Response to “Cultural Appropriation” from the President of Repertory Dance Group

This guest blog by Jo Ann Kassebaum, President of the University of Puget Sound’s Repertory Dance Group (RDG), is a response to our earlier published piece “RDG Got the Moves Like…Who?” by Erika Barker.

I would like to thank Wetlands and Erika Barker, in particular, for opening up the conversation about cultural appropriation on the Puget Sound campus and also for allowing my voice to be heard within that conversation. I’m seriously inspired by the level of critical thinking Puget Sound students manage to take outside the classroom and apply to their day-to-day lives. I will be addressing this response to Erika Barker, the author of “RDG Got the Moves Like…Who?: Cultural Appropriation and Repertory Dance Group” but also to everyone who may not quite understand what Repertory Dance Group (RDG) is to this campus or understand the efforts and intentions that fuel our performances. Although I disagree with the argument the aforementioned article makes, I welcome the dialogue. Any attempts to slander Erika Barker and/or Wetlands are not at all supported by RDG. I believe the point of Barker’s article was to start a conversation and trying to squash anyone’s voice within that conversation is seriously shameful. I see this response as an opportunity for RDG to incorporate itself more fully within the greater campus community and to act as a positive influence for campus diversity.

After reading the article I sat down to write this response because I do not take this accusation of cultural appropriation lightly and I felt your article was lacking in some key information. Cultural appropriation is a very serious social injustice that you are accusing RDG and its members of. There are a few things I would like to address and I hope that this response informs others of RDG’s intentions and opens up a conversation rather than what is currently a one-sided debate between RDG and the campus community.

First, I’d like to talk about Miley. I understand the frustration directed towards Cyrus for her actions at the VMAs and in videos like “We Can’t Stop” where she seems to be using women of color to mock twerking and hip-hop culture. Where I got confused was in the comparison between Miley Cyrus’ music videos and RDG’s performances. The comparison is completely unjustified and tenuous, at best. RDG – unlike Cyrus – absolutely does not use people of any ethnicity or socioeconomic status as props for our own or our audience’s entertainment. Our performances never aim to mock or poke fun at any one culture or dance style. The mission statement in RDG’s By-Laws reads: “Through education, creation and performance, we seek to provide members of the Puget Sound community exposure to dance in all its forms. By conscientiously adhering to these laws, the members of RDG will ensure the continued growth and improvement of our organization.” The three key words in that are Education, Creation, and Performance. We achieve education by exposing our members to all types of dance, allowing them to expand their own forms of self-expression. We foster creation by offering students the opportunity to teach their own choreography. RDG’s shows every semester are 100% student-choreographed. These students offer up their time and energy to bring their outside training and creativity to the Puget Sound student body in hopes of exposing as many people as possible to what they love doing: dancing. Repertory Dance Group prides itself on giving students from all dance backgrounds the opportunity for leadership. These students do not present their choreography as an attempt to be something they are not; rather it is a creation resulting from their own dance experience and creative impulses. It should also be made clear that if at any point students feel uncomfortable being told by their choreographers to act a certain way, RDG encourages those students to speak up about their discomfort. Conversations that will lead us all to a more inclusive and fun experience should never be ignored. The performance element comes in at the end of the semester when every member of RDG, after spending countless hours in the dance room learning choreography, is given the opportunity to showcase the new styles RDG has exposed them to. I felt that your article didn’t at all acknowledge those intentions, work ethic or personal pride of Repertory Dance Group’s members. I understand the original intention of the article, to spark discussion but I’m afraid that one of the perhaps unintended consequences of this harsh critique was that dancers were made to feel unnecessarily self-conscious of their behavior at the showcase. Self-expression is NEVER something one should feel insecure about and I would like to take this moment to let the dancers know to keep on rockin’ because they did nothing wrong.

The two or three pieces that utilized “tribal foot-stomps” and “booty drops” were not our only dance styles that originated somewhere other than white suburbia but those pieces aren’t mentioned at all in the article. We had other hip-hop movements like isolations, chest pops, or footwork but it seems the only troublesome element of the hip-hop is the “booty work.” I understand some audience members being uncomfortable watching classmates shake their butts over and over every semester but if it’s the sexual nature of the moves or the lack of originality that bothers you, please take issue with that instead of accusing RDG of cultural appropriation. It is unfair to ridicule and stifle a students’ self-expression because you don’t think it looks right coming from a white body. Each semester I am incredibly in awe of the 150+ students brave enough to stand up and express themselves in front of their peers. I fully stand behind these students and will fight for their right to express themselves however they see fit. Moreover, we’ve previously offered Latin styles of dance, Belly Dancing (originating in the Middle East), Ballet (a French tradition), and Irish Step Dancing – styles which most of the dancers on stage, because of their own cultural upbringing, could not “lay claim to.” Should Repertory Dance Group avoid borrowing from other styles and genres of dance besides what “upper-middle class, white” people can lay claim to? That doesn’t seem to fit well within our mission statement and pushes people back into cultural boxes that frankly shouldn’t exist. I feel that if Repertory Dance Group’s choreographers were confined to the dance styles found in the “white upper-middle class” box RDG wouldn’t be able to offer the student body the experience and creative outlet that it currently does.

