RDG Got the Moves Like…Who?: Cultural Appropriation and Repertory Dance Group

by: Erika Barker

Miley-Cyrus-Gold-Teeth-and-Nails-HD-Wallpaper-1

Last fall, after Miley Cyrus’s Video Music Awards (VMA) performance, social media erupted into a flurry of critiques and defenses of the pop star. For me, one of the most compelling aspects of this debate (which was originally downplayed by much of the white feminist media until black feminists called attention to it) was the discussion happening in some feminist circles about the racist and culturally appropriative nature of the performance. I know a lot of us, myself included, pretty much exhausted our ability to think and talk critically about Miley Cyrus last fall after seemingly endless social media coverage of her antics. However, I was irresistibly reminded of this debate about white women taking on aspects of traditionally African American, and specifically low-income African American, forms of self-expression for their own benefit two weekends ago at this spring’s Repertory Dance Group (RDG) performance.

Last fall, critics like blogger Cate Young and Jezebel writer Dodai Stewart pointed out Miley’s repeated appropriation of the dance, language and dress styles associated with “ratchet culture,” a culture produced by and commonly associated with a subset of low income women of color, particularly black women. Stewart explains that in Miley’s “We Can’t Stop” video, when she attempts to twerk in a circle of admiring black women, “… she, as a rich white woman, is ‘playing’ at being a minority … Along with the gold grill and some hand gestures, Miley straight-up appropriates the accoutrements associated with certain black people on the fringes of society.” The key here is that the people who originally used those dance, language and dress styles that Miley’s adopted are actually poor and face real marginalization because of their low-income status. Their forms of artistic expression, like dancing, are rooted in that lived experience. Miley, however, is and has always been a rich, white woman who, at the end of the day, can take off her fake nails and continue to access the privilege associated with being a rich, white woman. In short, Miley can “put on” and “take off” the cultural symbols that signify low-income status at will, which essentially acts as just one more way that rich white people can benefit from the work of poor people of color. As Stewart sums it up, “She can play at blackness,” and indeed, profit from that play, “without being burdened by the reality of it.”

Moreover, as Stewart points out, because those cultural elements Miley is adopting for her performances originate with people of color, Miley is participating in a long tradition of white people pretending to be black people for the enjoyment of other white people. While much more cleverly disguised, one could certainly argue that Miley’s twerking and grill-wearing are just as much a form of mockery and caricature of African Americans as the minstrel shows of the twentieth century, when performers like Al Jolson painted their faces with shoe polish to sing and dance in imitation of poor black Americans for the sake of white entertainment.

But Miley is certainly not the first to appropriate the forms of expression of marginalized groups. And unfortunately, I’ve been reminded of it every time I’ve gone to an RDG performance. Every year, at least a few of the dances essentially boil down to a group of mostly white, mostly middle-upper class women (and some men) doing a whole lot of booty drops and twerk-attempts to fierce hip-hop tracks. While there’s obviously a difference between Miley Cyrus taking on black cultural elements in the hugely public space of the VMAs to earn a personal profit, and a group of college students dancing to hip-hop songs on stage for a small audience without earning a personal profit, I think it’s worth pointing out the similarities.

For one, though as average folks RDG performers don’t have access to the same kind of extreme privilege someone like Miley does, all of us who attend this school are able to tap into a deep well of privilege simply because we attend this school. And while I’m sure there are people who participate in RDG who legitimately can lay claim to the dance styles and performances taking place, I think it’s fair to say that most of the people on stage are not members of the marginalized groups that created these dance styles — whether they’re “tribal” foot-stomps or hip-hop-style booty drops. Rather, these performances act as part of a larger cultural phenomenon of white, well-off people entertaining other people who are similar to them by adopting personas that imitate people with significantly less privilege.

Beyond the fact that participating in any act that upholds white and class privilege is wrong, it’s worth considering what message these RDG performances send to students of color on our campus, especially to those who identify with the forms of cultural expression these dances utilize. As a white, upper-middle class woman who benefits from almost every conceivable form of privilege, and who is herself very much a part of the larger racist power structures that have allowed me to come to this institution and write this article, I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But if I’m uncomfortable sitting in the audience at RDG while hip-hop blasts around me and my classmates gyrate on stage, I can’t imagine how uncomfortable and alienated I might feel if I had grown up as a person of color or poor.

