Our disciplinary practices have histories that are important to acknowledge and share with our students. In this episode Lindsay Guarino, Carlos Jones, and Wendy Oliver join us to discuss jazz dance, its roots, and how instructors can decolonize the curriculum.
Lindsay is an Associate Professor of Dance and Chair of the Department of Music, Theatre and Dance at Salve Regina University. Carlos Jones is a Professor of Musical Theater and Dance and Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. He is also a performer and choreographer whose works have appeared on television, film, and regional theater. Wendy Oliver is a Professor of Dance and Chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Film at Providence College. Lindsey, Carlos, and Wendy are co-editors of Rooted Jazz Dance: Africanist Aesthetics and Equity in the Twenty-First Century.
- Guarino, L., Jones, C., & Oliver, W. (Eds.) (2022). Rooted Jazz Dance: Africanist Aesthetics and Equity in the Twenty-First Century. University Press of Florida.
- Guarino, L., & Oliver, W. (Eds.) (2014). Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches. University Press of Florida.
- Rough Translation. (2022). May We Have This Dance? National Public Radio. January 16.
- McCarthy-Brown, N. (2017). Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World: Culturally Relevant Teaching in Theory, Research and Practice. McFarland.
- Final Bow for Yellowface
- Chan, P. (2020). Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact.
- Fentroy, K. (2020). My Experience as a Black Ballerina in a World of Implicit Bias. Pointe Magazine. June 4.
- Akpem, S. (2020). Cross-Cultural Design. A List Apart. February 27.
- The New York Times, (2020). How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody.
John: Our disciplinary practices have histories that are important to acknowledge and share with our students. In this episode we discuss jazz dance, its roots, and how instructors can decolonize the curriculum.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners..
Rebecca: Our guests today are Lindsay Guarino, Carlos Jones, and Wendy Oliver. Lindsay is an Associate Professor of Dance and Chair of the Department of Music, Theatre and Dance at Salve Regina University. Carlos Jones is a Professor of Musical Theater and Dance and Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. He is also a performer and choreographer whose works have appeared on television, film, and regional theater. Wendy Oliver is a Professor of Dance and Chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Film at Providence College. Lindsey, Carlos, and Wendy are co-editors of Rooted Jazz Dance: Africanist Aesthetics and Equity in the Twenty-First Century. Welcome Lindsay, Carlos, and Wendy.
Lindsay: Thank you.
Wendy: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are… Carlos, are you drinking tea?
Carlos: I am, I’m drinking chamomile.
John: Very nice.
Rebecca: Nice and relaxing.
Lindsay: I have a big tall glass of ice water. Exciting. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: But energizing.
Lindsay: Yes, it is. Refreshing.
John: A nice ice water on a nice cold wintry day here in upstate New York.
Lindsay: Yeah, right? [LAUGHTER] It’s cold here too in Rhode Island.
John: And Wendy?
Wendy: I’m typically drinking jasmine tea.
Lindsay: [LAUGHTER] How appropriate.
Rebecca: Typically? Hmm.
John: Typically… but today?
Wendy: Meaning my cup is empty.
Rebecca: Oh, no, that’s so sad. [LAUGHTER] And I have English breakfast tea.
John: And I am drinking, and I think a first, the same as you: English breakfast tea.
Rebecca: John and I never drink the same kind of tea.
John: It’s a matter of principle. But this time we didn’t have a chance to coordinate that. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Yeah, we’re not in the same place. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your new book, Rooted Jazz Dance: Africanist Aesthetics and Equity in the Twenty-First Century. Can you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?
