PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Dance and Belonging with Crystal U. Davis

Episode Summary

Crystal U. Davis, dancer, movement analyst, scholar, and author of Dance and Belonging: Implicit Bias and Inclusion in Dance Education, unpacks implicit and explicit bias as it relates to the relationship between audiences, dance-makers, and styles of dance.

Episode Notes

Crystal U. Davis, dancer, movement analyst, scholar, and author of Dance and Belonging: Implicit Bias and Inclusion in Dance Education, unpacks implicit and explicit bias as it relates to the relationship between audiences, dance-makers, and styles of dance. 

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow archives. I'm Norton Owen the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it's my pleasure to introduce Crystal U. Davis, dancer, movement analyst, scholar, and author of Dance and Belonging: Implicit Bias and Inclusion in Dance Education.

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: I'm a Black, fuller-bodied woman with light brown skin and a short Afro haircut wearing brown glasses. And I'm here to talk to you about biases. Even still, as I mention bias, I feel the impulse to categorize bias as a bad or negative thing, that is to be avoided at all costs. Yeah, as a researcher of implicit bias and dance, I know that not only are biases unavoidable to have, they're quite essential to the work of artists. They're reflections of our histories, our lived experiences, how we want to be seen in the world, and are reflected in how we create and experience art. Growing up as a Black girl in a smaller city in North Carolina, there were always ways in which I was often on the outside of whatever the norm was. I felt like everyone around me had a clear connective unit of likes, dislikes, common understandings shared between each other that I was never fully a part of. Where I felt very much at home is in my body while in dance classes. Even though I was still either the only Black girl or one of very few in the dance classes while I was moving, I felt at home. Dance was the place that complicated, integrated, and introduced me to so many different cultures, dances, approaches to movement and to the body. This curiosity led me to study both dance and comparative religion in my undergraduate education, where I got the opportunity to research how religious belief systems relate to movement and dance, particularly in Rajasthani folk dance in Rajasthan, India for a semester. When I returned back to the racial fabric of the US that same question shifted from one of religious orientation, to how other elements of social identity affect how we think about the body, pedestrian movement, and dance aesthetics. I began to think about how gender and race informed the ways people think about my dancing body. The more I continued to study dance forms outside of my own cultural context and biases, the more informed and rich my understanding of my own relative perspective became. In this episode of Pillow Voices, I will connect my research on implicit bias and dance to the Jacob's Pillow archive to explore how our preferences: what we think of as beautiful, impressive, exceptional, and inspiring, and form how we experience dance. This line of questioning comes out of research done in social psychology on implicit cognition. I'm particularly intrigued about the power of bias and dance where the moment a live performance happens, you can never replicate that exact moment again. Where different bodies doing the same movement may inspire different associations for different audience members. How do our unconscious associations inform how we experience something as ephemeral as dance? Knowing the power of the negative effects of different kinds of biases, like racial biases, biases about body size or shape, our biases about physical disability, I want it to know more, mostly to become more aware of any harm I may be causing unintentionally, as a dance educator and gatekeeper in the field of dance. Here's some of the concepts and how they apply to the field of dance. But first, what is bias? Biases are our preferences, aversions, and attitudes toward ourselves and our environment. We have explicit biases we know and can name, and unknown biases. These unconscious or implicit biases are likes, dislikes, and associations that a person does not consciously know they have and cannot articulate. Many of these implicit biases are heavily influenced by our socialization. While we have explicit biases: I like the color blue, and partial to postmodern dance, and I'm far more enamored with the learning and human connection process of dance than the performance aspect. I also carry biases I'm unaware of that affect my preferences in and understanding of dance. Many of the implicit biases we are unaware we carry are deeply intertwined with what social science researchers call “implicit memories.” These are recollections of the past experiences that influence later performance with no recognition of the past experience and its effect on that later performance. Here's an example from Episode 25 of Pillow Coices titled “The Complexities of Indian dance at the Pillow,” where Lionel Popkin frames the question I would like to explore.

