Let’s Not Shut Up and Dance

Putin with Al-Sisi at the Cairo Opera House in February 2015. Photo by Dina Ezzat.

On Nov. 11, I proposed a question to a Facebook group of dance educators, asking them if they were planning anything different for their students in the wake of this election. Many schools and universities had facilitated special activities to help their campus communities post-election; what were we doing in dance? Although I was aware that the others in the Facebook group were mostly from private studios in small towns, to my shock, the majority of their responses were fiercely negative:

  • We are dancers and dance teachers. Politics are private and personal and should be dealt with at home.
  • We just got a new President. Not sure why we are creating so much drama.
  • Stick to what you know and teach and leave politics out of the studio. Turn up the music and dance.
  • The parents pay us to teach their kids to dance, not to discuss politics or world events.
  • I wouldn’t want it for my son either. He learns from his dad and I and from our Church.
  • I am with not discussing any of that in class. Dance is a neutral zone.
  • Seriously?!?!?!?! No problems here. Just teaching ballet….
  • Let’s just dance and leave it at that.

With this feedback, I sat stunned. Was I way off the mark in feeling that something had fundamentally shifted? Were there boundaries that dancers should not cross when they see a learning opportunity? How do we educate this next generation of artists growing up in this divided and untrusting nation?

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Then I thought back to a moment in February 2015. I was living and working in Cairo, Egypt. A number of my dance colleagues were members of Cairo Opera Ballet. They were told to prepare Swan Lake and a student performance for a private, VIP audience. A week later, they found out that this audience would be President Al-Sisi and his guest of great honor, Vladimir Putin, to demonstrate a deepening of cultural cooperation.

The audience would be President Al-Sisi and his guest of great honor, Vladimir Putin.

For the American and Ukrainian dancers in the company, choosing not to dance would have put their futures with the company in certain peril. Was there a way to protest? The majority of the ensemble were overwhelmingly pro-Putin because of his strength in standing up to the corrupt and hypocritical US, but here were a few dissident dancers with no voice. I talked with them about their options at the time. Perhaps they could have written F*ck You, Putin! on the bottom of their pointe shoes in letters too small to see; they certainly couldn’t have done what’s possible in America, such as a Brandon Victor Dixon-style address from the stage asking a political leader to consider their perspective and vocalize their worries that the powerful “will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

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America is unique in that it does not have a federal agency for arts and culture. This is by design. If there were such a West Wing entity — that is, a Cabinet-level position — I wonder who Trump would pick to run it. Going by his appointees thus far, he would likely tap someone either with no experience in the field or someone vocal in their recommendation that the National Endowment for the Arts be dismantled. What would have been the arts’ response?

Photo from Mohamed Mahmoud St by Omar Kamel. Revolutionary artists reclaiming the wall.
On Mohamed Mahmoud St., near Tahrir Square, in Cairo, revolutionary artists reclaim the wall. Photo: Omar Kamel.

Such a thing happened in Egypt in 2013. President Morsi replaced the Minister of Culture with a Muslim Brotherhood member with no arts experience, and the Cairo Opera House went on strike. They protested in their gold lame Aida costumes and refused to perform for over a month. Other artists occupied the Ministry of Culture complex for 33 days. Each and every night, professional and student artists participated in a curated street performance as a political demonstration.

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The American context is different, but there are lessons we can learn. We must sustain a critical consumption of media, and we must remember that things are more complicated than we see. We, as artists, must strengthen our capacity for empathy — as a pathway to compassion. So, as the first exercise I gave myself, I watched Trevor Noah’s exclusive interview with 24-year-old conservative media darling Tomi Lahren. Much like Noah, I did my best to listen to her. Even with her ugly ending statement about Hillary Rodham Clinton needing more sexual pleasure, I heard Lahren out. Her ideology is one that millions of Americans resonate with and it must have some merit. For the people in my circle who proudly wear the “deplorable” label, what are their metrics for remaking a great America? This is the Red State ideology, as I understand it:

The Red State ideology.

The country is fundamentally great, but politicians have caused damage over time. It is people who are flawed. Thus, I should never protest the nation. I will not make myself out to be a victim. I will not be a crybaby. If something is wrong, I am the problem. Americans have made mistakes, but what’s past is past. Live in the now. I am responsible for myself. Everyone else should do the same. We each have the right to decide how we want our families to live and the government has no say in that. If I disagree with the lifestyles of others, I shouldn’t be forced to work with them, listen to them or be civil to them. I don’t mean them harm, but I will be honest, unlike Democrat hypocrisy with claims of goodwill but blind to their own racism and wrongs. I will build something for my family first, then, once that is secure, I will see what I can do to help others who did their best but fell victim to disease or natural disaster. The arts are a wonderful reward, the icing on the cake, but only after dinner. They are mostly a private enterprise. Things are simple, and my faith is unwavering.

On the other hand, here is the Blue State ideology as I understand it:

The Blue State ideology.

The country is fundamentally flawed and we are responsible for continually striving to improve it for the benefit of humanity. Many countries are great, but America’s unique greatness is its ability to keep progressing. We love its people so much that we will fight to fix the systems that pose harm. We will push and protest, for we are responsible for our country’s actions, good or bad. Many local legislators and political leaders are discriminating, acting on personal agendas or out of a perverse interpretation of religious doctrine. The separation between church and state is paramount and needs to be widened. The golden rule trumps patriotism. Arts and culture are human rights. Defiance is a civil right. We will be standing up for what’s right: love, equity, diversity and the common good. A healthy America is one of inclusion and complexity.

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How do we create and share art in this divided climate? What can conservative and liberal artists agree on? I honestly don’t think we should shut up and dance.The arts aren’t a business where the customer is always right, nor should be arts education. Like Catherine Wood’s depiction of Yvonne Rainer, I believe in “the self-awareness of the performer and de-emphasizing the status of performers as specialized.” We can create courses on important and relevant works of art such as Hamilton. We can make noise when stages and classrooms are under surveillance. We don’t have necessarily to discuss politics or to make politicized art in terms of content, but we can champion pluralism and help young artists to develop multicultural and critical capacities. We can make stronger choices in the place, time and people with which we work. A Trump administration is not normal; a vibrantly pro-Trump nation is not safe. The next generation of American artists deserve to be prepared. Whether detractors or supporters, this is the opportunity at our door.