20 thoughts on “RDG Got the Moves Like…Who?: Cultural Appropriation and Repertory Dance Group

  1. The RDG dancers weren’t imitating poor women of color. They were imitating Miley Cyrus. The origin of Miley Cyrus’s penchant for twerking may very well be rooted in racism, but the RDG dancers were doing nothing more than referencing an extremely famous celebrity. Who cares?

  2. So, you’re implying first that the stigma that ratchetness has should only be applied to low income black women. Twerking and other dance moves and hip hop icons popularized by those in low income situations are not to be imitated or emulated. By behaving as she does with her dance she is imitating a ratchetness (which is not a positive term in the black community btw) which should be reserved for poor black people. Got it. That’s really progressive thinking. As a student of colour who grew up poor I liked seeing students explore culture and swag and try and emulate what that all means to people, just as I enjoy seeing Miley twerking in her grills, not because it suits her, but because it says that to enjoy these things you don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to be black, and you don’t have to be marginalized by society as this article suggests. Saying that those dancers shouldn’t be allowed to express themselves and borrow from other cultures to enhance their dancing is like saying that there’s such thing as white dancing and black dancing, or white music and black music, and everyone should just stick to their kind.

    1. Sorry, I accidentally copy pasted a text message that I got in the middle of this response. Could you please delete this comment Wetlands? I don’t think I can. Thank you.

  3. So, you’re implying that first the stigma that ratchetness has should only be applied to low income black women and twerking and other dance moves and hip hop icons popularized by those in low income situations are not to be imitated or emulated. By behaving as she does with her dance she is imitating ratchet culture (not a positive term in the black community by the way) which should be reserved for poor black people. Got it. As a student of colour I liked seeing students explore culture and swag and trying to express what that may mean to people. Just as I enjoy seeing Miley twerking in her grills, not because she’s good at it, but because it says that to enjoy these things you don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to be black, and you don’t have to be marginalized by society as this article suggests. Saying those dancers shouldn’t be allowed to express themselves and borrow from other cultures to enhance their dancing is like saying that there’s such thing as white dancing and black dance, or white music and black music, and that everyone should just stick to their kind.

  4. This is a great article. I agree that I am often uncomfortable at RDG performances but I could never articulate just what it was that made me feel outraged. I’m a dancer, I was on a hip hop team for four years in high school and consider myself a part of the hip hop community. It is one of the most inclusive, kind, and positive environments I’ve ever been lucky enough to participate in. It never mattered your size, ethnicity, socio-economic status, the dancing was what brought us together, what we all loved, and nothing got in the way of that. I love dance, I love that so many people on campus have a passion for dancing, and I’m so glad that they get to express themselves through RDG. However, when I was in RDG first semester freshman year something felt really wrong. I thought it was simply getting used to new faces, new styles of dance, and a new environment. But after that semester I never did RDG again. For some reason it made me feel fake, like I was pretending at the thing that made me, me. As a freshman I didn’t know what it meant to be privileged, societally, racially, and at our University, but I could feel it. While people were doing “hip hop” they seemed to be laughing at it. Like it was a big funny joke, and weren’t we cute and hilarious for making “thug” faces in our spandex. I’m not saying that everyone in RDG has this mentality but that was how I felt when I went on stage in my neon shirt and “kicks;” like a hollow representation of the world and the community I had known and loved.
    I’m not quite sure how to solve this problem, I know everyone in RDG is coming from a really good place. I think it would be a good idea to get some visiting artists and choreographers to come in once in awhile and do some master classes. I think this would teach a lot of people who are really passionate about hip hop, what the dance community is doing, why they’re doing it, and include the student body in the current world of hip hop. This could reach further and RDG could get choreographers from other styles of dance to come in and teach too and maybe make the RDG experience a more accurate look at the dance community and the people in it. Thanks for writing this article, it really helped me understand why I’ve felt the way that I have about RDG for four years and I think it’s a great opportunity to make some positive changes for the dancers on campus.

