Love Letter to the Dance Community in MKE (and my teachers)

There are many very astute, caring, and vibrant artists who are having different conversations surrounding racial justice in dance in Milwaukee. As I continue to look for ways to understand how I — particularly in my role as a teacher — can better enact, support, and advocate policies and a culture that empowers anti-racist actions in our community, it feels important to process those converging discussions now in writing — even if imperfectly. It is clear, more than ever, that there is a need to remain deeply committed to listen to students past and present, to BIPOC especially, and to reflect on the ways that my teaching reimagines how freedom, justice, and equality move from theory to practice out of all the classrooms where I teach and into the world. And to explicitly state that yes, I am listening.

These thoughts  continue to reflect on my past and current practices:

Does my teaching and my artistry help to re-imagine and re-envision the possibilities for the body in motion to reflect the fullness of the people of Milwaukee (and beyond)? How so? As a teacher, how can my syllabi be better in their commitment to anti-racist practices? Where are my blind spots? Where are the flaws that need repair? How do I step into more agency when patriarchy consistently dominates conversations and does that disproportionately affect Black women and women of color in the room? How do my teaching materials and methods dismantle false categorizations by/of race? How does thought translate into action? How does theory push into practice?

One summer, during an MFA class at UWM under my charge, students (shout out to those  involved) were teaching and it was fairly chaotic by nature. I was asked to honor the students’ call for more pedagogical practice, and it was therefore my work to dismantle the pervasive hierarchical dance mastery methodology and give them space to lead. Marcia Parsons was watching and I mentioned that things were a little disorganized by design for the day. She said to me, “true learning is messy.” Shortly thereafter, I was part of another conversation where I heard Ferne Caulker Bronson say “sometimes, you have to get out of your own way.” I reaffirm those ideas here, now, in my commitment to continue to learn amongst this community.

In this white body, I must check my own lens, as Joyce Bylander at Dickinson College would say — my own noise. I must listen and continue to accumulate the knowledge necessary for change.

The MFA program I went to — directed by Donna Faye Burchfield —  helped me to get outside my training in classes with her and with Tommy Defrantz.  They helped me to see form for the space of relationality it truly is/was/could be. Reading bell hooks helped to move me away from the hierarchical model of Western European privileged ideas and methods that I was personally trained in to reconsider how we, as students and teachers, think, move, and imagine together. She states “I celebrate teaching that enables transgression — a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom” (Teaching to Transgress). When I was doing my undergraduate training at a conservatory, there was a feeling that many of the “academic” teachers there were begrudgingly teaching at the arts school in town — a school where freedom didn’t readily enter the lexicon. But I had one particularly incredible English teacher, Jeff Morgan, who once said that teaching can rid the world of unnecessary suffering.

And now, 15 years after I first began to teach, I’ve come to understand that education must stop becoming a means onto itself. It’s not enough. As I’ve been recently reading Ibram Kendhi’s work, and the notion that racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, it remains ever more evident that education must move from and towards action and governance. It can not remain a privileged ivory tower luxury of thought.

After my 5 year old studied Black History during February of this year and shortly before the lock down, she made a Black Lives Matter sign. We didn’t put it on the house like she asked (albeit was drawn very lightly in pencil, so we saved it for a while with the intention — big word right now! — to clarify it and get it out there). But after the murder of George Floyd, I recognized my mistake. That sign should have been on the house already. We should have prioritized it painted it and put it up and not allowed the world to shed more blood of our black citizens before we white people openly and relentlessly begin to state that black lives not only matter, but that we — white people! — must tear down the systems of domination that benefit us unjustly. Those structures need to topple like all these monuments being torn down — to make space for and support the creation of something new.

We put the sign up.

But again, knowledge accumulates and I can say our family isn’t going “back” to something now. Something where our privilege allows us to only say things about racism when it’s convenient or comfortable or popular. We must keep our eyes open, first and foremost, towards ourselves. As Donna Faye has said, we must remain in change.

So I’m there. And ready.

And then, there’s dancing.

I believe in the ability of dance and dancers to converge the body with theory and our humanity, and to create motion. We can look to the the dance floor of the Stonewall Inn, here at the end of Pride month and almost exactly 51 years ago to the day, as a catalyst for LGBTQ rights. We can remember how those dancing people moved to the streets to encourage our faith in how our movement and our momentum, together, can affect change.

TLDR = count me in for the work.

