In this issue we explore racial and cultural diversity in dance schools and why it’s important. You can read about that in the story, which starts on page 82; what I want to do here is make a pitch for diversity in a broader sense.
Most of us are creatures of habit—we find something we like, whether it’s a process or product or place, and we stick with it. Tried and true, the saying goes; why mess with success? But it’s in stepping beyond the familiar into the realm of diversity—that is, variations from our personal norms—that we discover, at least some of the time, that better things await us. And when they don’t, chances are we learned something by experimenting.
Taking a mindful approach to diversity can be as simple as rethinking an overused recital concept or setting aside your favorite music for class in favor of all new songs, even if for only a week or two. It can be as complex as expanding your curriculum and programming or rethinking your business goals. It can be, simply, remaining open to change and finding ways to freshen up the familiar.
Is there inherent value in doing this? I think so. It prevents us from stagnating, from succumbing to habits that require little thought or effort to implement. That said, change in and of itself isn’t necessarily good—it must be thought out, its results contemplated, and its processes communicated to all involved. Even with the right effort, adding variety to your business practices can lead to the unexpected or the undesirable.
So there’s risk, yes. But more important, variety can invigorate your students, your staff, and you. We all need mental stimulation, creative challenges, and a wakeup call now and then. Adding racial and cultural diversity to your classrooms is a potent way to start, but don’t stop there. Teachers and students with different backgrounds and ideas can act as launching pads for innovation, and that just might lead you in directions you couldn’t anticipate.
—Cheryl A. Ossola
DSL editor in chief Cheryl A. Ossola, a former associate editor at Dance Magazine, is a writer for San Francisco Ballet and a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.
Honor or Insult?
Not long ago, a high school in Utah found itself in hot water over a drill team dance. Clad in Native American–themed costumes, feathers, and braided wigs, the students pounded their feet, spun, and raised their arms to a recording of drums and eagle screeches. One parent, a member of the Paiute tribe, felt her culture was being mocked, and her unhappy post led to an apology from the school. The number was withdrawn, never to be performed again.
There is a great tradition in dance of finding musical and movement inspiration in other cultures. Ruth St. Denis certainly did, basing many of her works on the mysticism and exotic qualities of what in her day was known as “Oriental” culture. The Nutcracker’s Act 2 is a parade of ethnic “sweets” that offer the flavors of Arabia, Russia, China, and Spain. Broadway audiences cheer the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof and are moved by “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in The King and I.
Unrestricted by language or cultural barriers, the wonderful universality of dance allows full appreciation of movement art from other nations—which is all the more interesting because, to the viewer, it is exotic and colorful and strange.
I watched the Utah school’s dance online expecting broad stereotypes and offensive war-whooping, and instead found a dance similar to many I see in recitals and competitions: standard dance steps flavored with ethnic movement. Studio teachers who choreograph Bollywood or Riverdance-style numbers do so in celebration and admiration. St. Denis surely would have been horrified if her works were deemed to mock the Asian mythologies and philosophies she found so fascinating.
Yet I have also seen ethnic-themed dances that were jaw-dropping in their ignorance. Do your research or bring in an expert on the dance’s ethnic traditions. Consider all angles, and always choreograph from a position of respect. A dance from another culture can be more than a colorful diversion—it can be a great educational opportunity.
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.