Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism

On June 9, 2017 Charmian Wells, a PhD Candidate in Dance Studies at Temple University, posted a response on Facebook to Gia Kourlas'  New York Times review of DanceAfrica's concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In Wells' response, "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism", she expresses how Kourlas' antiquated view of dance criticism perpetuates a "glaring lack of cultural literacy combined with a lack of self-awareness about this deficiency". 

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My response to Gia Kourlas’ New York Times Review “DanceAfrica Excels with Tradition.  Why Go Beyond?”

In a 1968 issue of Dance Magazine, the choreographer Eleo Pomare stated, “In my opinion artists don’t need critics or reviews.  A reviewer can easily hurt an artist through bias, or worse, through ignorance.” Half a century later, his statement rings true, as evidenced by Gia Kourlas’ recent review of DanceAfrica 2017.  Pomare was a mentor to Baba Chuck Davis, DanceAfrica’s first artistic director (who recently passed away), as well as to its current artistic director Abdel Salaam.  Problematically labeled an “angry black choreographer” in the press, Pomare knew more than a few things about the issues surrounding white critics looking as black performance in the U.S.  

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that only black critics can review dances of the African diaspora.  The central issue in this review is a glaring lack of cultural literacy combined with a lack of self-awareness about this deficiency, any sense of the historical role of racism in U.S. concert dance criticism, and a galling sense of authority over subject matter with which the reviewer is clearly unfamiliar.  Nor did she take it upon herself to ask questions or do research.

I would like to clarify my position in relation to the material at hand.  I am a white woman, a dancer in Salaam’s company Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, and a performer in the work, “The Healing Sevens,” which was disparaged in the review.  While my position within the work in question might seem to disqualify me from objectivity, I am also a PhD Candidate in Dance Studies at Temple University, a student and a professor of African/diaspora dance and twentieth-century U.S. concert dance history and criticism.  

Kourlas’ qualifications to review this piece are highly questionable.  At stake is not whether she liked or did not like the piece, or whether she gave it a good or bad review. One central issue is that the title of her review, and the very framework she uses to dismiss Salaam’s work, has foundations in racist colonial anthropology.  Colonial anthropology fixed the entire continent of Africa in the past, a form of time-based racism, in order to justify brutal exploitation of ‘savages’ in the name of so-called ‘progress’ and ‘civilization.’  Kourlas’ insistence that some ill-defined notion of “tradition” should limit the purview of DanceAfrica replicates the critical moves of primitivism. The title of her piece functions to police the cultural production of African derived people in time: Stay in your place, in the past. This framework was debunked in anthropology in the 1980s (Fabian 1983). Why does it persist in dance criticism in 2017?  

Regrettably, this is not new in dance criticism. Kourlas’ review exists within a problematic history of white dance critics policing black choreography and performance in twentieth-century U.S. concert dance (Gottschild 1997, Perpener 2001, DeFrantz 2002, Manning 2004, Kraut 2008).  In this history, critics have perpetuated racist double standards derived from primitivism by treating black performance as though it exists in the past, outside of Western concert dance and modernity.  Her words: “It’s another world” “glitteringly otherworldly” “radiating heat,” and most of all, the unfortunate coupling of “tradition and abandon,” are all tropes of exoticism drawn from discourses of primitivism.  They reveal more about the perception of the viewer than about the performance in question.  DanceAfrica is not another world.  It was created within the history, and continues to exist in the present, of Western concert dance.  

For example, the pairing of “tradition and abandon” is a typical move in dance criticism that relies on primitivist frameworks.  It positions dance practices/techniques from the continent of Africa (and African Americans in the diaspora) as ‘natural’ in a rhetoric of ‘wildness,’ or “abandon” revealing the spectator’s inability to read the technical dimensions of the movement/rhythm.  This is an issue of training and educating one’s perceptual apparatus to comprehend formal structures and innovations within cultural practices.  In “The Healing Sevens,” these formal structures include Salaam’s unusual use of a rhythm of seven, including the adaptation of a Guinean Sosono, usually performed in a rhythmic meter of six.  Additionally, she is likely unaware that seven functions as a divine number of transformation within an Africanist cosmology.  If Kourlas did understand the cultural framework, hear the meter of seven, or recognize the movement innovations, the recognition of these innovations is glaringly and irresponsibly absent from her critique of the work.  In fact, it seems that these innovations are precisely what she takes issue with. 

What she fails to recognize is that DanceAfrica is already "beyond." 

Kourlas seems to be confused about the fact that staging “tradition” on the Western proscenium stage already involves innovations moving beyond mere re-presentations of simplistic notions of “tradition.”  Her insistence on limiting DanceAfrica to staging “tradition” provokes further questions around her expectations of what “tradition” looks like, raising the specter of fraught anthropological displays and performances of Others’ ‘authentic traditions’ for European spectatorship and consumption.  

