Whiteness of Student Dance Showcase Should Be Questioned

Different dance troupes like VIBE Dance Company, Kinetik, and Choreo Dance Crew came together last Friday and Saturday to perform and celebrate their talents at the Student Dance Showcase. This year, I knew some of the performers and was excited to watch the cultivation of their hard work. But I was surprised that while most of the songs being danced to were produced and sung by Black artists, the majority of dancers on the stage were not. Although the performers did a wonderful job, I had to wonder while watching the stage, “Where are the Black dancers?” 

“Being in VIBE gave me an opportunity to perform again after a pretty long hiatus, but it also brought forth a lot of these emotions — feeling singular and somewhat insignificant among a sea of people who would not understand how unique my experience is,” said College second-year Michael-Anthony Mitchell, the only Black Dance major at Oberlin. “But for now, I’m going to work hard to not only create space for myself, but open the door for current and future Black students in the department.” 

When watching the showcase, what triggered alarm bells for me was the lack of color and diversity of dancers, as well as the song choices used in the choreography. For the Y2K hip-hop group, the performers danced to a collection of famous hip-hop songs like “Get Low” by Lil John & The East Side Boyz or “Lose Control” by Missy Elliot. “No Scrubs” by TLC, “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington, and even “DNA.” by Kendrick Lamar were also used for performances featuring white dancers. 

Let’s take “DNA.” by Kendrick Lamar as an example. The song highlights Lamar’s Blackness and how it affects his perspective on life and his relationships with others. It speaks about rising up against systemic oppression and standing proudly within the Black community, specifically among Black men. This is why I have trouble understanding why, out of the 16 dancers who were part of the “In Our DNA” performance featuring the song, only one of the dancers was Black. It wasn’t “Our DNA,” but rather “the appropriation of the Black struggle.” And this was only one of the songs in the showcase, so I have to wonder about the knowledge of Black music each performer brought to their pieces. I wonder if the performer in the piece “Satin Doll” understands the history and struggle within Black jazz or if the Y2K performers understand the connotation of the N-word that is very present in the songs they danced to. 

“I love the people,” said College first-year Ezra Pruitt, a Black dancer who performed during “In Our DNA.” “I love my group, but it feels weird being the only Black person in the hip-hop group, dancing to a song about Black empowerment and the dancing not being relevant to that. I just think we could do better in terms of researching and actually performing.” 

In my head I can hear the defensive white person cry out, “But the Bollywood/Bhangra ExCo performed at the showcase as well! And they are a POC-dominated group!” or “There were many Asian-identifying students in the showcase as well!” To that, I say: not all cultures and organizations for POC are the same, and having one and not another does not justify the appropriation of Black music without having Black dancers present. Furthermore, using students of color as a cover to distract from the overall whiteness of the performance only makes those groups uncomfortable for POC as they have to navigate an all-white space that wants to use them as a diversity token. 

“I will not be doing this again,” said College second-year and Bollywood/Bhangra ExCo choreographer Nevaan Bawa in reference to the showcase. “I did not feel like that crowd was even for us and I personally don’t feel like they would appreciate the Bollywood and Indian culture that we have.” 

White people exploiting Black culture is not a new story but rather one that pops up time and time again across America. Predominantly white spaces risk only promoting this arrogance and exploitation as there are no Black people to hold them accountable. Do they respect the Black communities on campus? How educated are they about the Black artists and the music they create? Have they taken an Africana Studies class or gone to Colors of Rhythm? Did they see Antigone or Olympus? Do they have any Black friends, or do they idolize Black celebrities without having any actual connection to the Black people who are actually around them? 

Ignorance is bliss until you have to confront it. If you feel uncomfortable reading this piece, I hope you channel it into educating yourselves and others. I want to make clear that every dancer who performed in the Student Dance Showcase is talented and should be proud of all their skills and talents that helped them create an overall enjoyable performance. But becoming knowledgeable about the history and culture behind the music will strengthen every dance and enrich us all.