In the past, I have often written and spoken about my students and my classes. There’s a big problem with that; these individuals and these spaces were not mine.
This use of possessive pronouns may seem trivial, but it has far deeper reach. It can be harmful in the developing self-perception of students. It leans toward centered whiteness and settler colonialism. It perpetuates a sense of individualism, as the teacher’s persona becomes the defining characteristic of the class. With Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, this dynamic is intensifying. Dance teachers, myself included, are commodifying the lessons they provide, and relying on their own selves as the brand. The differences between student, follower, and marketing pawn are blurring.
For non-profit organizations, claiming ownership of participants and staff through possessive pronouns can intensify power hoarding in the sector. This is especially true when the organization is white-led and the participants and/or staff are Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Colleagues and I have been trying to start using descriptors without possessives. For example, “the dancers in the program,” “the authors of this dance work,” and “today’s performers.”
One thing I have been doing, aside from monitoring my language in person and in digital communications, is shifting to collectiveness such as using “we” and “our.” That said, collective language is only appropriate when it is authentic and earned. That hasn’t always been the case, I admit. I’ve seen too many instances when dancers are set up for marketing purposes, with language indicating a collective that does not truly exist.
Let us stay on this notion of collectivity. In the era of COVID-19, fighting isolation is nearly as critical as saving lives. By choice, much of my teaching practice and collective-building right now is being conducted on the Zoom platform. An important part of dance teaching/learning experiences is embodied togetherness, so I have been exploring ways to bolster togetherness using the benefits that video conferencing and remote teaching/learning have to offer us. Last week on Zoom, the students and I held a Family Day and it was awesome. Every student had the opportunity to bring a family member on screen with them and/or share the class link with family around the world. They did that work. Family members could participate or observe the class. Even with so many guests on screen, the collectivity was genuine. The space was “ours.”
The dance class participants bring different faith and cultural traditions with them, and one mom was so happy to have mutual respect from home to home. Refugee and immigrant families included. Everyone reported how great it was to move together across age and distance. Zoom has also became a space for students to share personal pronouns without fear of smirks or derogatory comment. This day quickly became a favorite dance experience, made possible by new thinking. Families thanking one another. There is no way that I would call that “my class” or refer to “my students” in that context. We achieved the sought-after “collective we,” if only for one day.
Recently, I came across the fascinating story of ᕿᓐᓄᐊᔪᐊᖅ ᐋᓯᕙᒃ (Kenojuak Ashevak), who was an Inuit community member, person, mother, daughter, wife, and artist. Kenojuak Ashevak did not seek to become an artist, she made art and then students and fame found her, even in her remoteness. As I was online doing some learning about her and her culture, a few words in the Inuktitut language caught my attention. arraagutaaqqaummut ikaarvia means New Year. inutuaq means alone or a person on their own. allu means the hole in the ice where a seal comes up to breath.
As we face a Winter Solstice and New Year of icy isolation, may we also find the allus to come up for breath. May we find ways to build affirming dance experiences together during what may be a contentious vaccine rollout. May we take a moment to question the ways we habitually claim ownership of one another.