Dancing in a professional dance company has always been a dream of mine. Ever since I was little, I would mimic what I would see on music videos played on MTV and CMC. When I first told my mother I wanted to switch my major to Dance from Pre-Nursing, I was met with “What kind of job will you get with that?” Upon becoming a dance major, I began to wonder “Why don’t the other students in my class have this same issue? How is it that their parents seemed to be supportive of their decision to pursue the arts?”
I am a child of immigrants. My parents arrived in the U.S. with little to no support on how to navigate this new world. Let alone how to raise a child in a world or system they knew nothing about. So many questions ran through my mind my senior year of college and even after I graduated.
Why is it a problem for people like me to pursue a career in the arts?
Can I make a living with a career in the arts?
Where is the money in the arts?
Why is it largely not accepted for people like me to want to pursue art, or dance, as a career?
Is this my mental health speaking? Or am I living within a system that does not adequately support and provide resources for “people like me.”
When I say “people like me,” I mean Filipinos who have come to the United States for a “better life.” And yes, there are opportunities in this country compared to life back on the islands where life is much slower, simpler, and serene. Until U.S. militarization decides to occupy the land. But that might be a topic for a different day…
Fast forward, I left the pre-nursing I’ve pursued for four years behind and I am now a dance major. Long amounts of time being spent on conditioning and training my body, being with my body, and recovering my body was a dream to me. The studies and rehearsals led to me excel at my craft of performance while continuing to develop my artistic voice and profile of choreographic experience. I have been awarded two of the Carol Haas Excellence in Performance Awards. I wanted to keep the momentum going. Months after graduation, I was invited to a choreography showcase and performed a solo entitled “Prayer.” This piece was an ode to the limitations in life that we get to meet, resist, and accept. I felt like in a way, this was my entrance into the dance world no longer as a student held by educational institutions; I was finally dancing for myself.
Professor, you invited me back the following year to showcase two different choreography pieces. I invited dancers to join me that were not of technical, traditional, or classical training. In other words, their dancing was not Eurocentric. Instead, this particular dance collaborator studied street dance as his primary dance form. We created a dance piece together and submitted it to the choreographic advisor. The duet consisted of beautiful partner work, angular movements, sharp and solid textures, and heartfelt story lines. Upon receiving the feedback of the submission reviewer, I was disappointed in their response.
“You need to find a more articulate dancer.”
“I agree. We need to be at the highest level especially with Diablo Ballet dancers on the same program.”
I was infuriated. I felt insulted. I was insulted. Who are you to tell me I must find a more technical dancer for our own choreography? When you have no idea about what the technique to this dance form is in the first place? I was deeply disappointed in this reviewer’s comment. I was flat out appalled. Street dance has its own technique, style, and form. Because this reviewer’s eye was not keen on street dance forms and its aesthetic, our choreography was seen as less than, unworthy of sharing a stage with ballet dancers. The hierarchy made me uncomfortable. The comments made me feel undervalued. This is why I made the decision to pull the duet out of the show. I refuse to take part in something that has no commitment to uplifting the artistic healing of dancers of color. I wondered, who are these directors trying to appease? The donors? If so, who are the donors? Why would they not be interested in viewing street dance on stage? Any particular reason why? Were they trying to appease their own biases? I am not interested in artistic endeavors that continue to gate-keep dance spaces from folk or street dance and only hire “professional” dancers that are “classically” trained.
Eurocentric dancers and performers have long held the priority within university and concert dance spaces. I am constantly pondering the reason why? Why is ballet and modern considered to be the most supreme dance form of all? And all folk dance or street style dances are considered to be second-class or less-than? It is clear that you do not value or bat an eye at the importance of culture folk and street dance forms uplift. For this reason, I am divorcing from your work and your community. I no longer wish to participate in your events, nor give you my energy, hard work, artistry, and talent.
There is so much more to say, but I will leave it at that for now.
Danielle Galvez (she/they) founded Archive Dance Collective, a space where artists and educators foster self discovery through dance education. We cultivate authenticity and nurture trust in body’s expression by providing time and space for connection, conversation, and movement. All facilitation is informed by Responsive Body™
To the school that I trusted my mind and body to.
A trust that would dwindle down year after year. As a school, thousands of students, every year, trust you to provide for them, to nurture a space for us. Were you aware of what me and my peers went through during our time with you?
How useless sometimes it feels to try and guilt trip an establishment that only cares about money, but the feeling to do so is cathartic. I’ve always thought of dance as an art that frees the mind and body, and I still do, but the systems that help us navigate through dance seem to work in the opposite direction.
