When a nation finds itself in a time of civil unrest and social movement, it becomes necessary for institutions to rethink accepted values and cannons in the name of greater equity and inclusion. This was the impetus behind the new LMU Dance Town Hall Conversation Series called “Decolonizing Dance,” which began with three sessions during the Fall 2020 semester.
Hosted by Roz LeBlanc Loo, chair of LMU Dance, the first event brought together students, alumni and professors to share their ideas on moving past oppressive systems of race, hierarchy, and patriarchy in the dance world. The subsequent sessions focused on reimagining the labels and interpretations of dance techniques and styles.
Restructuring the curriculum in the Dance Department had been an ongoing focus for over a year, and after the civil rights movement in the summer of 2020, the department decided to dig deeper into their curriculum changes. “If a dance program does not stay aligned with the social wave of identity, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, then it’s not doing its job,” said department chair Roz LeBlanc Loo. “The location of dance is the body, and if the dancer is craving visibility and acknowledgement from greater society, then dance can’t ignore that. For these reasons, our department realized over the summer that our re-evaluation of the dance curriculum had to go much deeper than we thought to reflect the movements of our current society.”
During the first meeting, LeBlanc Loo introduced Laura Smyth to the attendees – the department’s first full-time professor of jazz dance, who started teaching at LMU in the fall 2020. This is one of the many ways LMU Dance is working to balance out the weighted representation of Europeanist forms in the department. In her remarks, Smyth noted the fact that the dance professors are not experts in all dance forms, so opening out that dialogue and acknowledging students for what type of dance forms they can introduce to us is very valuable.
The second meeting included a powerful student-led discussion about breaking apart the overtly European cannon of dance prompted by a passage from the book Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World: Culturally Relevant Teaching in Theory, Research and Practice by Nyama McCarthy-Brown. McCarthy-Brown’s book is part of the Principles of Teaching curriculum and led to a rich and pointed discussion at the second event.
“Often times in dance, particularly in a university setting, dancers are often forced to confine into this archetype of what dance is supposed to look like through this Eurocentric standpoint.” said junior Dance Major, Alexa Walls, “I think that because of this, dancers can often feel ashamed and uncomfortable and overall this does not properly prepare dancers for the new age dance world. I hope that as we continue progress to build this community of dance, we encourage dancers to see the ways in which their preferred style of dance can fit into a professional career.”
The third meeting of the fall semester included guest speaker Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. As a renowned dancer, choreographer, educator and activist, she is the founder and artistic director of the New York-based dance company, Urban Bush Women. She is also a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. “Dr. Zollar spoke about her past experience in dance as a young woman of color and the focused rigor for her of learning ballet. She is one of the most influential and dynamic voices in the dance world and it was an honor to have her speak to our students,” said LeBlanc Loo.
“At our last meeting Jawole Willa Jo Zillar mentioned that when you bring dance from a community into these higher education settings, it changes things,” said sophomore Computer Science Major and Dance Minor, Kevin Carpio, “I’ve found that dance as an art form needs to follow certain criteria to even be considered an academic. This enforces the Eurocentric ideology of dance and leaves behind the richly diverse cultures that dance really stems from. LMU dance has taken this virtual year to not only acknowledge the issues within dance but looked at the ways we have contributed to this harmful colonization of dance. We are starting to make changes within our community and looking into ways we can continue the conversation because it is far from over.”
Dance alumni also were invited to share their experiences of finding equity in the professional dance world following graduation. Gillian Ebersole, ’20 said, “In my experience, the ‘dancing’ is often reserved for technique classes, and the ‘studying’ reserved for other classes like Dance History, Principles of Teaching Dance, and Dance Theory. I think many of the professors at LMU blend the two, but I think there is room for more critical discussion about dance in technique classes. Technique classes can be the most vulnerable and most intertwined with our identities. Leaving the discussions about power, race, gender, sexuality, etc, at the door reduces the importance of the embodied experience.” Gillian expressed the fact that we’re at a pivotal moment right now where we are re-making the dance world and have the chance to make real change.
LMU Dance is constantly striving to discover ways to be more inclusive and listen to all voices, and that hard work has not gone unnoticed. Alumna Maury Wiederaenders, ‘15 attended the first town hall, and expressed her gratitude to the dance program, saying, “I have really valued how everyone is treated as an adult here, with their own opinions and perspectives. Current students should never be afraid to be heard and should take advantage of all these incredible moments of hands-on learning.”