Lindsay: Wendy and I co-edited another textbook called Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches that was published in 2014, and Carlos was a contributing author to that book. That particular book really positioned jazz within its roots. We went to great lengths to study the history of jazz from its roots in West Africa, and then looking at the continuum and the things that impacted the continuum. The conversations that emerged from that book were readily acknowledging the roots of jazz. Many people previous to that time weren’t necessarily saying the roots of jazz were West African. They maybe had that knowledge, but it was just not central to their teaching, or to the discourse in general. The conversations really shifted to look at: “Okay, now we know that the roots are here. We know that this is because of enslavement that we got jazz to this place, that it’s embedded in our American culture, but what do we do with that as practitioners? As teachers? As educators? How can we make sense of that in the classroom? And how can we have the tools? Especially, I myself, as a white person, how do I do that responsibly?” So I remember distinctly Wendy and I having a conversation, we went out and had coffee and lunch, and I pitched her this idea for a new book, and in that conversation, we were like, “We need Carlos to do this with us, or else this book can’t happen,” and I think Wendy emailed Carlos, and Carlos was like, “Yeah, I’m in,” and the idea was born, it was that simple.
Lindsay: Am I missing anything there, Wendy?
Wendy: I think that was a great summary.
Carlos: And I said, “Yes!” And off we ran.
John: So how did you select the contributors for this project?
Wendy: Well, many ways. I think we started by inviting people from our first book, who are all jazz experts, to submit an abstract for this book. We knew that this book was going to have a different frame of reference. So we weren’t automatically going to keep the same authors, but we invited them to give us their ideas. Then we were in the midst of making an outline for the book because we didn’t want to just have an anthology of random articles about jazz dance. We wanted to have it make sense and have a particular pattern that led somewhere, that had a logical progression, and we did that. I think we must have revised our outline about 10 times at least, right?
Carlos: [CHUCKLE] Yeah.
Wendy: What we did was we looked at the abstracts we had and then if they didn’t all match up with our outline, we posted a call for authors on several websites where professional dancers congregate, and we were able to find people that way.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how their traditional approach to teaching jazz might mislead students about the origins of jazz dance and why this book is so important?
Carlos: Well I think that most of us have learned jazz dance, either through, initially a studio system, meaning private studios, you know, go to class, take your children to class. Then moving through the academic system, higher education, particularly if we are getting degrees and moving forward. And what has been traditionally or typically taught throughout all the years, is a version of jazz dance that did not embrace, or incorporate or use rooted material. And if it was, it wasn’t specifically identified. That has been the really, by and large, the large expanse of that. Even, I would say, to what most people see presented either in television, film, on stage, what you would see has no real connection to the roots of where it began. So, that teaching of that jazz dance, many of us have experienced that. It’s not until you have these personal investigations, as we’ve done, to really go back and go, “where does this come from and how did we get here?” …do you then start to unearth all of that that’s happening. Now, that’s not to say that rooted jazz dance wasn’t going on, but it hasn’t necessarily been mainstream, or given the platform or the space to be seen and carried and moved forward. And there are many layers to how that has happened. I would say that is how the traditional approach to teaching it has happened in our country since, I’m going to say, you know, the mid-20th century, when it began to be popular and began to be used as a commodity that shifted it and changed. So there was a split in who owned it and who moved it forward. The voices that carried it forward or have the means, capacity, power, etc, to move it forward, moved it forward without acknowledgement of those people that were the innovators in the beginning, which were primarily African American people and it was rooted in African aesthetics. So that is the training and the teaching that has happened throughout.
Wendy: Also in higher education, the dance departments were predominantly oriented around modern dance in the early part of the 20th century and jazz dance wasn’t really part of the curriculum at all. So it was pretty much ignored in colleges and universities for a long time. When it did become more popular in higher education, probably in the late 70s or so, I think the kinds of jazz dance that were being taught were mainly from a white perspective, rather than a black perspective and the majority of people teaching in higher education (not only in that time but also today) are still white. So that really skewed the presentation of the material.
Lindsay: Also adding on to that, one thing that is worth noting is when you look at jazz music, where that’s situated within academia, jazz dance never found its grounding in the same way. So jazz music has been part of institutions for decades now. There’s festivals, there’s conferences, there’s journals, there’s all this energy around jazz. It also goes without being said that it is also moving towards whiteness. The very act of putting jazz music in the academy stripped jazz music from its black American culture, and from a place where it’s social and communal. And although there have been movements in a direction that is honoring the black American roots within music, a lot of the jazz music programs in academia are more white than black. When we look across the whole spectrum, we have jazz music, which has been growing and increasing in stature over the years. For some reason, jazz dance never found its foothold. It just became marginalized over time, and we make that very direct connection in the book to racism. Jazz reflects racism in America.
