BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY CAMILLE TAFT
When I went to grad school five years ago at USC for arts journalism, I had the opportunity to become involved with the applied theater arts program, which specifically focused on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. In addition to taking several of my electives through the program, I audited many of the other classes and participated in the auxiliary workshops and community events I could fit into my schedule. The reason I took on all this extra work in the midst of my own department requirements is because it was the first time I had been introduced to the social justice ramifications of art. Art, for me, had been about expression, talent, skill, work ethic and desire, but it had never really been an agent of social change before then.
Since grad school, I have increasingly devoted my journalistic platform, Stance on Dance, to including historically marginalized voices. In dance (pick a genre, any genre), there are deeply embedded notions with regards to gender, race, body type and age. Even the slightest variation (like Misty Copeland, as an obvious example) seems to create a deluge of discourse. My ongoing question to myself has been: What if I really take a look at who dances beyond the hierarchical company model? This vein has led me to actively seek out voices that push traditional notions of who is a dancer.
I am a young, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper middle-class, well-educated woman living in the United States of America. I freely admit it is difficult and problematic for me to attempt to build a platform that contextualizes and represents marginalized voices, but the alternative – not creating a platform that includes marginalized voices or, worse, not running Stance on Dance – doesn’t feel like an option.
This fall, I will be rolling out a new series of interviews with professional disabled dance artists. I am doing this project in collaboration with Silva Laukkanen, who regularly contributes podcasts to Stance on Dance and who has spent years studying, promoting and teaching disability dance. The goal is to investigate and dismantle language and stereotypes often used to describe dancers with disabilities.
While doing these interviews, I’ve also been actively reaching out to interview other historically marginalized voices. In doing so, I’ve noticed a lack of intersectionality between “identities.” For example, artists focusing on race might be unaware of the ways in which they are concurrently perpetuating ableism or gender norms, and vice versa. Of course, it is impossible to be aware of every possible intersection, but I’m worried there’s a certain righteousness that happens without realizing we might still be perpetuating privilege and lack of access.
I am far from immune. Some intersections that have come up for me just recently: I make it a point to have a dance artist of color or a dance artist with a disability on the homepage of Stance on Dance at any given time, but I more than once have found myself wondering what race someone is or if someone is disabled, deciding on a micro level whether or not someone looks racial or disabled enough. This is NOT what I want to do, but I also don’t want Stance on Dance’s homepage filled exclusively with white able-bodied cisgender women, which it’s already inclined toward.
Another intersection: I’ve had interviewees mention to me there should be more disabled dance writers, more Indigenous dance writers, more trans dance writers, etc. Yes, I agree! And I am always cautious of the word “should.” I am a dancer and a writer. I’m not saying everyone should take on both roles, but in our current arts ecosystem where dance writing is generally uncompensated, and yet much sought out and valued, I invite dance artists who wish there was more diversity among dance writers to write. I’m putting it in print: If anyone who is disabled/LGBTQ/of color/some representation I haven’t yet considered wants to write about dance, Stance on Dance is open and available. I can’t pay contributing writers because I don’t pay myself and don’t make any money from Stance on Dance, but people do read this blog, and it does comprise a contextualizing forum.
There are other intersections I’m daily being made aware of. For instance, the majority of voices on Stance on Dance are single. There’s this stereotype that when a (female) dancer has a family, her dancing days are over. Just recently, one woman wrote an essay for Stance on Dance about how she balances her family and her creative life, and I realized the representation of dancers who prioritize having children has largely been absent from the site. I’m sure there are other voices I’ve unintentionally excluded.
I also wonder about my place in all this as a dancer, not just as a curator/writer/editor. I love to perform and have increasingly begun choreographing on myself the past few years and presenting my work in studios, galleries and performance venues. As a writer and curator of Stance on Dance, I would not normally be interested in someone like me, but as a dancer/performer, I have no choice but to be. Along those lines, I helped organize a show last year, Fierce Feminine Risings, in which we tried to have an array of voices represented but were mostly comprised of white women. Another white dance artist in the community told me she refused to be a part of the show unless it was comprised of more than white women, meanwhile not offering to assist with the administrative work finding diverse artists and asking them to participate. And while we did find a trans dancer and dancers of color to participate in the show, I was worried they felt tokenized, valued more for their representation than for their artistic contribution.
I don’t have any answers here. I’m just voicing some thoughts from my position as a dance artist who is simultaneously attempting to curate dialogue with historically marginalized voices. I suppose my thesis is something along the lines of: granted that there are so many ways of responding to the incredible inequality in our world, righteousness can be risky, no matter how well founded. There is always another perspective to consider, another intersection to discover.