September 2020

Dancing Decolonization: Embodying Communal Pedagogical Practices

There is so much learning and unlearning to do and teaching dance is one of my entry points into anti-racist work.

by Waeli Wang

My work primarily lies within the practice of artmaking and embodied knowledge through social justice frameworks and identity politics. My research, teaching, and creative practices are driven by an inherent desire to understand people—to come to a more expansive understanding of the human experience. Because my own life has been heavily influenced by my experiences with racism, as an educator, I find it is my civic duty to engage with anti-racist pedagogical practices.

I am a first-generation born Asian American womxn who has been surrounded by white bodies for the majority of my life.[1] My peers, my teachers, my education. I learned a lot from being in white spaces. What I learned a lot later is that there is so much more and so much that has been partitioned away, histories meant to be hidden. Now as a creative scholar and educator, I have made it my business to fill in the gaps in our histories and build collective power.

Dance history guest lecture for Shining Stars. Photo by Bryan Le.

In the studio, I currently find myself engaging with anti-racist pedagogical practices in incorporating Chinese qigong, centering Black artists and African and African American diasporic dance vocabulary, and establishing equitable spaces of collaboration in the dance studio. These pedagogical approaches are connected to a radical dedication to self-care for my students and myself, which inherently affects the larger community that is us. The hope is to impart some of the ancestral lessons that Spirit has spoken through us, to decenter systemic hierarchies—to reimagine teaching and learning in a multidirectional lens.

Asian Thought in Modern Dance

In teaching modern dance, I think of its origins and the post-racial narrative that is preached as gospel to American citizens. This idea that racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist is especially unthinkable now, in the 2020 resurgence of The Movement for Black Lives.[2] Even then, when we think of the parentage of American modern dance, many white bodies come to the fore—Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis. What we may neglect is the influences of Asian thought, Indian dance practices, Buddhism, yoga, and beyond on modern dance pioneers and their works. When we teach the embodied knowledge of modern dance in the studio, how do we cite their inspirations as well? How do we enmesh our embodiment while cultivating consciousness of influences?

For myself, an effort to connect Asian thought to modern dance in the studio is through qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that involves moving meditation and rhythmic breathing to cultivate and balance our qi—translated as life energy or vital energy.[3] By lifting up qigong practices such as connecting to greater space, cardinal points, seasonal shifts, and communal breathing, this ancestral practice allows for a more holistic movement education that directs us to somatic experiences in a modern dance class.

Sometimes though, I wonder if I am being selfish in this practice of Chinese qigong. Returning to my own specific lineage of ancestral practices in an effort to reclaim what was lost in the transcontinental passage of my family—to transform the intergenerational trauma that has occurred in my family lineage and create intergenerational healing. One of the basic principles of qigong is a dedication to internalized self-care, a gift of one’s body having the ability to heal itself and return to a balanced state of being. I believe that healing is for everyone and sharing some of these qigong practices that have been passed on to me is a form of my own healing as well.

“Everything, given time and nurturing, is moving toward balance and healing… Healing is organic, healing is our birthright.”

—Lisa Thomas-Adeyemo

In rehearsal for Skin We Wrought, 2019. Photo by Emily R. Seabourne.

African Diaspora Dance Vocabulary in Western Forms

Centering and amplifying Black voices is enormously necessary in our contemporary America. Like the rest of the world, the dance world has its own work in anti-racism to do and uninvisibilize marginalized artmakers, histories, and use our platforms for social justice and change. Paying attention to the modern dance works of Black artists like Alvin Ailey, Donald McKayle, Katherine Dunham, Bill T. Jones, Kyle Abraham, Micaela Taylor, and so many more is a part of decolonizing the modern dance classroom. Increasing the exposure of diverse artists allows for more students to see themselves included in the canon. A sense of belonging is important to my teaching, and I have seen first-hand through collaborative, interdisciplinary art-making, active studio discussions, and student-centered experiential learning that brings forth our diverse stories can strengthen communities.

I am an educator who is still in pursuit of my own education in learning the dances that come from African and African American diasporas. In embodying dance across cultures, I find that incorporating vocabulary, movement, and verbiage in teaching modern dance to be an area of rich conversation and learning. Some areas of inspiration come from capoeira, hip-hop dance, and house dance. The wave of energy that comes from a jack in house in connection to a drop swing in modern. How some release and floor elements of modern dance already have detailed codification in capoeira, where we also get to learn some Portuguese along the way. We are able to learn and experience dance through a kaleidoscopic lens with different refractions where movement and language intersect.