John: For our listeners who are not as familiar with the history of jazz dance, could you provide a little bit more information about where jazz dance got its start?
Carlos: Ok. Wooh, this is so dense. So in the interest of time, I’m going to try to move through this very quickly. There’s no doubt that enslavement, and the movement of Africa migrating to the country, came in contact with other cultures, and that is the birth of jazz. That happened because of exchange of ideas and so forth. You really can connect it back to early spirituals, because of all that communal, and work within the family unit and the soul and the spirit, and joy. And then connect it into early forms of entertainment in terms of minstrelsy, and Ragtime involved and moving forward. As it evolved, and we get to what we know is jazz, true jazz, which is coming into the early 20th century. And we have that explosion, and you get to the 20s, and Harlem Renaissance and all this stuff. It is amalgamation of all those experiences up to that point. So that jazz, that movement that occurred and that happened, speaks specifically about jazz movement, dance, comes out of that. It’s birthed out of that experience of African Americans who are having the opportunity coming off of the late 1800s, and so forth, and have an opportunity as we move into the 20th century to explore and be and have a culture that is vibrant. Their communities where now they’re growing in education, and they’re having all these experiences. So they have these places where they dance, and they can go and be free, and be in their own environment, which many of us have heard about… those nightclubs, and the Savoy ballroom, all of that jazz stuff happens there. And that’s when the innovation aligns with the music and it goes, and we build these steps which we call rooted, that are happening, swing, lindy, etc, going that way. What happens is, as our country begins to love it, and it’s massive, and everybody’s enjoying it, and there’s opportunity to make it into a commodity to sell and be commercial. And we put it into platforms, as I spoke before, television, film, musical theater at that time. And then there became a few people that decided it needed codification: to teach it, and train it and move it forward. As they did that, they began infusing Eurocentric forms: ballet, etc, and so forth. That primary space of that, and I’m talking about jazz dance, again, the movement, actually factors it, that’s what we call the continuum now, because we live on a continuum of the jazz dance and what it looks like… fractures it and begins to have all of these offshoots of what people call styles of jazz, as it fits that venue. Musical theater, jazz, commercial jazz, club jazz, these things are happening as people start infusing other things on top of it. That’s what gets translated forward, and we started teaching it in studios and we started teaching it in different ways, but what gets left behind in that process, are those rooted African-American and Africanist aesthetics. That gets left behind in favor of these other things, which seem to be, for lack of a better term, more refined. And so we move that technique out, and now we’re seeing something that looks more akin to ballet, or modern, or other things, and it gets commercialized and moved into other forms. And also, our music changes. So we’re going into the late 20th century, and our music changes, and jazz music goes one way, and as we electrify a little bit more, and rock and roll, and soul and all that comes in. So jazz in a social form, jazz dance, as we sell it, in our commodity, follows that path. It leaves jazz music and follows that other path. So what you see today is that… stuff that was created, so that we fit in Broadway musicals on a Broadway stage. That does not necessarily mean it held on to the roots, or something that is in a commercial, or something that you see on TV, or even on the concert stage. So that’s a real quick sort of pathway. Again, it’s more detailed, and we have this jazz tree in the book that you can look at that really talks about all that. It really illustrates how it fractures out.
John: And there happens to be an excellent book on that coming out very shortly. [LAUGHTER]
Carlos: Right, exactly.
Lindsay: I was going to add, Carlos, the tree is such a helpful analogy for someone that isn’t familiar with jazz because the tree shows the roots in West Africa, but then the influences that come in later are European. But then there’s also all of this movement because of the Diaspora, the way that the enslaved were bought and sold across continents and through the Caribbean, into South America, into the southern part of North America. Then from there, the very core, the trunk of the tree, all the way from the roots till today is still situated in blackness. And as you get into the branches, that’s where we see these European cultural ideologies that are really centering other forms and decentering the black American roots.
