Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE moves to value and protect culture

Left to right: Sita Frederic, Michael Manswell, Candace Thompson,
Jessica Phoenix and Valierie McLeod-Katz
(photo: Adanna Jones)

As you can imagine, there are so many exciting and important events in New York, and beyond, that I cannot get to, and--as a woman of Caribbean heritage--I'm grateful to Candace Thompson for putting me in touch with Adanna Kai Jones, today's guest contributor, who offers following report on Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE's May 4th gathering at Brooklyn College.

Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE 
Takes a Stance Against Cultural Appropriation

by guest contributor Adanna Kai Jones

On Thursday, May 4, a relatively quiet evening, some fyah-starters gathered in the Woody Tanger Auditorium of the Brooklyn College Library to hold the first ever Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE (DCC) town hall meeting on cultural appropriation. Walking into the auditorium, people quickly noticed “graffiti” on the walls, to use the lingo of DCC’s town hall moderator Sita Frederick. Large sheets of white paper, taped to the walls, bore questions that all participants were invited to contemplate and to respond to in writing:

1. Do you think about the creators of your favourite Caribbean music? What ways have you tried to support them (financially and otherwise)?

2. Who do you think should be able to teach Caribbean dance styles? What should the requirements be?

3. What does mastery look like? What qualities or skills make one a Master teacher?

4. Do you enjoy seeing Caribbean dance/music on the mainstream?  Why? Why not?

5. What do you think is the responsibility of mainstream artists when using our culture?

Given this already-rich food for thought, participants were next offered a taste of Caribbean creativity--a mini-class on Jamaican dancehall taught by the dynamic duo of Kendell “History” Hinds and Korie Genius (a.k.a. Genius), two members of the Black Gold Dance Crew. We learned old school dancehall dances such as the Willie Bounce, the Wacky Dip, the Gas and the Mad Run. After we practiced these steps for a bit, the teachers changed to a follow-along method, the way dances were taught and learned in the dancehalls of Jamaica. Similar to a call-and-response format, first History and Genius would execute a four-count movement, then we would be expected to repeat their steps. Although these steps were tricky, we caught the flows, styles and energies of our instructors. In effect, “responding” to their “call” got easier and easier as the class continued.

Kendell "History" Hinds and Korie Genius (a.k.a Genius)
teaching the Willie Bounce
(photo: Adanna Jones)

Following the class, five people took to the stage and the main discussion began. The panel featured dance masters Michael Manswell (Creative Director of the Something Positive dance troupe) and Valerie McLeod-Katz (Artistic Director and Coordinator of the Visual and Performing Arts Programs at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School) plus the up-and-coming game-changers Candace Thompson (Artistic Director of ContempoCaribe and Founding Executive Director of DCC) and Jessica Phoenix (founder of FIYAH Dancehall Theater). And, as aforementioned, Sita Frederick (Director of Community Engagement Programs for Lincoln Center Education) moderated the panel discussion.

Frederick started things off by posing a question to everyone in the room: “What does cultural appropriation look like?” After calling attention to Drake’s obsession with Jamaican dancehall and to Beyoncé’s invocation of Oshun, she then shifted the conversation to a discussion of how we should take on such forms of appropriations, which have become rather commonplace in today’s society.

Over the next hour, panelists discussed their training, mentors and inspirations, calling the legacies of Eugene Joseph, Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham into the space. These are the great shoulders upon which today’s Caribbean dance makers stand.

Talking about how and why each panelist began teaching and promoting Caribbean dance and culture, everyone recalled recognizing the need–really, a demand--for their teaching as well as the need to build community. They have all created a space where cultural history is kept alive, valued and passed on for many generations that will follow.

Thereafter, Frederick opened the floor for questions and open discussion. The first audience member to speak called attention to the nuances of the term “natural,” specifically citing the exploitation of Caribbean cultural labor by people who claim a “natural” affinity for all things Caribbean. (Her line of questioning further brought to mind Rachel Dolezal’s infamous appropriation of Black identity.) In response, panelists and members of the audience prescribed the following remedies:

1. As a Caribbean community, we need to put money and value back into our own arts, culture and heritage.

2. We must institutionalize our cultural practices so that the state has no choice but to support us, especially through large grants.

3. We must make sure that our team is filled with people knowledgeable about all aspects of society--especially experts in law and policy, accounting and finance, marketing and social media, in addition to cultural masters, writers and creators.

4. We must be honest, be of integrity and hold everyone, especially ourselves, accountable.

As the first DCC town hall meeting ended, it was very clear that everyone still had much more to say. Most of the audience members and panelists lingered, getting into deeper discussions of many of the points raised.

In general, we need this type of gathering in New York City, period. In today’s fast-paced world of Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat, there is too much at stake for us to not take more control over how Caribbean dance cultural practices are transmitted and used.

As a Trinidad-born, US-raised, winer woman, I look forward to the next town hall meeting where we can clarify our agenda, further our vision and expand our audience. In conclusion, with DCC taking the lead in creating space for Caribbean dancemakers to take a stance against cultural (mis-)appropriation, I expect that the Caribbean dance community will continue to work together and forge a path for profound social change, not only throughout New York but also throughout the world.

Adanna Kai Jones
(photo courtesy of Adanna Kai Jones)

Adanna Kai Jones received her Ph.D. in Critical Dance Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and her BFA in Dance from Mason Gross School of the Arts—Rutgers University. She has performed in professional dance companies based in NYC, including the Julia Ritter Performance Group and Souloworks with Andrea E. Woods. And in general, her research remains focused on Caribbean dance and identity politics within the Diaspora, paying particular focus to the rolling hip dance known as winin’. With regards to her own creative pursuits, she has choreographed dance-theater pieces that were not only based on her research, but were also used as tools for generating more research questions. In July 2015, she choreographed Wine & Tales in Port of Spain, Trinidad, which was presented by New Waves! 2015 and the Dancing While Black Performance Lab. And in May 2016, she performed Rum & Coke in New York City at Field Studies 2016. Both performances were rooted in her ethnographic fieldwork on the wine and Caribbean Carnivals within the US. As a visiting lecturer at Stanford University in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, she taught a survey class on folkloric and popular Afro-Caribbean dances, as well as a composition dance class that used Caribbean aesthetics along side that of US contemporary dance practices. Currently, she is an adjunct at both Marymount Manhattan College and Temple University, teaching two lecture courses on dance and culture.

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