Race Issues Surface in Dance
This year’s Colors of Rhythm marks the dance performance’s tenth anniversary. Since its inception in 1997, it has become an important and popular venue for the artistic expression of peoples of color. This year, it has become the subject of some contention as issues of participation have arisen.
“Colors of Rhythm was created by students of color to address the lack of opportunities and resources for students on campus and the invisibility of certain cultural dance forms both on campus generally and in the curriculum specifically,” said this year’s organizing committee in a group statement sent to the Review.
Eric Estes, director of the Multicultural Resource Center Director and Associate Dean of Students, said that he understands Colors of Rhythm to be a form of cultural activism and protest. The MRC has been a long-time co-sponsor and supporter of Colors of Rhythm, although Estes emphasized that he spoke form himself and not the committee members in his statements.
“[Colors of Rhythm’s] founders wanted a venue for communities of color to celebrate their art forms,” he said. “They began [Colors of Rhythm] as a form of constructive protest against what the curriculum and departments did not cover.”
According to both Estes and the committee, the problems that Colors of Rhythm was formed to address — lack of resources to, visibility of, and concern for minority arts — still exist on Oberlin’s campus today.
Oberlin’s dance department, for instance, currently has only one professor hired for the purpose of teaching a form of dance that represents a minority: Adenike Sharpley is an adjunct professor in Afrikan dance.
According to the committee members’ statement, Colors of Rhythm is still “an important moment for students of color who honor and celebrate their culture as well as for the dominant campus culture to share and demonstrate support.”
This year, exactly how that “dominant campus culture” should go about sharing and demonstrating support — and just how that dominant campus culture should be defined — has come into question.
Sophomore Lauren Malinowski, who self-identifies as Caucasian, has spent two years learning hip-hop breakdancing at Oberlin and participating in a hip-hop breakdancing group. The five-member Street Performance and Rhythm Kollective was was formed by senior Ethan Baldwin at the beginning of this year. Malinowski, in addition to being the only female in SPARK, is the only dancer who does not identify with a minority group. Within this group, several ethnicities are represented.
According to Malinowski, she was planning to perform with SPARK in this year’s Colors of Rhythm, but was told she could not because of her race.
Malinowski and the Colors of Rhythm committee provided different accounts of Malinowski’s story.
In the Colors of Rhythm organizing committee’s email response to questions regarding this issue, the committee wrote, “majority students have never been explicitly excluded [from Colors of Rhythm]. Issues of participation have generally been left to the discretion of the choreographers of each piece. Because of the mission of Colors of Rhythm], all participants are expected to recognize and respect the purpose of the event.”
In addition, in its initial statement to the Review, the committee said, “While participants are asked to understand, value and respect the mission of the event, at no time has the organizing committee for Colors of Rhythm explicitly prevented anyone from participating.”
Malinowski and Baldwin, however, maintained that the committee did explicitly tell Lauren that she could not dance. According to Baldwin, the issue of Malinowski’s participation first arose at the beginning of the semester.
“At the first meeting [for Colors of Rhythm], we talked about Lauren’s inclusion in the dance not being exactly banned, but discouraged because of the history of the show,” said Baldwin. Baldwin said that he never received a “yes” or “no” answer from the committee concerning Malinowski’s participation, so he decided to continue preparing for the show with his group in the hopes that the committee would decide in the affirmative.
Then, according to Baldwin and Malinowski, on Tuesday, April 4, the issue arose again when a committee member saw Malinowski rehearsing with SPARK and asked her how she identified. When Malinowski responded that she identified as Caucasian, the committee member told Baldwin that that was a problem. Baldwin spoke privately with the committee member who had come to review SPARK’s performance for the show.
“I asked her for a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about Lauren dancing and she said the committee had decided just to tell me ‘no,’” said Baldwin.
“It really seems that it was more about race than ethnicity,” said Malinowski.
Although the specifics of how Malinowski’s participation was treated are contentious, the question of her participation raises larger issues as well: issues of cultural appropriation, allyship, safe spaces and where all this fits into Colors of Rhythm’s distinct mission.
“Issues of allyship are complex. We believe that allyship is not a status that one can lay claim to, but is rather a relationship that is formed through mutual trust and understanding,” the committee members wrote, adding that Colors of Rhythm has had many strong allies over the years.
Baldwin acknowledged the complexity of determining the role of an ally in a safe space as well.
“Cultural appropriation” is another complicated term that can be misunderstood, especially in the Context of Colors of Rhythm, an event that was created to provide a space for peoples of color to perform dances that they feel are their own.
The issue of what constitutes cultural appropriation arose last year when Junior Tiffany Perry and her belly dancing group were discouraged from participating in a previous performance because, while members of her group identified as peoples of color, they did not identify with the cultures from which belly dancing originates.
“My friends and I have been studying different styles of ‘belly dance’ for anywhere between 3 [and] 7 years, so we do not simply shake our bodies,” Perry emphasized. “We have a knowledge of history, culture and technique of American Tribal Style, Egyptian Cabaret style, as well as Romani folk dance and other dance forms.”
Some participants have found these complicated issues particularly difficult because they sometimes yield inconsistency. Perry, for instance, expressed confusion with the process when another group, also of color but not Latino, was supported in performing a salsa dance. She did not understand how this group’s situation different from that of her group.
The Colors of Rhythm committee suggested that these specific issues of participation should not take precedence in light of the larger problems and misperceptions that persist on Oberlin’s campus.
“Events like Colors of Rhythm empower marginalized groups to develop and articulate their voices and encourage majority groups to reflect on their relative privilege,” said Estes. Such events, he said, make it very important for potential performers to understand the specific nature of the performance’s mission.Baldwin, who has written a letter to the editor of the Review this week expressing his dissatisfaction with the committee’s treatment of the issue, said that he believes that Malinowski has embraced this art form and culture and deserves to be in the performance.
“I was basically trying to get [the committee] to see that we’re not just putting a white person in the dance for the sake of it,” said Baldwin, who acknowledged that issues of ally-ship and safe spaces are complex. “Lauren has been working with me for two years and is actually trying to work towards this goal.”
Baldwin emphasized SPARK’s mission of educating others about hip-hop
culture in addition to performing, as it has in Fell and the Word n Beat hip-hop
showcase last fall.