Carlos: And that’s really important to really note what Lindsay just said because what happens is, and this cycles back to the question you just said earlier, where we have been giving tribute or homage or paying close attention to are the branches, versus the trunk and the core.
Wendy: And in that image of the tree, we also included dance forms like tap and hip hop, which aren’t exactly the same as jazz, but they come from the same roots and the same trunk of the tree.
Carlos: Correct. In fact, early tappers were called jazz dancers, because they danced to jazz music. They just had rhythm on their feet.
Lindsay: Those histories are one and the same. And I think what’s also interesting for us is the way that we carry this type of embodied history in us. And as we’ve made our own efforts to decolonize the knowledge that we hold in our bodies, that’s equally as important as discussing the history and the theories and all of the things. So how can we dismantle these ideologies? How can we interrupt the conventions that reflect something other than what the rooted core of that idea is, what the essence is? And I know for myself, when I was working on our first book, I really started questioning… oh, this thing that I’m teaching in the studio is really centering white American ideology. And I had to strip away a lot of the layers because I knew it was there, I was taught all of these things. It just wasn’t at the center, it wasn’t at the forefront of my practice. And so I think that those are the conversations that we keep having are, “How do you get to the essence?” And that’s also, I think, where the elusive, transformative, transcendent power of jazz is. So the closer we get to that, I mean, that’s the juicy part.
Rebecca: The tree image is really useful for people outside of the discipline, as was a personal story that was shared on a recent podcast episode of Rough Translation by LaTasha Barnes in an episode titled “May We Have This Dance?” where she talks about exploring the Lindy Hop that she had learned in her family. She’s a professional dancer, and then traveled to Sweden to learn Lindy Hop. And she was kind of like, “Why am I doing this?” And so hearing that story not too long ago, and then hearing your description of the branch really brings that all to life in an interesting way.
Carlos: I think I would say too that, by the way LaTasha is also a contributing author in the Rooted Jazz Dance book, but that was so poignant for me, because I think that is the experience of many people, particularly African Americans, because you would think that we would understand and be perpetuating moving forward the experience and the rootness of our ancestors. And that maybe my fellow authors who are white, had different experience in, as Lindsay said, decolonizing their body and their training experience. But that’s not the case. I had to do the same thing too, because what I was taught as I moved through, was through the lens of whiteness, and that’s all I knew. And so I knew that it existed like LaTasha did, and I had that experience in my family, but it was something over there. That wasn’t what I needed in academia. And that wasn’t what I was asked to bring forth in academia. So it was like learning a whole new language and leaving a part of me out. And It wasn’t till then I went back in to re-investigate, when I finally really went back and invited it back into my life, went, “Oh, that’s what I was missing. I left a part of me away.” So I think that that is very much all of our experiences, regardless of cultural background.
Lindsay: And the irony with that, is that there is this dance form that’s an indigenous American language here, and yet, it’s been marginalized in a way that, we’re placing value on a form that’s coming from a different country. We have this form that, like Carlos is explaining, that’s rooted here, it’s rooted in our very American experience, and yet, we value other things.
John: How does this affect the students who are learning dance? You’ve talked about this a little bit, Carlos, but in general, what’s the impact of having this misappropriation of the roots of jazz dance on the students who are studying it?
Carlos: Well, I think the impact, depending on where you look at it, first of all, the art form continues to move forward without all the information. And so you get more, more, more, more of those branches and black fracturing out. So that’s one of the impacts. I think, for the student, although they may not know this, they have missing information. And we want students in education, regardless of your field, regardless of your subject, to have inquisitive minds, and think and ask questions and have full information, not a single information. And I think that, in line with how we’re looking at education across the board, about decolonizing classrooms, having inclusive practices in our teaching, gives us more information, even to students where the information may not be the primary culture. If you’re always only studying about you, then you are sort of myopic in your space. So I think that’s what it does with jazz dance. And I think they lack richness, and what they can then produce and teach and move forward because again, they only have part of the information. So I think that’s some of it.
