Contra: Dance & Conflict Paper Presentation

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Thanks to the Ray Travel Award, the Arts & Humanities Small Grants and the OSU Department of Dance Semester Funding Initiative, I have just returned from the 2018 Dance Studies Association conference, a meeting of international dance scholars and practitioners in Valletta, Malta.

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 10.06.59 PM.pngMy paper compared the experiences of the Syrian-Lebanese population with those of modern dance choreographers, José Limón (an immigrant from Mexico) and Anna Sokolow (a second generation Russian Jew), in the United States between 1918 and 1961. While Limón, Sokolow, and Syrian-Lebanese Americans all developed whiteness in unique ways, comparing them illuminates a critical dissimilarity. Through archival materials, secondary texts, and Edward Said’s theory, which identifies orientalism is a western construction designed to control Arab people, I show that Syrian-Lebanese Americans were confined to oriental dance while Limón and Sokolow were able to dance their American and ethnic identities. Why could Limón and Sokolow bridge theracial gap, but not Lebanese Americans?

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 7.05.13 PM.pngModern dance intertwined with leftist politics in the 1930s and created a space for immigrants to perform American identities while maintaining their ethnic roots. I argue that the Lebanese diaspora’s disassociation with the political left excluded them from the Leftist Dance movement within which Limón and Sokolow prospered. Therefore, their political views prevented them from representing their bodies as American, and confined them to presenting oriental bodies. These findings problematize lumping diasporas in the United States into one unified minority. Rather, I suggest examining the unique experiences of each minority group in the United States as we uncover who had access to American modern dance.

The concluding plenary, in which Anusha Kedhar, Janet O’Shea, Jasmine Johnson, María Regina Firmino-Castillo, and Royona Mitra discussed racism and colonization in the field, was the most powerful part of the conference. Kedhar’s emotional talk pointed to the struggles that she and her students face while trying to fit into the Eurocentric university structure. She shared that faculty of color constantly need to prove their worth and students whose practices are outside of modern and ballet constantly feel like guests in the program. Then, I found Mitra’s words were particularly poignant . She blamed the whiteness of reading lists and material for the attainment gap but was told that there isn’t space in the curriculum to diversify. (She probably didn’t use the word “diversify” because she said that “diversity” is a white word. Unfortunately, I don’t remember her terminology). Then she said that
“it is not that there isn’t space, but the unwillingness to give up the space.”
She provoked us to collectively make space on boards, curriculum, scholarship, etc and to disrupt and displace center. She asked us to ask ourselves if we value making space and what about it is threatening. Then, what space might we each be willing to give up?
During the discussion at the end, I lost who said what, but some points that have stuck with me are as follows:
  • “discomfort is essential if any of this matters”
  • “displacement does not equal replacement”
  • risk taking is essential, but this is not the sole responsibility of the people of color. “How do we collectivise that risk?” Some suggested deliberate mentorship and applying for money to fund other people (with Crofts Queer Dance as an example).
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Through attending this conference, I networked with scholars and faculty, received feedback that deepened my research, expanded my knowledge of this progressive and dynamic field, and developed skills and language to become a well rounded and forward thinking applicant to collegiate faculty positions. The conference theme “Contra: Dance & Conflict” provoked continuous dialogue as all attendees examined the connections between dance and political, environmental, and social conflict as well as conflicts within Dance and Dance Studies. These nourishing, critical conversations inform my creative/scholarly research and actions as a teacher as I to build a foundation that enriches my own career, the lives of my students, and the fields of Dance and Dance Studies.

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