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Avoiding pitfalls of cultural appropriation in dance

Monday, March 11, 2019

LAWRENCE — From the time she was a young dancer just starting to learn Spain’s flamenco tradition, future University of Kansas Professor Michelle Heffner Hayes was concerned about the issue of improper cultural appropriation.

“It’s even more highly charged in the current political environment when Black Lives Matter and Native American groups draw our attention to insensitive cultural appropriation as a typically American practice that needs to be recognized as such,” she said.

The issue forms an organizing thread in her latest scholarly article, “Lo que queda/That which remains: Dancing Bodies, Historical Erasure and Cultural Transmission.” It’s part of the new book titled “The Body, The Dance, the Text: Essays on Performance and the Margins of History,” (McFarland & Co., 2019) edited by Brynn Shiovitz.

The essay takes on notions of cultural appropriation in the actual performance of dances as well as in the process of documenting and preserving the choreography of such other-than-classical forms as flamenco, hip-hop and Latin popular dances. Heffner Hayes weaves these ideas into the story of her work with a KU student ensemble in 2016 to premiere her original dance titled “Lo Que Queda/That Which Remains.”

She explains that she conceived the dance in response to a 2014 album titled “Razón de Son” by musician and anthropologist Raúl Rodríguez. He describes the album as “an imaginary folklore” that incorporates the varied intercultural dialogue that eventually became flamenco.

That includes, Heffner Hayes said, an Afro-Caribbean influence that made its way back to Spain during the Atlantic slave trade.

“It was interesting, to me, the way that history has evaporated in flamenco dance,” Heffner Hayes said.

But when she tried to reinvent it with a group of college students whose bodies were trained in ballet or hip-hop or other contemporary forms, she admits it was a struggle, both physically and mentally.

She wrote: “(W)e discovered the conflicts between the training of the dancers and the demands of the choreography. These dancers excel at explosive, athletic movements, like leaps and jumps, which are completely absent from 'Lo que queda/That which remains.'”

There were problems adjusting to the rhythms of the dance: “Moving in sixes, with changing accents, nearly drove the dancers to despair,” Heffner Hayes wrote.

And even if the physical challenges could be overcome in rehearsal, what about the social issues?

“Again, I wondered if I was simply perpetuating cultural appropriation by creating a dance with students who were not steeped in these traditions,” Heffner Hayes wrote.

In the end, she concludes that the opposite was true: “I realized that by not teaching these forms to the best of my ability, I was complicit in their exclusion from curriculum.”

In an interview, she put it this way: “I have been entrusted by the gatekeepers of this tradition. I have been given a gift by my teachers, and I feel a responsibility to use it in a respectful or appropriate way. … It’s not that you can’t ever practice or eat food or wear symbols from another culture, but it’s about how respectfully you give credit and recognize continuing exclusion. That’s where marginalization happens. It’s not that white people can’t learn tap or hip-hop, but it’s the fact that the people who invented these dances got no credit or money that’s the problem. We have to contextualize these forms in the present moment and give credit just the way you would when you cite another author’s work when you write. These acts are part of a larger dialogue in cultural reparation.”

Photo: Student dancers perform Michelle Heffner Hayes’ "Lo Que Queda/That Which Remains" in 2016. Credit: Brett Pruitt, Department of Theatre & Dance.

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