  5. I will try to be as well worded as possible with this… RDG is a dance group. The choreographers learn dance, appreciate style, advance through technique and eventually teach to a group of brilliant students. RDG is not famous, wealth driven, or popularity seeking which may (or may not) be Miley Cryrus’ or her publicity crew’s intentions. Coming from the person who created the tribal dance, I am VERY proud of what I created and what my dancers did. There is NOTHING wrong with me dancing an African-style piece (which…wasn’t “stomp” by the way), just as there is nothing wrong with someone doing a Latin style piece, a beautiful ballet piece, or a female empowering hip hop piece. Dance is not an ethnicity and dance does not come from any place except your heart. I am from a lower class family, I paid for my right to be here by myself, I am a proud Latina and Native American… I’m not white and my dancers composed of the most diverse group: Latins, Asians, African-Americans, White, Purple, Small, Big, Poor, Wealthy, Gay, Bi, Straight. RDG welcomes ANYONE and EVERYONE to try their best to make a great diverse show. If you have a problem with booty drops or question their complexity, I’d like to direct you to my wall where you should ask me to teach you in a class, because I’d be happy to school you.
    -Nikita New

  6. In claiming that ratchet culture is something that only poor or non-white people have access to, you are in-turn reinforcing and promoting that stereotype. Are people at fraternity parties who are grinding all up on each other imitating black people? No, they are horny and drunk, and that happens to be what feels good for those people at that time. Beyonce is a well off black woman, and as much as you want to claim and believe that only white people are the ones with access to privilege, you are deeply wrong, and by publishing articles embedded with that opinion you are giving our school an even worse white-privileged and ignorant reputation. I for one would like to speak out for our school and for groups like RDG,and say there is no reason why we should feel ashamed to preform hip-hop or other dance styles that are dance styles in themselves, and have absolutely no claimed rights by any of the “stigmatized” groups that YOU have labeled. If people feel uncomfortable watching something that creates inner feelings of excitement, or makes them have a sexual response, that is because the performance is designed to create those feelings. If some people are so numbed to any feelings like this, and feel that they need to criticize people who made them have these feelings, they should probably avoid any public performances or gatherings in general. Sure belly-dancing, and hip-hop had a starting point, but now they are free claim to anyone who feels like that is a good avenue to express themselves. By limiting our access to what we claim is “owned by minorities” we are instead creating these groups you call minorities, and multiplying all the more these feelings of being uncomfortable. Dancing in a new style, like tribal, or belly dance, can bring one closer to exploring and understanding a different type of culture, and sure for some new and different things might make them uncomfortable, but that’s simply because they are too sheltered. Let us please not run away from differences and pretend that they don’t exist because that is what ends up marginalizing people in the first place. If a show made you feel uncomfortable, or question your sheltered whiteness, that is a good thing, we all need to question that more often, and remember this school is made up of many different types of people, from all different backgrounds, individuals who really reallly DON’T want to be grouped into the general “we’re all from UPS so we must be white and privileged.” Nope that’s actually just you and your friends. At RDG we celebrate all the individual differences of each choreographer and dancer and what different backgrounds they bring to the table, whether they be ghetto, tribal, Latin, hip-hop, popping, locking, jamming, breaking, and yes even white, they are all incorporated into a beautiful collage of differences and expressions of personal individuality. We don’t try to neutralize all differences and pretend they don’t exist, claiming that everyone who goes to this school is white and privileged, because that my friend is a complete delusion that articles like this perpetrate to a scary degree, until minorities will be absolutely unwilling to consider this school, and in the future it seems that all of your wishes might just be granted!

  7. RDG is probably the most inclusive club on campus and I think that’s a really important point. But…

    I don’t think anyone walks away from RDG uncomfortable because they have been exposed, at some deep and meaningful level, to foreign cultures. I think the whole point of Erika’s article is to point out how easy it is for people with privilege to slip on the cultures of others (through dance, dress, etc), try them out, and take them off the minute they get confused or are made uncomfortable by something. And while you certainly can learn (and appreciate!) styles of art that you didn’t grow up with, you can’t learn the experience of growing up different or underprivileged within a matrix of whiteness and oppression.

    That said it’s a complicated issue and I don’t have any answers. I just think we need to be aware that the ability to pick and choose the bits of “different” cultures that you think are neat is a huge marker of privilege. I agree that hip-hop is simply what’s mainstream right now and artists of all backgrounds, including country music princesses like Miley, are making a buck off it. But how many non-white, dancers are there in an entrenched, “high art” institution like the American Ballet? (Not many). And what happens when ratchet culture isn’t cool anymore, when belly dancing isn’t a fun way for moms to get some exercise? Cultures and ethnicities aren’t just trends and treating them as such is a behavior that should be up for discussion and critical conversation. Most of what I’m hearing on this page and on the fb threads is “dancer’s don’t see color” or “f*ck Erika.” These are not helpful positions.