The dance companies that are invited to DanceAfrica from the African continent and the diaspora are situated in histories of colonization.  They have already been influenced by Western theatrical practices: condensed time frames for performance; adjustments for the proscenium stage (spacing, lighting, etc.); and demands for virtuosity according to Western conventions of spectacle.  Additionally, the multiplicity of dance forms presented at DanceAfrica (e.g. Haitian Yonvalou, Senegalese Sabar, Malian Lamban) originated at different historical periods and continue to undergo transformation, complicating any simple or evident use of “traditional” to describe them.   These dances and the people who created them are dynamic, not static. If anything defines Africa and the African diaspora, it is a tradition of transformation

Her juxtaposition of Salaam’s work to the Wula troupe and the BAM/Restoration Dance Youth Ensemble, whom she applauds for ostensibly sticking to “tradition,” fails to understand the innovations in the ways these companies also adapted their work to the concert stage.  These are all choreographed renditions adjusted for the concert stage, drawing upon movement vocabularies developed diverse in social, secular and religious contexts.  It seems that these sections appealed to her because they appear to be non-controversial, and she can feel comfortable enjoying happy African dancing.  

What deserves interrogation is not the question of whether or not to move beyond “tradition.” It is the rhetorical use of the term “tradition” and the presumption of an uninformed critic to police black choreographers’ prerogatives.  

When will we be done with these tired tropes of authenticity and “tradition” that continue to plague contemporary black performance? 

Her comments reveal both misrecognition of what she is watching and a fundamental lack of understanding of diaspora, a term that she uses in an unfortunate, disparaging comparison of Davis and Salaam.  Her positioning of them on opposing sides of a binary, combined with her reference to Salaam as “handpicked” by Baba Chuck (as though he was chosen through some kind of audition process) completely ignores Salaam’s professional history as the Associate Artistic Director of the Chuck Davis Dance Company and his participation in DanceAfrica beginning forty years ago.  Perhaps if she had understood this legacy, she would realize that Salaam inherited his fluency in concert dance, across ballet, modern, West African and diasporic forms from Baba Chuck himself, who worked in the hybridity that defines Africa and its diaspora.  

Additionally, Kourlas is unable to understand the references of the piece that create diaspora, a phenomenon that has been defined by diaspora theorist Stuart Hall as a constant unfolding of new forms from diverse traditions (Hall 1986).  Her formulation—tradition versus beyond—is an ill formed premise of departure.  This binary opposition positioned as a mutually exclusive choice reveals an ignorance of the meaning of the term diaspora.  

For example, Kourlas’ reference to Fritzlyn Hector’s performance as the “Trickster” (presumably gleaned from the program) contains no mention of the actual movement vocabulary, execution, or a comprehension of the rhythmic and iconographic references. It would appear that she does not possess the vocabulary to discuss it.  As Dr. Angela Fatou Gittens has pointed out in her brilliant response to this review,

 Kourlas completely misses the references in Hector’s character to the figure of Guédé in Haitian Vodou, signaled by the banda rhythm, purple and black costuming, sunglasses, sexually provocative movement vocabulary, and the shoulder articulations of Vodou’s zépaules.  She also misses the connection between Guédé and the Yoruba figure of Elegba (the red and black trickster) in Hector’s character transformation.  Because she cannot read these references, which are integral to the choreography and the cosmology that the work draws on, the entire construction of diaspora taking place on the stage goes over her head.  Finally, Elegba and Guédé, situated at the crossroads between life and death, make Hector not an “intermittent appearance,” but the central figure to the piece’s concern with the disproportionate distribution of violence and death in black communities in the U.S. and beyond.  

This raises another troubling dimension of the review.  Kourlas disparages Salaam’s approach to accessible narrative and storytelling.  A critique of overly didactic narrative could be received well, providing constructive feedback for a choreographer to reconsider certain choices.  That is not the issue here.  Kourlas’ deliberately chosen language reduces the narrative commentary to “a public service announcement,” effectively dismissing the material conditions of violence of black social life within white supremacy.  

As Anthea Kraut has explained “the notion of diaspora not only troubles stereotypes of black people as unthinking, uncivilized exotics.  It also replaces the hierarchies and dichotomies on which primitivism depends with a model of black influences and exchange not wholly dependent on any white arbiter.  That is, whereas primitivism views blackness only vis-à-vis whiteness, diaspora foregrounds the relations within blackness” (Kraut 2008, 146).  This is, of course, threatening to a dance critical establishment in which your authority is premised on being a white arbiter.  

It seems that part of the issue is that Kourlas feels left out in Salaam’s narrative that centers black people and the issues that are of pressing urgency to their daily lives.  It is difficult for white people when we do not feel included, or to feel that we are not at the center of the narrative, a position we are so used to occupying.  However, DanceAfrica was founded by African Americans for the purpose of addressing the issues that plague this community—as a turn to rhythm and movement as a source of healing and connection to the diaspora for disenfranchised people.  Furthermore, her reductive characterization of the piece as “a tale of gun violence” willfully (dis)misses the celebratory and healing dimension of the work, explicit in the title of the piece “The Healing Sevens” and the entire evening The Healing Light of Rhythm: Tradition and Beyond.  How is it that healing the black community can be construed as negative, divisive or overly political?  

