Students Protest Lack Of Diversity In Theater And Danceby Aaron Mucciolo (3/3/00)
Several years of frustration over diversity within and support from the Theater and Dance department came to a head Monday evening as over 75 students presented to faculty members a petition outlining changes they want to see implemented in the curriculum, in relations with student groups and in attitudes within the department.
The protest was comprised mostly of dancers from the Dance Diaspora, Essence, and Colors of Rhythm dance groups. All three groups specialize in dances representative of different cultures and many dance students of color feel the groups are marginalized in the department. Members of And What?, Oberlin's hip-hop dance troupe, as well as a number of non-dancers came to show support specifically for students of color in the dance department.
Protesters filed into Warner Center towards the end of auditions for the annual Spring Back dance concert. They stood quietly behind the audition panel, applauding for each piece presented, until the last audition of the evening. Senior Johanna Almiron called the assembled group onto the floor with her and, with the group clapping behind the dancers, launched into a piece that dealt with racism and cultural issues in general and the concerns of the protesters in particular. Displaying banners that read 'Bring On Da Noise' and 'Rhythm Isn't Noise! Respect Our Art!' the protesters then presented the faculty panel with the petition.
The petition outlined demands including a curriculum "that is relevant to students of color" and "more institutional support of people of color's dance, art and theater forms." It also stated beliefs such as the department reacts more negatively to drums and certain types of recorded music used by students of color in Warner than they do to Eurocentric forms of music.
Additionally, the protesters sought assurances that more permanent, not visiting, professors of color would be added to the department, the works of professor of African American studies and Theater Caroline Jackson-Smith would receive more support and, most importantly, Adenike Sharpley, a lecturer in the African-American Studies department needs to be granted a full faculty position "as her extensive work, especially with student of color groups and productions, has for a long time more than merited a faculty position."
"I find that shocking," said sophomore Sarah Wheeler, referring to Sharpley not even being in a tenure-track position. "Her class kicked my ass all over the place for two credits - she's an amazing teacher."
Almiron felt that much of what the protesters' concerns focused on was how narrow the curriculum is. Essentially, a dance major from Oberlin is a major in modern dance - there is no way to major or minor in other styles. Overwhelmingly, students feel that groups like Dance Diaspora, which travels internationally, do more than enough work to qualify for a major.
Acknowledging the lack of rehearsal space for all theater and dance activities at Oberlin and the conflict and competition between the many different student groups that need space this creates, the petition also outline a series of possible steps to lessen or even eliminate the problem. It also goes on to say that the current process of assigning space in Warner to student organizations "needs to be both more democratic and void of favoritism" but does not elaborate on why that is not currently the case.
The letter contained at least one misleading statement. While the Essence dance group did have to give up the rehearsal times they had last semester, they continue to rehearse this semester albeit on different days.
On a somewhat different note, the petition alleges that the department does not acknowledge or support student of color dance organizations unless it is trying to sell itself as diverse to the trustees or prospective students. Accordingly, the petition calls for the Theater and Dance Department to cease using the shows of such groups as Dance Diaspora and Colors of Rhythm in their advertisements until there is more institutional support for these groups.
"There is a lack of respect for non-modern dance [at Oberlin]," said sophomore Tarika Powell. "I just think that non-modern dance is very racialized because usually the people doing them are people of color."
Jane Armitage, chair of the Theater and Dance department, said that much of what the protesters want is out of the department's hands. When it comes to faculty decisions, it's administration who makes the final call. "If I were to retire tomorrow," said Armitage, "this department wouldn't have a space to promote or create a new professor. The entire campus would fight over that space."
On which groups receive priority in booking rehearsal space, Armitage admitted there is a hierarchy of sorts. Any and all curricular activities, which include both classes and 'homework' time for scene or dance rehearsals are at the top of the list followed by faculty pieces, honors projects and other Theater and Dance sponsored works, and then all other student groups and ExCos that need the space.
Regardless of what the department can or will do in response to the petition is unknown at this time. But those involved should know that their tactics were effective in getting attention. Said professor of dance Ann Cooper Albright of the demonstration: "I think it's the most exciting thing that's happened in a long time."
"The Theater and Dance departments and the art department are disenfranchised to students of color," said Almiron adding that evidence of this can be found in the curriculum, faculty and student makeups of both departments. "It silences the students of color and their experiences."
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
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