LIONEL POPKIN: In 1995, the London-based artist Shobhana Jeyasingh’s company performed at Jacob's Pillow. Toward the end of the post-performance discussion, the topic of symbolism and Indian dance came up. Let's hear the question and then Jeyasingh’s response. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question. Is there any symbolic meaning for the pliéwhen they run across the stage noisily, you know the plié with the running [unclear audio] yeah, it was mostly in...

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: In this excerpt, the audience member is asking Indian dancer Shobhana Jeyasingh about symbolism of the plié in performance. While both Jeyasingh and Popkin go on to unpack the assumption of symbolism in Indian dance, and its roots in Orientalism, I want to highlight a different aspect of the question. It is the mention or description of movement as being a plié. This is a great example of a mis-layering of one person's implicit memories onto what the audience member experiences in the dance performance. The implicit memories the audience member accesses to understand the performance makes sense of the bent legs with the full foot in contact with the floor through the lens of the ballet position of plié. Culturally, however, this position is not a plié, as it has a different history and cultural context that predates the invention of the plié as a dance term. There is an additional cultural habit that is prevalent in the colonial practices ingrained in implicit memories of Western culture. And that is the assumption that the viewers expertise or knowledge of Western terminology should apply to that of movement from other cultures. This is a longer legacy of implicit memory and experience rooted in dance training in the West. Often not providing the context that the terms and concepts that apply in one dance form are not necessarily applicable to other forms. This centering of western systems of terminology and knowledge, not contexting them as culturally specific, but rather as universal, has a long history. This history provides rich soil from which a bias of Western dance terminology being universally applied can grow. Misperceptions, such as this plié in an Indian dance work, can result in what researcher Justin Levinson calls “misremembrances.” This is the brain's tendency to either discard or alter information taken in that does not align with the person's implicit biases. You can imagine an audience members experience if they have had an implicit preference for ballet’s plié, but instead see the aramandi sitting position in a Bharatanatyam dance performance. If the audience member identifies the position as a plié, they leave with a memory of the dance further validating the importance and centrality of the plié, not just in ballet, but in Bharatanatyam. Rather than a memory of a different cultural orientation to leg flexion with the foot fully planted on the ground. Part of the conditioning for biases to develop is the categories we are socialized to detect, such as race and gender. These categories orient what we should look for, or pay attention to when we encounter people. Such categories can then get imbued with associations that are not necessarily applicable. To illustrate how categories and association with categories affect how the viewer perceives a performance, I return to the post-show talk, where Shobhana Jeyasingh responds to the audience member’s question about plié symbolism?

SHOBHANA JEYASINGH: Uh well, I suppose it's a difficult question because I think all movement in a way is kind of symbolic, isn’t it? I mean, you know, whatever you see, the minute it's designed and put on stage, it symbolizes something, it symbolizes some intention that the maker of the dance has given it. So in a very general way, yes, I suppose it symbolizes travel and power and contact with the ground, but it doesn't have any particular, other kind of symbolism. I think it's, it's a question again, you know, it's Indian dancers and the Indian choreographers get asked this question a lot about symbolism. And there seems to be this feeling that somehow things which are not Western must be loaded with [laughter] profound sort of symbolism and we [unclear audio followed by laughter]. It's, uh, you know, I think it's partly comes from, I think it's changing but you know, traditionally the West has had a very particular attitude towards the East. And it's, I suppose one could call it Orientalism. It's something that's been there for a very long time, it doesn't actually start with the colonial period. It was there, you know even when the Greeks were writing their tragedies. It is a very particular attitude, and the Orient is such a kind of fiction, it's really a place-space, which has been created by the West. It's got nothing really to do with the reality of the East. It's, it really is there, it's a fictional place, which has given a lot of enjoyment to people in the West. And it's a place which I have gotten to know very well, because I've often, you know, uh suddenly found myself put in it and wondering what I'm doing here. And there are certain features of the Orient, and one of the features is that everything in the East is very symbolic, it's terribly spiritual, it's very profound, all the hand gestures have meanings, you know, um it's very graceful. And I suppose part of what all of us do, is to challenge that idea of the Orient, because we live in a place which is not that old. But you know, we know what people are getting at and [unclear audio] keep telling people that actually does not like that.

