Cyphers in Cyberspace: Reimagining Cultural Arts and Dance Education in a Post-COVID World

By Ezra Myles

Black and white photo of Ezra Myles sitting

Photo by Donald Haffenden, Upbound Photos
[ID: Ezra, Black and white photo of young Black American man with a slight smile in a dark dress shirt and lighter pants, seated with left arm resting on his left thigh and right hand resting at his chin.]

On Tuesday, March 16th, 2020, Governor Newsom announced that a shelter-in-place order would go into effect across the State of California. Initially, I went into quarantine secretly optimistic. Running from late-night performance gigs to school sites to weekend events was already taking its toll on my health, so I saw the SIP as an opportunity to take much-needed (and deserved) time to rest, reflect, and plan. Before the start of the pandemic, I worked in Richmond as a cultural arts educator, event production manager, and program administrator for East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. I coordinated after-school enrichment programs and taught Afro-Diasporic dances like Samba and Hip-Hop to African-American youth in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Before the pandemic, I knew that many of my students weren’t aware of the Afro-Diasporic roots of the art forms we studied, but I only provided historical context to supplement a focus on technique and physical fitness. I didn’t feel the urgency to explore these aspects in-depth because when we were together in person they could experience firsthand the qualities of Afro-Diasporic dances that make them so powerful and special. Whether it was the Hip-Hop cyphers of the Bronx, the capoeira and samba rodas of Brazil, or the Second Line parades of New Orleans, these practices inherently cultivated rituals of community exploration, competition, cooperation, and social/emotional awareness through self-expression. During virtual learning, I realized how important it is to explicitly articulate our dance practices’ shared histories and legacies through play. For my students to see the social, emotional, physical, and intellectual benefits of learning culturally responsive arts education, I had to forsake linear, regimented, Westernized pedagogical structures in favor of a circular, holistic, experience that more accurately reflected the Afro-diasporic communities from which these art forms originated.

Over 365 days later, the country is slowly emerging from its solitary confinement. As I reflect on this year of virtual dance learning, one thing has become strikingly clear: not only are many of our young students tragically estranged from their cultural and artistic heritage, but this estrangement negatively affects their social, emotional, and intellectual development. More than any other performing art form, Afro-diasporic dances come from traditions built within the safety and power of the drum circle, the roda, the cypher. These dance rituals thrive in spaces of physical contact and connection between performers, musicians, and the audience. Without those spaces, students are left with nowhere to go but social media and video games for connection.

The problem is that these cyberspaces are often unprotected social spaces where concepts of dance as an art form are oversaturated with decontextualized viral dances like Fortnite “emotes” and any number of dance challenges on TikTok. Emotes, short, downloadable interactions like taunts, poses, and dances, are based on real dances taken from popular trends and Afro-Diasporic culture and renamed without attribution or context. Notable diasporic dance additions to Fortnite include the “Conga” of Afro-Cuban origin; the comedic, Carlton Banks-inspired “Fresh” dance; and “Breakneck,” an acrobatic move originally known in Hip-Hop circles as the “Windmill.” Out of the 45 students that I taught this year between ages 8-15, 75% of them actively use TikTok and 50% of them play Fortnite. Out of those same 45 students, only 5 of them knew anything about the Transatlantic Slave Trade or the Afro-Diasporic origins of Hip-Hop dance before taking my class.

Second, the lack of comprehensive, culturally responsive arts education in our public schools deprives the students of valuable context to understand and navigate their experiences as children of color in America. In other words, the dances they see on TikTok and other social media platforms are part of a history that they are not aware of and our public schools are not filling the gaps. Without that crucial context, under-resourced teaching artists are left with the herculean task of teaching the content in a way that is engaging enough to bridge the knowledge gap while also providing social, emotional, and/or physical wellness. And this was before introducing the myriad technological barriers that arose during virtual learning.