I remember my first quarter quite well. I remember being excited, in awe of the beautiful studio. I remember feeling grateful to finally be housed in a studio, with full mirrors built in the three walls, with a booming stereo system to match. I remember the padded floors that would protect our bodies. Little did I know that the quality of these materialistic things were not indicative of the quality of the teaching I would receive. I remember meeting everyone else, friends that I had ‘til this day, also excited to be dancing in the studio again, or even for the first time.
I also remember our professor coming into our Hip Hop 1 class and telling us he was a substitute and not the regular teacher for this class. I remember him telling us, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, but how hard is it to teach a Hip Hop class?”
To my professor, do you remember us? The students you neglected. The culture you co-opted for your benefit. The professor who refused to acknowledge he didn’t know anything about a discipline but decided to assume the power of position anyways. The same power you used to impose Eurocentric ideas of beauty on us with? Do you remember how you told some of my friends that their bodies were too awkward to be dancers? Do you remember how you said one of our classmates should lose weight to be a better dancer? Do you remember splitting our final projects into groups of all males or all females? Do you remember when you told a group of my friends to dress more Hip Hop for their final, telling them to wear hoodies and add accessories like chains and bandanas. Do you remember how there were dancers in the class way more capable of teaching a Hip Hop class, but because of the arbitrary way we legitimize dance educators, their expertise was seen as illegitimate?
I remember this clearly, and I bet all of my classmates do, too. I’m sure that we’ll all carry that baggage into our future endeavors with dance. To our professors, you have the comfort of starting new every semester. You have the comfort of forgetting us, your impact on us, while we have no choice. We are left with the world of undoing the damage you caused.
This was my first inkling that something was wrong with our dance program, but I disregarded it. As a student who holds nearly no power in the system, dismantling the system seemed almost impossible. Guilt also followed me as I hid away from directly opposing the ideas and standards imposed in our class.
The next year, I thought things would be better. He was a substitute for the quarter after all. I trusted you, the school, again, with my mind and body, still sore from the year before. But I trusted you again, not because of curiosity, but because simply, I wanted to dance, and I would do almost anything to do so.
My next dance class was a student-run class called Workshop. I would come to love this class over the years, but this first year was absolute hell.
In my first quarter in this class, I clashed with my professor’s ideals of colonization and Eurocentric standards. In my second, I fought against my fellow peers and classmates. Workshop was a class in which students taught the curriculum. I was so shocked to see a class of students be given that much freedom still confine themselves to colonial expectations of what dancing should be. We had a whole studio to ourselves, and a class period from 2-6pm. It was four whole hours of dancing in a studio taught and ran by the students.
My disappointment in how little we differed from our professors that upheld such damaging ideas of dancing hit hard. That’s what we were, generation after generation, receiving and handing down these colonized ideas without question or protest. Trauma teaches trauma.
To my upperclassmen, do you remember the environment you set up for us as we came in? Do you remember how competitive you made the class out to be? Do you remember how every day of rehearsal was an intense audition? Do you remember how much you overworked each of us for the sake of putting up a show to make money? Do you remember that one dancer that twisted her ankle due to the intense work environment of the class? Do you remember how she was told she was no longer needed in the class and how she was excluded from returning? Do you remember cutting one of our best dancers out of a piece because she had gotten pregnant? Do you remember fighting each other, choreographer with choreographer, comparing whose piece was superior from others? Do you remember claiming that dancers who weren’t fluent in English were difficult to teach choreography too? Do you remember how you excluded anyone existing outside the Eurocentric standards of beauty from participating in a sexy piece? Do you remember allowing the darker skinned dancers to participate in only the “ratchet” piece, but then excluding them from everything else? How, if you were trained in ballet or modern, you were cast in more pieces, regardless if it called for the technique or not?
At the end of the day, we weren’t dancers to you. We were tools to build your visions and to have them come to life, and nothing more. And at the end of the day, I realized we grew up to become the bitter professors we despised for putting us in small boxes.
I think it’s easy to be angry and frustrated with the mascots of colonization. In fact I feel ashamed calling them mascots. These are people who think they’re right. These are people who’ve had these behaviors and ideas passed down onto them, and for years, these ideas have sat and stewed in their minds as normal and correct. And I understand the horror of being wrong, corrected, and challenged.
I remember when I harshly criticized a middle aged woman during class in front of everyone. I remember using childish and sexist jokes while teaching to seem likable. I remember thinking having a successful quarter meant having a set with clean and entertaining choreography.
It’s sad to say the colonization and the ideas of Eurocentric standards of beauty are well ingrained in all of us. However, it takes someone willing to challenge all of these ideas to show that the “colonizers way” isn’t the only way.
In my last couple of quarters at De Anza. I stayed with the dance program simply because I had the gracious honor of growing with one professor . He took over the student-run dance class in my last couple of quarters at De Anza, and in fact, he was the reason I decided to come back to dance again and again.