Who am I to teach dances that do not come from ‘my culture?’ This is a question that I wrestle with a lot in my teaching and research. I want to believe that dance is for everyone. I hope that by including diverse movement and language practices that we can upend the Eurocentricity that exists in dance in America. When I am afraid that it feels like appropriation, I turn to Kwame Anthony Appiah who writes on cultural borrowing and expresses that it is respect that matters.[4] Even further, Brenda Dixon Gottschild so eloquently puts, “For Americans, the Africanist legacy is not a choice but an imperative that comes to us through culture.”[5] American culture is Black culture. Being able to acknowledge and name gives power to what was previously invisibilized.

“All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread and they are themselves usually products of intermixture… [a culture’s] songs and stories, even its secrets—are not made more useful by being tethered to their supposed origins.”

—Kwame Anthony Appiah

Establishing Equitable Space

Over my years working as a professional performer, choreographer, and educator, I have found that establishing mutual respect, dignity, and agency in the studio builds a rich and imaginative learning environment. Everyone in the studio contributes as a student, teacher, and thinker and knows that their contributions are valued by me and by their peers. I emphasize this thinking in my classes by incorporating group work, time to discuss goals, how they are achieving those goals, and regular feedback from students. This cultivates students’ abilities to identify their strengths, what they bring to the studio, as well as focus on working towards their objectives. In the past, students have been incredibly insightful when given this opportunity, providing useful information for me to reflect on what is working in class, and what I can improve upon, and I truly enjoy the fact that I learn from my students as much as they learn from me.

Cast and community warm-up at Santa Clara University. Photo by Grant Speich.

In my classroom and studio, students engage in experiential learning by direct participation and then have the opportunity to critically analyze and reflect on those experiences through different modes of inquiry. I strive to make safe spaces to explore identity in research and learning by inviting collaborative efforts and centering deep critical self-reflection. We constantly incorporate the historical, social, and personal contexts of the material learned in class and how to better apply these lessons throughout all areas in our lives.

I recognize that each class is full of individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and learning styles, and as a woman of color, I am sensitive to the importance of diversity in course content. I am a staunch advocate for increasing exposure to demographically diverse artists, since it allows more students to imagine creative ways to incorporate their own experiences into the art of dance. Concepts of building community, encouraging students’ individual agency, experiential learning, and a dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to the spaces that I teach in. These concepts are all a part of my agenda to build collective power.

These are all pedagogical practices that are works-in-progress and learned from many communities who generously share their knowledge. There is so much learning and unlearning to do and teaching dance is one of my entry points into anti-racist work. Part of anti-racist curriculum and decolonizing education is a constant questioning of what we are implementing in the classroom and understand that the contexts in which we exist in are constantly shifting. How are we creating in community and reshaping our futures?[6]

“…having community to learn with is actually really crucial for human development. It means we learn to see ideas, not just through our own singular and limited perspectives, but to see how different experiences create different ways of thinking about things, of comprehending and applying ideas.”

—adrienne maree brown

 

Waeli Wang is a movement artist, filmmaker, and educator. She creates interdisciplinary contemporary works interweaving personal, familial, social, and artistic contexts to investigate the human condition. She sees art-making as a means for social justice, as contemporary and historical representations of intersectionality, and as a way to cultivate community. She is driven to make work that fuses movement and imagery, figurative and abstract, and from the poetic personal to explore as an active artist citizen. She has toured internationally as a guest artist performing and teaching master classes in aerial dance forms. Her collaborative interdisciplinary choreography and films have shown in internationally curated performances and screenings over the last decade and continues to make work focusing on identity as a departure point. Cultivating community, experiential learning, and a dedication to diversity are central to her art-making practice and teaching philosophy.

Wang is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Kansas where she teaches Modern/Contemporary and continues her research. She holds an MFA degree in Dance from the University of California, Irvine & a BFA in Film Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She resides in Lawrence, KS.


[1] Wang, Waeli. Skin We Wrought: Critical Dancemaking, Autoethnography, and Asian American Identity. UC Irvine, 2019.

[2] Buchananan, Larry, et al. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.”

The New York Times, 3 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/

george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html. Accessed 14 Aug 2020.

[3] Liu, Tianjun. Chinese Medical Qigong. Singing Dragon, 2010.

[4] Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Cultural Borrowing is Great; The Problem is Disrespect.” The Wall

Street Journal, 30 Aug 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/cultural-borrowing-is-great-the-problem-is-disrespect-1535639194. Accessed 15 Aug 2020.

[5] Dixon-Gottschild, Brenda. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance

and Other Contexts. Praeger, 1996.

[6] brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press,

2017.

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