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: Jeyasingh, and her response names the categorization of the Eastern world and Western world, and then articulates how common it is that Western audiences associate rich symbolism with Eastern dance forms. Popkin’s reflection on this response further articulates the dynamic of the categories and assumptions associated with those categories, and the challenges it poses for the artists to be seen on their own terms, rather than through the lens of those categories, assumptions, and associations. Popkin continues:

LIONEL POPKIN: I admire Jeyasingh. It is not easy to stand up to a question like that. Nor is it easy to continually ward off questions that have more to do with an audience member’s preconceptions about how Indian bodies should dance and how they should fulfill, or at least respond to the audience's preconceptions rather than say, allowing for that body to exist in full conversation and dialogue with the world of today. So, where did those preconceptions come from? What do we think about when we hear the term “Indian dance”? What kinds of images arise? And what about Jacob's Pillow? How has “Indian dance,” whatever that may mean, existed on the stages and in the imagination of the North American concert dance world, and specifically, who has been invited to perform at the Pillow?

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: As artists become more familiar with the categories and assumptions audiences associate with their various identity markers, culture or their genre of dance, they may begin to offer a preemptive redirection, inviting the audience to shift or disrupt these assumptions. This can happen explicitly in their pre-performance introduction of the work like it did with Rennie Harris and his company Puremovement’s performance of Rome and Jewels at Jacob's Pillow in 2000. Here is a clip of Executive and Artistic Director at the time, Ella Bath’s introduction, and Rennie Harris following.

ELLA BATH: I'm Ella Bath. I'm the Executive Director of Jacob's Pillow. Welcome to opening night of Rennie Harris Puremovement. This is a company from Philadelphia. And for those of you who uh didn't hear the pre-performance talk, I'm just going to say one or two things. And Rennie Harris, himself, the Artistic Director of the company also wanted to give you a little personal introduction to what it is that he's been doing. Uh this is not Beethoven. I just wanted to tell you that. It's Hip Hop, and do not try this at home. Uh it is a dance, dance and music form, a cultural form that is in the vernacular, but with a long, long tradition. So it's I think, for many audiences — as it was for me when I first encountered this in the 70s — uh just a whole new way of looking at dance and dance and music and dance and music and poetry and so on. So I've found it to be very interesting. Um I'm going to, as soon as I see Rennie— well, I think he must be here. Um but anyway, I'm going to introduce Randy in a moment, and welcome here. Glad you're joining us for the week. And hope you enjoy learning more about Hip Hop culture. Rennie?

RENNIE HARRIS: [sounds of people cheering and clapping] How's everybody doing tonight? Good How you doing? [audience: good!] Um I am Rennie Harris, the Artistic Director of Rennie Harris Puremovement, a Hip Hop company based out of Philadelphia, PA, that uses Hip Hop as a vocabulary of movement to present as concert dance.

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: In Bath’s introduction, her hope that the audience enjoys learning more about Hip Hop cultures is a way to reorient the expectations members of the audience may have who are new to Hip Hop. Harris then clarifies that Puremovement uses Hip Hop vocabulary to present as concert dance, an important distinction. Here Harris has re-directed the audience from the assumption that an experience of Hip Hop culture will take place, and instead clarifies that the audience will be introduced to the movement vocabularies of a cultural form within the context of a concert setting. Performing in a concert setting is not the cultural context within which Hip Hop culture and dance was birthed. To have an experience of Hip Hop as a culture, one would need to have a more extended immersive cultural commitment to the dance form introduced in this concert setting. The environmental performance takes place in conserve is what bias researchers call a primer. A signal or suggestion that affects the unconscious mind, and a way that informs a person's behaviors and decisions in the future without the person noticing the effect. Take for example, the classical music by Bach that introduces each episode of Pillow Voices.

