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Dancing to the beat of my own drum

By Hilda Poulson

Section: Arts

April 30, 2010

I discovered African dance during the fall of my junior year while I was studying abroad in Chile. Valparaiso was putting on its huge annual street parade. It featured, among other things, African dance and drumming. Hearing that more dancers were needed, I immediately volunteered.

Mind you, I’d never taken an African dance class, had never even seen African dance performed before. So I was more than a little surprised to find myself dancing with wild abandon through the streets of Valparaiso.

After the parade, I began attending African dance classes three times a week. I was in love! Initially, all I knew was that I was thoroughly enjoying myself. The rhythm of the drumming and dance moves just came so naturally. Through African dance class, I entered a community of women who, in spite of their cultural differences, related to one another through this one shared interest. Later on, I realized that becoming part of this community was one of the experiences I loved the most about my time abroad.

As soon as I returned from Chile, I joined Brandeis’ very own African dance club. Yet something felt different. I began to wonder: Why are there no black African dancers in African dance club? What are the implications of a bunch of white Jewish girls performing traditional African dances? I began to worry that my passion for African dance represented something sinister: a patronizing fascination with the exotic, an unfortunate combination of anthropological curiosity and white guilt.

In the context of Brandeis, I realized the obvious: I was a white person doing African dance. In Chile, all the dancers and drummers had been Chilean. Even my teacher was Chilean. Because I began studying African dance in this context, it had never occurred to me that the movements I found so natural were, for many people, associated with a skin color, and that this skin color differed from my own.

You may ask, “Why does it even matter? What does your being white have to do with your enjoyment of African dance?” I asked myself these questions too. I even asked other people. When I asked Joh, my African dance teacher from Mali, he shook his head violently and told me he hates it when people associate African dancing with skin color. He said it doesn’t matter what anyone’s skin color is, as long as they enjoy the rhythm of the dance and are having fun. My friends generally agreed, but not all of them. One friend suggested that I should volunteer to teach African dance to the kids from Waltham Group rather than the children at Lemberg pre-school because “the kids in Waltham Group are mostly black, right? Their bodies are just more naturally equipped to do movements like those required by African dance.”

I don’t think my friend intended to sound like a Social Darwinist. But she’s not the only one. Many people at Brandeis have told me that they find it confusing/hilarious/strange to see a group of white girls performing traditional African dances. I never know how to respond to these people, except to say that I also struggle with these same preconceptions about African dance.

I’m not sure if I will ever reconcile my affinity for African dance with the fact that I am not black. Some days, I’m sure it doesn’t matter. Other days, I feel terribly self-conscious about what I consider to be my own brand of cultural imperialism. I suppose the upshot is that, in questioning how racial identity relates to artistic expression, the answer is never simply black and white.

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