Wendy: I think this relates to the topic of whitewashing, where you get incomplete information. But it’s not just that the information isn’t complete, but the power structure is such that all of the glory and credit goes to white people for making an art form that really began with African American culture. So the problem isn’t just missing information, it’s how the imbalance of power and how some people got credit for something that was perhaps not only inappropriate, but it was misleading in a very negative way. And now we’re having to correct the problem. So I think it was harmful to our dance community to not have these things out there on the table, because now we’re having to go back and say, “Uh! We got that one wrong, we got that one wrong,” and make amends to the best that we can. But the problem is that jazz dance has kind of run away in a certain direction. If you look online under the term jazz dance, you’re probably not going to see a lot about the Africanist aesthetic, unfortunately. So the preponderance of dancers believe that jazz looks a certain way, and that way is more balletic, more white. And that’s a problem because what those dancers are doing is something interesting, something that could be very artistically valid, but it’s not really what jazz is or was.
Lindsay: One of the things I think students struggle with, there’s that initial, like, they’ve been deprived of knowledge. They come into higher ed and all of a sudden they’re learning things that they had never been taught before, and they didn’t realize the things that they didn’t know. So oftentimes that’s met with just shock and some anger even, but after that, for me and my teaching, sometimes it gets a little bit messy. For some students, they really take ownership of that and run with it and they want to be responsible, and also innovative, recognize that jazz isn’t this thing that happened in the past, and to do it today we need to be anchored in this era, we can move it forward and still be responsible. And this is resistance that… I don’t know if resistance is the right word, but we’ve encountered this even within our jazz community of dance educators, where there’s the questions that come up about, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this form. What is my role? If I’m not African American how do I engage with this art form that wasn’t mine to begin with? Where does ownership lie? What does it mean today, to not be black and to participate in this?” So it’s prime time to have this conversation. It’s not only relevant, it’s necessary, and I think it’s ultimately where we need to go as educators to be more inclusive in our spaces and recognize the needs of our students.
Rebecca: One of the things that was really standing out is something that Carlos said earlier about the personal, cultural, and familial experience of feeling other, like outside of. And maybe a need to help students recognize that their personal experience is valid and an important part of how they interpret and understand what they’re learning and that it belongs in the academy. It’s not that it doesn’t belong here, but historically, in many fields, like we’ve said, your personal experience is not relevant to this ivory tower in some ways. And something that, Lindsay, you’re saying that is resonating with me is also thinking about what it means to be a steward of a particular kind of cultural form. I’m a visual artist, so many of the things that you’re talking about resonate with me in a similar way, it’s just a visual form that I tend to work in.
Wendy: I’ve just been reading a book about culturally relevant teaching in dance. It’s Nyama’s book, McCarthy-Brown, and there’s a whole section on, for instance, how to teach ballet in a culturally relevant way. It’s a white art form, but maybe your students are predominantly non white. What do you do with that? How do you make it relevant? And a lot of what she has to say about that whole project, and not just in ballet, but in all dance forms, it’s really about getting to know your students and understanding where they’re coming from culturally and allowing that to be part of the curriculum in some way, shape, or form. So I think for jazz, for some people, there may have been black vernacular dance in their growing up. And for others, it’ll be something they’re not at all familiar with. So it could be an interesting exchange amongst students and with the teacher’s guidance.
Lindsay: Rebecca, I was just going to say to that point you made, you had alluded previously to the LaTasha Barnes NPR podcast. And she used that term, “cultural surrogate,” and I just thought that that was so perfect for what we do, especially as a white person, you’re carrying this form with respect and honoring the tradition, but knowing that, for me, these aren’t my elders, my ancestors, and recognizing what the role of my ancestors possibly was.
John: This discussion seems to be part of a broader issue in which we see a lot of whitewashing of much of the curriculum in all academic disciplines, where the focus tends to be on the supremacy of Western cultural traditions, Western Europe, and so forth. Should people in all disciplines focus on decolonizing the curriculum within their disciplines?