[Pillow Voices opening music interlude]

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: As you listen to this opening music again, I invite you to reflect: What does this music evoke for you? Does it remind you of a time you've heard this piece of music before? Or maybe a time hearing classical piano music in general. Is there an experience of a person it reminds you of? When music is played, it can serve as a primer that signals for the listener that this environment the music creates is to be associated with, well, whatever associations that listener has, with classical music. We all have different lived experiences, implicit memories, and therefore different associations with classical music. Using classical music across the various episodes could potentially be a primer, signaling an association with high art, classical arti aesthetics, or upper class socio-economic status, where much of the classical music experience is culturally associated. Some may associate it with serious thoughtful intellectual content. For others, it may signal something stuffy, elitist and unwelcoming for people who do not feel a sense of belonging in spaces where classical music is played. A person may actually know Jess Meeker, the pianist playing on this recording, or who was associated with Jacob's Pillow for more than 60 years, and may begin to think of their time spent with him. While an audience member may be able to articulate how they feel about a work, they may be unaware of what primers that were not a part of the actual dance work itself, that still affected their experience of that work. In the case of Puremovement’s Pillow performance, the space where the dance is being performed can be a primer of what the audience expects to see or experience. An elaborate, prominent or costly venue may signal to the audience the performance they are about to see is a prominence or significance in the art world. While a work seen on a street corner may not create such associations. Artists can work to redirect this sort of suggestion and introductions like Harris gives here. He continues to establish for the audience what he asked them as audience members in his introduction to Rome and Jewels.

RENNIE HARRIS: So before I present this work, and just so you know, again, um it’s my belief, and our belief that um I am not trying to, to have you leave here with anything. You will leave here with what you get. You understand, I'm saying? So if you don't like it, you have to figure out why you don't like it. And this is only the vessel to to, to bring that into your life. You know, things always come back in your life because you've not dealt with it. It's the same thing here. This is a sharing. Okay? And if you like it, if you don't, we'll have some dialogue later on. It's important to have dialogue. I see a lot of kids, there's some harsh language. But please, please, have dialogue with the children have some dialogue about what is real and what's happening today. And that's what it's about for me. Okay? So enjoy, have a great experience because this is what it is about. Again, as I said yesterday, if you're if you come to be entertained, this suggests judgment, that you will sit back and judge it and criticize it. I want you to share in it. Okay? And when you are part of something you're not quick to judge. Okay?

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: Harris is asking audience members to shift from a frame of entertainment to that of communal sharing, learning, and exchange. The historical context in the US, for many dance forms coming out of the African diaspora is that they are forms of entertainment, to be judged and consumed by the masses, with little cultural context, or historical understanding of the dances being performed. In a Pillow talk with LaTasha Barnes, in 2021, Melanie George speaks to this assumption of entertainment. Here is George and Barnes, further explaining this impulse. First, you will hear LaTasha Barnes sharing her frustration with the lack of care and learning more about the dance forms audiences are experiencing. Then Melanie George follows.

LATASHA BARNES: If you don't take the mantle of actually being responsible for this experience that you just had, then it was for nothing. [George: Yeah]. And that's the whole point of the continuum. That's the point of artistry in and of itself. You haven't experienced you have a responsibility to care for that experience, in the way that you share it with other people. You know, like, we talked about seeing a good movie and how you tell people be like, “Oh, my goodness, yes. And it was starring so and so…and they did this. And they alluded to, you know, this thing and this book that you know, that everybody's read that we all understand and never really wanted to bother with. Yeah, they actually approached it in this way. But then they flipped it and made this entire other thing. And it's amazing.” Not only did you just talk about the movie and gain a fan for the movie, you just made five other points of reference that people can look to, to learn more about the thing. And you actually expanded their minds about what they were going to see by letting them know that it was inverted from where they thought that thing was gonna go [George: Yeah]. Because you cared [George: Yes]. You cared about the experience that you had enough to actually look up those correlations that you thought of in the moment, to make sure that you were really rooted in that when you share it. People don't take that same care with dance. And it pisses me off frankly [George: Yes]. It's really annoying. And not in the cute like, “ Oh this is amazing ahhh” Um, no, like, people [you wanna punch people in the face] sometimes like, really, you just want us to stand here and dance for you. And then you go on about business. And that's it.

