An Open Letter to the Tufts University Dance Program
[content warning: racism, transphobia, cultural appropriation, victim-blaming]
To the Tufts University Dance Program,
We write to you as current students of color who wish to share our experiences of racism in the Tufts Dance Program.
Dance is an embodied, physical practice that is often deeply personal and vulnerable. It requires your full self to be present in the space in order to engage with movement. For this reason, it is necessary to minimize the harm done to students of marginalized identities—so that we too can bring our full selves to the space and to dance.
Many of us gravitate towards the Dance Program in hopes of finding healing through relaxation and expression. However, as students of color in predominantly White and highly vulnerable spaces, many of us have in fact been retraumatized through our experiences. Below are some of our narratives:
As a person of South Asian diaspora, I eagerly approached the North Indian Kathak dance class with dreams of relearning a culture my American upbringing denied me. However, when I discovered that North Indian Kathak was taught by a White woman, my dreams soon shattered. Gretchen came to class every day in a salwar kameez and spoke enough Hindi to count out our steps and no more.
When the time came for our final projects, I presented on Kathak’s manifestation in the non-South Asian body and in the South Asian diasporic body. Gretchen gave me a lower grade than a majority of my classmates and wrote on my returned feedback that I should talk to her after class. As the two of us sat alone in an empty dance lab, Gretchen—with her bright green salwar kameez gleaming in contrast to her white skin—asked me: “What is cultural appropriation?” A lump in my throat swelled. I felt as if I was watching the experience from a point of view other than my own. I watched as I, a South Asian person in Western clothes, talked to Gretchen, a White woman in South Asian clothes. I explained that I thought cultural appropriation was most evident when those of dominant cultures profited from less privileged cultures. I spoke slowly as to not get overwhelmed, as to remind myself that this White professor had authority over me in many ways, as to not cry thinking about all the aunties I knew who taught South Asian dance from their basements for free, just so that my diasporic generation could relearn.
Never did I dream I’d be relearning my culture from a White woman. But then again I should have known. Did Tufts even reach out to the hundreds of South Asian women who have a spiritual connection to this dance form, before choosing to pay this one White woman who knows Kathak?
One day in class, the professor (a White woman) asked us to pair up and create movement based on a couple prompts, one of which was to choreograph movement that challenged gender norms. When a group of two women of color showed her what we had come up with, she asked us to change the direction of the piece and to make it a piece about the pressures that ‘women’ feel from society to look pretty and smile. I was clearly uncomfortable, and the movement felt incredibly unnatural and contrived because I did not feel as though the pressures that the professor spoke of related to me as a person of color. The way that women of color navigate this world and the societal pressures they feel are incredibly different from those of White women. By asking two students of color to change our piece to reflect something that isn’t relevant to us, this professor was creating an unwelcome space for us. White professors often talk about ideas of womanhood only in their own White experiences. I don’t believe that dance professors should ask students to change their pieces to reflect experiences that are different from their own. In these sorts of situations where White women professors speak about gender dynamics exclusively, and not how race also plays into societal pressures, I feel as though the Dance Program only cares for the woman in me, and not the person of color.
I was in the dance building before class one day when I overheard a White woman who teaches a non-Western dance form being asked about what kinds of responses she has received for doing so. She said some students had pushed back. She proceeded to compare herself to a Black woman teaching ballet, suggesting that her action was acceptable if people of color could teach White dance forms. This White teacher also wears clothes and serves food of that non-Western culture without understanding the concept of cultural appropriation.
I find it incredibly disheartening that there isn’t enough conversation regarding cultural appropriation and White privilege so that our educators understand the absurdity of this comparison. Black women have a number of obstacles to overcome to be both successful in White-dominated dance forms and to be hired as professors. On the other hand, this White female professor has a leg up in being considered a ‘legitimate’ dancer, as well as in having access to advantages in entering the realm of academia.
Why does Tufts continue to hire White professors instead of teachers who are from the cultures that they teach about? As a person of color, I find this incredibly alienating, showing me that the Tufts Dance Program does not consider people who look like me legitimate enough dancers to be hired as professionals.
I took a dance composition class that was inclined purely towards European dance. In that space, I had to practice the expected European style in class assignments. During class, only Western contemporary music was played. I couldn’t practice composing dances for my Latin dances. This made it impossible for me in this class to develop my creativity in my dance of interest. I realized that the Dance Program disregards my culture and is not geared towards my needs.
