Don’t We All Culturally Appropriate?

In light of the recent posts regarding the performance of historical dance works by Muhlenberg College students as cultural appropriation, I find myself questioning cultural appropriation, its nature, what is appropriate, and what is not. To put it even more simply, can anyone really emulate someone else’s experience via performance? And if not, what is the point of performance, if it is not to express an experience of an artist? In my opinion, it comes out of individual perspective and individual accounts of the purpose behind art.  If someone of color sees a performance as offensive and a direct account of cultural appropriate, then does it automatically make it so regardless of the possibility of another person of color not seeing it this way? This caused an emotional response via twitter from students on the Muhlenberg College Campus from audience members who saw a work that originated by famous black choreographer, Donald McKayle, who’s original intention in creating his work was for it to reflect the human experience, but subjectively, he created this from his own experience—that of a black man. Students who came to see the show were upset by the performance being danced by white students. However, before researching and realizing that the performers of the work did not cast themselves in the pieces, nor could they control how they were dressed and what the music was used, a student decided to attack the artistry in the performance of the work not its origination and production.

I find it disheartening that an emotional reaction elicited a response via social media without any prior research towards the origin of the work, the fact that the company who’s work it is approved it being done with this cast, and the intentionality behind adapting it to be done by a different population. In fact, McKayle himself moved to Los Angeles many years after living in Harlem in order to get a different population to perform his works; and, his only requirement beyond when the work is re-staged is that the soloist must be a woman. He has said nothing about the color of her skin. I am not seeking to un-justify the feelings of students at Muhlenberg; in fact, if they had an emotional reaction to this work, then I applaud them. However, I wonder what is appropriate in these circumstances? Is it the responsibility of the student to approach the department rather than social media or is it the responsibility of the department to justify why they are making certain performative deliberate choices? Could this also be a response to the recent Town Hall Meeting and discussion of the lack of diversity on Muhlenberg’s campus, and the students of color seeing this work and assuming it as another piece of evidence that labels the institution “too white,” fundamentally attributing the behavior of the department to be an internal issue of the college rather than an intentional choice.

I doubt that the person who wrote this post was aware that the Dance Department of Muhlenberg College cares deeply about diversity and educating their students recognizing the historical impact that black individuals such as Donald McKayle (the original choreographer of this work), Bill T. Jones, and Master Juba have made on dance through course work surrounding issues of cultural appropriation, dance history, and the African Diaspora and its mind/body integration into all dance forms. But, in taking this conversation further, the forms of jazz dance, tap dance and modern dance all originate from the African Diaspora and thus black communities in the United States who created them as forms of peaceful protest and community building during the Civil War era. So, with the account stated earlier from a single performance, does this apply to those who teach and engage in these styles of dance even though they do not explicitly mention the Black experience, unlike this performance?

I do not have the answers to these questions of which I am asking. However, I also do not know who has the right to make the decisions of what is okay versus what is considered inappropriate, and if this varies, there is not ultimate regard for this. I had an emotional response to this feedback as it threatened my social identity and membership in a group of dancers. It seems to me that the question of cultural appropriation is not a yes or no, but rather a situational decision that can be made on an individual basis. This is further complicated though in regards to the performing arts, which has the intentions of sharing art with others and making political and social statements, some of which could be deemed offensive to certain populations, no matter the intentionality. However, by socially disallowing individuals to engage in certain activities, it seems to me that it further perpetuates stereotyping and the systematic and problematic binaries that exist institutionally in regards to race. Who are artists if they are not supposed to question institutional policy through their art? In with that, I leave myself wondering, who gets to decide?

2 thoughts on “Don’t We All Culturally Appropriate?”

  1. When I consider cultural appropriation, I consider the audience that it is appropriating. I agree that with art, the lines are not as simple as a yes/no, and it is definitely built upon situational circumstances. Regardless of their knowledge of the art form or the lengths that your department went through to gather an approval on the piece, the audience may take a message away from the performance separate from what any artist’s intention may be. To me, this is the essence of art. It does not make any one interpretation right or wrong, however if individuals feel offended, the criticism is the artist’s to either take or ignore. When I say this, I consider the instance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” where riots broke out in response to his work. For him, it was a progressive piece that many people were not prepared to witness, however it is what we remember and praise him for today. With Muhlenberg being a predominantly white campus, it makes sense why a person of color may feel as though other people of color may be gypped out of yet another opportunity. When it comes to artistic representation, much like many situations in America, people of color are not given the same opportunities as white people, thus potentially making them feel a sense of feeling outcast similarly to what you experienced with your threatened social identity.

  2. For me, these situations bring up the question of the level of education those students have on the art form itself. As a musician, I find it infuriating when people critique my work when they have no musical experience themselves. Additionally, as someone who performs works that can be looked at through a cultural lens, I understand how sometimes, there can be misunderstandings. But like you, I’m not sure where the responsibility lies to correct those misunderstandings. Is it the responsibility of the performer to make explicitly clear every artistic decision they make or is it the responsibility of the audience member to educate themselves on both the cultural values and the art form itself? I think it’s probably a combination of sorts. It just saddens me that their comments were directed to the performers when the artistic decision didn’t come from you – it came from a person of color, well-educated in dance as a performance art.

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