With respect, gratitude, humility, commitment, and forward motion —
Dawn

CRY

One of my goals for the past week has been to avoid getting in a fight on Facebook about this election. The other was to not eat all the Halloween candy in the house. Both have been tremendous struggles, and let’s just say we are out of candy. Now, I need to record how I feel about the presidential election, specifically in relationship to my children, so that someday they can read this.

To try and cope with the reality that my two little girls– ages 2.5 years and 6 months — live in a country that elected a candidate who bragged that he “doesn’t even wait” to kiss women and how women allegedly let him “grab them by the pussy” is impossible.When the tape came out and people were horrified, I was surprised at the country’s shock. I asked a male friend, “How is this even making such huge news? We know this is the type of person we are dealing with.” I was certain he didn’t have a chance. To my horror, I now realize that these vile remarks really didn’t matter to millions of Americans, they weren’t as important as other issues, and to some it clearly made him appear even more powerful and fit to lead.

Women’s bodies will always take the hit for political gain, whether it’s from a man joking that Obama’s protection of transgender bathroom choice is a “dream come true” so he can spy on women, or if it’s a so called progressive protesting the President elect by holding up a sign that says “Rape Melania.” Or perhaps these strikes come in attempts to strip a woman and her doctor of making clear decisions about her reproductive health. In the political realm, the woman is a pawn and sexual violence is fair game.

I was sexually harassed as a waitress so many times that I can’t even count the incidents. The most disturbing was in college when the chef/owner of the restaurant approached me while I was talking to his wife — who was my direct boss — and in his drunken stupor told us that he wanted to perform a very explicit sexual act on me. Now, 14 years later, our country had the option of electing someone who openly admits to committing sexual acts without consent, or someone with questionable email practices. We wanted to metaphorically stone her and called her corrupt and we elected an admitted sexual predator. In the land of the free, America just confirmed that basic human rights that affect half the population are not as important as men getting more rich. I understand we are all trying to feed our families. So if voters overlooked the recorded comments of the President elect because of economic reasons, I ask, how it can possibly be good for the economy if half the work force is now feeling even more vulnerable on the job because violent and lascivious men are emboldened by their commander in chief?

Several people have wondered aloud how so many women could have voted in this direction. But I am not surprised. Patriarchy runs deep and we, as women, participate in it everyday whether we realize it or not. In addition to my waitressing career, I have been in other work environments where a man was flirting inappropriately with me. Women that I deeply love told me that my choice to deflect their advances was not strong enough. No one reproached the men for their abuses of power in these situations. And I understand why they didn’t. They were afraid, just like I was. A male colleague once, in disgust, likened female genitalia to a “slasher film” and he was excused because he is gay. A co worker once smacked my butt in an office where a member of my family was his boss. I was too embarrassed to mention it, and I was confused because I found him attractive. I blamed myself. We blame each other. And we let men get away with these things so that we don’t have to deal with them any further. We look to each other to form alliances rather than call them out because we also need our paychecks.

People might counter that Hillary Clinton is guilty by association regarding her husband’s abuse of power with Monica Lewinsky. I would say that lots of women have stayed married to men who did something they were mortified and heartbroken by, just like that Chef’s wife. Or perhaps one might say that several Presidents had “side chicks” and were considered playboys.  I would say precedence does not equal justice. In this specific case we are talking about sexual violence. The whole world heard him say he “doesn’t even wait” for consent. There were two men on that tape. One lost his job with Access Hollywood but the other was elected President? Just imagine for a moment if we had heard Hillary Clinton say she likes to dehumanize men and do something to their testicles. Imagine that.

I know people who feel forced to vote republican because of abortion (and although I am pro-choice, I truly can understand the pro life perspective). But in the case of this election,  I would like to know who is going to protect my already-born baby girls’ rights from men who abuse their power if this is the example we put forth in a so called victory for Christianity? This man could not be farther from the Christ-like behavior I was taught. Our country has just condoned and enabled, or at the very least minimized sexual violence and put a champion of it in office. Locker room talk has real consequences on the bodies of women like my growing girls, and I’m so furious I can barely see straight.

My dear daughters, at some point in the future you are probably going to read this. If anything even remotely close to what happened to me in college happens to you I want you to be more brave than I was. Scream it from the mountain tops and tell the world what a disgusting, pathetic excuse of a person ANY ONE is if they humiliate you for their own pleasure. Even if they are your boss. Even if they are the President. I promise you will gain so much more than you will lose.