The university where I teach requires students beginning their sophomore year to take a Multicultural course. With a long roster of choices, each Sophomore Seminar is individually created by the professor. My class in The Theatre School is called Diversity in Dance: Paradigms Shifting. The intention is to replace stereotyping, bias, and prejudice about ethnicity, gender, age, and disability with appreciation and respect.
And it’s working through the lens of dance.
Students first write about taking in stereotypes innocently as children and how media reinforces this thinking. Their authentic reflective papers lay a sturdy foundation for the rest of the quarter to shift faulty paradigms. Students learn to think with informed perspective about those who are different from they are. They meet those others on campus and will work with more others in life beyond college.
A paradigm is defined as a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices held by an individual or community forming a vision of reality. Paradigms heavily influenced by stereotyping, bias and prejudice are shifting with stimulating observation of dance performance, thought-provoking discussion, and creative experiential learning.
We are asked to be highly aware of our paradigms about racism and sexism while ableism and ageism live on unacknowledged and unexamined.
Sophomores through seniors are informed and uplifted by dance artists and companies who dispute assumptions and stereotypes with drive, rigor, and innovation. One brilliant example is AXIS Dance Company, a professional ensemble in Oakland, California whose dancers also move with missing limbs and in wheelchairs. The choreography and exploration of physicality is striking. “The heart of AXIS is the commissioning, creation, and performance of contemporary dance that is developed through the collaboration of dancers with and without physical disabilities. Our artistic vision to collaborate with high profile choreographers and cutting edge innovative dance makers of our time was an excellent strategy that has resulted in artistically stunning and significant dance works.”
The same intrinsic motivation and extrinsic bias apply to Michaela DePrince who began life as a war orphan in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war. Named devil’s child because of vitiligo, a skin condition that appears as spots, she was number 27. After 12 rejections for adoption, young Michaela and number 26 were both adopted by American couple Elaine and Jerry DePrince. She showed her new mom a ballerina on the cover of Dance Magazine that the wind blew into her sight at the orphanage. After years of training, tenacious Michaela was first with Dance Theater of Harlem and is presently with Dutch National Ballet. Her brave story is both heartbreaking and remarkably inspiring. Michaela disputes ableism and racism with strength and elegance.
Keep Dancing features Marge Champion and Donald Saddler in their dancing 90’s. Marge creates a hearty shift of perspective about age, proclaiming that “every decade adds on.” The charming documentary directed by Greg Vanderveer “seamlessly blends nine decades of archival film and photographs with present-day footage to tell a story through the dance of the passing of time and the process of aging.” In his article “The Strange Case of Prejudice Against the Older You” Todd D. Nelson asserts that we don’t even think ageism exists. Why? Because we believe what we think about aging is true. Yet, teachers, performers, and choreographers in their 80’s and 90’s are still productive. They show us there is no expiration date for passion.
Invited guests share their engaging experiences about overcoming sexism, ageism, racism, or ableism. One welcomed guest is Fabrice Lekina from Cameroon who travels in a wheelchair as a result of being born with cerebral palsy. In just one class, thoughts and feelings are elevated in students. An alum of DePaul, Fabrice speaks with wisdom, clarity, and positivity.
Replying to a question about help, he says to ask just once when trying to help someone in a wheelchair. He evokes an empathic response from everyone about one day when the train stop elevator was out. While challenged, he found a solution. According to Aimee Mullins in her Ted Talk The Opportunity of Adversity, the only disability is a crushed spirit.
Students from many US states and countries such as China, Korea, Hungary, Netherlands, Singapore, and Mexico are elevating their thinking for the good about others through the lens of dance. They are also transcending limits created from stereotypes with this checklist for change. Be intrinsically motivated, suspend judgment, be curious, ask clean neutral questions, and have empathy.
“It is a great opportunity to have a non-judgmental place to learn through an art form. I have learned more than I ever knew before about prejudice, bias, and discrimination of different people in the world through taking this course.”
They also gain a new view about the value of dance in an online conversation with Dr. Peter Lovatt from London, while reading his book The Dance Cure. In addition, seeing an abundance of ballet and contemporary dance is having a lasting impact. An international student writes “besides getting rid of stereotypes and experiencing paradigm shifts, I believe that this course has changed the way I look at dance.”