Lee: The Greek System Stifles the Dance Community

Dance groups are seen as a means to a social end, not as an art.

by Angie Lee | 3/7/17 12:30am

I will be graduating from Dartmouth this spring with an identity as a dancer that has greatly shaped my college experience. I have directed Street Soul and danced with ShebaLite during summer 2015. These are also my personal opinions, and I am choosing not to represent Street Soul through my statements.

I am sad to say that seeing dance groups at Dartmouth perform has often left me disillusioned and frustrated.

I arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 2013, excited about the prospects of joining a collegiate dance team. I was self-trained in popping — a street dance style — with an interest in urban choreography. I chose not to audition in the formal process, instead joining Street Soul – an open group. At the time, as a smaller dance team, I felt that the other members listened to my voice and helped me inch toward creating a dance team that shared my underlying vision.

As time passed, I began to realize how problematic certain dance teams are at Dartmouth in terms of their social role on campus. For some groups, dance appeared to be utilized as a means of social climbing. Upon dissecting the root of the problem, the reality became much clearer: the heart of the problem is the Greek system. Ultimately, dance at Dartmouth simply cannot be separated from it.

Performing at Greek houses can result in shallow dance teams, both in terms of their interaction with dance as an art and culture as well as the technicality of dance. The majority of dance groups have an incentive to perform multiple shows at fraternities each term. These shows are generally hosted after meetings at Greek houses, in an environment where the focus is not on show quality. The underlying purpose is simply to put out high-energy, fun shows that build social capital. And since these shows generate revenue to support dance teams, dance teams have a dependent relationship on the Greek system.

Dartmouth is not institutionally set up to support dancers; however, the institution alone is not to blame. Dartmouth dancers also propagate a negative culture. For instance, the negative influence of the Greek system occurs when certain dance groups are selective in choosing more “A-side” Greek houses to host performances. This creates the assumption that certain dance troupes are, in turn, also more “A-side” than others, affecting whether or not some dance groups are not as inclined to perform with one another at these shows.

In this culture, it is easy for dancers to become complacent about their own progress and talent. Individuals can be pressured to utilize their identity as dancers and appropriate Black culture for their personal benefit to appear relevant, facilitating their upward social mobility in the Greek system. During the rush process, some people may utilize their identity as a dancer to appeal to a certain Greek house. This is especially problematic when the Greek systems’ values are in many ways antithetical to hip-hop dance, which has roots in the fight for a marginalized group to express themselves and create their own artistic space. By personally benefiting from this dance culture without understanding the history of the dances they perform, Dartmouth’s dance groups can participate in cultural appropriation and disrespect.

When “hip-hop” is utilized by dancers as a means of gaining popularity within the Greek system, people lack appreciation and knowledge of the roots of the dance form. The origins of hip hop dance culture must include the topic of race, since many of these dance styles stem from the social gatherings of marginalized communities of people of color. Even my own dance group may be at fault for not including more discussions about the history of dance — these are questions that I am discussing with my team members, and we hope to move toward a more productive direction today.

Upon entering Dartmouth, dancers may retain their thirst for knowledge and dance skill. But as time passes in this toxic environment, dancers can easily fall into the culture of utilizing dance as a means of gaining social capital. Later, this may become one of their primary reasons for staying in the dance troupe — to stay “cool” and popular within the Greek system. Ultimately, by focusing on the social, “cool” factors of the activity, we as a community fail to maintain respect for the activity and fail to credit those who created the art.

However, I am still grateful for my experiences because I formed some of my strongest friendships through dance. I have also met talented individuals on every dance team. Not every dancer on this campus actively contributes to this negative culture. On a personal level, I am also conflicted about my stance on dance at Dartmouth as an affiliated member of the Greek system. I wonder if I have tried enough to appreciate the history of dance culture. But one person cannot effectively fight a problem entrenched within the institution.

We as dancers need to start working to build an authentic dance community that includes positive relationships not only within groups but also between groups. This dance community must foster a culture of humility, a culture where knowledge and ideas can be shared among all members. Dancers need to value creativity and support one another. To limit the Greek system’s influence on the progress of dance teams, Dartmouth must promote shows that support teams on real stages. Examples of these shows include “Step Show” and “Transform,” where dancers are offered a space to give voice to those who represent marginalized communities. These shows are more in line with the founding principles of hip-hop dance. Lastly, we must pay our respects to the people of color who made hip-hop dance possible in the first place. There is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. We need to start talking about how we can avoid conflating the two.

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