SPEAK: Shifting the Paradigm

By Eric Kupers

October 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Many of us teaching artists have unwittingly become stuck in dangerous perceptual habits. While this is happening across all levels of education, I want to focus on the issues of college and university dance programs, as this is where my teaching life has developed. Dance educators throughout the country have struggled with ongoing devaluing and defunding of dance in higher education for decades. When cuts need to be made, the arts are usually first on the chopping block. Administrators often view dance as fun but frivolous—a good thing to have around to augment “real education,” but not something necessary for students’ development. And while this attitude can be quite demoralizing for those of us teaching and studying at colleges and universities, I’m finding it even more disconcerting to see how we educators have internalized these points of view and unconsciously support this unbalanced system.

While teaching at Cal State University East Bay for 16 years, I can’t remember even one quarter when the threat of classes being cut and jobs being lost hasn’t hung over the dance program. We’ve been in a constant state of anxiety. I thought that being promoted to a tenure track position 10 years ago, and then being granted tenure six years after that would end the adrenalized, fear-driven scramble at the beginning of each quarter of instruction. It hasn’t. And like most people living in a state of continual crisis (real or imagined), I’ve gotten used to it and I wouldn’t know how to function without a sense of dread each time there’s a need to fill “low-enrolled” classes.

When I was younger, my dream as an aspiring professional dancer was that someday, if I worked hard enough, and made enough sacrifices I would be able to pay my rent and bills through dance. The financial security of a tenure-track teaching position was way beyond what I could have imagined and I am still regularly overwhelmed by gratitude and wonder at the good fortune of securing this job. So when classes have been cut, we’ve had to work extra or take furloughs, or our benefits have been compromised, I have been so happy to just have a secure job in dance at all, that I wouldn’t think to speak up or fight back. I’m having to train myself to act as though my professorship is just as important as the ones in English or Physics or Business. It’s a continual challenge to my lifelong conditioning. This low-professional-self-esteem infects my thinking about our dance program.

The sentiment that trickles down to us through our Dean’s office is that our Theatre and Dance Department is too expensive. Supposedly we have too many faculty and too many costs for the number of dance majors. We’re given examples of departments that are making the college more money because of their high student to faculty ratios and we are told to be like them. This sends our faculty into a frenzy of planning to recruit more majors. We try: tours to high schools; teaching volunteer master classes; posting flyers around campus; targeting individual students; visiting other departments on campus to sell students on what we do; attending any event that might give us an opportunity to promote ourselves and above all, remaining constantly vigilant. We’re terrified of having our programs cut, like we’ve seen happen at so many other institutions across the country. We’re also completely accustomed to crisis mode, so as soon as the administration tells us that our program is in danger, we fall right into line. We rarely question the logic that sees education as a for-profit business and budgetary formulas as inherently more “real” than other measures of value.

We’re told that our Dean, Provost, and Campus President all value the arts, and that they’re just passing along the economic pressures they feel from those above them. We’re told that if we want to survive in the current campus climate, we need to make more money for the college, as measured by the formulas they’ve developed. At first I believed in this paradigm. I tried everything I could to fill my classes and convince more students to major in dance. But over the last number of years my perceptual framework has shifted.

This constant hustling of students and administrators in order to survive is a fast track to burnout. When we buy into this number-driven crisis mode, we perpetuate it. Every time we “make it work” when allocations are lowered, we silently subscribe to the assertion that dance is expendable and we set ourselves up to start from a weaker baseline the next time cuts are proposed. Sadly, my fellow dance professors and I expect to fight every year to keep our dance curriculum going. We’re relieved when the cuts are minimal. This is a very low bar for our professional goals. Eventually there’ll be nothing left to cut.

Even though we believe that dance is crucial to a well-rounded education, and that for many students it’s at the heart of their university education, we end up embodying the value system that regards dance as non-essential. We come up with all kinds of “Band-Aids,” hoping that our budget shortfalls won’t be noticed, squeezing past whatever the latest mandates are from above, and making do with less than we need. I’m not saying we shouldn’t employ these tactics for ensuring basic survival. In fact I think that they have kept us afloat for decades. They’re simply not a sustainable solution. I’m maxxed out on having to spend so much time justifying our presence on campus and begging for basic classes to continue. There has to be another way.

This past winter we had a significant scare at CSU East Bay. Our Theatre and Dance funding allocation was cut to the point where the budget wouldn’t allow us to offer crucial dance classes. If implemented these cuts would have meant delayed graduation for a number of theatre and dance majors, no technique classes for a quarter, and loss of work for our two long-term lecturers. Our dance faculty and students mobilized quickly and efficiently. Emails went out, a Facebook page was started to “Save Dance at CSUEB” and a flash mob protest was organized. We got a lot of attention. An hour after our protest, surplus funds were suddenly found and at least half of the cut classes were restored. It seemed like a victory for dance. Students, faculty and community supporters felt empowered. Our actions seemed to actually make a difference. But when examined a little closer, our so-called victory ended up being just a smaller cut to our curriculum than originally proposed—but still a destructive cut.