Your article left me wondering “what next…?” By that I mean that you made your problem with “booty work” very clear but I was uncertain what you were suggesting RDG do to eliminate what you saw as cultural appropriation from the shows. What it seemed to me was that you were suggesting that because some of our members come from privileged backgrounds they are not allowed to listen to or enjoy hip-hop music and they certainly are not allowed to dance to it. I just don’t agree with that. Dance is a form of art and self-expression and I think it is wholly unfair to exclude some individuals from any form of art because of their background. Self-expression should never be censored. Telling a wealthy, white woman she cannot do hip-hop is like telling a poor, black woman she cannot do ballet. The dancers of RDG, myself included, create movements that are the manifestation of their past training and their own innovations and I don’t appreciate being told to steer clear of particular forms of self-expression because of what my perceived identity is.

Furthermore, it is unclear to me why, if there is a problem with upper-middle class white students dancing to hip-hop music, there isn’t a problem with non-native Hawaiians performing traditional Polynesian dances in Luau. Every spring the Hui-O-Hawai’i club puts together a phenomenal performance that incorporates students from EVERY background into their Luau. These non-Hawaiian students are never accused of mocking Hawaiian culture because of the color of their skin. Hui-O-Hawai’i’s goal is to expose individuals to the beauty and elegance of the Luau tradition and they don’t discriminate which students they expose it to. RDG’s goal is no different. Although it may be apparent that “booty-dropping” was not originally intended to be performed on a public high school stage by amateur college students, it may not be apparent that those women and men spent their entire semester working tremendously hard learning all that “boiled down” choreography and are very proud to display that hard work and character expansion on stage for their peers. The whole point of this club is inclusion and expansion. I don’t feel that one needs to have originated from a particular culture to enjoy the elements of that culture.

The first step towards cultural diversity and acceptance is exposure. By giving students first-hand experience with all dance styles, RDG is doing its part to pave the way for a more inclusive and informed campus community. It is insulting to imply that RDG – or any other performance club – must actively seek out racially diverse dancers in order to be able to perform certain styles of dance. RDG is a no-cut club; that means by simply showing up, you’re given the opportunity to share your dance knowledge with the rest of the club. That also means that the members of RDG are representative of the Puget Sound campus community so it’s hardly shocking that there are more than a few upper-middle class white folks dancing on that stage. RDG members make no attempt to insert themselves into the cultural context from which dance styles are created but rather attempt to connect with others through these styles. RDG’s members, by simply participating in the club, are placing themselves in a larger, cross-cultural network of dancers, a network that does not discriminate between skin colors, body types, or socioeconomic class but rather accepts anyone brave and dedicated enough to join.

I think it is often unclear to the student body that a lot of thought and energy goes into the preparation and organization of Repertory Dance Group each semester. The leaders and I think through every single detail of every single minute of the semester in order to ensure that everyone – members and nonmembers included – is comfortable throughout the entire process all the way up until the showcase. More recently, the Spring 2014 RDG Leadership Team was given the chance to perform at Queer Alliance’s 12th Annual Drag Show. We were asked to do a guest dance performance as RDG. We made the decision not to be in drag because that isn’t a choice that any of us made on a day-to-day basis. We felt it would be disrespectful to adopt a “drag persona” for the sake of performance and entertainment as it wouldn’t have been our personal choice. The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate that RDG, contrary to some popular belief, does not act without thinking. We fully understand how inappropriate it is to use elements of a culture other than our own to essentially mock that culture. With everything we do we strive for inclusion, comfort, and work to foster education, creation, and performance – I think we do a damn good job of it.

Jo Ann Kassebaum

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ruby Aliment says:

    Now, either the above-response misstates Erika’s position or I misunderstood her position from the get-go. To identify cultural appropriation is not, by itself, a way to police the behavior of white Westerners. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements of a given culture that are not your own. It is not an insult or a form of censorship.

    This issue is divisive for our generation because hip-hop has been a mass-marketed form of expression for our entire lives, so it can feel like it belongs to you even if it doesn’t. (We can thank, in large part, Save the Last Dance and the Step Up franchise for the phenomena of white people laying claim to hip hop styles of dance. Next time you watch those movies, ask yourself which narratives about white and black people are being promulgated in those films? What stories about class are being used?)