MELANIE GEORGE: Yeah. And that's, that's the thing I was trying to say in my introduction to the show about, we took a lot of care to maintain the environment in which these dances occur. And this is not a performance for you, right? you're being welcomed into a thing. But there's a version of that performing for you that's grounded in exploitation. And we're disinterested in that [Barnes: Extremely] Yeah. We reject that as a principle [Barnes: Yeah, yeah].

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: So, artists from their lived experiences begin to anticipate the categories, associations, and assumptions that are prevalent and living in the implicit memories of audiences. They begin to offer ways for audience members to be able to disrupt those biases toward their work in order to more fully experience the work without the assumptions affecting audience perceptions, and expectations of the work. What is important to name is that the categories are social constructions, which are only one way to perceive, understand and experience dances. There is also the possibility of considering different ways of categorizing dances that can disrupt the biases and assumptions that audiences have. I return back to Rennie Harris's introduction to start this conversation.

RENNIE HARRIS: First um also, let me just say that we believe that Hip Hop is nothing more than a traditional African dance and culture extended in this generation. So from the Lindy Hop and Cakewalk, or shall actually let me say from the Ring Shout, um the Cakewalk, the Camelwalk straight to the Moonwalk, and even as I say that to you, you can almost visualize the evolution of the movement through time. And that this is nothing new, and Hip Hop has always been around, and I have always looked at it as something expressive. And just that in 1990 was the first time I had a chance to present everything that I was thinking about um in theater.

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: In this section of his introduction to Rome and Jewels, Harris is providing historical and cultural context of Hip Hop, a re-categorization of Hip Hop, not as a new and distinct form separate from others, but rather as a continuation of an older dance lineage dating back to the ring shop (?). This shifts the perspective of Hip Hop from a contemporary trendy movement born in the late 20th century, to an older tradition of the Black diaspora. LaTasha Barnes also offers a similar re-categorization along a Jazz continuum, where various Black social dance forms categorized as composite, separate genres, or rather a historical continuation of Jazz. She shares a metaphor that describes how Jazz is revealed under the surface of each genre. The first voice you hear is that of Latasha Barnes, and then Melanie George joins the conversation.

LATASHA BARNES: We have our running joke. Miss Dawn, said to me once that she looked at Jazz, like, it's not a villain in that sense, but um like the character that was always captured at the end of Scooby Doo. And then he unmasked and it was the person that they thought it was in the beginning, but they overlooked.

MELANIE GEORGE: If it wasn't for those meddling kids, I would have been successful [laughter].