Wendy: Sure. Well, there’s so many diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts right now, on campuses across the country, that I believe that administrators in higher education, even college presidents, have finally realized that we cannot move forward in the 21st century without doing that, exactly what you said. We need to do that across the college and across the curriculum. And I think colleges are taking this on, but it’s an extremely slow process, unfortunately, because it takes time to create new courses, get them through all the proper channels and approved, and then find appropriate people to teach them, and so forth. Plus, there’s the whole business of changing people’s minds about what the curriculum should be, because they’re so attached to… Oh, teaching all about the Greeks and the Romans and the beginnings of Western civilization, and, “If I have to teach about something else, some other continents, that gives me less time to do the things that I am familiar with,” and so forth. So I think people are having a hard time making the shift, and it’s probably not going to happen within the next five years, but it’ll happen over time.
Carlos: Yeah, I think that it is important that we look at it across all disciplines. I’m not so utopian in my thinking that it’s going to happen overnight. I do think it’s going to take time, but I also want to encourage people that I think that small things can happen soon, quickly, and you can make those efforts which can make a world of difference. And also, I like to look at the positive side of things, and as you can introduce something, I think people have a fear of it changing, or we’re not going to do it in its pure form. And I think you can support what needs to happen within that discipline, but have different viewpoints on it. And what I think that does is, it empowers people to take ownership with their own self within the space, which then helps them feel that there is a place for them, and then they have a better educational experience. I’m talking from the student point of view right now, “I’m engaged, I am important, I do matter. This is important and so I can be successful.” And I also think this is important to understand that because we see things from different perspectives, it doesn’t mean the object changes, and I think, Rebecca… artists, we look at it, we see different things, and I think that that happens, whether it’s English or math or science, whatever. We can see something happen from different perspectives, which is undoubtedly colored by our background and our culture and stuff. And it’s still what it is, we just see it from a different thing, and how do we articulate that and come up with the same message, but we all have a different sort of way of saying it. So I think that’s also what we have to realize… is when we are talking about being inclusive in our teaching and moving beyond that and decolonizing, we’re not saying, “Change it.” It’s how you recognize that people have different views of how they see it and experience it.
John: It’s enriching it, not limiting it.
Carlos: Exactly, exactly. Yeah. And how fun is that when you talk to someone and they say, “Well, I saw this,” and you go, “Oh, I never saw that.” Now you have two or three more ways of looking at it, and it’s still the same thing.
Rebecca: Carlos, you mentioned small things we can do. Can you give some examples of small things we can do within the classes that we’re in control of?
Carlos: Absolutely. I think, well, to go back to what I just said, in terms of how you talk about what you experience. We have had a tendency to say, “Okay, you’re going to answer it, and you’re going to answer it, and you’re going to do it in this way.” But maybe I am from a culture that we have a real, real, real big oral tradition. And so we’re very skilled at telling information or talking about what we experienced, or what is happening, or working through the process, because we always do that. So we can get to those finer details, through language, or through talking about it, as opposed to writing it down. There are different ways that cultures experience moving information forward. So you can make an exercise where you change up how we do it, and that will undoubtedly diversify, decolonize. Maybe it’s the music, maybe you’re doing it in music, or maybe you do it in art. I know that the African American culture likes singing and rhymes. That’s where the jazz comes from. So why not add that? Or allow someone to do that as they answer your question. Very simple. Something like that.
Rebecca: Lindsay or Wendy, did you have other examples of ways to improve the inclusivity of the classroom?
Lindsay: I would just say, representation matters. Look at the sources that you use. Are you using readings from mostly white scholars? What video clips are you showing? What information, what source material are you giving your students? Are you actually representing the students that are in your class? Do they see themselves in the work? And then I think that we also have to take responsibility ourselves, like… What is your positionality in relationship to the work that you’re teaching? What is your identity? And how can you be aware of your own identity in relationship to all the students in the room. I would also just add reach into the community and have the conversation. So I think that within our book, we have this community where we’re having these conversations around this work, but at my institution, I’m part of other cohorts where we’re talking about race, and teaching, and how we can be more inclusive and more anti-racist. And this work doesn’t have to happen on your own, it doesn’t have to happen in a silo, the action is more real, and you can be held accountable if you’re doing it within community.