In the absence of that reciprocal relationship, the pandemic forced me to adapt in order to recreate that space of connection at the intersection of dance practice, art history, and technology. One way that I did this was through teaching about Carnival. Carnival’s vibrant, multicultural festival of food, music, dance, and pageantry is coded with both joyful liberation and subversive resistance. It inherited the subversiveness from its European roots as a Pre-Lenten festival of excess but gained new meaning as an emancipation tradition through the African, Asian, and Indigenous practices that were infused into the parades, performances, and parties. It is also one of the few cultural heritage celebrations that are recognized in some fashion across every part of the African Diaspora. While the depth and breadth of these experiences transcend dance, by focusing on performance through play and the emotional release that we experience in dance, I was able to help students alleviate the emotional toll of the pandemic.

Carnival parades are intensive, orchestrated, productions, but they are also very much about the spontaneity of dancing and playing music in the streets for the pure joy of performance. During class, I taught the Trinidadian concept of “playin’ mas,” short for masquerade, to introduce the concept of performance as play. I then recreated that experience in the virtual classroom through games. The first game was Kahoot, an online learning platform where educators can create their own trivia games for students to practice and learn. This allowed me to introduces names, figures, places, and events without the students feeling like they’re being tested and pressured. The second game was “follow the leader,” a dance activity where I showcase a series of movements in sequence and ask the students to follow along to the best of their ability. These movements focus on both technique and process. I incorporate body isolations and footwork in quick succession to a wide range of Carnival music including New Orleans Second-Line, Trinidadian Soca, and Brazilian Samba. The purpose is not for the students to focus on learning the techniques, but to have fun, become familiar with the music, and let go of the pressure to be perfect.

By changing the format of my Carnival dance curriculum to focus on play, I was able to move away from technique toward expression. In doing so, my students were able to at least acknowledge their emotional well-being, if not process and articulate how they felt in a healthy way. This is critical because whether it’s our professional workplaces, our students’ classrooms, or our intimate, interpersonal relationships, we are constantly told to check our emotions like luggage at the proverbial door of success. During the pandemic, this was no longer sustainable. Some of my students would sit in the same room for six hours, stressing about internet issues, their parents’ job security, their grandparents’ health and safety, while trying to learn Math or English. By the time they came to dance, not only were they tired of Zoom, but there was no outlet for their stress. By taking intentional time to express our feelings at the beginning and end of every class, dancing spontaneously, and removing the pressure to perform, they managed to learn both about the culture and the beauty of connecting through that culture despite being physically separated.

As we cautiously return to in-person education, events, and experiences, I am sobered by the immense burden that the pandemic placed on our students, our systems, and our community. The uncertainty around the future of education and arts programming is still concerning, and many of my students will continue to engage in social media and video games as their primary forms of peer-to-peer interaction. However, I’m grateful to know that my students will return to in-person instruction excited about dance, armed with a foundational knowledge of their heritage, greater self-worth, and better tools for self-advocacy and self-expression. I am inspired by my students’ resilience and growth despite the tragic circumstances and I am invigorated by how creativity allowed us to adapt and adopt new means of building connections through dance. Most of all, I am humbled to witness how the traditions of Afro-Diasporic cultural arts still carry truth and power through practice, even across the Internet. As a millennial dancer, artist, and educator, I believe it is my privilege and responsibility to carry forward that knowledge into the 21st century in a way that bridges the gap between the drum circle and the cybersphere.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of In Dance.

Ezra Myles is a Choreographer, Illustrator, Poet, Event Producer, and Arts Educator with over a decade of experience performing across the country and internationally. He is currently utilizing his skills as a creative to support local arts organizations in the Bay Area focused on empowering youth and providing community wellness through the arts. He is a Production and Programs Coordinator at East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, one of the principal dancers and Co-producers for SambaFunk! Carnaval Explosion, and founder of MylesBeyond Entertainment, a production company that provides event, entertainment, and marketing services.