I believe that today’s dance educators and choreographers should never do a “crazy/insane” dance number, even though it’s a common practice around Halloween and all-season-long on the competition circuit. I said it. Note, I’m not saying that mental illness should never be a central theme, driving idea or research material; I’m just saying that, as an industry, our usage of “crazy/insane” as a costume or character needs to stop. Articles on this topic go way back, even before the 2011 controversy of the Robert Morris University students pictured above.
When I posted this opinion today in an online group for dance educators, a majority of the nearly 200 comments were counter to my argument. If I distilled the virtual eye rolls, name-calling and comments from those who annoyed or angered by my post, I would say their accusations against my thinking fell into four categories:
- Infringing on artists’ First Amendment rights
- Oversensitivity to a non-issue
- Ruining people’s good fun
- Wanting boring and bland choreography
So here are my counter arguments.
Every American has a right to free speech as long as it is not inciting violence. Violence comes in the three forms: direct, systems/institutional, and cultural. By perpetuating stereotypes and misrepresentations, artists often contribute to cultural violence without realizing it.
Even if we dismissed all that, we as educators have deeper responsibilities. For me, student education is paramount. I want my students to know and trust their diverse neighbors. I wish for them to have a balance between strong confidence and strong empathy (please note that I did not say sympathy). When our students are more aware and knowledgable than we are, that’s a huge sign of success. I love when they school us on issues.
It is important that we in this role of educating the next generation of artists and audiences keep trying to do better, be better. We must keep working toward cultural equity and allowing space for our students to be themselves publicly without fear or stigma. If they are trans or gay or have a mental illness, they should never feel shame. If my students ever performed a human stereotype or misrepresentation, they would embody that stereotype or misrepresentation. I know this because I experienced this myself when I decided to be “homeless” for Halloween as a kid or when my own dance teacher had me portray “African.” It’s difficult to get past the negative perceptions and stigmas we were raised with.
So if a student or artist wants to portray something fictional onstage or for a holiday (not a real person or event), I’m thinking there’s two choices: pick a non-human/fantasy/sci-fi costume or opt for an occupation (never an ethnicity, nationality, tribe or race). This is especially important when there’s not the time or need to an in-depth character exploration — like Halloween, and short dance numbers, and short dance numbers on Halloween. Imagine if we flipped the script on the characteristics often associated with our common costumes?
Police Officer portrayed as scary.
Firefighter portrayed as goofy.
An individual experiencing homelessness (not “hobo”) portrayed as a hero.
A person with mental illness (not “crazy/insane”) portrayed as courageous.
There’s a reason we don’t have a dancer without physical disability in a wheelchair onstage acting “scary.” It’s only mental disability that we treat this way. It’s not good and it’s easy to stop.
Never was I offended. Rather, I was disappointed. What others perceive as my oversensitivity might be awareness. I’m always looking for how we can improve. I know our sector can do better. It’s too important; we have no excuses. There’s plenty of fun to be had without perpetuating misrepresentations of our fellow humans.
Lastly, on being boring, I firmly argue back. Those who know me know my adventurous spirit. Always pushing against the cliche and the status quo. Ever an advocate for complex, thought-provoking, impact-making choreography and dance programming. We should hold ourselves to high standards. We are way too creative to be limiting ourselves to stereotypes.