The Need for Relevancy and Decolonization in Higher Education

BY SHANNON OLESON, ARTWORK BY VIDA VILJOEN

As part of my graduate thesis, “How Creative Dexterity is Developed in Higher Education Dance in the US and the UK,” I conducted interviews with program directors at Juilliard, Tisch at NYU, State University of New York at Purchase, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and London Contemporary Dance School. Analyzing these interviews for common themes show where creative dexterity is embedded in their curriculum. A common theme that emerged was the need for decolonizing dance programs. Included below is an excerpt of my thesis.

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Institutions are continuously striving to demonstrate their relevance and prestige in the educational dance community. There are differences between how the UK and US maintain relevancy and work with companies to teach their students. UK institutions have professional venues attached to their institutions for touring companies and student performances. The US institutions, while having performance spaces and stages, are not touring venues for international companies as the venues are in the UK. US institutions instead reach out to alumni and artists who are good teachers, asking them to come to their institutions and work with their students. The partnerships with artists and companies that come to the institution and perform and teach benefit students as they get to learn from prestigious professional dancers who are relevant to the current dance world. The three institutions in New York have access to a multitude of companies locally based as well as huge stages for touring companies such as The Joyce, BAM and City Center. In the UK, Laban and the Place also have partnerships with companies, sharing spaces for teaching hours and working together with repertoire. However the connections are made, it is clear the dance programs are working to bring in prestigious companies and dancers to offer their students additional classes and master workshops. These partnerships and teaching opportunities are a chance for dancers to make impressionable relationships that have the potential to lead to professional connections.

With relevancy at the front of institutional decisions, it is necessary to note how the events in the world at the time these interviews were conducted shaped relevance in other ways as well. At the time of the interviews, April-June 2020, the world was in the midst of two major events: the COVID-19 global pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter[1] movement protesting racial inequality. The BLM campaign has forced all organizations, including dance companies, universities, and education institutions to look internally to examine and acknowledge white bias. London Contemporary Dance School and Julliard were the most vocal about these issues in their programs and gave insight to how they are looking to amend them. Both Dr. Lise Uytterhoeven (director of dance studies at London Contemporary Dance School) and Alicia Graf Mack (director of dance at Juilliard) started their positions in the past year and are working to challenge their institutions’ Euro-centric curriculums. Both these interviews were conducted in June, and therefore the interviewees might have had these issues at the forefront of their minds. Uytterhoeven states that:

Dancers are open and receptive to different dance and movement practices. And so I think that the consequence of the curriculum now is that the students feel very at home in various techniques. Well, some students do, and others don’t. That’s just awful for them. Imagine doing a three-year degree with four things in it. You don’t feel at home in two or three of them. That’s just unacceptable. I think in my view, it’s definitely about decolonization of the curriculum. So ballet and Cunningham are sort of white techniques that come from a very Eurocentric and Western centric history. Release is sort of making more of the post-modern dance history, which has sort of appropriated some elements of African American culture. But it’s still very whitewashed and it’s got its own aesthetic and its own way of thinking which can be excluding.

Flying low has come out of the global south, out of Latin America, which does challenge to an extent the whiteness of the other techniques. But I don’t think it’s enough. And so I think what we need is a much more versatile curriculum where we bring in lots of different voices, including dances of the African diaspora, hip hop, Asian dance, just different ways of moving that will be uncomfortable for a lot of students and unfamiliar. And what they’ll learn might be more relevant for a different type of student.

Uytterhoeven speaks strongly about needing more versatility, specifically with people of color. Different students will find different techniques more relevant. Uytterhoeven is re-examining LCDS’s currently Euro-centric curriculum and deciding how to be more inclusive of other dance styles so they can offer a less white-washed and more well-rounded dance education.

Graf Mack spoke of wanting to challenge the curriculum of Julliard and bring in a new perspective upon being appointed director of dance. She speaks of the world dance unit students are required to take and how she hopes “we [Julliard] integrate world dance more so into the program than what we have now. It’s important for dancers to have a really wide perspective of what the dance world is.” Graf Mack continues to speak of how relevant hip hop is to all dance, giving an understanding of how to be grounded. This is essential. Graf Mack hopes to have “our eyes open enough to see where those gaps are and to try and fill them.” This speaks to the need for there to be changes in the programs to give a well-rounded dance education.

The other institutions were not specifically asked about Black Lives Matter, nor did they specifically speak to their curriculums in this way. Nevertheless, all institutions should evaluate their curriculums, or at the very least acknowledge their programs are focusing on Euro-centric dance. They should educate dancers about race and the current lack of inclusivity in the dance world as part of the curriculum.

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On transferable skills:

All the dance departments spoke about technique being critical to dance education, but also mentioned other social skills that create a versatile dancer. Within the dance world, not every graduate will be able to have a performance career. Dance is a “competitive field, we have a moral dilemma that we are graduating a lot more dancers than there are dance jobs” (Curran; Towse 1996; Brown & Hesketh 2004; Brown 2007; Zeitner-Smith 2010). These dancers have the skills that are transferable to help them to gain employment in performance, teaching and the arts sector.

Dancers are naturally collaborative and good problem-solvers. Graf Mack hopes dancers:

feel prepared with enough information . . . that they can really pursue any direction, having some real knowledge. Dancers graduate with the most transferable skills out there. Dancers know how to problem solve, they know how to communicate efficiently, how to read a room, ramping up energy when needed and also turning it down. Dancers multitask, work under pressure, and work very rigorously. And there is the ability to self-reflect daily, which most professions do not have…

Dancers are so different, there is no way to 100 percent prepare dancers for the field. Every dancer has a different skillset and is their own individual with their own voice, and they have the creative dexterity to figure out how to find their way.

Nelly van Bommel at SUNY Purchase comments on dance training and any gaps that might be present. She says the training is “never enough.” She continues to explain there is always more to do, and it is so much more than being technical. It is cultivating relationships with choreographers and dancers, and finding a way to raise each student’s voice to become unique and visible.

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[1] Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Their mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, the organization is winning immediate improvements in Black lives.

2 Responses to “The Need for Relevancy and Decolonization in Higher Education”

  1. Ed Owens

    Great article, I hope all dance educators read this and apply it to their programs!

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