Recently a question was posed on that good ol’ book of faces asking who are the “present day ‘dance rebels’.” Yes, “dance rebels” was in quotes. The follow up question was “Who do you think should get more press?” As I scanned the self-nominations and calling out of various (predominantly contemporary) choreographers (as Black Twitter would say) I had SO MANY FEELS. About 80 comments in, I threw in some questions of my own, which still felt like an insufficient response. And then I did what I always do, talked it out with my dear partner.
Now as fulfilling as these household conversations often are (really, they are magical) there are so many folks who often remind me of the value of my voice and tell me I should share my thoughts more often (that same partner being one of them). SO HERE WE GO!
There are many reasons I refused to name folks on this thread. Above all, I was very aware that the voice making this call, while most likely well-intentioned, was a voice of privilege which means the request felt like a sucker punch to the gut. It felt like one of those loaded requests seeking an opportunity to “give voice to the voiceless.” This is, of course, a noble intention, but it suggests that someone is “voiceless.” And as I was reminded in the wonderful #OpenSpectrumNYC Twitter chat led by Piper Anderson – no one is voiceless. Whether we choose to hear their voice or not is a very different story, but every individual is capable of speaking for themselves and leading their own destiny. I know, that sounds super cheesy, but it’s actually true. And the sooner we stop trying to speak FOR people and start LISTENING with them, the sooner we can move forward.
(don’t ask me to define forward right now, just know that I came from a household that often quoted the mantra “Forwards Forever, Backwards Never”)
And then there was the use of the word “rebel.” While I will proudly refer to myself as a revolutionary, I am less inclined to take on rebel. Rebel has many definitions, but it is often perceived as outsider. There are many systemic reasons why a number of artists are “outsiders,” some of which will be addressed in my upcoming series for Dance/USA. However, rebel can also be an exclusionary term used to keep folks on the outside and in the margins. To rebel is more response than choice. When perceived as choice, then the reasoning behind the rebellion can easily get lost. And what happens when the reasoning is lost…
“A rebel without a cause”
Mind you, I’ve never seen this movie, but I know this term. I had no idea who James Dean was (until my partner told me), but I knew the image of the leather jacket-wearing, cigarette-smoking bad boy. At some point, being a rebel became cool. And the folks who were rebelling out of necessity, in response to oppression, well they were either swept up in the “cool” or made a mockery of. Think about the caricatures of the Black Panther Party as unnecessarily violent terrorists. Or that wonderful line from that poignant Scandal episode, “You are not auditioning to be America’s Next Great Black Activist.” Not to mention what happens to the “rebel” when they become the golden example and somehow go from singing for Assata to speaking on behalf of corporations (yes Common, that’s a shot at you). And while we spend our time admiring or mocking or lauding the rebel, the systems who are the reason behind their rebellion are relaxing by their pools of no responsibility. Fighting for human rights is far from fun, fly, or fabulous. Reaching for resources that are constantly denied to you is not “a statement” – it is a necessity.
So you have (some) artists who run with this weight to the best PR folks in hopes that they will get the best press coverage in hopes that the artist’s work will be seen by more people in hopes that it will get more press coverage in hopes that the artist will receive more performance opportunities which will also be covered by the press – feel like a hamster on a spinning wheel yet? This may not be how we all function, but I’m sure the story is familiar to some.
Rather than perpetuate the press as the highest form of recognition, what if these “rebels” were asked how they define success? What if these “rebels” were asked how they’d like to be named? What if these “rebels” were not rebels at all but simply creating in the way their spirit has guided them?
These are the questions I added on that thread:
Are rebels the un(der)seen? The un(der)funded? The un(der)presented? The ones who cultivate their own audiences outside of the perceived “world of dance.” Or is it a question of creative redefinition of how movement is used?
If giving press to the rebel is simply a pathway to resources (which is often what it translates to) why not ask about the distribution of resources in dance? Why not ask about that crazy word – equity? Otherwise, it just looks to me like you are admiring the strength, fight, and commitment of the “rebels” from your pedestal of privilege. Way to keep your foot on the neck of the oppressed. Oh wait, that’s not what we’re talking about – is it?