    RDG’s place in all of this is not as cut and dry as Erika’s article may suggest but that doesn’t mean that RDG is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, it seems that people are more comfortable talking critically (and vaguely) about “diversity” when they can scapegoat the administration and call it a day.

    Full disclosure, I’m white, I’ve done RDG before, and I studied American tribal and cabaret style belly dance for eight years.

  8. So basically “white, middle-class, women” aren’t allowed to express themselves through dance because it “belongs to another culture”? Why is it that every year there is a writer that feels like they have to break down the dynamics of RDG and try to expose that it is a terrible club, even through it is one of the most supported clubs on campus? The whole point of dancing in general, whether it is in RDG, or a company, or in another part of the world, is that you can express yourself and experience new cultures through dance. Its a universal language and no one should be judged for it. The writers at UPS need to give up on tearing down one of their own clubs on campus and stop labeling people while trying to say that RDG is the one crossing stereotypes.

    1. So basically “white, middle-class, women” aren’t allowed to express themselves through dance because it “belongs to another culture”?

      I don’t think this is Erika’s point at all. This seems like the extreme, logical extension of her very specific observation about “ratchet culture.” It would be more helpful if you would respond to the actual blog post instead of tearing down what is essentially, a straw-man argument (that I don’t really see any where in the original post).

      But since you have expanded the scope of the conversation, I would be interested to hear an elaboration of your points. What “culture[s]” are you referring to; domestic, immigrant, international? Can you explain how dance actually fosters “cultural appreciation?” What is your experience and why do you feel that dance is a universal language?

  9. This is so damn backwards. What about Hawaiian Luau?? What does it say about the supposed “traditional” dances that the students do. It seems that majority of the girls who do tahitian are just prancing around in coconut bras and whatever grass skirt they deem fashionably appropriate for the year. Or the Maori dances…do the guys even truly understand the meaning of each and every single move they make? Do any of the Luau dancers besides the Hawaii club explain the true cultural significance of their dances.

    It seems like Wetlands and UPS is on a hate streak right now on anything that’s not diverse as if anyone in the editorial team and school even understands what diversity or privilege even means.

    1. characterizing thoughtful critical opinions as symptomatic of a “hate streak” is definitely more dismissive, trivializing, ignorant, and hateful than anything written in any article ever posted on this blog. CRITICAL CONVERSATION IS NOT HATEFUL. IT IS PRODUCTIVE. The author would not have sat down and dedicated time crafting her words in a considerate and empathetic way if she HATED what she was writing about. She actually says several times in her piece that she is not coming from a place of total authority, and that she was more curious and uncomfortable with RDG than she was hateful or dismissive of it. Characterizing a piece like this as “hateful” really shows that you did not give this piece the time that the author gave her subject. THAT is hateful to me.

      Dismissing this piece and other pieces written for wetlands/the trail/facebook that regard critical inquiry as “hate” or “provocative for provocation’s sake” are so fucking irritating to everybody who is involved and engaged. That attitude betrays a dangerous and lazy kind of conservatism that frankly is more concerning to me than any kind of booty drop done by any kind of person.

  10. You need to get out more and broaden your experience of the various genres of dance and music. You seem narrow in your commentation. Also if you have time please review Yanis Marshall who is a French choreographer as one of many samples of dance styles that may enhance your awareness that dance is an art of physical and emotional expression be it mainstream or not it is a huge palate of varied genres expressed in a ton of select presentations. If you are offended stop attending PERFORMANCES. it will be your loss of culture exposure and artistic expression.

  11. Thank you for starting this conversation Erika! As someone who has both danced in RDG and watched from the audience, I have consistently been amazed by how empowering, inclusive, and well-run the club is. I have also consistently felt very uncomfortable about the issues you bring up. I’m seeing some productive, frustrating dialogue take place as a result of your speaking up, and I know UPS will be the better because of it. In the end this isn’t at all about taking sides, but rather examining these complex intersections of privilege and culture so that RDG can further strengthen the positive impact is has on students and the community.

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