    Hip-hop is ubiquitous with popular culture, but that doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention to what pieces of Black culture get consumed, popularized, re-branded, and commercialized by white America.

    Erika’s post was an inquiry, not a judgment against RDG’s participants and satisfied audience members. Her perspective asks us to consider, as a school largely characterized by its privilege, how that privilege is communicated and how it shows up on our campus.

    1. Juniorperson says:

      I agree with you wholeheartedly the intentions behind Erika’s post, and I agree that her perspective is one that deserves to be heard. However, I do think it is important to point out that when the ethics and behavior of a group or individual is personally and publicly put into question by one or multiple outside sources, there is nothing wrong in stating one’s stance/opinion on the matter in how they deem fitting.
      I found some sentences in Erika’s post, regardless of the overall intention, to be insulting/personal critiques that would naturally cause anger/anxiety in any participant of the program. Although cultural appropriation is exactly what you said, “not an insult or a form of censorship,” the way Erika portrayed RDG and its dance choreography/actions in her article was one-sided and contained personal opinions that were offensive to many people. Examples: belittling the entire process and attributing a huge effort/process to booty drops and tweak-attempts, “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,” and using the word “unfortunately,” when describing her emotions at an RDG performance. I believe examples like these in her post clearly show that although there is a definition for cultural appropriation, and Erika’s point was to discover this, Erika failed in doing so as a journalist/writer from an unbiased perspective. Therefore, I believe Jo Ann’s post is not a critique on cultural appropriation and how it doesn’t exist within RDG, rather, she is critiquing Erika’s negative depiction of RDG’s act of cultural appropriation.

  2. Abroad says:

    I think what disappointed me most about the original post criticizing RDG was that there was very obviously such little research done into the origins of hip hop, of dance forms in general, and of cultural evolution, not to mention the complete silencing of every dancer of color in RDG. Hip hop, while originating in the 1970’s in New York as well as parts of California, has always had its origins as a music and dance style very specific to the United States, and yes, it did start in the streets with “poor black people” as Barker so delicately put it. However, hip hop has become a well regarded and extremely popular music and dance form worldwide. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, the UK, Tunisia, Germany, Chile, Russia, Cuba, Israel, hell, even Saudi Arabia have their own style of hip hop music, and some of these countries have produced dance crews that compete on the international level. Why? Because hip hop is a legitimate and respected form of dance, taught on the streets as well as in dance academies alongside tap, jazz, ballet, etc. The truth is, at a certain point, nobody can “claim” a genre of music or of dance. Yes, jazz, blues, funk, and even rock started in poor urban ethnically diverse communities (btw, hip hop is just as much hispanic-american as it is african-american), but these things evolve, gain popularity, and become part of our culture. This debate has been argued over and over again whenever a hip hop/rap/r&b artist comes and changes the game by not being black enough, or masculine enough, or straight (all prerequisites to get any sort of recognition at the start of hip hop, and for many people these attitudes prevail even today). Also, to me, its pretty cool to see how rap in particular has been adopted by oppressed populations worldwide as a form of expression. When Ana Tijoux raps about Pinochet’s dictatorship does it devalue her art because she borrowed the form from a different culture, represented mostly by African American men, who haven’t shared that specific experience of oppression? Does it change her art because she grew up in Paris as an exile and not in the Bronx or Philly or Fresno? As with any art form, there are purists, however I think its dangerous to speak for entire groups of minorities, especially after calling everyone in those dances “white upper middle class.” How did you know? Did you ask? Find their tax returns? Shouldn’t they be allowed to self-identify instead of being labeled by the perceptions of others because they “pass”? Isn’t that what intersectionality means? Who truly has the authority to decide what is hip hop and what isn’t? Why is Wetlands of all things spearheading this debate?

  3. One Disgruntled Queer says:

    While I appreciate the thoughtful and insightful response to the original article, I am concerned by the end of the article’s citation of the anecdote about RDG’s choice *not* to decide in drag. The recitation of this narrative, I think, footnotes engagement with queer student groups by saying “look at how much worse we could have been.” The anecdote is functionally a threat, saying that RDG could always default to a more heterosexist or transphobic form of dancing. I’m not saying that RDG is homophobic or antiqueer because I lack the personal interaction with members of that institution on a regular basis to meaningfully assess the situation. Nonetheless, I do with the RDG President might consider ways that RDG could engage with queer groups that doesn’t transform that participation into footnotes at the end of articles or anecdotes that amount to threats. None of this is meant to negate the article, which I honestly appreciated, but I’m simply voicing my opinion on the end of the article.

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