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 —