We’re now back in the cycle that could lead to the same thing happening this year. Each time cuts happen, they become the norm. Once we haven’t offered a class for a while, it is nearly impossible to bring it back, because now it would be seen as an added expense rather than a restoration of academic resources. A few years ago we were facing similar extreme cuts. A decision was made to prioritize the classes that feed directly into our performance-focused curriculum and that are taught by our long-term lecturers. We agreed to cut Ballroom Dance, Latin Dance, Capoeira, and Break-Dancing from our ongoing technique roster, in order to keep Modern, Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Ballet. We figured we could get lost classes back in more fruitful times to come. This was a mistake. Not only are we not able to restore the missing classes, but we’re now in danger of losing the bare bones of the dance program. Most of the lecturers lost were dance teachers of color, and now we are threatened with losing our two remaining teachers of color. This can’t happen! While issues of inclusion and representation are complex and multilayered, it is clear to us that our faculty must represent the rich cultural diversity of the Bay Area in order to offer a quality dance education. The devaluing of the arts is inseparable from the complex system of power imbalances and prejudice in our society.

No one in the administration is coming out and saying that they want to cut the dance program, but their actions reveal a lack of understanding of the crucial role the arts play in creating healthy communities. The value of dance on campus is rooted in its fostering of creative problem solving, applied training for inclusive collaboration, support of mental and physical health, capacity for individualized educational paths, focus on inquiry, stress-reduction, community building, and its ability to inspire. What if each of these factors was measured and held in equal regard with budget formulas?

Many dance professors that I’ve talked to about CSUEB’s recent cuts have suggested various ways to ensure greater sustainability in the university. These often include positioning dance as a discipline that will help students in their other disciplines. For instance, there are many studies that show how dance helps students with reading, math, or sciences. This is all well and good, but it furthers the idea that dance is not important on its own. It’s a first step, but I want to caution against getting stuck in this line of justification. I often wonder what it would be like if math or business or chemistry departments had to justify their importance on the basis of how they could help students to do well in their dance classes.

What would it be like for our university to take a more holistic view on education, that sees dance and history and biology and theatre as equally important to the development of an engaged world citizen? As teaching dance artists we believe in such a view, but still find ourselves basing our actions on a model of scarcity. Could we follow M.K. Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you want to see in the world?” Let’s find ways to approach the sustaining of resources with the same creative tools we use in the studio. We need to take action rooted in inquiry, passion, attention to rhythm and tone, commitment to social justice, courageous truth telling, experimentation, rigorous communication, and following our joy. Dance’s place in higher education, and also in society connects us to the power of our shared humanity. Dance is one of the most important tools we humans have to create a more sane society. We need to start acting from this perceptual framework. We can’t afford to belittle ourselves, or what we do any longer.

As a step towards claiming our power as dance educators, the CSUEB Dance Faculty recently launched the Dance Educators Action Network, or D.E.A.N. (inviting dance teachers across the Bay Area to collectively become the Deans of dance!) The intention with D.E.A.N. is to explore ways to exercise the power we have as teaching dance artists in solidarity. We found that in our recent scare at CSUEB we had to start from scratch to protest the cuts. There have been similar crises recently at Mills College and San Francisco State University. There will likely be more across the Bay Area. We need to be prepared.

D.E.A.N. is just one small step in this process. Like entering a new creative project, we can proceed by embracing a “don’t-know-mind.” Our familiar ways of sustaining dance in higher education (and society in general) are barely working. We don’t have to abandon past strategies, but we do need to open up our sense of possibilities for creating educational environments based on our deepest values. Administrators and policy-makers aren’t our enemies. In a sense they are potential students. We have the opportunity to teach them about the goldmine of academic excellence dance provides, before their cuts make it disappear forever.

The Dance Educators Action Network (D.E.A.N.) is organized as a list serve, so that when someone learns about significant threats to dance programs, the list is alerted to let colleagues know what kind of support is needed. Actions might be: emails, phone calls, letters, participation in protests, or other allied activities. Since all have full schedules, there are no meetings planned for this network. Instead, the power will be in the network’s ability to respond efficiently at a moment’s notice. Most of the cuts that we’ve experienced at CSUEB have been very quiet and under the radar of public opinion. D.E.A.N. intends to change this, by helping to gather and direct our collective strength. To join, email eric.ray.kupers@gmail.com.

Eric Kupers is the co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater and an Associate Professor of Dance at Cal State University East Bay. He directs and performs with Bandelion and the CSUEB Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble, both of which experiment vigorously year-round with dance, music, theater, spiritual practice, and social activism for people with and without disabilities and of diverse body identities and artistic backgrounds. More info at: dandeliondancetheater.org and csueastbay.edu/class/departments/theatre