Institute Beginnings: Who gets to dance?

[DX Note: Ellen Crooks was a participant in Dance Exchange’s Summer Institute this summer 2017, and stepped forward as the Communications Work/Study. Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing Ellen’s writings (and other institute participants) as a way to reflect on the journey through our Summer Institute and to provide a glimpse into the experiences of the participants. Check the blog for more! — MC]

In Saturday afternoon’s Evolving Practices session, facilitated by Elizabeth Johnson, Cassie Meador, and Bimbola Akinbola, we explored one of Dance Exchange’s foundational questions: who gets to dance? The answer to this question changes a lot. It depends on when, where, and what “dance” is, and sometimes it is easier to answer the question when we think locally. To do this, the co-facilitators asked us to mine our own identities; after all, we get to dance.

So… who are we? What are our experiences and identities? We get to dance, but our collectivity is bound up in vast and important difference. For a few minutes, we stripped all the way down, down to census boxes and tax brackets and identity categories and experiences. We brought our identities into the room by completing a Privilege Walk, exploring how factors like race, class, gender identity, sexuality, education, age, ability, and experience live in our bodies’ histories.

In the Privilege Walk, we started with our arms linked, spanning the room, and in solid contact and energetic connection. As we took steps back and forward according to identities and situations that often were out of our control, we stretched too thin and broke. Walking forward, I lost contact first and then sight of the others in the room. In this loss, a chasm quickly emerged between others and me. It extended in all directions, plotting each of us on an island of experience. It is this emotional and physical distance that characterizes privilege: the space between the distal ends yawns, making it hard to hear or see or learn from one another.

What are the consequences of embodying this hierarchy? We call many visible and invisible factors into the room that act on us all the time, we ask to name and negotiate those as they break us apart and as they choreograph us. The space also illustrates difference, our final positions are built on lifetimes of rich experiences, and by calling these into the room, and we get to hold space for a plurality of roads to the room, the Institute, the dance. Personally, the Privilege Walk helped clarify some long-standing questions I have about my relationship to others.

As I develop my own goals for equity, radical inclusivity, and nonhierarchy, I am reminded that the achievement or incremental progress toward these goals requires me to consider my privilege and actively seek ways to change the structures that maintain it. Dance Exchange thinks about this a lot: if dance traditionally leaves people out, we can critically rethink the ways we facilitate dance. To borrow from Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Through the walking embodiment of hierarchy and stratification, this became clear in my body. I realized that because I stepped forward, I can and must step back. The best use of my privilege (including education, access, and physical safety) involves amplifying and supporting the voices, actions, and experiences of people on the margins. Even in this practice of blogging, I am excited to center the voices of others to continue this navigation of privilege- you can expect collaborative entries in the near future.

To return to our grounding question, we, the Institute participants, get to dance. Though incredibly different, we share in this moving privilege and can activate it in making a world

About Ellen Crooks

Ellen is a loud and curious movement artist with roots in Virginia. She comes to Dance Exchange as a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, having earned interdisciplinary degrees in Political Theory, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Dance. She’s here to experience and notice, her favorite things.