I remember the professor that challenged the standards everyday in almost every way he existed. I remember him telling us that dance is valuable, regardless whether or not it’s consumable for mainstream media. I remember him telling us that each dancer can choose to be in any piece they way, regardless of their gender or appearance. I remember him making our shows and performances free so it was more accessible. I remember this professor welcoming in everyone wanting to learn dance, regardless if they had the money to enroll in the class.
I’ve sat and pondered for years now how we were going to uproot and change the dance scene. That question was way too big for me to answer, so I thought about just our little community in De Anza. Our class was carefully curated by someone that made dance free, equal, and accessible.
For every horrible, abusive thing I can remember experiencing at my college’s dance program, I also remember the good one person can do by thinking of everyone. When we think of everyone, and accept everyone for who they are, free of the confines of colonization, that’s what a person will remember.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much one person can do when the entire system works against them. Year after year, our student-ran dance class had to fight against the yearly budget cuts that took class after class.
In the end, those who I remember the most, those who bring me the most comfort in the realm of dance, were those who helped us live out our dream of having dance exist free of colonial constraints. Thank you, I remember you.
Practitioner, healer and artist Ting uses their art as visual/oral storytelling like their ancestors, instilling a holistic and spiritual approach to all dance forms. With a long history of involvement in the ancestral arts, and fine arts, Ting’s wants to create safe spaces for all artists and ancestral practitioners.
Shadow Dancer: Indigenous Dance in Higher Education
An Open Letter To Higher Education,
My name is Agpalo Alongi Makinta, born Brandin Josue Alvarez, son of Tamika Henry and Christopher Alvarez, grandson of Joyce Henderson, Frank Henry, Flora Josue, and Ceferino Alvarez, great grandson of Teodoro Alvarez, Justina Devytiaco, Perfecto Josue, Cergia Maquinta, Frank Henry Sr., Millie Daniels, Jethro Henderson, and Irene Oliphant.
Through ancestral dance I have found strength. However, during my time both in grade school and higher education, I have seen very few of the caricatures that I have grown so familiar with, having grown up around peers who were culture bearers practicing cultural resistance. I have found myself disillusioned with a dance community and college system that has chosen to both utilize Eurocentric dance styles as core dance technique but has also made a clear delineation between “Folk Dance,” and “Classical Technique Courses.” I may be presumptuous but, it seems that even European folk dance is lifted to a higher platform than that of the Black and Brown Diaspora. H that is a conversation for another time.
As the caretakers of each individual within the college community, do you not feel you have an obligation to create open safe spaces for Black and Brown students of higher education through course curriculum and representation? While my current home college has made it a point to include Black and Brown representation in dance There is also the enormous task of decentralizing Eurocentric ideas, dance techniques, and ideologies around staged performance. Intuitive Dance which is often an integral part of Indigenous dance often utilizes improvised movements and should be acceptable forms of performance even when on the stage. The idea taught in higher education that staged performances must be codified in its entirety further distances the Black and Brown student and artist from the hopes of ever being able to share their works with the larger overlapping communities.
As a student at San Francisco State University, I have been extremely humbled to find a dance department that embraces cultural diversity through amazing professors that find importance in centering Indigenous, Black, Brown, Queer representations within dance but there is still so much work to do even at a school that is as progressive as San Francisco State. Below is a list of proposed classes for the Spring of 2022 at SFSU:
- Dance 173 – Modern Dance 1
- Dance 208 – Cultural History of Dance
- Dance 236 – Folklore of Dance: African-Haitian
- Dance 263 – Ballet II
- Dance 276 – Modern Jazz II
- Dance 399 – University Dance Theatre
- Dance 434 – Dance Composition: Choreography II
- Dance 474 – Modern Dance IV
While other institutions that I have studied at are a far cry from the options given even within the the span of just a semester at SFSU, it is clear that as a whole Eurocentric dance styles, along with American dance styles that were codified through the stealing and erasure of Black and Brown Indigenous cultures they often try to emulate, are favored over “Folk Dance.”
The continued erasure of Black and Brown culture can be seen in the classroom when one notices that the majority of the bodies filling the space are White and it will not be accepted nor will I remain complacent. This open letter is not just that, it is a call to action and a demand that Higher Education as well as grade school make a conscious effort to create safe spaces for Black and Brown dancers through representation in the form of class options, professors, and performance opportunities.
Agpalo Alongi Makinta
Archie Arboleda is a Young Adult fiction writer with the goal of adding more queer asian narratives to the bookshelf. As a queer Pinoy voice, Arthur hopes to bridge the gaps in his culture with tradition and transformative action. In 2015-2018 Arthur co-directed De Anza’s Dance department alongside Warren Lucas in hopes to create an equitable space for dancers. Archie created a non-profit dance organization to reach youth in need of accessibility in dance.
This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of In Dance.