In an in-class exercise, a group of students was discussing whether the proposed activity would be cultural appropriation. In the midst of a productive conversation, our White professor interrupted us. The professor spoke for the student who had suggested the activity, asserting that it was important to continue with the exploration even though the student was ready to change the idea. The professor also invalidated our concerns about appropriation, asserting that “hyperconsciousness of power dynamics” is only limiting the arts.
I raised that as a person of color, I feel angry when I see my culture stolen and paraded onstage by White people. The professor responded that as a White person, they felt happy to watch people of color perform White dance forms onstage—indicating a false comparison and a complete lack of understanding of cultural appropriation.
Over email after class, the professor exercised victim blaming. Instead of addressing the problematic activity, they faulted me for being upset for the situation and for choosing to participate in the activity to begin with.
In “International Social Dance,” we learned folkloric dances indigenous to various groups around the world. These dances had culturally sensitive meaning to the people in the groups from which we were stealing. Many movements mimicked day-to-day actions related to labor-intensive roles in each group.
What we were doing was cultural appropriation and it made me uncomfortable. If we weren’t dancing for the purpose of elevating the people in these groups, giving back to their communities, or learning these dances accurately and with consent, why were we even doing it?
Once, the instructor looked at her token student of color to ask if they do dances like this in their culture. The instructor was completely insensitive to the fact that not all people who look like they’re from a particular part of the world are actually connected to that culture, even if they yearn to be—which can be a sensitive and painful experience.
I considered dropping the class on several occasions, but couldn’t because I did not want to drop my Dance minor. Every minor is required to take one non-Western dance class. The Dance Program is therefore literally forcing White students to appropriate another culture through dance. Cultural appropriation isn’t even brought up in most of these classes, even though it could easily be incorporated through assignments and in-class discussions.
I felt uncomfortable in “Dance Therapy” (a new course taught by a White cisgender woman) because it was another reminder of who therapy usually serves and who is free to express themselves. Dance in itself feels so White to me because of that—when has my body been told to move freely? How can I move freely to express my feelings and my pain when that makes me so vulnerable to the very peers and places that create such unease?
These experiences make up only the tip of the iceberg. Given our lived realities, we are surprised that the Dance Program claims to be concerned about social justice. On the official website of the Department of Drama and Dance, there is a lengthy statement about its commitment to building inclusive communities, recognizing the lived experiences of people of color and queer people, and engaging with social justice.
The Dance Program is not “deeply committed to sustaining a diverse and inclusive community” if students of color continue to experience countless examples of racism in the Dance Program. The Dance Program loves to parade the presence of the few students of color—especially during public events and in marketing materials—but invalidates and neglects complaints we raise in relation to the program’s racism. This is tokenization in a space that disregards our pain and fails to meet our basic needs.
The Dance Program cannot claim to “expand our understanding of what it means to be a more open, representative, and collaborative community” while prioritizing the learning, comfort, and practices of White students and faculty. Cultural appropriation is rampant, especially in a program where most of the non-Western dance forms are taught by White faculty, with little discussion of race and power dynamics. The program’s “color-blind” hiring practices allow racism to continue to fester, doing nothing to address the uneven playing fields of dance and academia for faculty of color.
The Dance Program does not “recognize the humanity and lived experience of […] LGBTQ citizens” when it constantly invalidates and makes invisible our existence. The program has hired no openly transgender or gender nonconforming dance artists as faculty. Across most courses, trans and gender nonconforming students experience constant misgendering, despite introducing themselves with their gender pronouns at the start of each semester. Several classes continue to teach roles or versions of movement based on the gender binary—“women do this and men do that.” Donning rainbow pins is a superficial gesture if the core of the program’s transphobia remains unaddressed.
If the department truly “[invites] students to think about how their coursework engages with social justice issues,” we are putting that into action by writing this open letter. This decision comes after countless attempts to engage through available platforms. We have talked to our professors, approached the Program Chair with complaints, written feedback in instructor evaluations, spoken up in Dance Minor meetings, and more. Now, we come to you in such a public way because we are done being quiet, we are done waiting on change, we are done turning the other cheek—we want respect, we want accountability, we want action.
Students of color of the Tufts Dance Program