The Dancer's Guide to Creating Change in Your College Dance Department

January 7, 2021

Dance Spirit
has highlighted college dance programs committed to dismantling white supremacy. But what if you arrive at your dream dance school to find that Western dance forms are at the center of every core requirement, or that your reading list doesn’t feature a single nonwhite academic? We spoke with Alex Christmas, a doctoral student and member of the Anti-Racist Working Group at Ohio State University, about how college dance students can most effectively advocate for change within their dance departments.

When It’s Time to Catalyze Change

In recent months, many members of the dance community have recognized the racism and implicit bias that permeate both our history and our present. In light of this, more conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion have begun—but not everywhere.

If your college dance department hasn’t taken steps towards tangible, antiracist change, that’s a problem. While the labor of creating and advocating for these changes shouldn’t be placed on college students, if you see (or experience) harm being done, it’s likely you’re going to want to make a difference.

“I think change often starts with, sadly, people getting fed up,” Christmas says. “It’s not students’ responsibility to fix the dance department—it’s the department’s responsibility to create environments that don’t cause students harm. If students are mad, and if they’re wanting change, it’s for a reason.”

Where to Look

Oftentimes, departments continue racist and white-centrist practices under the guise of “tradition.” Take, for example, the ballet class that’s mandated by the typical college dance department. We’re often told that “Ballet is the basis of everything,” and that returning to the barre each day is “tradition.” But it isn’t coincidence that this thinking applies to a Western dance genre.

“The dance department has to not just see things as ‘following tradition,’ and allow necessary change,” Christmas says. “If we want to be a dance department that supports our students and supports dance, we have to be able to adapt and grow with where dance is going.”

At OSU, they’ve hired more teachers trained in African dance styles, and undergraduates are now required to train in ballet, contemporary, and African.

“Ballet is no longer seen as the default, or inherently valued over other styles,” Christmas says. “Which makes sense—it’s not a program that’s only training ballet dancers.”

Look at your college dance department through a critical, antiracist lens. Does the program primarily hire, retain and tenure white faculty? Does your curriculum center primarily (or exclusively) on traditionally white, Western dance forms? Are most of your assignments and discussions informed by white dance scholars? Does your program fail to provide antiracism training for its students?

While these questions are by no means comprehensive, they can be a good place to start. If you’re looking for a further resource, the Dance Studies Association’s “Departmental Call-to-Anti-Racist-Action” delineates many practices that can help a college dance department move forward. The Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance department also released a comprehensive “Anti-Racism Action Plan” online. Documents like these can be a good place to start looking.

Get Organized

“One of the best things you can do is organize,” says Christmas. “Find allies and get on board with other people—even other student groups who are trying to push for similar changes and developments in their own departments.”

Organization and coalition building can be crucial to the success of a movement. While you can, of course, impact change as an individual, joining other dancers can amplify your voice. And other antiracism groups on campus can serve as a useful resource—ask fellow students what strategies have been successful, and introduce them to your own organization. Working with others will also remind you that you’re not alone in the fight.

“Go back to your department and say, ‘They’re doing this in another department—why haven’t we?'” Christmas says. “Be explicit and clear about what you want, and provide examples. Then, down the line, leadership can’t say they didn’t understand your demands. They’ll know they made the conscious decision to say no.”

Practice Self-Care

Don’t allow department leadership (or others) to suggest that the work you’re doing isn’t important. “There’s often devaluing,” Christmas says. “Devaluing of the work, of the labor, of the time.”

Christmas shared an experience of devaluation: She had set a meeting with a member of leadership. But when the meeting time arrived, the person canceled, saying that they were too busy, but they would leave her and her fellow organizers to ‘do all the fun stuff.’

“Talking about racism is not fun,” Christmas says. “Addressing issues within the department is not fun, and it’s also not my job. It’s so demeaning to devalue our work like that.”

Recognize that this work is demanding and can be emotionally exhausting. As dancers, we often value physical labor over emotional—but remember that your emotional labor is valuable too.

“Don’t burn yourself out,” says Christmas. “You don’t work for the institution. You can fight for change within it, but you need to practice self-preservation. Know when to step back.”