Kourlas’ jab at the close of the article continues to set up Davis as a foil to Salaam on problematic terms: “Always generous, that man.  He made us laugh.”  Ultimately, her comments reveal the demands of white modes of spectatorship:  Don’t be political.  Entertain me.  Create feel good shows for me.  Be inclusive.  Make us laugh.  Apart from recalling the disturbing specter of minstrelsy, demanding happy performances from black dancers, this reduces Baba Chuck’s profound legacy to laughter and entertainment.  It also reveals her expectations for DanceAfrica: shuck and jive.  Stay in your lane. You can be an object/body for consumption (the terms for black sports players, black entertainers), but don’t make me think as an artist and an intellectual.  Entertain me, so that I don’t have to think about my relationship to African, and African derived culture, and the people who create and sustain it in the present.  

Her dig—“Was this DanceAfrica or a Broadway tryout?”—polices Salaam’s use of concert dance conventions like canon, counterpoint, and retrograde, while falling into a tired trope that demeans Broadway and popular entertainment.  She is a professional writer, using deliberate language.  We all know that dancers audition.  The language of “tryout” is condescending and paternalistic.  This comment also sets up a false binary between African derived dances and Broadway productions, revealing her ignorance of the long history of African dance on Broadway.  This history extends from Assadata Dafora’s Kykunkor in the 1930s, a smash hit that was similarly subject to racist and ignorant reviews in the white press (Manning 2004) to Fela! in 2008.  Notably, more than half of the dancers in Fela! were trained by Salaam or worked in Forces of Nature Dance Theatre.  It also elides the fact that Broadway is premised on African diasporic movement practices (i.e. Broadway jazz and Bob Fosse’s vocabulary are derived from African American vernacular practices). 

These are the double binds and double standards of racist criticism. On the one hand the demand is: Entertain me.  Stay in your lane.  Innovation and intellectual commentary is not your purview.  On the other hand, when entertainment is invoked, through her demeaning reference to Broadway, it is degraded as void of intellectual or artistic content, labeled “flashy.”  So what’s a black choreographer to do within these impossible critical terms?

These double binds are even more problematic in light of her own work, which seeks to promote innovation in European-American based forms through “diversity.” Kourlas’ description of her own scholarship (as a 2016 Fellow at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts) raises serious questions about her larger project in relation to this review: 

Finding the Black Swan: Bringing Ballet Into the Future

“Kourlas will research a book focusing on blacks and ballet by delving into its history and its dancers. In addition, Kourlas will explore how classical ballet, perceived by some as elitist, can be reinvented and invigorated — yet not watered-down — through diversity.” 

The disturbing critical moves at play here deserve their own essay, but I will gesture to them briefly: 1) I believe you mean black people. Referring to people solely defined by their race is problematic. 2) Ballet is not “perceived by some” as elitist. It always has been elitist, deriving from its historical foundations in aristocratic court dances, used to consolidate the power of the king.  This is a well-established fact in dance scholarship and not up for debate (Franko 1993).  3) Kourlas would use black dancers as props in an argument that depends on weak multiculturalism, or tokenism (“diversity”) to recuperate (“reinvented and invigorated”) this elitist European form, which has historically excluded dancers of color.  She does so not only to preserve the hierarchical status of ballet, but to promote a “beyond” for this European-based tradition.  4) How exactly “diversity” might threaten to “water-down” ballet remains a further troubling question.  

Why can there be traditional, classical, and contemporary ballet, but African and diasporic forms must remain in the past?  Why are you using black dancers to secure a future for ballet, while denying a present and a future to choreographers working in African and diasporic forms? 

This is a teachable moment.  My recommendation before beginning to write your book: Do the Undoing Racism Training at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. 

Perhaps Kourlas is not aware of the terms from primitivism that frame her review.  She may also be ignorant of the long history of white critics policing black performance on the U.S. concert stage, a lineage in which she has placed herself with this review.  Indeed, ignorance seems to be the defining theme here. Some appears unknowing, while some is clearly deliberate.  She speaks confidently (strong and wrong) imbued with the cultural capital of a New York Times dance critic.  

What is finally questionable, on an institutional and structural level, is the choice to give her this assignment by the supervising editor, or editorial team, at the New York Times.  There are plenty of qualified critics who could undertake this assignment. Why not call Zita Allen or Eva Yaa Asantewaa?  Or is the real issue that there are no critics qualified to review DanceAfrica on staff at the Times?  Allow me to reiterate, I am not suggesting that only black critics can review dances of the African diaspora.  At stake is the issue of cultural literacy.  It can also be noted that this ‘tradition’ at the New York Times dates back to John Martin’s problematic critiques of Katherine Dunham’s work (Manning 2004).  

In the time of Trump’s attacks on freedom of the press and the escalating culture wars and threats to the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Times paints itself as a beacon of liberal and progressive values.  Unfortunately, publishing this kind of review demonstrates that, at least when it comes to the Arts Section, Eurocentrism still reigns supreme. 

Charmian Wells

PhD Candidate, Dance Studies 

Temple University



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Charmian Wells

Charmian Wells is a cultural historian, working between dance studies, performance studies, black cultural studies, and queer theory. She is currently pursuing her scholarly interests as a doctoral ca...
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