excluded from dancing most of these based on my culture or the color of my skin? This is a subtle form of racism, and I do not buy it.
I am no guiltier of appropriation than the hundreds of generations of women and men before me. Through the centuries people have done this whether they were from conquering nations or peaceful traders. Sometimes they even shared moves, costuming ideas, and choreography; it is a very fluid art form. Every time a person sees a move and copies that movement, it is more of a compliment to the original culture than appropriation. It is also possible that the move could simply be an “I can do that” moment of accomplishment, like an ice skater doing a triple lutz.
The difference today is the internet, and the visual knowledge that is available so conveniently and quickly. Cultural exchange that once might have taken hundreds of years is now happening practically overnight, and that can be a wonderful opportunity for sharing. It should not be used as a means of discouraging or demoralizing dancers. As a teacher, it really stings to be deprived of a source of inspiration by over-zealous xenophobic on-line critics when I love all forms of dance so much.
Can we not use the internet to share and educate each other? Emphatically, yes! Can we do it politely and professionally? That should be a given. Do we need to adopt an attitude of tolerance? Yes, dance is simply one person’s interpretation of a set of physical movements. A whole dance form can be owned by no one. We should put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before shaming them or slamming them. It is far easier to shoot someone down than it is to put yourself out there as the dancer. Artists come in all levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities. We need them all.
In dance, we have lost so much to the passage of time. Looking at the historical records of ancient civilizations and cultures, all we have left of them is their paintings or sculptures. Some of the art remaining has just a moment of dance frozen in time to spark our imagination. So perhaps those who wish to preserve and showcase traditional cultural forms of dance can video and either share them or find a way to make them available for posterity and future research. Careful descriptions would make these forms easy to find on an internet search. This constructive (rather than destructive) activity would go a longer way to preserving the history and regional differences than attacking people who appreciate the form and who are building on that knowledge.
Ballet, Tap dance, Raqs Sharqui, and Flamenco are all a blending of different cultures. Moves in any one could be considered to be cultural appropriation from earlier groups of people. Believe it or not, even Bollywood is a fusion and blending of several cultures within India to emulate Hollywood, USA. We all enjoy watching and dancing these forms! We should appreciate the hard work and dedication it took to learn and create these forms.
None were sprung from thin air. Without some kind of so called appropriation there would be no growth or creativity. This is evolution, not appropriation.
This kind of cultural exchange is also true for virtually any other art form: from the making of instruments, to costume and jewelry design, to fine art, and even in athletics! Are the critics going to start patenting dance moves to prevent other cultures from using them? Nonsense.
I am an artist and an entertainer, one of many who work hard to make life interesting and vibrant for others. I create beauty out of movement and music to make something memorable. None of us deserve to be shot down for admiring and/or accidentally emulating moves from another culture.
A speical thanks to my dear friend Mb Pancoast who helps keep me straight :)