This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 print issue.
Dancers are often comfortable in the spotlight. I certainly am. From a young age, I’ve made a hobby and career within the vulnerable spaces of the stage and the podium. In consensual contexts, it’s rewarding and fun. There’s a reason that those of us who grew up dancing competitively stuck with the art form.
At the dance studios of my past, so far as I knew, I was the only Indigenous person around. That didn’t matter so much; we were there to engage in the activity we loved for an hour and a half and then go home. On recital days, we were only concerned with makeup, costumes and lunch time cheeseburgers. But that all changed once I entered academic dance spaces – and started asking questions.
From my first day of Grade 9, I questioned my relationships to the forms I was studying, and my place within them. In Grade 11 or 12, I remember making an inquisitive critical statement about the audiences for which ballet is intended, versus contemporary. It seemed to me that ballet was intended to cater to the aesthetics and values of the white upper class. My statement didn’t land in silence, like a comic’s bad joke; it was more like the premiere of Nijinksy’s Le Sacre du printemps. The room erupted. My classmates were yelling. According to them, I was not only wrong, but I needed to think before I spoke about these sacred forms again. I don’t know if I ever spoke after that.
As I proceeded through my Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Arts programs, my queries only grew. No one from high school was around to challenge so I took centre stage all over again to pose these questions. The pushback was always immediate. No, questions of Canadian identity are not relevant in this article from 1999. No, there’s no appropriation of Black dance forms here. No, there’s nothing odd about this renowned dance scholar stating that she has always had a prejudice against the ethnic group whose dance forms she researched in this study. I also didn’t notice this pushback when questions of gender and sexuality were asked. I think this might actually be an area in which dance studies excel. I quickly learned that despite loving the spotlight, it’s much scarier when questioning the foundation of the dance education system.
Another layer of my academic experience included the misinterpretation and disapproval of my research interests. My research never intended to concern Indigenous dance forms; I was more interested in representations of Indigenous people in non-Indigenous dance forms. Or, dancers who “play Indian.” Still, for the first few weeks or months of every course I took, I was strongly encouraged to utilise Indigenous research methodologies in places where I didn’t feel they belonged. Guest speakers would come to class under the impression my research was about Indigenous dance forms. It seemed difficult for a lot of people to understand that I wasn’t interested in ethnographic research on Indigenous peoples. My ethnographic interest, if any, was on settlers. And that was uncomfortable.
As it stands, dance studies are still moving away from their heavy focus on ethnography. I strongly believe dance studies are behind and need to catch up with the rest of academia when it comes to critical theory. It was partly for that reason I have stepped away. My hope is that by doing some “fieldwork” in other disciplines, I can one day return to dance studies with an arsenal of knowledge that can launch us forward into the space we deserve, and with the funding we deserve.
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