Wendy: Just as an example, I’m teaching a section of a course which is beginning ballet, and I’m having students read three articles and write a paper on the articles. I was looking for articles that would talk about ballet in different cultures, and also with people who aren’t white. So I found something on the Final Bow For Yellowface, which is an organization that was created a while back, and it’s been working against stereotyping agents in ballet, particularly in the Nutcracker. And then there’s an article on a Latina dancer, who’s dancing in this country with a ballet company. And then a woman named Chyrstyn Fentroy, who was a black ballerina who wrote about her experiences in a top ballet company and how she was experiencing whiteness in that company. And all of these articles are just a way to say to students without even having to say anything… Look, a lot of different people do ballet. Ballet may have been a white form when it started, it is not anymore exclusively a white form. Here are some examples of people who have succeeded, and although there are still issues and problems within the world of ballet, it is much more open than it used to be. I mean, people do it all over the world. It can look different depending on who’s making the ballets and who’s dancing them. So there’s room for a lot of different kinds of people within even the supposedly whitest of dance forms, I think. And then with other dance forms, you can certainly do the same thing, just find ways of representing, as Lindsay said, who’s in your class, looking for ways to make sure that people know that their culture is represented in this art form.
Lindsay: And I would just add without making assumptions about people’s identities, I think it’s important to talk about their identities, and that’s something that I think maybe comes more naturally for those of us in the arts, where there’s a lot of self reflection and conversation that happens. But I think it’s really important from the beginning of this semester to talk about identity culture, and then not have to make assumptions about anyone in the room.
Rebecca: I found that one of the most interesting responses I had from students by providing different material for them to digest related to design was an article that had them look at the idea that some fonts and typefaces misappropriate other cultures. Their minds were blown.
Rebecca: And they continuously over the semester kept bringing this up, like, they had never thought about that. It’s interesting how one very short article [LAUGHTER] can have such a big impact on the way students see something.
John: This book project came together during the neverending pandemic that we’re working through now. Could you tell us a little bit about what it was like putting this together and working on this during the global pandemic?
Wendy: Kind of like what we’re doing right now.
Wendy: We all got on Zoom and talked. And then we went to a couple of conferences before Zoom, where we got to meet with people in person, but a lot of it was done on Zoom.
Carlos: Lots of phone calls.
Wendy: [LAUGHTER] Yeah.
Carlos: Lots of phone calls, and late night questions, and sending things back and forth as you edit, and you look at it. Yeah, a lot of that.
Lindsay: Also just the way that the pandemic, especially that March of 2020, to June, July of that year, how it forced us into isolation, but I think it also kept us connected. And it forced us to really deepen the work that we were doing, I can see the way it comes through in the pages. I’m not sure what the book would have been if we weren’t doing it in a pandemic. So I think that there are some aspects of it that allowed us to take really full and complete ownership of what we were doing. And, like I said, build within community because no one wanted to be alone during that time period and this was a way for us to stay connected.
Wendy: Also the killing of George Floyd was big. That really impacted our discussions as well.
Carlos: Yeah, I would say I think that some of the racial, civil unrest was actually a focusing thing because we began looking at the chapters and what people were trying to contribute, and it was a barometer for staying on task, like, “Well, no, that deviates out, this is where we need to be, because this is what we have to answer, and if we don’t answer that, we can’t move it forward.”
Lindsay: It really did crystallize some things though. I remember, Carlos, being on the phone with you one day, when we were having that conversation about how people were talking about the roots of jazz. And everyone says the roots are West African and European, right? And I remember us having that conversation where, “We’re not talking about the African American component. How can we be saying this?” That became a through line in the book, Carlos, right? And Carlos really pulled that apart for me and opened this whole channel where we were like, “We’re not talking about those 400 years in between 1619 and the jazz era, and that’s where the jazz happened.” So I think for us, it really did crystallize a lot of things and gave us permission to talk more openly about them.
