“Addressing race issues at CC has been like talking to a white wall for the last four years”—Trevon Newmann, Jaiel Mitchell, and Ellen Wen.
By ANKITA SHARMA
Sharma is a first-year who was recently announced as one of the Dance Workshop co-chairs. She has choreographed and danced for the last two dance workshops.
On dance at CC:
Trevon Newmann: I’ve always tried to make the dance scenes at CC work together to be connected to make dance more impactful here. It’s been a big loop of miscommunication and lack of information.
Ellen Wen: There’s a lack of communication. We don’t talk to each other because we are afraid of offending other groups.
TN: We need to do a better job of connecting all these parts of dance, so they can be better supported and regarded on campus. The study of the body isn’t appreciated, it’s devalued. It’s a practice that would make everyone think differently though, thinking about what bodies mean. People don’t think dance is deep here. People think it’s just fun.
On their dance pieces:
TN: Diversity and inclusion has always been the number one goal, and that is a thing that has been lacking within the dance community. Before I started talking to them, Dance Workshop was about how to generally be well-received, how to make the white students comfortable. [They assumed] if they were comfortable, that would mean that I’m comfortable.
EW: Bringing in an Asian dance background, after creating an Asian piece for Dance Workshop, I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t think my piece was respected. People want to watch what’s comfortable to them, and DW caters towards the limited range of what people feel comfortable with.
Jaiel Mitchell: The first piece Tre and I did together was our way of looking at the Black Lives Matter movement. It was this platform for us to explore the issue for ourselves, but it also became this space for us to bring a lot of people together to talk about social change.
On the finale:
TN: I’ve always wanted to do this with the finale. I didn’t want to go up there and dance as if none of these issues took place in Dance Workshop. The email was an opportunity to present a concrete idea, but the pushing has happened for so long before that. I still get frustrated, but I was fine with two years of feeling like I was talking to a wall. Something out of my control happened, and it was able to finally launch this platform for change. It made it easier to get other people on board and gave me a concrete reason to back up what I wanted to do. The email lit a fire under a lot of people on campus.
EW: Change doesn’t just work from the top-down, it also has to come from the bottom up. Creating a petition to get a change in the finale format was a concrete first step for us to take and a way to cohesively enumerate our concerns. It was unprecedented and met with some resistance.
On tokenization in dance:
JM: It feels like people are interested in trying to look like they are being inclusive, so they will cast one or two people of color so that we can’t say “you had an all-white piece.” And then if we call them out on racial bias, they’ll say, “Well, we had one or two people of color in my piece.” And that is tokenizing. It’s saying these two people of color fill my quota for brown people, so I can’t be biased.
TN: A lot of people are not used to being around students of color, so they cultivate a space or culture geared towards white people. With a POC choreographer, race always comes up. With a white choreographer, it’s about just doing the movement. I end up being put in boxes, doing things that I have been stereotyped to do [because of my black body], and it’s demeaning. It comes from CC culture, and not knowing how to interact with POC. I see it in pieces, in dance classes. How we talk to each other relates to how we talk about white supremacy. We don’t talk.
On dance as social change:
JM: I personally have found many opportunities with dance faculty to use my dance as a platform for social change. However, I have not always felt that my dance was viewed by those faculty members as a platform for social change. In that regard, it feels like the dance faculty’s intention is to make dance just for the hell of it, as a form of art rather than a message in and of itself. It’s aesthetic activism. [They] are doing it because it looks nice but not because [they] believe it’ll actually make a difference or better yet, change [their] behavior.
EW: It is incredibly disrespectful to utilize the work of an artist without respecting who they are as individuals and the role of their experience and identity in their work.
TN: People think dance can be made nonpolitical. No matter what you put onstage, you are making decisions, and it has been a while since people have started thinking about what they put up there as a decision.
JM: There is also such a large disconnect between what I was learning and thinking about in Cultural and Historical Perspectives in Dance and the way the dance department and consequently Dance Workshop operates. In part, because there was a woman of color teaching it who made us think about these things. In class, we’ll have these conversations about anti-racist, decolonizing dance work, and in Dance Workshop and Dansix they just stop. All of the framework is there for things to not be the way that they are, and yet they still are.
A final message to the Dance Department:
TN: Prioritize your students of color. Even if there are no students of color in the classroom, can you still vouch for different people and care for different issues? Stop relying on me to draw in non-white students. You have to do the work. I’m still waiting for that one white choreographer to make that white privilege piece.
EW: Don’t be afraid to discuss complicated and difficult issues. It’s a part of our education and a part of being an adult for everyone involved.
JM: We have to start by acknowledging that there are issues in the first place. My love for the dance department and what I have learned is not in any way compromised by my qualms with it. Rather, it is because I love the department and I want to see more people get involved that I push for it to change.
EW: Do better™ @ everyone.