Decentering Dance Studies
This is a paper I delivered Nov. 8, 2013 at the joint CORD/SDHS Conference in Riverside CA, sponsored by the Dance Program in Critical Studies, UC Riverside. The format is prepared for oral presentation:
Thoughts on Decentering Dance Studies -©Brenda Dixon Gottschild. All Rights Reserved
I feel decentered. NOT in a good way. I’m in a corner. I’m still cornered by SYSTEMIC racism. I want out. I want to move from the margins to the center. I want the center widened, biggered, more inclusive. Don’t DECENTER ME: CENTER ME! I want so-called white folks to be as angry about racism as I am. And I want you to realized that, behind the anger, is hurt and fear. Hurt, that my sisters and brothers of color are not admitted to the white comfort zone. Fear that things will never change. I can’t get out of the corner without you. And you can’t be humanized without me.
Priya Srinivasan wrote us speakers asking us to “meditate on the theme of the conference and the notion of ‘decentering’ as it relates to your own work.” So, here goes.
Why DO we do what we do?
What is dance studies? Dance research? Performance Studies? Any studies? Why do we study? What are our aims? What is theory? Theorizing? What’s the point and why? What are our deepest desires in doing what we do? Do our intentions reflect our desires, do our deeds reflect our intentions?
I know someone who applied to this program a few years back and was told her work wasn’t CRITICAL ENOUGH. An older student returning to academia after a professional dance career and now a campus administrator and student counselor, she was interested in certain topics around women and black dance. WHY was she rejected? Isn’t graduate school where we learn how to hook up theory and practice? She may have been in the practice corner, while the program’s in the theory corner. Both are corners, in opposing sides of the box—or the ring! Isn’t there another way?
In 2010 I was told by the director of the Dance History Scholars Editorial Board that my proposal for my most recent book was not THEORETICAL enough to be published in their series. I believe the Board was unable to understand DuBoisian ideas and the subject of identity as theory, especially when it was put to the test of practice, as I always do in my work.
Theory loosed from practice is like food without nutrients: WHITE BREAD, if you will—and the double entendre’s intended!
Scientific theory, mathematic theory, theological theory—at their best, all are studied in the service of advancing the cause of humanity, to extend and embrace the human good. And performance theory? Can we reach for humanistic excellence? If our aim is NOT to find ways to truly DECENTER by EXPANDING THE CENTER and removing ourselves from our boxes—to make the way easier for the next generation of “theorists,” to also shed light on the whys and wherefores of people dancing—that is, if our principal interest is not humanism, but theory derailed from its link to practice, then we might as well repose ourselves in that final box, the coffin!
I fear for performance theory because of its potential to make either/or DISTINCTIONS that ultimately amount to mean-spirited DECISIONS that continue the pattern of exclusion for scholars of color—blacks, in particular. I see this elitism rearing its ghastly countenance in a newly minted, millennial fashion. Young Diasporan scholars, largely women, are hired so that the Human Resources and/or Equal Opportunity Office can be satisfied that equity is alive and well at their institution. “We know how to recruit scholars of color: hoorary for us! We won’t lose our funding; we’re lookin’ good!” But what about RETENTION? Do these scholars gain tenure? Are they promoted? Do you want them in your family? It’s a sad story, and here’s an example.
Early in 2012 things reached untenable proportions for two emerging African American female dancer-scholars. For one it was around her MFA concert and degree; the other was at the end of her first year in a tenure-track position and was coming up for review. Long story short: both were being tossed dangerous curve balls. Each independently contacted me online to ask for any advice I could give. Now, I’d had this same scenario, different players, several times the previous year, and that’s a lot, given the small percentage of black dance faculty and grad students in academia. This time, I decided to take action, and that’s how the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving(CDSM) came about. You can read our Mission Statement and Manifesto in your registration packets. [HOLD IT UP] And if you’re interested in the case of these two women in particular, read their abbreviated stories on the Movement Research website, under Conversations -Critical Correspondence, Sept. 5, 2013.
Another emerging scholar related to me this incident. She was at the CORD Special Topics Conference in Leicester, England soon after the death of Michael Jackson, one of the most astoundingly creative dancers whose feet ever graced the earth. (Okay, I admit: I’m biased!) Anyway, since no mention was made of his passing and his immense contribution to our profession, she did so at one session, and was met with little or no interest. I’d like to upend—if not decenter—old presumptions about who or what kinds of dance matter—presumptions that allowed for this kind of “invisibilization.”
MOSTLY I’m interested in DECENTERING the race trope: the assumptions, biases, and knee-jerk, goose-step patterns we fall into when white comfort levels and centrality are threatened by the presence of THE OTHER. So, back to square one: yes—I want white people to be as angry about racism, bias, exclusionism, and elitism as I am! I want it to be the task of white people—not only black and colored people—to speak out. Here are some questions to ask yourself: [READ ALOUD CIRCLED ITEMS IN TEACHING TOLERANCE MAGAZINE, FALL 2013, P. 44]
So let’s end with a decentering meditation—the task the conference organizers set before us. Close eyes, sit comfortably, and for this Guided Meditation, ask yourself: who am I and how does my dance trajectory relate to anything Dr. Brenda said? [60 seconds]