Carlos: So I think that’s what the pandemic did for that. And as a side note, to bounce off of that, what I think is important to say is, that’s very important, because it’s very easy to be idealistic. It’s lofty to say, “It came from Africa,” or, “It came from Europe,” and have these places which are really wonderful, rich spaces for information, and we know that things came to this experiment we call America, United States. But what we often don’t talk about is what happened in that time, because it’s painful. But we have to talk about it because out of all of that pain was so many wonderful things that happened, so many wonderful things that happened. Jazz dance is one of them.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking the very loaded question… What’s next?
Carlos: I think what we are excited about, and Wendy and Lindsay please jump in if I’m missing something, is moving this information forward. So immediately, the book is being released. How do we move forward? How do we have conversations like this? How do we keep having people have it and take it and move it forward? I think people are excited about getting into the curriculum and the class. So I think that that’s what’s immediately next… Can we keep this energy moving and having these greater, deeper conversations?
Wendy: I’d love to go to conferences with the three of us and present on the book. It’s not just about our work, I mean, a lot of other people wrote for the book, and I think there are a lot of good ideas in the book. Some of it has practical applications and could be used in the classroom, some of it’s more theoretical. And the idea is that if enough people in higher education and elsewhere begin to grasp these ideas, and get an idea of how to implement them themselves, that we could change the way jazz dance is approached across the country. I mean, that’s a pretty big ambitious goal.[LAUGHTER] I’d love to see us at least instigate that concept, so that eventually, everybody understands that the roots of jazz dance are West African, and that it developed because of a particular situation in our country. So eventually, hopefully, it will be taught in a fuller, more complete way.
Lindsay: There’s a part of jazz that is so personal, and this is actually something that came up in the book, where I remember at one point us feeling like some of the chapters just weren’t hitting home. And we were trying to guide the authors, and then we realized that there were just some places that people needed to talk in the first person. It’s not like our traditional scholarship, where we’re always distancing ourselves or looking at it from a distance, it really does need to come from that place of who you are, how you feel, all of those things coming together. And so I guess my hope is that, moving forward, people will take that ownership as an individual to go in the studio, and to figure out what jazz is, what rooted jazz is, in their own body, in their practice, but then also bring it back to the community. Because as much as jazz is about individuality, it’s also about community. So how do we bring that back together, and grow as a community with some shared values and shared understanding?
Carlos: I think that even cycles back to an earlier question you had, when you were talking about how we decolonize or be more inclusive. And traditional scholarship and those working in diasporic art forms or diasporic information, Africana Studies or philosophy or whatever, the scholarship hasn’t been viewed in the same light as something else because it is different, the viewpoint is different. As Lindsay said, it’s personal, it’s about that journey, because, talking about jazz dance, that is the birth of it. It was about how we experienced it as a community, and how you shared that information when you hit that dance floor at any of the clubs, ballrooms, Savoy, whatever. How you shared that, and what information and electricity happened there, that is the essence of it, it is so deeply personal. And so to stand out and look at it from way at a distance isn’t true to the essence of what it is.
Lindsay: And one more thing that we didn’t really discuss that I think is important off of Carlos’s last point, is the way that we really do call for people to explore the jazz music continuum. It’s so vast, it’s so relevant today. There’s just an endless wealth of music that you can look to for inspiration. And jazz dance comes from jazz music. I will say in my own practice, when I was dancing to pop music, it was easy to take it in a direction that wasn’t jazz, but when you turn on jazz music, there’s something else that comes from there that will keep you tethered to that essence. So in that similar call, we hope that people will take that step back into the studio and look at their practices. I hope that we return to just celebrating the music that gave birth to the form.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for sharing some of the history of jazz and your stories around the book. I know there’s a lot of valuable information within our conversation for people across a wide variety of disciplines.
Wendy: Thank you for having us.
Carlos: Thank you very much. This has been a joy
Lindsay: Thanks for the invitation.
John: Well thank you. It’s great talking to you.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.