LATASHA BARNES: But she says the mask under-underneath the mask is basically like it's Jazz, just like the capturing it's like it's Hip Hop, you takes the [unclear word] Ha! Its Jazz [laughter]. They capture it and its Light Feet (?) [unclear phrase] Ha! It’s Jazz [laughter]. Like underneath it all. It's, it's always Jazz, and it's always coming out of this desire to, to be present, to represent ourselves, to tell our stories, and to celebrate our stories together, in, in concert with the music and in agreement with the music. But that is something that um as we were sharing, you know, many times we discuss a lot of academic, you know, and intellectualized ideas about this, it really was just really challenging listening to my elders put on in one way in a particular space, and then sharing something else, when they were in private with me, and I'm like, “How am I supposed to stand in this, if you don't actually speak to it, when you're out in front of people?” We're not going to be able to make and hold space for, for your people if you don't let people know that this is still of us. I love and appreciate everything that you've done. And I understand why you had to do some of the things that you were you had to do. But you need to fix it. You need to say, this is still Black art. This is still for Black people. This is still for us to tell our stories. It's great that we get to celebrate it in a global capacity [George: Yes] just as you shared so beautifully in your pre-show talk. But we have to stop adapting to accommodate everybody all the time. We can make space, sometimes, when we were confident in that in relationships, and it still baffles me in relationship conversations, consent, setting boundaries, making sure that you communicate these things. Dance is no different [George: Yes]. Dance is the ultimate communicating [George: More intimate in a lot of a lot of ways]. More intimate in a lot of ways. You're saying things that you haven't even said to yourself sometimes out loud on that stage. And if you are not, if you're not asserting in that moment, “This is my space. The people that I come from, the people that I celebrate, the people that I love are welcome here. And you have to you have to deal with that if you're going to celebrate me in this space,” then you mess it up.

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: The bias Barnes and George are alluding to here is a bias in favor of a monolithic historical narrative formed in a society riddled with disenfranchisement and systemic racism. Rather than acknowledging the association, categories, and lineages of the people from whom the dances originate. To disrupt the associations, assumptions, and biases we all carry, there's a certain amount of openness, curiosity, and initiative to seek beyond our own assumptions. And the discussion with Latasha Barnes, Melanie George offers this advice.

MELANIE GEORGE: You know, curiosity is your greatest asset, right? Being curious about a thing and pursuing your interest in it with a balance of enthusiasm and reverence for it [ Barnes: The reverence, right]. So like, part of the thing that I think we're up against is there are people who, who have a little bit of exposure to a thing, but they're running with some false narratives about its origin, about attributing uhm proper credit about actually just the whole evolution and history of the form, who gets credit for things. I mean, LaTasha and I can have a whole other panel talk frankly about, about the intersection of whiteness and blackness in, in Jazz dance and United States and how that how that plays into theatrical Jazz dance. And a specific series of white men being called the fathers of Jazz, right, which is, which is like completely, completely false [laughter]. It's so a-historical, and honestly, one of those men even said, All Jazz dance comes from the Lindy. So, like, so like, so like the, you know, the history is all wrong. But I'm naming this to say, there's an excavation that you have to do if you're going to if you're going to be if you're going to spread the gospel, you got to do that excavation. So that what you're saying is true. [Barnes:Yeah]. Right? It, you know, enthusiasm is the place that you start, but you got to like, undergird that with information [Barnes: Yeah] you know? And accurate information, which is the thing I was saying about like Google is free Wikipedia is dangerous. There's a lot of false information out there on the internet. And so you got to do your due diligence. 

CRYSTAL U. DAVIS: There are moments where unacknowledged biases result in horribly damaging outcomes in society. The negative effects of bias occur when the bias is operating as historical fact, universal truth or inequitable standards, expectations, or assumptions. This call to deepen the discovery process in experiencing dance that Barnes and George share is also supported in the research on bias. Implicit bias research concludes one way to combat the negative effects of bias is to seek new experiences, knowledge sources, and people beyond your community to understand new ways of experiencing and perceiving the world. And I must admit, I'm biased about bias and how essential it is to humanity. I propose that as artists and audiences, living more deeply into understanding and articulating our biases through artistic exchanges presents an opportunity to know each other more fully, become more accountable to each other for seeing and honoring difference, and creating a fuller space for a wider range of people to be seen and appreciated for all of who we are.

[Music begins, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. You can find the entire PillowTalk with Lourdes Lopez at watch.jacobspillow.org, and learn more about Lopez’s upbringing by Cuban parents and her stellar performance career. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at DanceInteractive.jacobspillow.org and of course through live experiences during our Festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us soon, either online or onsite.